Partial Capos : A Whole New World

  • 01/13/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

Last time I got to talk to David Wilcox about his partial capo work, he said something pretty insightful. “The environment for wonder is mapped,” he said. “Everybody already knows pretty much most of what the guitar can do. But the partial capo is a whole new universe.”

David’s right. Partial capos radically expand the possibilities available on the guitar. Here’s a short introduction to the world of the partial capo. Read this article with your guitar and a capo in hand. If you have a Short-Cut capo too, that’s even better.

There are two reasons to use a capo:

To Change the Key

Most players use a capo to make a song fit their voice better. If you're playing a song that’s a little low to sing, you can put a capo a few frets up the neck - to play the same chord voicing, but raise the key. This is changing the key, but not the voicing.

To Change the Voicing:

Or, if you want to play a song in the key of B, it's a whole lot easier to put the capo on the 4th fret and play in G than it is to play all those barre chords. This is changing the voicing, but not the key.

The simplest approach to partial capo work is through voicing changes. Let's start there.


If you put a capo on the second fret and voice a D major chord, you're actually hearing E. In a D chord, you usually don't play the 6th string. But if you take the capo off the 6th string and just clamp strings 1-5, you can let the low string drone, giving a nice full sound. Try playing in the key of D – using D, G, A, Bm and Em chords. For the Em, you’ll want to put your finger on the low E string, on the same fret as the capo.

If you take the capo up to the fourth fret, leaving the low string still open, you can voice chords in the key of C with the same drone. On the fifth fret you can voice B or Bm, on the seventh fret you can voice A or Am, and on the ninth fret you can play in G. Notice that as you move the capo up, you go down with the chords.

Second fret - voice D or Dm
Fourth fret - voice C or Cm
Fifth fret - voice B or Bm
Seventh fret - voice A or Am
Ninth fret - voice G or Gm.

But we never changed key, even though we played different chords. Every one of those voicings was in the key of E. The voicing is what your fingers play, the key is what your ears hear.


Now if you turn the capo over and just clamp strings 2-6, you leave the high E string open, and you can play all the same voicings. This affects the color of your chord.

The bass string is typically the anchor of a chord. If you want to add color to a chord, it usually happens in the middle or on top, but rarely at the bottom. For example, an A7 chord almost never uses the 7th (G) in the bass. It's often in the middle (on the G string) or on top (the high E string, 3rd fret,) but it's rarely on the low E string, third fret.

Structure is on the bottom, color is on the top.

The Short-Cut Capo

A Short-Cut capo leaves the inside string and two outside strings open. Put a Short-Cut Capo on the second fret of your guitar, pointing down. This leaves the low E string open, and the high E and B strings open, too. Remember, structure is on bottom, color is on the top. Now when you play a D chord, you have the low E string open, and you can lift your fingers and have the high two strings open, too.

You can put the Short-Cut in all the same places you put the other capo, facing both directions. Just remember that when you leave the high two strings open, you're making a color choice (this is easier) and if you leave the low two strings open, it's a structure choice (which requires a bit more thought.)