My dictionary defines capo (typically pronounced Kay-po in USA and Kah-poh or Kap-oh in UK and Europe) as A device for a guitar, lute, banjo, etc., that when clamped or screwed down across the strings at a given fret will raise each string a corresponding number of half tones.

Do you use a capo on your ukulele? I never use one on a soprano uke. In my experience a capo gets in the way of my fretting hand to become easily dislodged and making the strings go out of tune. But on my baritone ukulele it’s a different story. With more room between frets the capo stays firmly in place and I love that I can shift it around to play in different keys without needing to change fingering.

New ukulele players may wonder, “Why change the key of a song at all?”

The most common reason for changing key is to make a song more singable. Imagine having learned a song in the key of C but finding that your voice is way out of its comfort zone. Each time you sing you’re emitting either a piercing falsetto or sinking so low that you’ve become an unwilling Paul Robeson. The cure may be found by relearning the song in another key. Let’s say for example you raise it to the key of D which is one whole tone (or two frets) higher. If, in our example, the song’s original chords were C F Am and G7 in order to play them in the new key they now become: D G Bm and A7.

This is where a capo comes in handy. Instead of having to learn those pesky new chords all you need to do is to clamp the capo on the second fret and play the song exactly the same way as you learned in the key of C. Only now every chord is raised by two half tones.

A capo is especially useful when jamming with people who know a song in a different key to the one in which you usually play it. Just put a capo on the correct fret and away you go. Some people look at the use of a capo as an easy way out for lazy people who want to avoid learning new chord changes. I agree, this is often the case, and I am sometimes one of those people. But, there is more.

When you change the chords of a song you may also be changing their voicing. Voicing is a word used to describe how the quality of a chord changes depending on what order the notes in the chord are played. To get an idea of what voicing means play your usual C chord (this would be 0003* for most people) and now play a C chord higher up the neck (say 5433). Even though they are the same chord the voicings are quite different and each way of playing the C chord provides an alternate musical quality.

A perfect example of this came from my good friend Wendy who has helped me run the Vancouver Ukulele Circle since its early inception in 2000. We were trying to decide on the best key to play the song Ukulele Lady. As is so often the case with Wendy and myself the key that worked for my voice (which happened to be F) was out of her vocal range so we switched the song over to the key of C. This made it perfectly singable for her. But there was a new problem because Wendy now felt that the chords no longer sounded as good as they had done in the key of F. And I had to agree. The sweet changes of F Am Dm F sounded less appealing when played as C Em Am C.

Since neither of us used a capo in those days we ended up agreeing on the key of F because we both preferred that chord voicing.

Had we used capos however our decision may have been different. In that case we could have chosen to play the familiar chords in F but then used the capo to raise the pitch by a fret at a time (aka. halftone steps) until we found a compromise pitch that worked equally well (or equally badly, ha ha) for both our voices.

In such a case the capo becomes a valuable tool as it achieves the twin objectives of changing the pitch while keeping the preferred chord voicing.

I have a feeling that I may not be finished with the subject of capos. I am interested in what you the newsletter reader has to say about them. Do you love your capo or do you wish all capos to be cast into a special section of musical hell? Let me know under what circumstances you use a capo. And what type do you prefer, clamp or spring-loaded or some other kind? Let me know!

[0003* is shorthand for saying 4th, 3rd and 2nd string play open, 1st string play at third fret.]


© Ralph Shaw 2016