Well, here it is again: “The Country Issue.” I’ve already written about the great country session players, and we’ve covered “chicken pickin,” among other country-related topics, so I was going to write about my favorite Townes Van Zandt , Emmylou Harris , and Rodney Crowell songs. Then, as I was listening to four different versions of Townes’ classic “Poncho and Lefty” (yes, he spells it that way) I noticed that Townes’ version is in D (but he plays it out of a C position with capo on 2nd fret) Willie’s version is also in D, Emmylou’s version is in C and Gillian Welch does it in Ab.
There’s something that’s common to almost every country song ever written, and this applies to most rock, blues and pop songs, too. It’s this unwritten rule: If you’re going to be playing chords, and the song is not in one of the five “guitar friendly” keys (G, C, D, A and E) you use a capo.
Some uninformed people think using a capo is “cheating.” Sure, using a capo makes playing chords much easier, but that’s not the reason the pros use them. Rhythm guitar players who play country music with capos don’t use them because they don’t know their bar (barre) chords, they use capos because it sounds better and because using bar chords (or any other closed chord shape) is limiting. Yes, using bar chords prevents you from making the full, rich, ringing, chord voicings (and “color” chords) that you can get easily by using open strings. Jazz purists (some of whom happen to be guitar teachers) are the worst about this anti-capo bias because some of them don’t understand that other genres of music employ different chord voicings and sustaining ringing guitar chords. In most country bands, there’s a rhythm guitarist who plays acoustic steel string guitar and a lead player who plays electric guitar. The anti-capo brigade does not grasp this concept. Many of Nashville’s top session musicians are great jazz players and can play very sophisticated, complex chord voicings and rhythm patterns, but they know that if they’re playing country and it’s in Bb, you need a capo to get the right sound. If Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, or Tommy Tedesco did a rock, pop, or country session as the rhythm guitar player, they wouldn’t use an L-5, play bar chords and go “chunk chunk chunk” downstroke quarter notes.
Let’s say you want to play “Poncho and Lefty” in Ab, like Gillian Welch does. The chords used in this song are (in the Nashville Number System): 1, 4, 5 and 6m. In the key of Ab, those chords would be Ab , Db, Eb, and Fm , (figures 1,2,3 and 4 ). Those are all bar chords. These are harder to play than open chords, but that’s not the point. They don’t sound the same. The more you have to move your fingers around, the less the chords sustain. What any good country (rock, pop) player would do is exactly what Gillian Welch did: Put a capo on the first fret and play the open G, C, D, and Em shapes that you already know. I don’t think we even need to diagram those.
But that’s only part the story. Where you really get into trouble by rejecting the capo is when you want to use your common color chords and connector chords. Let’s say we’re still in Ab and our intro goes from Absus4. This is an extremely common chord change in country, rock and pop music. You’re playing an Ab bar chord (figure 1). Okay, now you want to just add that Db note (on the G string, 6th fret) and take out the C note on the 5th fret.) To do that, you have to move all your fingers except your index finger (figure 5). So what happens when you lift those fingers? Stops ringing, that’s what. But if your capo is on the first fret, you play the G and the Gsus4 like this: figure 6 and 7. What you’re really playing pitchwise is Ab and Absus4.
Suppose you want to play a simple chord progression with a 4add9, a 5sus chord , or a 6m7? You cannot do it without moving your fingers all over the place, which stops the flow of the chord changes. The way any professional musician would approach the song is the same: Put a capo on the first fret , and your basic 1,4,5,6m, 2m, 5 and 57 chord become simple, open key of G voicings where one or two fingers make very small movements, allowing the chords to sustain and flow into each other. Your color chords and connector chords are right there under your fingers. In the key of G, the 3m chord should be a Bm bar chord.
A word of warning about capos: The tighter the capo is, the sharper your strings get. The ubiquitous , clamp-on type of capo that everybody uses is the worst culprit. Get a capo that has adjustable tension! If you’re going to be playing a song with your capo on and you’re not going to take it off, put your capo on and then tune your guitar with the capo on. All capos will make your guitar go sharp if the tension is adjusted too tight. Get it tight enough so each string rings clearly and then stop tightening the dang thing.