Published in PM February 2009
Technique : Playing Techniques
I've used a capo, or capotasto — the name is derived from the Italian capo ('head') and tasto ('tie') — for as long as I've played solo. They help a live set remain interesting by breaking up a flow of keys, changing tonality, lifting or lowering, brightening or warming, and optimism says a few gadgets that tweak a little further and fit in a string box might be a logistical and varietal boon. In the days when Bert Weedon skipped like a young lamb across the cabaret stages of our country, supplies of guitars and gadgets were limited. Little frog, you have no idea how limited, and you have probably never jammed matchsticks in a Hamilton to try to persuade it to capo sixth and first as well as the ones in the middle. Bend the bar? Yup, but then you had to stick a bit of beer mat behind the neck, because with the bar bent the whole thing was too deep for the neck.
The Hamilton screw type was the first I came across, though other people had the fancier spring type with the huge side lever. The sprung version pictured here belongs to Bill Puplett, who paid five shillings for it second-hand in 1968. He uses it as a quick-release clamp for holding strings on the neck when he does bridge work. You can still buy a version of each, but the stability of the 'unsprung-behind-the-neck' yoke style is attested to by the number of similar structures. For example, the Paige, John Pearse's retro, bell-bronze version, and if you're buying for the picker who has everything you could spend US$120 on a stainless steel Elliott. There have been yokes that went around the front of the neck, but they are rare these days. An example that was around until the '70s is the Elton, and the Sterner Capo Museum (a site where you can mull over our ancestors' key-change struggles, http://web.telia.com/~u86505074/ capomuseum/index.htm#menu) has a circa 1935 photo of Blind Boy Fuller using one.
The capo has also been in use in flamenco for a long time, where it is known as a cejilla and consists of a wooden block with a flattened, padded edge that sits on the strings. There is a small length of nylon, which is fastened to the block at one end, then passed around the back of the neck and tightened by a peg into the block to pull the assembly and the string down tight against the fingerboard.
A few years ago, if you put up a post on the usenet acoustic guitar newsgroup asking for a capo recommendation, the answers that followed would have been solidly for the Shubb. Rick Shubb brought his neat design to NAMM in 1980 and it took off. The tension is preset and you simply put it on the neck and flip the back bar up to lock against the adjustment screw. You're not supposed to tighten the adjustment screw in situ on the neck, but people do. The Shubb, like all successful gadgets, had a good, short name, was interesting, would fit in your pocket to be fiddled with, worked perfectly and everybody loved it — long or short bars, straight or radiused. His early bar sleeves were rubber and tended to rot, and these were later replaced with a firmer material that I felt didn't sit around the string quite so nicely. Since Rick's patent expired there have been copies of the principle, and among them Dunlop produced a Shubb-meets-Innovations redesign as their C-Four.
I used to see a lot of Dunlop 'lever-and-binding' capos around — I remember Albert Lee using one around the Fuller's circuit years ago on a Tele — and an interesting variation on the type is the Terry Gould C8. It's a useful one to have in the kit somewhere, offering a curved radius on one side and flat on the other. There's no elasticity in the binding and no fine adjustment, but there is a buckle adjustment that enables you to preset for a few positions in the same area, or to reset for another guitar.
Side-mounting capos have come on in leaps and bounds, although there are still some delightful, but impractical items around. The Bird Of Paradise is irresistible, but clumsy to use. It sticks out a lot, there's no flex in the bar and adjustment is one-way only, tightening on a ratchet, so if you go too far you have to start again, which is not ideal for stage at all. The capo itself seeks its own attention and a restive audience might really enjoy the idea of a mad toucan attacking your guitar.
The Kyser at one time seemed to be the de rigueur headstock decoration of the Nashville singer-songwriter fraternity — not one of them would appear on the Nashville Network or CMT without this rococo contraption poking out at the tuning end. I found them immensely difficult to use and, as with all spring capos, there is no fine adjustment. If you're using a bog standard medium acoustic set with low to medium fret height, there's little problem, but with lighter strings and/or a high fret bead, your tuning could be a real mess. You'll end up spending on retuning the time you'd take mounting a subtler, less disruptive capo. Now there are variations and copies around that put the grip in an easier position, so if one-handed speed of mounting on medium gauges is the thing you need above all, they're worth a look.
A normal full capo can be a tone control beyond the simple pitch-changing and action-lowering functions. A heavy capo adds noticeable weight to the neck, changing its resonance by adding inertia. The lightest around is the Planet Waves NS, an aluminium job with micrometer screw-style clamping. PW claim one-handed operation, but I've never understood why this is a selling point and always mount a capo by pushing the bar down flat to the fingerboard with my right-hand fingers and tightening up to maintain this level of pressure with the left. I think the NS is excellent for my stage guitar, which is a very live and light instrument with a lot of even energy in the neck. There is a silvery-coloured version, which is a little easier to find on stage.
At the other weight extreme, the G7 is so heavy it alters neck response. It stifles my stage guitar, but I have found this weight useful with a particular parlour-size acoustic that has specific resonances that need damping down in some keys. The G7's adjustment is one-way only, and though it is possible to squeeze it tight by feel, it's not slick and one-handed if you go too far and have to start again. The old Victor capo, patented by Frederick Veenschoten in 1992 and now rebranded by Dunlop, is nearly as heavy as the G7 and heavier than a Shubb, so if money is tight I'd suggest taking the guitar for which a new capo is intended down to the music shop on a quiet day and having a careful listen to what changes. It's highly likely it'll be more than just the key.
Alas, with partial capos there are tuning and stability issues that are somewhat less than slick on stage, causing a sloppy delay getting one on and in tune, plus another lull in performance afterwards while getting string pitches back somewhere else. Maybe 14 or 15 years ago, I recorded a couple of pieces that used a capo across the bottom four strings. Back then, there were no purpose-built partial capos and I had to hack up something for myself. My least unsuccessful efforts were with a few sawn-up Shubbs, but even they were unstable. I discovered immediately that I needed to use them pressed right up against the fingerboard edge to gain stability, and first I cut one down to work in a high position, but this fouled an uncapo'd second when I tried it in a lower position. A new one cut to avoid touching the second in a low position missed the third higher up, so right away I was into two lumps of metal to cover both pieces.
Later in the saga, I tried a cut-up Kyser Pro/Am — sometimes hard to find now because it's so cheap there's less profit in it than a fancier job, but easier to adjust for tension and pressure because of the more direct screw down. Being more stable and less dependent on being right up against the fingerboard edge, this worked for either tune. Originally, these wonderfully light Pro/Ams had a squared rubber section over the bar, which sat nicely around the strings, reduced tuning distortion, and helped prevent bends pulling and staying sideways under the capo. They won't make this any more and have gone over to the same sleeve as the Shubbs, so when I lost the last square one, I gave up with them. Recording was easy enough, but taking the half-capo'd pieces out to gigs was tricky, and they fell out of live repertoire very quickly simply because it took so long to sort out the tuning. There seems to be as much a trade here as for a full capo. You can spend the time retuning for a clumsy capo that fits on quickly or you can spend the time fitting something complex that distorts tuning less. Either way, you've got a bunch of punters sitting in front of you, waiting for you to stop mucking around and get on with playing them something.
Despite the obvious problems, I did make a first attempt at hacking halfway through the bar to make a reach-over capo, trying for more stability than a simple shorter reach that would leave first or sixth uncapo'd, but I never really developed any usable material for it that couldn't be covered more efficiently by simply retuning.
The basic, overarching problem is this: a full capo sits comfortably right across the fingerboard, and a good one — properly radiused to fit the fingerboard or helped towards this end by some judicious bending of the bar — distorts tuning evenly so that everything goes a few cents sharp. Theoretically, this shouldn't happen, but in practice there's nothing quite so good as a fingertip for getting string pressure just right. Solo, the tuning deviation, as long as it remains even, isn't a problem, but in an ensemble you drift away from your colleagues. A partial capo not only pushes some of the strings sharp, but also is only resting on part of the fingerboard, so it tends to twist around the neck and press unevenly on the strings it does contact.
I got around this sometimes by winding amalgamating rubber tape on the reach-around part of the bar, so that it could press against the side of the neck, giving it another contact point to enhance stability. This still works quite well with a Shubb that I cut up to reach over the outside string and capo second, third and fourth, but I still find myself putting that number at the end of a set so that there's no need to retune again after it. It's also an up-tempo piece, so it works OK as a finale. The downside of my extra bit of rubber was that I made it for one position on one particular guitar, so the rubber brace doesn't make contact elsewhere. You can see the gap in the photo.
Rick Shubb had a bash at this reach-over principle, and after a couple of iffy prototypes produced a dogleg-style capo to do exactly this job. Unfortunately, his more elegant approach gave an unbraced grip that was only between the back of the neck and the three strings, resulting either in instability or stability achieved by tightening up the capo and exerting excessive pressure on the capo'd strings, which distorted tuning very badly indeed. Once again, the wodge of amalgamating tape mitigates the problem, and once again, as it was with my original hack, wodge thickness has to be per guitar and, in fact, per required neck position on that guitar to cope with the increasing width of the fingerboard on the way up.
So the one handy little gubbins that could offer some variety in a set becomes a selection of little gubbinses to be lost or used under show stress in the wrong setting, with each additional tool loading another straw onto your baggage's back. Don't laugh — regularly-flying musos will confirm that excess baggage charges are punitive enough to force in-depth consideration of the real need for the last sock and teabag.
The dogleg capo principle is very interesting and one use has been to give a hands-off, simulated open tuning with normal stopped-string fingering. DADGAD is one example, using a second-fret capo on fifth, fourth and third to give EBEABE, and I'd question the value of this approach. It seems to me that much of the value of these kinds of modal tunings is the character of the voicings in all positions, not just open, and that modality forces you to rethink musically rather than going for the same old habits. But there we are, it's a get-out if you need it, but with potentially just as significant live time and intonation issues as completely retuning has.
Third Hand Capo
The Third Hand capo is a 'blunt-nail-and-elastic' style capo that uses six separate slices of rubber mounted eccentrically along the bar. Each one can be raised out of the way of the string or lowered onto the string beneath it to capo selectively. Stability is given by supports at either end of the rubbers, which you align and squeeze together so that the lips sit on the fingerboard edge. This is significant progress, but it's still an elastic capo with unsubtle pressure adjustment, and thus only really OK on a pretty substantially gauged acoustic string set. On my working guitar, there is a discrepancy between the lip height and the flat string contact so that the lips don't take any pressure off the strings. There's only a choice of elastic tension between one eyelet and the next, and it's a fiddly business to twist and align all the components along the bar. So, effectively, if you find a place on a guitar where it works, that's the only place it will work without a public hassle.
String Beam capo
I fell in love with the String Beam the first time I saw it. I'm still in love with it and it's still completely impractical. It seems to be a glorious, elegantly engineered piece of Paul Klee-esque art that says "capo" without actually doing it. The side pads are supposed to clamp up tightly on the edges of the fingerboard. They actually slide down around the neck edge curve so that the assembly collapses on the fingerboard or up and off altogether as you tighten them. By sheer luck you might occasionally achieve a stable grip. Then the theory is you push down individual rods so that the pads on the business ends depress the required strings to the fingerboard. Whilst holding the individual rods down against the string, you then tighten up a nylon worm to prevent the rod sliding back up. Tightening the worm exerts a twisting force, which tends to move the whole rod and pad assembly sideways, so you might need help from a colleague — not so much two-handed as two-people capo operation. If the whole capo falls off at this point, you didn't get the clamp tight enough and must start again. Tragically, the only thing Google brings up if I type "String Beam capo" in the search box is a request for information from the Sterner Capo Museum.
The Spider capo is a much more functional thing, even if it does look like something the police confiscated from a football hooligan. My wife's first reaction was, "They're not going to let you take that in the cabin!" Perhaps it's a death metal capo, but the spiky bits are plastic, so it's safer than it looks. The Spider capo has leather padded, lipped grips, which are tightened by a screw at the end of the bar to clamp securely onto the sides of the fingerboard. And once there, one simply levers down the string contacts, which are loops that cave in a little as they contact the chosen string. It will capo any or all of them and downward pressure can be varied simply by the degree of rotation of the levers.
If you practise, you can change the string selection as you go along. Idiot-proofing seems to me to require that you fit spacing washers so you don't knock the individual stops out of alignment along the bar, and at this point you start to define the limits of where you're going to use it by predetermining the narrowest setting. It's easy to add spacers; once the tension-adjusting screw is undone and right off, you can pull off the individual stops and have access to the 7.8mm diameter bar, which is flattened off on two sides to keep the end grips lined up — a distinct advantage over the Third Hand capo. If you're shy of the appropriate washers, the little colour code rings that come with Planet Waves cables will fit well enough for experiment and to give you target washer thicknesses.
Slide 'n' roll
Andy Manson can always be relied upon to come up with something useful, and his contribution to the tweaked capo genre was a fibre tongue with a squared slot at one end, through which fits the bar of a Shubb. The tongue pokes between the capo bar and the fingerboard, but underneath the strings, raising them for slide playing. The leading underneath edge is rebated to enable the take-off point of the strings from the tongue to be over the fret centre. Really, I should open out this rebate a little more for this guitar, which has bigger frets, but my slide playing is messy enough that very fine intonation is a minor issue, and simply pulling the strings up that much sharpens tuning anyway, so if you're working ensemble you're likely to be some way behind the frets as markers. The fibre bends to suit fingerboard radius under pressure from the capo bar, and if that isn't enough, put the tongue in hot water and bend it. The device really does extend the possibilities of a one-guitar show without compromising an original finger-comfortable action. Alternatively, you can shape a piece of bone to go between strings and fingerboard under another type of capo, shaving the thickness at the rear per string to suit your own intonation.
Glider Professional Rolling Capo
The Glider Professional Rolling Capo attempts to address singer-performers who need to change key a lot and keep the guitar side simple. The idea is you simply roll the whole thing to a new position as needed. It does work, but can land somewhat erratically, has little give in the bar covering and no tension adjustment. It's two-handed fiddly to fit on and, if rested behind the nut, distorts open tuning. In fact, if you need to slide a capo around, the old 'blunt-nail-and-elastic' style Terry Goulds or the Dunlop copies will work slightly more reliably.
A couple of years ago, Bob Kilgore produced the Harmonic Capo. Currently, you have to seek it out at www.weaseltrap.com. It's a one-trick pony, but it's a really good trick. The frame of the capo mounts across the neck at the 12th fret, which makes it impossible to use on a 12-fret acoustic, quite difficult with some 14-fretters with a big heel, but it's no problem at all on an electric. Lipped supports at each end, with the lip grooved into separate feet that sit either side of the fret, hold the system over the strings. A looped rail extends from one support and carries six soft fingers that can be raised or lowered individually within the rail to touch or not touch the strings to give the 12th-fret harmonic. Set them correctly and when you depress the strings they clear the capo's 'fingers', but the capo plays the harmonic on a string that is left open. It's worth writing a little open-tuning something just to have a pretty little diversion to break up a set. A bagatelle, undoubtedly, but it brings fun back to the workhorse capo. 0
Published in PM February 2009
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