CapoWhen it comes to basic transposing and capo use for the guitar, your first question might be why do I need to know about that? Well, at the basic levels of music performance, there are two main reasons why understanding this concept and being able to use it are critical to your growth and development as a guitarist.

The first main consideration for transposing and capo use has to do with the singer’s voice, whether the singer is you or another individual. Singers are all unique and have varying ranges, which means some sing higher and some sing lower. That means everyone will not be able to sing the same song and sound good in the key the original artist recorded it in. In order to take the chords to the original song, whether you got them from the sheet music, from the Internet, or you learned them by ear, and move them into the right key for your voice or the singer’s voice, you need to transpose and/or use a capo. I will teach you how to do that a little later in this article.

The second reason for basic transposing and capo use for the guitar is that depending on your level of skill on the instrument, you may not be able to play all the chords in the song, or at the least there are some chords that are easier for you to play than others. Using basic transposing information and basic capoing, you can essentially re-design the song so that it is easier to play. I will also be teaching you how to do this in today’s article.

How to Transpose and Use the Capo Effectively on the Guitar

We need to begin with the awareness that all instruments go up and down the range of notes they are capable of playing by semi-tone or half step. On the guitar, that means the note a fret higher than the note just played is a half-step higher. A note a fret lower than the note just played is a half-step lower.

Let’s look at the following graphic and it will show you how to transpose:

Basic Transposing Guide

We begin with an A note and ascend, half-step by half-step through the entire octave of twelve unique note names. We should take a moment here and remind ourselves about how sharps and flats work. For every pair of notes that are a whole step apart, meaning two semi-tones or half-steps, the note that is the pitch between them is both the sharp of the lower note in the pair and the flat of the higher note in the pair. Therefore, you can see in our graphic that the notes between A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, and finally G and A, have two names. They are both the sharp of the lower note and the flat of the upper note, even though they sound the same.

So how do we use this graphic to help us with transposing and/or with capoing? Let’s say that we are playing a song that uses a I-V-vi-IV progression in G. Those chords will be G, D, Em, and C. Now you don’t really even need to know what progression you are playing or what key you are in to transpose at first. You just need to know how many half-steps higher or lower the song needs to be for you to play it and sing it comfortably.

Suppose you sing higher than the recording and the music is too low for you. You discover that for you to sound your best, the chords need to be moved up a step and a half, or three half-steps. Raising and lowering the pitch of a song and keeping it sounding like the song is easy as long as you remember to move all the chords equally. Think of the music as being on a conveyer belt and if you raise or lower everything together as a system, you will preserve the relationships of the chords and the music will still sound like the song, only higher or lower by the degree that you moved it.

In this case we are going to move the chords up three half-steps. In our graphic, that is to the right. We simply count the number of steps from our starting chord. Our first chord is a G. If we move three boxes to the right we get Bb (remember the boxes and notes in the graphic go on forever both up and down, so when going beyond the limits of the graphic, double back to the A note again, making sure not to count the A note twice.) I am going to advise you to use the key name that has the lesser number of sharps or flats. The key of Bb only has two flats, while A# would have 10 sharps and would be a nightmare to play in (we will discuss Key Signatures and sharps and flats in another article.)

After we establish the Bb, we do the same thing with the remaining chords. The D becomes an F. The Em becomes a Gm. And finally, the C becomes an Eb. So the progression is Bb, F, Gm, Eb. Now if you play piano, those will be the new chords for the song. Guitarists have an additional tool called a capo that can assist with transposition when the need is to go higher. You simply apply the capo to the third fret and that is the same as raising all the chords up three half-steps. You then can play the original chords, G, D, Em, and C, and it will sound as if you played Bb, F, Gm, and Eb.

However, if the song is too high for you to sing, and it needs to be lowered, the capo does you no good and you need to do a traditional transposition. So let’s say, the song was two half-steps too high and therefore needed to be lowered. When we look at the graphic, we count down or to the left two boxes.

Our G chord becomes an F, our D chord becomes a C, Em becomes a Dm, and C becomes a Bb, giving us a progression of F, C, Dm, and Bb. We now have two different ways we can execute this song. We can either play the new chords as transposed or we can use some non-traditional capoing to give us chords that are easier to play. If we reverse engineer the concept of transposing, we discover that if we were to transpose a D chord up three half-steps, we get an F. Now for most guitarists a D is a little easier to play than an F. So by capoing at the third fret of the guitar and playing a D, we get an F, which was the solution to transposing down from G in the first place. As a result, with the capo at the third fret we play D, A, Bm, and G and it sounds like F, C, Dm, and Bb, only easier to play. In this way we use transposing and capoing together.

Basic Transposing and Capo UseAs a final idea, practice taking the five open position chord shapes of C, D, E, G, and A, and figuring out where they would need to be capoed to get any other chord. For example, let’s say we want to play different possible sounds for D. We can play a regular D chord. We can play a C chord capoed at the second fret. We can play an A chord capoed at the fifth fret. We can play a G chord capoed at the seventh fret. And finally we can play an E chord capoed at the tenth fret. Notice that as we capo higher and higher the guitar sounds less and less like a guitar and more like a higher octave instrument, like a mandolin in timbre. This is a really interesting technique for advanced arrangements.

If you are looking to take your playing to the highest level through techniques like transposing and advanced capo use, call for a free consultation with the Guitar Lesson Expert.

Meet David Randle

has written 12 posts in this blog.

David is a lifelong guitarist and songwriter, with a highly developed knack for producing and arranging. He spends a great deal of time mentoring and coaching aspiring music artists and songwriters to rise to the pinnacle of their abilities. Music definitely is a language we all can understand. Connect with David on Google+.

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