Troubleshooting: Guitar Out of Tune With a Capo

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Has this ever happened to you?

You finish playing a song with your guitar perfectly in tune, you in fact do a quick pass with your tuner to ensure everything is ok.

The next song you are practicing requires a capo on the third fret, you put it on, strum your first chord and it sounds strangely out of tune.

But if everything was perfectly fine just one second ago!

Why do capos detune your guitar?

And more importantly: How to prevent your capo from detuning your guitar?

Guitar capos that exert too much pressure on the strings can bend them before the fret causing intonation issues. This issue is more present on guitars that have tall frets and thin gauge strings. Using thicker strings or getting a capo that allows you to adjust its pressure are some common fixes.

In this article, I will dive deep into what is actually causing your guitar to go out of tune when you play it with a capo, and what to do if this is a recurring issue during your performances.

After leaving this page, you will have a clear idea about what causes and how to prevent any tuning or intonation issues when playing with a capo.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

Why do capos detune your guitar?

The important thing to know when using a capo for transposing open chords on your guitar is that capos can exert a lot of pressure on the strings. 

Even more than you could with your fingers.

Excessive pressure before any fret can pre-bend the strings causing them to sound slightly out of tune.

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Chords
Chords

This is a phenomenon that happens irregularly among the string because of their different thicknesses and working tensions.

You can replicate this issue without a capo by just fretting and pressing a note very hard. It will go slightly but noticeably sharp.

This is a common problem, especially with taller frets, since there is more room for the string to bend until it touches the fretboard, and with thinner string gauges that are more prone to be bent.

You can see a clear demonstration of what’s happing in the following video:

via GIPHY

Also, another common issue when using capos is that at the moment you put them on, perhaps the strings stick to the fretting surface and end up slightly bent upward or downward, as you would bend them with your fingers, but in a static fashion.

Do all capos affect tuning stability?

Not all capos affect the tuning of your guitar.

You should only worry about the capos that put too much pressure on your strings.

These are commonly some of the cheapest and most common ones.

More “professional” capos will likely have a screw on the back to allow you to adjust them into place without giving a death hug to your song.

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The process of putting them on and taking them off is longer and less practical, but the results talk for themselves.

How could you prevent a capo from detuning your guitar?

There is not much you could do with your current capo to avoid it from detuning your guitar slightly if it is putting too much pressure on your strings, but here are a few alternatives to consider:

  • Make sure you put your capo on carefully: As I mentioned earlier, perhaps the issue is that you are slightly bending the strings upwards or downwards before the capo clamps them, and just a bit of mindfulness about this could solve the problem.
  • Try to reduce the tension of the spring somehow: A newer stiff spring on a capo is more likely to put on too much pressure than an older one. Try to get your capo to loosen a bit by pressing it and releasing it a few times every day. This is also a great exercise to build stamina on the fretting hand.
  • Add some cushion to the surface that pressures the strings: Your capo might be too rough with the strings. A little piece of foam could take away some of the excessive force on the point of contact. Experiment with it.
  • Go for a thicker string gauge: Thicker strings work with higher tensions and are less prone to be bent before the fret and therefore have intonation problems. You will also get a higher acoustic volume with them.
  • Get an adjustable capo: Adjustable capos are the ultimate solution if you play a lot of songs that use a capo. You can set them up to the perfect tension for your fret height and string tension and forget about any intonation issues for good.

Should you retune your guitar every time you use a capo?

It is a good habit to always check the tuning of your guitar when putting on or taking off a capo.

Even with an adjustable capo, you never know if a string got stuck without you seeing it and ended up slightly bent.

A thing I do when I put on my cheap capo and I hear something went out of tune is opening and closing it again in place just to make sure all the strings are re-clamped in the proper positions.

Sometimes, as I said a few times now, the perpendicular motion of the capo coming in from below or above the strings makes them stick to its fretting surface and end up clamped with a slight bend.