Capos On The Brain

Guitar capos, little devices that raise the pitch of a stringed instrument, are simple accessories with a surprising legacy of innovation.

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from our resident musician, David Buck, who decided that the content you needed right now was (of course) content about guitar capos. Enjoy!

Today in Tedium: Guitar players love accessories. Give me a Snark Digital Tuner, a tin of .88 MM Snarling Dog Brain guitar picks, a DiMarzio Strap Lock™ guitar strap, a decent stand and a metal slide, and I’m ready to rock & roll (or folk around, if you prefer). There’s one accessory I never got into until recently: the capo. Though it’s a simple tool on the surface, the capo has a somewhat unique, fascinating history all its own with plenty of innovation and unique music to go around. Tune up your guitar (or put on your headphones, if you’re not a player) and forget about your least favorite barre chords because in today’s Tedium, we’ve got capos on the brain. — David @ Tedium

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1850

The year Wolcotville, CT resident James Ashborn applied for his guitar head and capotasto patent. Though his design wasn’t the first capo—that honor belongs to a C-shaped, non-padded piece of brass that would be placed on the fretboard (likely scratching the heck out of it in the process) in the 1700s—it was the first officially patented capo design in the United States. Numerous capo patents (both useful and impractical) have been filed since then, intending to improve upon this simple device. Ashborn’s prowess and skill as a luthier is legendary, but his capo design did what the greatest inventions do best: taking the existing English Yoke style capo (more on that in a bit) and utilizing technology to make it better. In this case, the device used a lever and cam to tighten the capo while the device’s pressure held it in place on the guitar.

Kyser Quick Change Capo

The Kyser Quick Change Capo, a key innovation in guitar history.

The capo has a surprising history of innovation and improvements

Capos have been around in some form or another since the 1700s. The shortened form of the original word capotasto—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a bar or movable nut attached to the fingerboard of a guitar or other fretted instrument to uniformly raise the pitch of all the strings”—the capo is a surprisingly divisive, incredibly useful, shockingly innovative, and remarkably unique device. Ok, that’s enough adverbs.

At its core, a capo is just a clamp with some sort of tightening system that lets you change the key of a song by moving the device from one fret to the other. The quick change capo—the variant of the device with which most of us are familiar—is a staple of some types of playing, but this device captured the imagination of an array of inventors and multiple types of capos exist.

Originally the capo was just a crude, C-shaped piece of brass that probably did more damage to the neck than one might expect from using a capo today. Following this innovation came the English Yoke Capo and The Spanish Cejilla capo—both remarkable devices that allowed for new sonic potential in stringed instruments. The English Yoke capo resembled an egg yoke with a clamp around it to allow for moving it across the fretboard. The Spanish Cejilla came along with its own unique design. The Spanish Cejilla not only sounds good, but it’s relatively simple to construct one of your own, following this handy Instructables tutorial.

Montgomery Ward Capo Catalog

A listing for guitar capos in an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog.

In 1890, a version similar to Ashborn’s standalone capo—with a lever on top of the device and sold by the F.O. Gutman company—was available and by the late 1890s, the famous Sears catalogue got into the capo game themselves. Five different versions of the capo (referred to as Capo D’Astro) appear in the 1896 Sears catalogue alongside some of their beautiful mail-order guitars. (Similar capos, shown above, appeared in the Montgomery Ward catalog during the same period.) Running from $.20 to $.50, the capos were all clamps made of aluminum or brass that were “used to clamp on [the] fingerboard to facilitate playing in flat keys.” Sears even manufactured and sold a guitar with a built-in capo around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century.

The twentieth century conjured up a variety of new and unique capos. The first half of the century brought forth some interesting patents for different types of capos that would inform the inventions of the modern capo. Per Rikky Rooksby’s The Guitarist’s Guide to the Capo James Dunlop brought guitar players his lever action capo (a rubber strip with metal notches and a plastic lever) in the 1960s, followed by the Hamilton capo (or C-clamp capo with an adjustable knob on the back). Later, Dunlop’s Picker’s Pal capo resembled the English Yoke design but used CAM pressure points to evenly clamp across the fretboard.

Rick Shubb came along with his lever-operated fifth string banjo capo idea in 1974. He’d later install one on his old housemate Jerry Garcia’s banjo (yes, that Jerry Garcia) and go on to develop the idea further, eventually culminating in their own iconic capo design (a clamp with a tightening screw and two bits of protective rubber to protect the fretboard).

The always reliable Kyser quick change capo is close to celebrating its 40th anniversary and is nearly ubiquitous these days. Invented by Milton Kyser in 1981, the spring-tensioned clamp solved many of the problems involved with tightening and adjusting other types of capos and the design caught on among guitar players everywhere. The capos are still made by hand (at least according to the packaging), available in a variety of sleek designs, and are fairly inexpensive for a guitar accessory. This trigger style capo is a popular design to this day. Around 2007, the G7th capo company came along with the first real redesign of the capo in 25 years with a special type of string pad mechanism and their proprietary Unique Tension Control system.

Partial capos reached a turning point in 1980 with The Third Hand Capo, a device that allowed the player to only capo certain strings instead of the entire fret. Per the manufacturer, limited usefulness and a replacement capo led to its discontinuation in 2015, but other partial capos like the SpiderCapo have risen to take its place in the capo pantheon. I have a SpiderCapo of my own in the mail, so watch for our follow-up on that device down the line. Shubb also made a line of partial capos—standard capos that only covered a few strings—that they introduced in 1995.

(Editor‘s note: I’ve been known to flip over a quick-change capo to hold down some, but not all strings.)

Today, there are many options for purchasing a capo and even the rare modern guitars that have them built in. Innovation for the device is also still going strong with Greg Bennet’s magnificent Glider Capo and the interesting designs the folks over at Colorado Capo are working on these days. A world of compositional possibility awaits the adventurous guitarist who chooses a capo of their own.

2011

The year that the Intellitouch Capo Tuner, the company’s first chromatic guitar tuner that doubled as a capo, came out. It’s exactly what it says on the package. The combination capo/tuner clamps to the head of the guitar and uses the string’s vibrations to help you adjust the instrument’s tuning. The tuner arrived in 2011, released by Intellitouch. A press release from the era stated the appeal: “The tuner is automatic, chromatic, and displays the measured musical note on a large, backlit LCD screen for easy tuning.” With a standard A tuning range of 430 Hz to 450 Hz, the accessory theoretically offered a full layer of versatility. While those items are technically true, the tuner isn’t my favorite accessory; the capo clamps down much tighter than a standard quick-release and I swear I’ve changed the batteries every few weeks with regular use. Since it runs on the same type of battery your car’s key fob does—the round CR2032 battery—owning this tuner can be a bit of a headache. It’s a cool design that fell flat. Snark Tuners did the clamp-on tuner design better, sans capo.

John Lennon Capo

Noted corner-cutter John Lennon being lazy by using a capo during the recording of Rubber Soul, a clearly imperfect album given the fact it was produced with capos. How can he call himself a musician by using such a crutch?!? (via Every Sound There Is)

How the capo helped transform an entire genre of music (or why the capo is not a crutch for professional musicians)

Capos have the potential to transform a guitarist’s playing, but there seems to be a bizarre stigma surrounding the capo among guitar players. As evidenced by numerous inquiries on Quora, forum threads, instructional DVD reviews, Reddit, and my own experience, some players believe them to be a crutch or to be a way of “cheating” at playing the guitar. Some folks simply don’t like not knowing which chords they’re playing (this will help). Regardless of how one feels about the capo, there is no denying they have their uses.

Some of the biggest advantages to using a capo come down to playing chords and obtaining an altogether different tone/flavor of sound from what you’re playing on the guitar. If you’re a singer, it helps alter the key of a song to better match your vocal range, as Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies has demonstrated time and again via his recorded performances.

Many of our favorite guitarists like George Harrison, Ry Cooder, Tommy Emmanuel, Mark Knopfler, and Richard Thompson all opened up an entire world of sonic possibilities with their use of capos and occasional experimentation with alternate tunings on their albums. Eric Clapton increases the emotional range of his exquisite guitar playing with them on certain songs. Ry Cooder famously used a mix of alternate tunings and a capo to create a banjo style sound.

Per Music Aficionado, Cooder makes a compelling case for using the capo in this way: “I thought of three good ideas. Putting a banjo tuning on the guitar was a very easy, good thing to do. Another tremendously good idea was playing against the tuning key—if you’re in open G, play in the key of D. You get these inverted chords that way.”

George Harrison was an iconic guitarist who always looked for new and interesting ways to pull unique sounds from his instrument. The capo was simply another tool he used extensively and expertly to create some of his best music. Listen to Harrison’s playing on “Here Comes the Sun” to hear that glorious capo-at-the-seventh-fret sound or “My Sweet Lord” for a taste of Harrison’s melodic playing with a capo. Harrison isn’t the only Beatle to embrace the capo—John Lennon used them extensively on numerous tracks from 1965’s Rubber Soul and a few from 1966’s Revolver. Come to think of it, nearly every Beatles songbook I’ve ever owned regularly suggests using a capo. Perhaps the four lads were onto something with that one!

The capo is a useful tool in the recording studio, too. As guitar instructor and professional musician Rick Beato demonstrates in his second Tom Petty episode of the occasional YouTube series What Makes this Song Great, one of the late Tom Petty’s most iconic songs, “Free Fallin’,” makes significant use of the capo as a layering device for the song’s rhythm section. This innovative use of a capo to layer the sound gives it the ethereal quality that makes the song kick.

Then there’s the inimitable R. Stevie Moore, who in addition to making use of an array of amazing DIY techniques in his music, music videos, and the creation of his over 400 albums uses a capo on a few songs to give them more of an overarching shimmering quality. Just like he did with 1975’s “The Winner” where he takes chords that would normally sound bland in such a fast, folky song and takes them up a few frets to create an interesting, layered soundscape with Moore’s melancholy vocals working in conjunction to create a magnificent track—made possible by the unassuming capo.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it just goes to show the capo is not a crutch, it isn’t cheating, and professional musicians do, in fact, use the device for their own compositions. Did we miss your favorite guitarist here? Probably; but we’d love to hear from our readers about your favorite guitarists—whether they used a capo in their playing or not!

“I’ve got a capo on my brain and that old capo is driving me insane. And when I move it up a fret … it’s like my brain cells start to sweat.”

Dan Hicks, from the song “I’ve got a capo on my brain,” from his album Beatin’ the Heat. The song—in which Hicks laments how the capo he’s been thinking about is making his brain perspire and how putting the capo up to a high fret makes it difficult to sing that high—is rendered even funnier when it is revealed that Hicks does not actually use a capo during live performances.

How Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies taught me to appreciate and embrace the capo in my own music

During the recent lockdown spawned by COVID-19, I’ve played my guitar more than I ever have before. Learning and developing new techniques led me to embrace the capo as a way to add exciting new textures to my playing. Specifically, getting reacquainted with one of my favorite bands helped change the way I think about using a capo. Who is this amazing band? Canada’s own Barenaked Ladies (BNL), of course.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of the band BNL around here. Listening to their early works were a major influence on my playing in the early years and I followed them up through 2006’s Barenaked Ladies are Me (and its direct follow-up Barenaked Ladies are Men). Their mix of humor-tinged alternative rock with enthusiastic performances are part of their appeal, but it’s the surprising high level of detail in their compositions that catches my ears—some of which is directly related to Robertson’s use of a capo to play certain chord voicings in a way that is conducive to their style of music.

As part of their efforts to help with the global pandemic, BNL performed a series of videos where each band member performed remotely with the result being put together to create a makeshift live performance of an entire song. Each video provided a shout-out to support organizations like Unicef, Global Citizen, and the Canadian Cancer Society with the goal of helping others. BNL are a class act all the way. As I watched these videos, guitar in hand, I couldn’t help but notice Ed’s repeated use of a capo.

Kicking off with their cover of Bruce Cockburn’s anthemic—and shockingly relevant—“Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” I noticed the capo on the second fret. In “One Week,” he uses the capo once again on the second fret to capture the frenetic energy and unique sound of the hit song. The same chords (G, C, and D) using a capo on the second fret from “If I had a Million Dollars” are used to play “The Old Apartment” with a capo on the third fret. The ease with which he plays the songs translated to my own fingers and I found myself becoming much more interested in exploring the tonal possibilities of using a capo. What started with playing BNL covers transformed into composing a brand new song of my own—all because I watched a few BNL covers while staying safe at home. Their music helped make me feel less stressed and a bit better about the world around me. It also inspired me to keep playing the guitar and make more music.

Robertson states this sentiment much more eloquently in the “Pinch Me” video (one of the few where he does not use a capo) when he says, “We are isolating, but we are not isolated. The only way to get through this is together.” If a capo is good enough for Ed Robertson—it’s good enough for me too.

“There seems to be a lot of debate about the correct pronunciation of the word. I say it cap-o, others say kay-po. From what I can tell, this debate seems to be rooted in a US vs English thing. But who cares? Not me! Whichever way you say it, people will know what you’re talking about.”

Justin Sandercoe, contributor to Guitar Techniques magazine and the owner/guitar instructor for the guitar tuition website Justin Guitar, discussing the way one says capo. As part of his curriculum, Justin discusses how to pronounce the word capo just before instructing students on some uses for the device. For the record, I pronounce it “kay-po.”

The quick change capo remains a staple accessory for many acoustic guitarists today. The versatility of the capo as a compositional or songwriting tool remains a cogent point for recommending their use. That versatility and variety of design makes the capo an accessory worth checking out at least once or twice while making your own music. I’d say that’s pretty good for a clamp that changes the key of a song.

Will I use a capo in my own music? Of course I will; I have at least two songs on my upcoming album that feature a capo prominently. I guess one could say not only do I have capos on the brain … and I’ll probably be thinking about them for a long time to come.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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