Guitar 101: Pancho and Capo


Sonia Leigh

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... Sign In to Keep Reading

To view this content,

Join Today

or Sign In

The Benefits of Membership:

  • Limited-time FREE Feature Magazine Content
  • Exclusive access to members-only contests and giveaways
Click to Join

We've started a free American Songwriter membership. Click here to learn more.