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Watch the Using a Capo online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman

One other element of the toolkit is the capo- the “capodastra”, a Spanish word meaning to cheat (it doesn’t!) What does it do? Well, it changes the length of the string. Which means it’ll change the key you’re playing in. It’ll also knock the guitar out of tune!

So I use a capo for a couple of different reasons- one will be to bring the guitar into a required pitch. We’ll look later on at some bagpipe music- I mentioned that they play in the key of Bb. That’s not a key I can access easily in any of the tunings I use so I’ll capo up. So that’s one reason. Another reason is to lessen some of the stretches. Without the capo sometimes you’re trying to do the impossible and with the capo stretches can come within range that you wouldn’t be able to get with the guitar open.

Sometimes there are arrangements where I’m capoed up really high. I remember demoing this guitar and Paul Reed Smith was looking over my shoulder horrified when I capoed at the 7th fret....’get a mandolin!” But some of the things you play could tend to get really muddy in the low end. So sometimes capoing up high gives you a totally different sound and ironically it can give you more room- it allows the bass more room to breathe.

That’s an arrangement of a Robert Burns song with the capo at the 7th fret which I think is as high as I go. If i were to play that piece without the capo the bass end would overpower the melody because it’s quite delicate. I just love the sound of it up there. So sometimes it varies from piece to piece- sometimes you want it to be in a specific key eg. You want bagpipe music to be in Bb. Sometimes you want stretches to be accessible that you can’t get with the guitar open. So it’s an important part of my toolkit.