Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Search for the Perfect Capo

One of the most ubiquitous accoutrements to bluegrass players is…. the capo. (Sometimes called a “cheater bar”.)

A cursory search of the internet shows the capo to be much older that you might think (17th century!). Apparently, the word itself comes from the Italian phrase “Cape Tasto” which means “Head Fret” - what we usually call the nut. The notion of moving the nut easily allowing for quick key changes while preserving first-position chording is not just a bluegrass thing. Bluesmen have always used capos, and even rockers like Keith Richards utilize capos.

But not every rocker has a capo in his or her guitar case, but you’ll find a capo in pretty much any bluegrass guitarist’s instrument case.

My first experience with a capo was pre-bluegrass. I don’t remember why I even got it. It consisted of a rubberized bar with an elastic strap. It was kind of tricky to install - it took some effort with two hands. I don’t recall using it very much, but I do recall wearing it out. Eventually, the eyelets that were used to anchor the elastic strap wore out and the thing became useless.

I remember seeing a picture of somebody on one of my albums with something clamped on the headstock of their guitar, and I wondered if that was some sort of fancy tuner. Later I realized it was a Kyser-style capo, and that was the next one I got and it’s a really goodone, in my opinion. It’s super easy to use (only takes one hand) and it clamps conveniently on the headstock when you’re not using it. It was a little funky looking though -- you can see the handle of the thing sticking up when it’s on your guitar neck, and it’s easy to bump when waving your arms around. (Don’t ask why I know this.)

After a time of using the Kyser, I noticed a lot of bluegrassers using a very sleek, modern looking capo. Very low profile - all you can see when it’s deployed is a neat chrome bar. “What IS that?”, I thought. “What holds that on? Where can I get one?”. It turned out to be the amazing Shubb capo, and it’s become my capo of choice, for two reasons. One you already know - it looks slicker than deerguts on a doorknob. If I can’t play slickly, maybe I can look slick trying to play slickly.

The other good thing is, in my opinion, the Shubb seems to have the surest clamping power without distorting the strings. It does take two hands to install, but when you’ve done it enough times, it becomes second nature, liking putting a ponytail tie on. Its only drawback: it doesn’t easily fasten to the headstock, so it usually goes in a pocket (or on a nearby car bumper, picnic table or stump) when not being used. Ergo, it is the easiest capo to lose.

There’s another cool version, one I’ll call the “Paige” style (sometimes called a stirrup style.). This type is fastened around the neck, instead of being a C-shape with an open end. These can also present a sleek, low profile to the audience, and once installed, you can loosen it up enough to slide up over the nut and remain in place for the next use - and even fit in the guitar case, making it the hardest capo to lose (yay!).

The downside, you can overtighten it and strip the threads or worse, damage your neck’s finish or even worse, crack the neck, To be fair, my Paige-style capo is not a Paige brand, but a heavy brass version I got from John Pearse. It’s a monster and I could crush the neck of my D28 to dust with it. It does work well, though.

This is all have to say about capos. If you really want to talk about capos, look up my beloved bandmate Lynn Quinones. She has spent approximately $30,000 on capos in the 10 or so years I’ve known her, and I believe she still on her quest for The Perfect Capo.

Posted:  3/12/2014

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