A lot of guitar players use a capo, especially acoustic guitar players. The capo is a useful tool, allowing the player to more easily play in different keys and open tunings. It’s not uncommon for some players to have two or three different capos that allow different tuning possibilities.
While capos can be a source of musical enjoyment, they can also be a source of frustration. Many players find they have difficulty with string buzz and tuning stability when using a capo. More often than not, these two issues are due to user error.
Yes, it’s possible to use a capo incorrectly, and it’s actually pretty easy mistake to make. But learning to use a capo the right way is easy; doing so will minimize tuning issues, and you won’t get string buzz.
Let’s begin by looking at what most people do wrong when using a capo. Most people put their capo on too far behind the fret they are trying to capo. Players tend to do this so that they can keep the capo clear of their fretting hand. But when this happens, the capo can’t seat the strings on the fret securely, and this results in string buzz. The capo also crushes the strings over the fret, pulling their pitches sharp.
The trick to using a capo properly is to apply the capo to the guitar the same way you would fret with your finger. You should apply the capo as close to the fret as possible. This allows the capo to seat the strings on the fret securely, eliminating string buzz. It also keeps the capo from crushing the strings, keeping your guitar from being thrown tune.
One caveat. Capos tend to apply pressure to the strings somewhat unevenly. It’s actually not uncommon need to tweak the tuning of your guitar right after the capo is applied. But if you put the capo on the right way, this retuning will be very minor, and depending on the capo you’re using, you may not have to retune the guitar at all.
The kind of capo you use makes a difference too. Spring style capos are very popular because they allow the player to quickly install the capo between songs and get back to playing. But the drawback to these kinds of capos is the spring tends to apply pressure to the strings rather indiscriminately. This can exacerbate tuning issues. They also tend to be rather bulky, making it difficult to apply the capo close to the fret without getting in the way of the player’s fretting hand.
For these reasons, capos with a screw style tensioning mechanism might work better for some players. This allows the player to apply just the right amount of pressure needed to seat the string against the fret. They also tend to have a lower profile. This means the capo is less likely to get in the way of the player’s fretting hand when it’s properly applied.
Next time you use your capo, take a look at how you're applying it. If it’s too far behind the fret you’re trying to capo, try moving it closer to the fret, and see if it works for you.
Are you looking for more creative ways to use a capo? Check out this video by Shubb Capos featuring guitarist Andy McKee. (Notice that he puts his capo right up against the fret.)