I was born on the island of Oahu, in the beautiful state of Hawaii in the year 19-eighty something! My name is Keli’i. In English it means “The Small”. Its funny since the name Keali’i means “The Chief”. Just add a letter and the meaning is completely different. And for my middle and high school education I attended Kamehameha, a school for native Hawaiians. Only people of Hawaiian decent can attend this prestigious school. At Kamehameha, the curriculum incorporates and instills the Hawaiian culture in it's students. And by the way, the pronunciation of Kamehameha is the same as in the anime Dragon Ball. Hearing the character's scream it out still cracks me up!
So you might be wondering…
”Why are you telling me about your Hawaiian ancestry and how you are so lucky to have been raised in Hawaii? What does this have to do with ukulele?”
Well, here’s where things take an unsuspecting turn in my past. It might sound crazy but after being pretty much destined to play the ukulele by heritage and culture, my first stringed instrument was actually a guitar!
“Huh, Keli’i? You are a Native Hawaiian and steeped in the culture! And you chose the guitar over the majestic four stringed ukulele.....really? What's up with that!”
I must confess, I pushed the ukulele aside and grabbed the guitar! I know, blasphemous right? I took guitar classes at Kamehameha instead of ukulele. Maybe it was the rebel in me... haha! So this brings us to the topic in the title, the capo! As an avid guitar player of over 20 years I was already familiar with using a capo since we use it all the time in the guitar world. Every guitar player has one in their case. It is as essential as having a tuner!
So it was to my surprise when I started seeing this little wonder from the guitar world make its way to the ukulele. We are seeing now the rise of the ukulele capo! You gotta understand that for almost a century locals never used any kind of capo on the ukulele. So with over 20 years of capo experience as a guitar player, here is a breakdown of what a capo is, what it’s used for, and if you should add one to your ukulele arsenal.
Taking its name from the Italian word for "head," a capo is a small device that clamps onto the neck of a ukulele and shortens the length of the strings, raising their pitch. A capo is usually fastened across all the strings of a ukulele, or other fretted stringed instrument.
One of the main advantages of using a capo is that it lets a ukulele player play a song in different keys while still using first-position open-string chord forms. No barre chords! What a great hack for beginners and for singers with range!
Now to understand what a capo does you must be know the purpose of the ‘nut’. On the headstock end of a ukulele, the termination point of a string’s vibration is a thin strip of bone or other hard resonant material called the nut.
The nut straddles the joint where the fretboard meets the headstock, and the strings pass over it as they leave the fretboard and find their anchoring points on the headstock. The nut has grooves that, along with the bridge at the body end of the scale length, ensure the correct lateral placement of the strings along the length of the fretboard.
A capo functions as a moveable nut since it can be affixed to any fret below the headstock (up to the heel) and provides the same termination effect on the string’s vibratrion. Unlike the nut, however, capos don’t have string grooves, as their only purpose is to change pitch rather than maintain lateral string placement (a function thankfully ensured by the nut and bridge even when a capo is in use).
So are you convinced that this little wonder is amazing tool that everyone needs in their ukulele toolbox? Not only does a capo help with key changes, and barre chords (or lack there of), but capo’s also have a secret hidden benefit. And this feature may fully convince you so here it is: Using a capo will allow you play more songs with fewer chords!
If you can learn the chords G, D, C, Em, and Am, and play them interchangeably. Then you're already capable of playing 1000’s of songs…… if you use a capo.
Mind blown? Sure! That’s what you gain from using a capo. What an awesome benefit! Knowing the simple chords of G, D, C, Em, Am will open up new avenues to your ukulele playing when employing a capo.
And if you're a visual learner check out the video below for more capo clarity.
Now I know some old timers and traditionalists reading this are shaking their heads and getting their Twitter fingers ready! I get it, you still don’t believe in capos for the ukulele. You believe in hard work and learning to play barre chords. I hear you…. capos are not for you. But remember, I’m a guitar player…. hehe!
So there you have it! I hope you learned the answer to the age old question, “To capo, or not to capo?”
And my answer to that question is it's totally up to you! If you choose yes and want to add a ukulele capo to your 'ukebox', get one here! This one is pricey but its well made and will not obstruct playing with its minimalistic design.
Keep jamming and aloha!