Stop Using A Capo!
Weekly Newsletter #61
October 7, 2022
How often do you play with a capo? And why?
Many players like to use one for the ease of transposition and being able to play “cowboy chord” shapes farther up the neck.
Additionally, many players who sing love them because it allows them to change keys of a song without having to change the chord shapes they already know.
But is it really beneficial to rely on these simple little tools as you progress on guitar?
I say the answer is NO!
Now, before you get reluctant, hear me out. There are many times when a capo is needed.
For certain fingerstyle songs with a very specific picking pattern that uses a mixture of closed and open notes it is virtually impossible to re-finger without a capo.
A great example of this is Norah Jones’ song “Don’t Know Why”.
But if you use a capo to simply change keys of songs, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice in the long run.
It might be a quick and easy fix, but it’s preventing you from developing the skills of transposition.
What Is ‘Transposition’
Simply put, transposition is the changing of keys from the original to another key.
It is the process of moving a set of pitches (whether single notes or chords) up or down in pitch while maintaining the intervals between them.
This sounds complicated but basically it amounts to keeping the same melody or chords from one key and moving them to a new key.
One of the greatest benefits to learning to transpose quickly is the fact that you must begin to think in a way that is likely foreign to you, but which is very beneficial.
Instead of thinking in pitch names, like “C, Ab or D”, being a successful transposer means you can think in scale degrees.
Changing How You Think
For most players, when they play a song they’re likely thinking of the names of the chords they’re playing (among other things like the melody, rhythm etc.)
For example, if you’re playing “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley you only need a few chords: C-G-F- Am and you’d likely think about those chord names in the order they occur within the song.
The chord progression is | C | G/B | Am | F | C | F | C | G |
It’s a very easy song to play, but what if you wanted to move the song to a different key?
Rather than grabbing your capo and relying on this little tool, wouldn’t it be more beneficial for you as an improving guitarist to be able to transpose on your own?
In order to do this you must begin to think of these chords by their numerical names and not their letter names.
Following this process will lead you to being able to instantly transpose anything!
1) You must decide on the key of the song (and you can’t really guess, or you’ll get the transposition wrong).
For this song if we mapped out all the notes within every chord we’d notice that there are no sharps or flats
C = C-E-G
G = G-B-D
Am = A-C-E
F = F-A-C
From here, we’d count and make sure we have seven notes that can be arranged in alphabetical order: A-B-C-D-E-F-G are all present within the chords of the song.
Knowing that major/minor scales have seven notes within them, and that there are no sharps or flats, it follows that we must be in the key of C.
Now, this makes sense because the first chord is C and C sounds like “home” within the song.
2) If there were less than seven notes found within the chords, then we’d have more work to do.
Say, for example there was no F chord in this song.
That would mean that within the remaining chords (C, G, Am) we’d only have six notes: A-B-C-D-E-G
There would be no F.
This would be a missing piece of the puzzle in determining the key. It could be an F or it could be an F#, but either way, there must be some type of F in order to fit within a key.
This means the possible keys would be either C major (if the missing F is natural) or G major (if the missing note is F#).
Going through the two possible keys, we must then determine which of those chords (C or G) feel like “home” within the song.
In this case, it would clearly be C, leading us to believe that the missing F is indeed an F natural.
From there we can simply input that F into our sequence of six notes in order to make up the full scale.
3) Convert the chords to their scale degree.
Knowing that we’re in the key of C means that our C chord is considered the I chord.
Thinking of C as the I makes the G chord the V while the Am is the vi chord and the F would be the IV chord.
Notice that we’re using Roman numerals for this. This is the standard way to write scale degrees when it comes to chords.
Additionally, any major chord receives a capital Roman numeral, while minor chords get lower case Roman numerals.
The chord progression written out in this way would now look like:
| I | V/vii | vi | IV | I | IV | I | V |
Notice that the second chord, initially written as G/B is now written as V/vii. This is because the G chord is played with a B bass note, and in scale degrees G=V and B=vii.
4) Now just transpose!
From here you can really move these numbers into any other key you’d like rather easily.
Because each chord has now been converted to a number it’s a lot easier to think in a different key.
Say we wanted to transpose to E major.
Well, we’d obviously have to know the scale of E major: E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#
At this point we just convert our numbers into this new scale and play the corresponding chords.
| I | V/vii | vi | IV | I | IV | I | V |
| E | B/D#| C#m | A | E | A | E | B |
This is even easier if you can picture the chords within a scale on the fretboard.
It will likely be a challenge if you're doing this for the first time. But as with anything, the more you practice it, the faster you'll become.
Take a simple song, that uses only diatonic chords to start.
From there, convert the chords to scale degrees and practice transposing to multiple keys.
See how long it takes you to transpose the first one and compare that to the speed it took you to transpose to the 5th or 6th key.
It will likely become much faster and easier with practice.
Learning to think in scale degrees is honestly one of the most useful ways to navigate guitar playing.
Because we can play so many ideas within the same octave but yet change keys it means our instrument is built for transposing.
Learning how to think of not only chords, but melodies, licks, solos, everything in scale degrees means you’ll have a much clearer picture of why certain bits of guitar vocabulary sound like they do, and how to recreate familiar sounds in any key.
Transposing is a gift…don’t rob yourself of it by using a capo!