The tuning and design of the guitar is such that some keys and their related chords are much easier to get around than others. I call these the “guitar-friendly” keys. They use more open chords than barre, and so are much easier to get flowing musically than trying to track of and perform a series of barre chords.
The key with the least number of barre chords is C, with F being the only non-open chord, so I guess it’s the easiest for a beginner; E, A, D and G are the next in rank of easiness as they also consist mostly of open chords; B and F are getting trickier to keep track of and play with ease, and the sharp/flat keys — forget it! Even after 42 years of playing, I don’t bother even trying. The way I see it, the guitar was designed to ring loud and clear, and it’s next to impossible to get that ringing without open strings doing the work. Barre chords, by their very nature, will always ring less.
That’s where capos come in. Whoever invented the guitar must have already thought of the capo, which compensates for the unfriendly keys. A simple idea, it effectively moves the nut up the neck by clamping down all all strings at once. The result is to raise the overall pitch while keeping the relative tuning of all the strings intact. This allows the player to choose another key to play in, a more friendly key. I should really say ‘pretend key’ because the key doesn’t change at all. Only the fingering changes, as if it were a new (friendly) key.
I have put a chart together here which shows as a graph the 12 keys and their seven notes/chords. It will allow you, if you’re wondering about the subject, to see how it all works. The 12 keys read horizontally, and their scale/related-chords reads below them, vertically. You will see at a glance which are the least complicated keys… they’re the ones without all the fly specks around them. The fact is of course, they’re all identical – it’s only the guitar’s design and tuning that makes them seem different – but try telling your brain and hand that.
There has always seemed to be a bit of a stigma about capos, like you’re cheating if you use them. If being able to ‘see’ a song quickly in terms of I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and vii and giving the guitar a chance to ring out with nice open strings a vibratin’ and have all the years of playing in nice friendly keys another chance at it — if that’s called cheating, then let it be so. I’ve always felt that the music reaching the ears was the main thing, and I’ve always found that MUCH more comfortable in the friendly keys.
Capos only move the pitch up, never down (unless you’re moving down form a higher already capoed position) and when reading the chart, you can only pick keys lower than the original. They’re on the left of the original key.
Remember that all that changes is the letter. The major or minor or 7th or sus4 — the chord flavors — remain the same. The left hand column indicates the Roman numeral value of the note/chord and by its use of caps and lowercase, indicates the major/minor quality. Remember though, these can change. The composer can pick chords other than those to write a tune.
Capos can misbehave and be a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes. It’s usually best to keep the capo as close to the nut as possible, just for the sake of the tuning. The higher up the neck you go, the more likely it is to pull the tuning out a bit. If you clamp the capo too close to the fret wire, you’ll probably sharp everything a bit; too far back and you might lose good string contact with the fret wire and it will sound choked. Experiment, and find the happy medium. Make sure you put it on straight – parallel to the fret wire, or you’ll pull some strings out of tune and not others, and that’s as sour a sound as you can get.
There are many designs of capos and all have pros and cons. None are foolproof. I’ve tried them all and I think to this day I prefer the little Dunlop variety that have a little nylon belt and rack and pinion type clamping device. They’re adjustable, and can be very reliable. They all tend to pull the strings sideways slightly as you apply the final clamping action, whatever it is, so you’ve got to be ready and compensate by holding it firmly. It’s when you’re playing with others that you have to be careful about these slight discrepancies as you can quickly be out of tune with the band if you’re not careful.
Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com