Find Your Voicing, Part 2: Capo Theory Basics

Find Your Voicing, Part 2: Capo Theory Basics

Note: this article is the second part of a two-part series on capos for guitar players. Part One can be read here.

For the typical musician, key signatures are often a hurdle that seems hard to jump. If you’ve been learning any of the new praise music from groups like Elevation, Bethel, or even the big acts like Matt Maher, you’ve likely run across some keys that do little but make you cringe.

Professionals may be able to easily hack through the key of B Major, but for the typical person, how do we deal with five sharps and not want to throw our instrument across the room?

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For keyboardists, you’re out of luck. For guitar players, there is help. It is a magical device known as the capo.

For several years, the capo mystified me. It’s not that the concept is difficult to understand–add the capo to a particular fret of the guitar and change keys instantly–but more that the logic behind finding a new key becomes a bit hard to understand without a solid background in music theory, something only a small percentage of guitar players generally possess. It’s not necessary to know the theory, though, if you can understand a few major ideas.


The whole of capo theory, and fretboard theory, hinges on this single concept. If you know what a fret does for your pitch, you can start figuring out where your capo should go.

Each fret on the guitar represents one semitone difference between the fret below or above. In other words, your fret markings represent half-step changes in pitch. For example, if you place your finger on the first fret of your low E string, you’ll be pressing down the pitch F. If you move two frets up, to the third fret, you’ve added two semitones (half steps) to the pitch, making it a G.

Capos utilize this simple concept in order to modify the length of the guitar neck, and thus your starting pitch.


The pitch at which your open strings are tuned defines the entire chord system you use. Any finger placement on the fret board relies on this initial “open” tuning to determine the rest of the chord you want to build. When you change the “open” pitches by adding a capo, you’re basically shortening the neck of the guitar.


Now we’re to the deep thinking. Once you’ve placed your capo on a specific fret, you’ve got to think backwards. If you’ve placed it on the second fret, for example, you’ve moved all your “open” pitches one full tone upwards, making your E an F# instead on the lowest string.

To compensate for this change, you’ll have to move your chords down a full step as well. If you’re playing in the key of A, for example, and your capo is on the second fret, you’ll have to go two half steps down in the musical alphabet to get to the chord you need to use to actually sound like an A that your piano player would use. So, you would move from an A to an Ab (G#, enharmonically), and then to a G.

The result: Your G chord now sounds like an A.

Final Thoughts

From here on, you can either use a chart to determine your capo needs, or you can memorize your transpositions one by one. I’ve spent plenty of time memorizing the transpositions, but it can be a difficult task, especially if you’re not a music theory expert. I recommend the chart route!

If you’re in need of a capo chart, and even a chord transposition chart, please join my mailing list! Not only will you receive two full-color cheat sheets, but you’ll also get the latest updates, tips, and encouragement from me on a regular basis–all for the low, low price of NADA!

Thanks and God Bless!

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