Bluegrass Guitar: The Capo Is Essential for Playing Bluegrass Guitar

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An informative discussion concerning the role of the CAPO when leveraging rich open chords in Bluegrass guitar methods and how these open chords facilitate speedier Bluegrass guitar leads and easier song key transpositions.

How to Cheat at Bluegrass Guitar

So, how do you cheat at bluegrass guitar? Well, with a cheater of course; commonly referred to as a capo. When playing bluegrass guitar the capo is as essential as a good comfortable guitar pick. A capo is a clamp that is attached to various frets on a guitar to change the pitch of the open strings. However, take a little advice from the late great Earnest Tubbs – he once advised an enthusiastic novice, “Son, there ain’t no money past the third fret.”

Though the guitar capo is used by guitarists in other musical genres it is an essential guitar tool for playing Bluegrass guitar. It is fundamental to Bluegrass guitar methods as you will discover. No self-respecting Bluegrass guitarist (rhythmic and/or flat-picker) would be caught without a good capo or two in their guitar case.

Speedy Open Chord Forms

Most traditional bluegrass tunes are played with basic open chord forms because of the exceptionally rich unrestrained vibrations open strings provide. The open chord forms also facilitate speedy flat-picking because less fingering is required on the fret-board as you catch those sweet resounding open strings tucked within those wonderfully rich open chord forms. You won’t find many augmented chords played at a bluegrass jam either. The only augmented chord you may remotely see is the special way ol’ Bobby Ray plays a G chord ‘cause he lost part of his thumb in a fishing accident – or so he says.

Simplify Key Changes

Another advantage of using a capo is that you can play a tune in various keys without having to learn the chord progression or flat-picking in another key. So, if you learned a song in the key of G with a chord progression of G, C, and D and some bow challenged fiddle player steps up and shouts, “Key of A.” you just place your capo on the second fret and play your chord shapes G, C, and D which now sound like A, D, and E. There is a traditional “vocal rule” when performing Bluegrass songs – the lead singer (or lead instrumentalist) determines the key in which the song will be performed. So make sure your capo is handy (usually clamped on your headstock next to your clamped on acoustic tuner).

Find The Right Capo

It is important to find a capo that you feel comfortable with. It should grasp the fret-board firmly enough to provide a clear and effectual key change and be easy to move or remove. I remember several years ago I had purchased a capo that adjusted fret pressure using a thumb screw. Unfortunately, over time, it created several divots on the back of my fret-board. Fortunately it was an inexpensive guitar and I managed to sell it to a banjo player. Nevertheless there are numerous capos available that have various mechanical approaches – find one that works and respects the integrity of your guitar.

Visual Cues

For the most part you can usually tell what key a Bluegrass tune is going to be played in by observing which fret the pickers are clamping their capos onto; this often includes the banjo players and mandolin players if they are paying attention. With experience you begin to recognize their positions and chord forms as well – so pay attention and pick up those visual queues and have your capo ready to shift gears.

Capo Chart

I have also found it helpful to have access to a guitar capo chart that I can use to determine what chords (chord forms) are associated with the various fret positions. I have included one with this article.

So, all you pickers out there clamp down and make it easy on yourself – cheat.

Guitar Capo Chart