play

How To Transpose Chords With a Guitar Capo

Last time I made a lesson on how to use a guitar capo, I left out an important bit of information: how to transpose chords properly so that you remain in the same key as the rest of the band.

Today that's what we're talking about.

The rule of thumb that I get into in the video is basically this:

transposing chords

If you move the capo UP X number of frets, you need to transpose your guitar chords DOWN by the same number of semitones

Each fret is a semitone, right? So in order to maintain the balance, if you go up with the capo, you need to go down with the letter names of your open chords.

This might be a bit confusing, but keep in mind you're not actually changing keys. The only sense in which you're changing keys is in that you're changing to the open chord shapes of a particular key. The whole idea is to remain in the same key right?

Let's do an example.

Say the song is in the key of F, but you don't want to deal with those pesky bar chords.

Thankfully, you have a capo that you can use to transpose the chords with, and you have a clever idea to use the chords from the key of D, transposed up! 

To figure this out, you need to find a location on the fretboard where an open D major chord shape becomes an F. 

If open position gives you a D, then if you placed the capo on the first fret, it would turn that D into a D#, right? Everything moves up by one semitone. That gets us closer, but we need two more frets to get to F (the distance from E to F is a natural semitone - if that doesn't make sense please watch this). 

Therefore, if you capo at the third fret, you can play an open D major chord shape and it will give you an F major chord.

This means that anytime the song has an F chord written, you need to play a D chord instead (with that capo on the 3rd fret, of course.)

In like manner, every other chord in the key needs to be transposed in the same way, so let's do that too. Here are the six main chords in F major:

F Gm Am Bb C Dm

To transpose the chords correctly, you need to move each chord by the same distance that you've moved the F, which is three semitones (three frets). This becomes: 

D Em F#m G A Bm

How To Simplify Transposing Chords With A Capo

The musical number system - sometimes called the Nashville number system - makes this process much easier. 

The six chords I mentioned can be assigned numbers (Roman numerals), according to their position in the scale. 

In any major key, the I, IV and V chords are major, and the ii, iii, and vi chords are minor. We use lower case numerals to show minor, and upper case for major. 

So, we could write the key of F like this:

I
F

ii
Gm

iii
Am

IV
Bb

V
C

vi
Dm

Now each of those chords has a number, and we can do the same thing for every key. Once we've done that, we could literally write a song using just numbers, and then instantly transpose it into any key using this system. Here's the same chart with D major added:

I
F
D

ii
Gm
Em

iii
Am
F#m

IV
Bb
G

V
C
A

vi
Dm
Bm


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. Your delivery of the material is very cool. Learning alot. Very relaxed and to the point.You make learning enjoyable and relaxed while at the same time motivating. I don’t feel intimidated at all by the material because of how you present it. Thanks alot.

    1. Hi Jesse – that’s probably a function of your internet connection. I’d recommend pausing it, allowing the full video to buffer, and then viewing it – that should allow the whole video to transfer before you go to play it.

  2. Thanks Jonathan, but why use the capo if the chords sound the same as what U were playing? I get the capo for use to obtain another key using chord configurations that I’m more familiar with.
    Ted

  3. In the capo lesson, when you use the terms up and down, it would help to indicate if you are talking in terms of scale (up = higher frequency notes) or the neck of the guitar. I guess it is the scale.
    John

  4. This is a great intro into transposing, which is so important to really getting a grip on what the guitar can do. The concept of up means down using a capo is very clearly demonstrated. Thanks, Jonathan!

  5. Great Lesson, thanks. Only thing missing is a real world example. If someone said, “I sing in the key of “B”, and you are playing “Sweet Home Alabama”, a normal D-C-G, what do you do?

    1. Hi Chuck, In that particular case, I’d probably take the G, and move it up so that you’re now playing it coming off the 7th fret, where you find a B (6th string). This would mean putting the capo on the 4th fret… and you’d be able to use the exact same chord patterns you’re used to playing (D C G), and yet be in the key of B. Basically you’re just identifying the root note that you want to move, and then move it to the new key, and capo appropriately (ie open G root note is on the third fret, so you need to capo appropriately leaving yourself 3 frets until your root note, in this particular case. Each key looks different, but the principle is the same.

  6. this is the first time that i have seen your site and i have learnt more about a capo than the crummy little guitar teacher i have.

    thank you so much.

  7. Thanks, Jonathan.  Your teaching style is so refreshing, without all the noisy hype so many favour.  Much appreciated by an Englishwoman!  I have your scale patterns course and so much of the mist has cleared.  You have a lovely smile, too – it reminds of one of my sons . . .

  8. In a way it sounds confusing,but,its all about learing how a guitar works and the comfusion will start to disapear.I try not to rush things,I like to take it slow and everything that I have taken in so far is paying off. Thanks and rock on.

  9. Great Capo Lesson!
    As a plus:
    I didn’t realize that the minor chords in the key are the relative to the majors in the key (Except for the 6th).
    World of knowledge. Thanks!

  10. Hello! i watched the video, and a little bit confused.
    all over the internet, there are charts, showing what chord will i get if I put capo on 1st, 2nd, 3rd Fret and so on.
    Let’s say, i want to transpose the song Riptide- Vance Joy, that in the key of C# ( A#m,G#,C#,C#- VI,V,I,I progression) to the key of E (C#m,B,E,E) .
    So, to get that Key of E, but to play the same chord shapes as in the key of C, according to all Capo charts , I have to put the capo on 4th fret.
    But from your video, if i will go back , so ill get a totally different chords : F#m,A, D, E
    So, thats my confession all around the capo and what will get if i use it.

    1. Hi Alina, F#m, A, D and E are the chords from the key of A, not the key of E. If you want E, and you’re currently in C#, then you need to move the capo the same number of frets as the number of semitones between those two.

      C# – D (1 fret) – D# (2 frets) – E (3 frets)

      So, you need to move up three frets and keep your chord shapes the same.

      Now with that said, If you’re playing in E major, it might be easier to just play the open chords version of those same chords…

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Totally Free, Customized Guitar Lessons

  • How to find your way around the fretboard
  • How to use scales and riffs
  • Improvising and soloing lessons
  • Customized to your current level