Most accomplished guitarists can play in any key without the aid of a capo. Nevertheless, they will still use the capo to take advantage of the particular characteristics of different chord shapes.
For example, C chord shapes are good for playing melodies on the top three strings while playing bass patterns of the bottom strings.
This is much harder using D chord shapes. However, the D chord can give interesting effects by lifting the finger covering the F# on the top string to add the note of E. This is sometimes referred as Dsus2 or D with a suspended second.
Guitarists will often combine this by putting their little finger on the top string at the third fret to produce to add the note of G to the D chord.
If you try strumming the chord of D alternating between the basic chord, the added G and the added E you will produce some interesting sounds that you have probably heard many times before without realising it on records by top folk singers.
The A chord shape makes it very easy to play alternating bass, which is why so many country and western songs are in the key A Major, or at least use the A Chord shape.
The G Chord makes it very easy to play walking bass lines.
Capo offers different ways to play the same keys
Guitarists will often choose which chord shapes to use depending on what effects they want to achieve. For example, if you want to play in E Major using a capo you could do so by placing the capo on the second fret and using D chords.
Alternatively, you could put the capo on the fourth fret and use C chords.
Which way you choose will depend on the effect you want to achieve and which chord shapes best suit your aims.
Why Ralph McTell uses a capo for Streets of London?
To illustrate the point, take a look at this video of Ralph McTell singing his classic song Streets of London in the key of D Major. McTell is one of folk music’s best guitarists. He is more than capable of playing in any key including D without any need for a capo.
Nevertheless, he uses one for Streets of London. He puts a capo on the second fret and uses C chord shapes when he plays the song.
The reason is that the melody falls naturally under the fingers when playing in C, and he is also able to get interesting bass lines. The melody doesn’t fall comfortably under the fingers when forming the D chord, even for someone as accomplished as McTell.
The answer, therefore, is to use a capo to enable him to both sing and play in the ideal key and produce the best performance possible.
Achieve a balance when using the capo
Don’t let the capo make you lazy so you only learn to play in one or two keys and let the capo make up for your lack of versatility.
This approach is likely to make your playing too uniform and predictable.
Learn how to play in all the important keys and then see how you can use a capo to help you use the chord shapes that give you the best effect while still remaining in the right key for your voice.
That way you will have the best of both worlds: you will be able to play in all the keys but you will also know when to use a capo for the right reasons of exploiting the different musical possibilities offered by different chord shapes.
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