Unlocking The Songs: Capo Up for Petty, Oasis, Crow and Stones

Welcome to Unlocking The Songs, a new column series in which well show you not just how to play the songs you love, but how to play them right. All too often, players try to emulate what they hear on record but that extra something seems to be missing. It might be a matter of playing a riff in the right position, using an alternate tuning, using a capo, or playing an unfamiliar chord voicing. Whatever the culprit, youll appreciate the subtle differences once you know how exactly to unlock that song. For our first installment, David Simons opens the door on a handful of popular songs featuring simplistic but evasive guitar parts.

That little hunk of spastic plastic and metal known as the capo is the most versatile piece of equipment inside the guitar case. They're cheap, too. Far most useful than it's most commonly assigned role -- altering pitch in place of altering fingerings -- the capo helps create a layered sound when used in tandem with an un-capoed guitar, and opens up a whole new language for songwriting. Some of the most outstanding riffs and chord progressions in the modern era can't be played without one.

Can you hear a capo in action? Depending on your particular musical habitat, you may have had relatively limited capo experience up until now. But those who think that capos are strictly for interpreting the works of John Denver (okay, so there are a lot of John Denver capo songs) may be oblivious to the fact that some of the mightiest of rock gods wouldn't dream of leaving the dressing room without one. You'd be surprised at the number of punk and fingerstyle guitarists who depend on them, too.

Those who attempt to replicate songs in which the capo plays a leading role may actually be causing their chord hand undue stress simply because their index finger is doing the capos job. More likely, those same people have just adapted the song to a more "comfortable" key, in which case theyre probably playing it wrong altogether.

Let's take a look at three different guitar songs that utilize a capo for different reasons: to create a unique-sounding riff; for slightly altering the voicing of the guitar; and to offer a contrast to a second, non-capoed guitar part.

Tom Petty: "Free Fallin"

Tom Pettys "Free Fallin" has a few unique and all-important twists. Probably because of his vocal range, Petty often tunes up a half-step, so an open E shape (shown here) sounds an F chord. If you tried playing "Free Fallin" in standard pitch, fingering an F chord, you'd miss out. Rather than re-tune your whole guitar upwards for the occasion, theres a better way to go.

Petty has a second guitar part that begins with a capo on the third fret. This part nicely contrasts the bottom guitar with a progression of DDsusDsusDA shapes that create the backbone of the song. Played together, the two guitars produce the airy "Free Fallin" riff.

Check the two parts out separately and then combined. Heres the open E shape (again, tuned up a half step to sound F) of the first guitar, which supplies the bottom:

Heres the capoed part:

Heres the payoff, with the two parts combined:

Now you're free, free fallin. Of course, this is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but also one of the best.

Oasis: "Wonderwall"

So George Harrison might be a "senile old fart" according to Oasis Noel Gallagher, but that didn't stop the Beatle-baiting songwriter from nicking a few Fab ideas. With more than a passing nod to Harrisongs like "Apple Scruffs" and "My Sweet Lord" (both from the guitarists opus All Things Must Pass), Gallaghers (Whats the Story) Morning Glory? single "Wonderwall" derives its stark beauty simply by strapping up a few notches.

Whats the diff? If you went strictly by the book, youd be working off a progression that begins on F#m -- which would certainly give you a feel for the song, but not the right way to play it. Like many works from the Beatles catalogue, the "Wonderwall" voicing is built on a lone acoustic-guitar riff on capo 2 position, beginning with an Em7add9. The "hook" involves staying with the "7add9" throughout the G, D and A-based chords that follow (see diagrams). The underlying factor is the voicing of the guitar in this setup. Played sans capo, the tone isnt nearly as compelling.

Sheryl Crow: "There Goes the Neighborhood"

The same can be said for Sheryl Crows Globe Sessions track "There Goes The Neighborhood," another E-based riff with the capo on the second fret. Highly evocative of prime-time Stones, "There Goes The Neighborhood," like "Wonderwall," begins with an F# root; if you forgot your capo, you could play the opening statement by going from F# to A. But try playing the little chord fills that occur right off the first F# and youre sunk. Now get out the capo, put it on fret 2, and play the same riff, only this time fingering E to G shapes.

Better, huh? And listen to the fat ring produced by the open strings of the G chord. Its the only way to go.

While you're in the neighborhood, slide up a couple inches more and experience the capo 3 wonder of the Whos "Magic Bus." Townshends acoustic riff is built on just a couple quick changes (EDsusD) but gets maximum effect by letting the bottom strings ring throughout.

The Rolling Stones: "Midnight Rambler"

The traditional problem with tablature is that transcribers often provide you with the correct key of the song you wish to learn, but the same guys won't always tell you the correct way to play it. Hey, the songs in G major -- what else do you want? Well, we want more information, information which is often the difference between playing the song right and not playing it at all. Knowing when a capo is needed can make all the difference.

Case in point: the Stones late 60s riff rocker "Midnight Rambler." Technically speaking, the song is in the key of B, but that tells you next to nothing about how to play this deceptively simple riff. Much has been made of Keith Richards notorious 5-string tuning, but its a capo that gives "Midnight Rambler" its distinctive sound. The songs opening riff and chord progression is based on the chords BAE, and you can play it as such; but without a capo, youll never get those subtle Richards pull-offs, open-string sounds, and bass-note slurs.

For comparisons sake, start without using the capo and try playing the riff beginning on the seventh fret, using a barre-chord B. You get an approximation of the songs structure, but those cool colorations? Forget it. Now grab your capo, and lock it on at the seventh fret. At this setting, you'll be playing the riff with the chord shapes EDA (as they would be in open position. With very little effort, you can hit that distinctive open-string on the second chord (which is actually an "add 9" chord), not to mention those characteristic Richards-esque boogie runs and pull-offs from the third chord.

When you hit it right, it sounds like this.

Midnight Rambler

Tighten Up

Not only will your capo unveil proper guitar phrases and elusive riffs to some tremendous songs, it will also help open up a whole new chord and voicing vocabulary that you may have otherwise missed. The capo is an excellent means for broadening recorded guitar parts, where you can lay down open-position parts and then double them with new fingerings at capo positions higher up on the neck.

In order to avoid hours of frustration and needless re-tuning, though, start with a good capo. That old 70s-era stretchy thing wont help you master "Magic Bus," but it may raise your blood pressure enough to allow you to do a pretty fair Townshend guitar-smashing imitation instead. Stick with good units by Schubb or Dunlop for the latest in capo technology. Then tune up, strap on, and rock out.

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