Can You Tune A Guitar With A Capo On? Here’s The Answer

acoustic guitar | Sandy Music Lab

If you are a beginning guitar player or trying to adjust to your vocal range or another musician’s abilities, a capo is highly useful. But if you are new to them, using a capo may feel intimidating. For example, should you tune a guitar before or after you clamp on the capo, or does it even matter?

You can tune a guitar with a capo on, but it is not recommended. Since standard tuning relies on adjusting the open strings, tuning with a capo on, which alters their pitch, is redundant. However, if your capo does not produce the correct pitches, tuning again with it on would not hurt.

Read on to learn more about capos and how they affect your guitar.

If you want to find out what my recommended guitar gear is, then here is what I recommend on Amazon:

What Is a Capo?

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Source: Fretjam: Using a Guitar Capo

A capo is a standard accessory of any string instrument, including the guitar. The tool, whose name stems from the Italian term for ‘head,’ is a pin that clamps on to the neck of a fretted string instrument.

Capos shorten strings, which results in higher tension, and in turn, raises the pitch. They usually clamp across the whole neck. However, they can get partially fastened to the neck. 

Capos are like instant transposers, allowing guitarists to play music in different keys while avoiding more complicated, less resonant bar chords.

In other words, a capo can be a beginner’s tool to make complex chords more accessible or an expert’s tool to change the timbre of their instrument.

So, how does a capo work? To understand this, I need to tell you about the nut, an often overlooked but essential part of your guitar. The nut is right below your guitar’s headstock and above its fretboard. This piece, usually made of metal, plastic, or bone, serves two purposes. 

First, the nut is where a string’s vibration terminates. Secondly, the grooves in a nut keep the strings in place, so their pitch does not unintentionally change.

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Source: Best Beginner Guitar: Parts of An Acoustic Guitar: Head Stock, Tuning Keys, and What are Included?

Think of the capo like a second nut. Where you position it determines the pitch and timbre of the instrument. However, a capo is not a substitute since the nut maintains the strings’ lateral positions. In sum, the capo and the nut complement each other rather than work separately.

However, capos have their limits. Their function is to change the pitch of open strings, not fretted ones. In other words, capos shift the pitch of notes that get played without any fingers touching the fretboard.

Since fretted notes result from your finger’s tension on the fret, not the capo, their pitch remains the same. Another point of note is that changing the capo placement will adjust the instrument’s sound, reflecting a shorter-scaled instrument’s tone.

There are different styles of capos out there that attach just behind a fret in various ways. Most capos hold the strings down with a rubber-covered bar, then get fastened via a fabric strap, spring, screw, or cam-operated clamp.

Recently, the partial capo got introduced to string instruments. This variation does not wholly circle the neck, which means it can pin down a selected number of strings rather than all six. Partial capos open up many tonal possibilities without retuning the guitar.

Are capos often used? It depends on the genre of music. Classical and jazz music hardly relies on capos. However, they are standard in blues, flamenco, folk, and transitional Irish music. Furthermore, many rock and pop stars use capos, including George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon.

How To Tune a Guitar: A Review

There’s a good chance you know how to tune a guitar, considering you are here. But for the sake of our question, let’s review the basics of tuning.

The short answer for how to tune a guitar is this: the guitar player tightens and loosens the strings using the tuning keys to correctly adjust the instrument.

Turning the key away from you tightens the string and raises the pitch. Conversely, turning the key towards you loosens the string and lowers the pitch.

One can tune a guitar to match multiple desired scales and aesthetics. However, the most common is standard tuning.

There are six strings on a guitar, numbered 1 through six in descending order. In standard tuning, when played open, strings 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 should correspond to the pitches E, A, D, G, B, and E, respectively. For example, when you play the bottom string without pressing down any frets, you should hear E.

There are a couple of different ways one can accomplish standard tuning:

Tuning With a Chromatic or Pitch Tuner

Chromatic tuning is considered the most reliable.

There are smart apps that perform this function and electronic chromatic tuners you can purchase separately.

Chromatic tuners hear the note you are playing and tell you how close you are to the desired tuned pitch. On the other hand, pitch tuners (i.e., pitch pipes or tuning forks) playback the desired pitch, so you hear how close you are. 

Tuning a Guitar Without a Pitch Tuner (or to Itself)

This method is handy when you have no tuner available or are looking for a quick, decent fix. When tuning to yourself, you tune open strings to match the pitch of fretted notes. The order is as follows:

  1. Hold down the fifth fret on the sixth string. This note is a fretted A on the E string. Tune the open fifth string, or A string, to match the pitch of the fretted A.
  2. Tune your open D string to the fifth fret of the A string.
  3. Tune your open G string to the fifth fret of the D string.
  4. Tune your open B string to the fourth fret of the G string.
  5. Tune your open E strings to the fifth fret of the B string.

In this case, all of the open strings will be at the correct pitch interval from each other.

Tuning a Guitar to a Keyboard

Tuning a guitar to a keyboard is like tuning it to a pitch tuner. In this case, you would tune the low E string to two octaves below middle C. From there, you either tune the guitar to itself or the corresponding keys going up the keyboard.

Can You Tune A Guitar With A Capo On?

Trying to accomplish standard tuning with a capo on your guitar is a little counterintuitive. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to tune the guitar first and then place your capo accordingly? However, tuning can change when a capo is engaged and disengaged with the neck of the guitar. In this case, it may be useful to tune the guitar again once the capo is on to ensure your open strings have the desired sound. Keep in mind: capos do not affect fretted notes.

When tuning with a capo on, you must account for the effects of the capo. You should listen for changes in pitch respective to the capo’s placement. Each fret up raises the pitch by one half-step (or semitone).

In other words, if you place the capo on the first fret, your open strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) should play F, A#, D#, G#, C, and F. Raise the capo to the second fret, and the open strings should play F#, B, E, A, C#, F# (a whole step above E, A, D, G, B, and E).

Here is a chart for reference:

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Source: Fretjam: Using a Guitar Capo

Final Thoughts On Can You Tune A Guitar With A Capo On?

In short, since capos adjust the pitch of the open strings on your guitar, trying to achieve standard tuning with one doesn’t make sense.

However, if you find that the capo does not affect your open strings correctly, it may be worth tuning with it placed on to work out any discrepancies.

The musician needs to understand how the capo affects their guitar and how to use it properly.

If you want to find out what my recommended guitar gear is, then here is what I recommend on Amazon:

FAQs Related To Can You Tune A Guitar With A Capo On?

What happens if you tune with a capo on?

Tuning with a capo on can cause the strings to become sharper in pitch, which can affect the intonation and overall tuning of the guitar. It is generally recommended to remove the capo before tuning the guitar.

Are you supposed to tune your guitar with the capo on?

It is generally not recommended to tune your guitar with the capo on, as this can cause the strings to become sharper in pitch and affect the overall tuning and intonation of the instrument.

Is it okay to leave a capo on the guitar?

It is generally okay to leave a capo on the guitar when not in use, but it is important to store the instrument in a safe and secure location to avoid any potential damage or misalignment of the capo.

How do you use a capo and stay in tune?

To use a capo and stay in tune, it is important to tune the guitar without the capo on first, and then apply the capo to the desired fret. You may need to make minor adjustments to the tuning of the strings after applying the capo to ensure proper intonation.

Does a capo change the tuning?

A capo does not technically change the tuning of the guitar, but it does change the pitch of the open strings relative to the capoed fret, which can affect the overall intonation and tonality of the instrument.

Does capo change key or pitch?

A capo changes the pitch of the guitar strings, which can affect the overall key and tonality of the instrument. By applying the capo to different frets, you can change the key of the guitar without having to learn new chord shapes or scales.

Does capo lower the pitch?

A capo can either raise or lower the pitch of the guitar strings, depending on where it is applied on the neck. If the capo is applied closer to the bridge, it will lower the pitch of the strings, while applying it closer to the headstock will raise the pitch.

Why do so many songs use a capo?

Capos are commonly used in music to change the key of the guitar without having to learn new chord shapes or scales. They also allow guitarists to play in different positions on the neck, which can create different tonalities and textures in the music.

What tuning is capo on 4th fret?

The tuning of the guitar with a capo on the 4th fret will depend on the original tuning of the instrument. If the guitar is in standard tuning (EADGBE), the capo on the 4th fret will raise the pitch of each string by a perfect fourth, resulting in the following tuning: A D G C E A.

Is it better to play without capo?

Whether or not to play with a capo depends on personal preference and the desired tonality and key of the music. While capos can be useful for changing the key of the guitar and exploring different tonalities, some guitarists prefer to play without a capo to create a more open and resonant sound.

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David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others.
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