Using Capos and Alternate Tunings for Depth with Multiple Guitars

Whenever I hear two or more guitars playing the same chords in the same key with the same basic strum pattern, I cringe a little bit. For the same reason that two vocalists singing in harmony often sounds better than if they sang in unison, creating space sonically between instruments almost always makes for a more pleasing sound.

When I'm playing in a band with multiple guitars, I always look for a way to voice my chords in an alternative register in order to separate myself from the other guitarists in the mix. There are two relatively easy ways to do this: use a capo or an alternate tuning.

A capo creates a new register in two seconds and allows you draw from chord shapes and scale fingerings you already know.

An alternate tuning requires a bit more prep: either you crack a joke while you retune on stage, or you bring an extra guitar already set up with the tuning of choice. If you've never used alternate tunings before, you'll have to learn some new chord shapes and fingerings. With open tunings in particular, these often are easier than you think.

Here's a closer look at specific ways to approach both methods.

Adding Depth With Capos

In the video above, you can instantly hear how playing the same song in different keys with a capo gives it an entirely different atmosphere and feel. The easiest way to stay out of the other guitarist's way is to use a capo up near the 5th or 7th fret if he or she is playing chords in the open position.

You'll still be playing the same fundamental chords as your partner, but with a different voicing. If they are starting with G major in the open position, find where the G root would be for you an octave up with the capo at the 5th fret [the open D string]. Discovering that, you can use what would be a D major chord shape if you were playing in open position, but it will play as a G major, twinkling higher and with a different voicing than your partner's G down by the nut.

Kyser Short-Cut Capo

Don't be afraid to experiment. While you don’t commonly see players capo above the fifth fret, I have achieved great results - especially when layering multiple guitars in a recording - by placing the capo very high up on the neck, sometimes even at the 12th fret. There are no rules, and you should not limit yourself to the common uses of the capo. After all, it's way more fun to be a trendsetter. So go wild.

As with guitars, different brands and styles of capos serve different functions. Try out several that you feel might have potential. There are so many designs out there – some great and some positively impractical. But through experimentation, I have come to appreciate the variation in tone and character achievable by using different kinds of capos on both electric and acoustic guitars.

When it comes to the more avant-garde options, I tend to favor the partial capos by both Kyser and Shubb.

The Kyser Short-Cut is a fun design that suppresses only three strings at a time. This can be used in conjunction with a standard capo for some truly unique sounds. Plus, having two capos on your guitar always makes for an interesting discussion with other musicians after a show.

Other partial designs – such as the Shubb Drop D model – offer more variations you can experiment with to further separate yourself from the other guitarists in your group.

Alternate Tunings

If all this capo talk has your head spinning, other options to consider are open and drop tunings. Most guitarists – beginners included – have likely attempted the common drop D tuning. There is something endlessly satisfying in hearing the pitch of your lowest E-string dropped down a whole step. It is an effect that can be utilized in nearly any genre of music. But, as with the capo, why limit yourself to the most common sounds?

Fully open tunings offer a world of opportunities to create depth between two or more acoustic guitars.

For example, let’s say one player has a capo fastened on the fifth fret and is playing in the key of C, so playing in G position. One way to create a more interesting variation with a second guitar might be to tune the second instrument way down to an open C (from low to high: C, G, C, G, C, E).

This tuning nearly gets down into the baritone guitar range and may require a heftier-gauged string set to accommodate the drop in tension. But it certainly makes for a more interesting sound than if the two guitars simply played in standard C position.

Speaking of baritones, they happen to be one of my favorite ways to create dimension among multiple acoustic guitars. Similar to the concept of capoing on the higher frets, a baritone guitar – one with the same intervals between strings as a standard guitar but pitched down at least two whole steps – is yet another option for creating separation between instruments.

There are many boutique builders who offer a baritone model (Santa Cruz Guitar Co., Goodall, and Collings, to name a few), but one of my favorites at the moment is the more modestly-priced Gold Tone GBG. Not only does it sound great, but given the fact that many would utilize a baritone as a “secondary” instrument, it won’t break the bank like some of the higher-end offerings.

Check out the video above for some examples regarding how to use your capo both as a solo artist and as part of an arrangement with multiple guitars.

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