If you had three hands, and you wanted to change keys without modifying the shapes of the chords you play, you could simply barre the neck with one of them. But you don’t, so someone, probably sometime in the 18th century, invented the capo.
A standard tool of the flamenco guitarist and steel-string acoustic guitarist, and less common in classical-guitar circles, the capo takes its name from the Italian, capotasto, which literally means “head of the fingerboard,” or “nut” in English guitar-parlance. Indeed, a capo is, in a sense, a moveable nut. The bar is placed across the guitar neck to change the pitch of the strings uniformly—higher with each fret up the neck—and also allow for a key change without the player having to alter the chord shapes. It acts as a barre, allowing the player to leave the device in place while playing as normal.
The primary benefit of the apparatus among flamenco guitarists is that their playing is often done to accompany a singer. Since not all singers have the same pitch to their voices, without a capo there would be three difficult choices: Either the singer is going to have to modify his or her voice to fit the guitar; the guitarist is going to have to tune the instrument down or up, one string at a time; or the guitarist will have to be able to mentally change to totally different fingerings to match the pitch of the instrument to that of the singer. Often in flamenco, performances happen on the spur of the moment, with little preparation time for the guitarist and singer to make any necessary modifications.
That’s where the capo comes in. Instead of the guitarist going through mental or physical gymnastics, he or she can simply place the capo on the particular fret needed for the singer’s voice. Many flamenco singers already know which fret is appropriate for their voice, and they can simply inform the guitarist where to place the capo.
The noted Southern California–based flamenco guitarist Ben Woods says, “Playing flamenco guitar as an accompanist for cantaores y bailaores for the past 20 years, I’ve had my fair share of capo usage. For obvious reasons, we flamenco accompanists use the capo to bring the guitar into a comfortable range for the singer. Of course, if a guitarist uses the fret-marker dots for orientation, this will be a baffling endeavor! The singer may ask us to put the capo anywhere—I have even put it on fret 7 to play a Solea, which does not leave much room to move around, but it certainly gives the guitar a higher register, buzzier strings, ease of play with lower action, and that crispy flamenco attack sound we hear and love in so many recordings.
“Using a capo was also a very beneficial tool when learning flamenco and spending hours and hours fretting full barre chords with hands cramping,” Woods continues. “The capo alleviates some of the stress and stretches on the fretting hand, saving it from potential injury.
“Personally, I try not to use one any more unless a singer demands it. Instead, I try to transpose anything I play to the key they are comfortable with. Unfortunately, that means all the pre-practiced falsetas [phrases] in a different key are thrown out the window and you have to rely on instant improvisation for those musical sections in a number. That can be fun, but sometimes results in a crash and burn.”
By contrast, most traditional classical guitarists work solo, and the piece of music they plan to play has had its pitch established long before the performer sits down. Still, one does occasionally see classical players employing the devices, and it’s not uncommon for guitarists in a duo to be capo’d on different frets for a given piece, to more easily facilitate sonorous harmonies.
American classical guitarist Marc Teicholz notes that the capo can come in handy “when playing Renaissance lute music. If you put the capo on the third fret and tune the third string to an F#, you have the tuning of a Renaissance lute—although I often put the capo on the second fret instead, because I like the resonance better.”
British guitarist and CG contributing editor Chris Dumigan agrees that using a capo for a lute transcription “makes the key brighter and more lute-like.” He also adds, “apart from that situation, the only piece of music I’ve come across that specified using a capo was a Schotts Segovia Archives edition of the Ponce Prelude in F#m, published in 1928. In his edition, Segovia had it in E minor with the indication to put a capo on fret 2, which was highly unusual, and Segovia never did it again—although he did write to Ponce that ‘the capo softens a bit the sound of the normal guitar and it wins in subtlety and poetry.’”
Obviously there are other situations where a capo might fit into a classical piece, including using it as an “effect” of sorts. The composer Bryan Johanson has a striking and quiet piece called The Magic Serenade (which has been performed by Bill Kanengiser and others), in which a capo is placed on the seventh fret and includes three different instances where notes are played above the capo, giving the guitar an almost koto-like sound. No doubt there are other modern works that creatively employ the capo, as well.
Today there are many brands, designs, and price-points for capos, including those with a piece of elastic, which the user wraps around the guitar neck in order to get a tight-enough fit; others with spring attachments; and more with a screw device for fastening. Some are even designed to look like the jaws of animals—alligators and sharks, for example.
But for the purist, perhaps nothing beats the cejilla, the traditional capo for flamenco guitarists, which uses a block of wood to barre the strings, and has a nylon or gut string attached to one side and a tuning peg attached to the other. The string is wrapped around the neck of the guitar, and the peg is placed in a hole centered atop the piece of wood, allowing you to tighten or loosen the device simply by turning the peg.
A number of luthiers make and sell their own cejillas, and some people have even made a hobby of collecting them. Many cejillas feature exotic woods, bone, and even Swarovski crystals, and they make for elegant conversation pieces. It certainly makes for a less expensive alternative to collecting guitars. A Felipe Conde capo, for example, will make much less of a dent in your budget than one of the company’s guitars.
Here are a few brands of capos, singling out companies with models specifically designed for classical guitar and/or flamenco necks. Prices will vary depending on where you shop, but can range from under $10 to more than $100.