A capo (// or //; short for capotasto, Italian for "head of fretboard") is a device used on the neck of a stringed (typically fretted) instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings, hence raising the pitch. It is frequently used on guitars, mandolins, and banjos. Giovanni Battista Doni first used the term in his Annotazioni of 1640, though capo use likely began earlier in the 17th century. The first patented capo was designed by James Ashborn of Walcottville, Connecticut, USA.
The capo is most commonly used to raise the pitch of a fretted instrument so that a player can perform a piece in a different key using the same fingerings they would use if played "open" (i.e. without a capo). In effect, a capo uses a fret of an instrument to create a new nut at a higher note than the instrument's actual nut.
There are numerous styles of capos, but most commercial capos consist of a rubber-covered bar that holds down the strings of the instrument and is clamped to the instrument by one of a number of mechanisms. The same style of capo may be sold in different sizes and shapes for different instruments and fretboard curvatures.
The most relevant mechanical factors that vary by type of capo are their ease/method of use, their size and tendency to interfere with the player's hands, and their ability to hold down the strings uniformly without affecting the tuning of the instrument.
Capos have been used on many other stringed instruments, including relatives of the mandolin (such as the mandola and Greek bouzouki), and four-string banjos. There are even special capos available for square-necked Dobro, or resonator steel guitar, some of which do not contact the neck, but clamp above and below the strings themselves.
Arrangements often cite the proper capo position for songs that should be played with a capo just as they may cite alternate tunings when those are used by the artist. When referencing fingerings for a song that uses a capo, it must be determined whether reference will be made to the absolute finger position, or whether reference will be made to the position relative to the capo. For example, in tablature, a note played on the fifth fret of an instrument capoed at the second fret could be listed as "5" (absolute) or "3" (relative to capo). Similarly, a D-shaped chord could be referred to as "D" (based on the shape relative to the capo) or E (based on the absolute audible chord produced). Neither method strongly prevails over the other. For this reason, the phrase "chord-shape" is commonly used to clarify that the fingering shape and not the audible pitch is being referred to.
Playing with a capo creates the same musical effect as retuning all of the strings of an instrument up the same number of steps; however, when using a capo, only the open note of each string is affected. Every other fret remains unaffected (e.g. the 7th fret of an E-string will still play a B note for any capo position at or below the 7th fret), and thus a performer does not need to adjust for or relearn the entire fretboard as they might with retuning. The scale length of the strings of an instrument affects the timbre of the strings, and thus the use of a capo may alter the tone of the instrument while the capo is in use.
Capos can also be used to allow a guitar which has been tuned one or more semitones lower than standard tuning to play as if it were in standard tuning without retuning the instrument. Manufacturers used to recommend that 12-string guitars be tuned a tone below standard guitar tuning because of the additional stress to the instrument of the six additional strings. As a result, a capo was necessary to play a 12-string guitar at the same tuning as a six-string guitar. However, improved manufacturing techniques have allowed many modern 12-strings to be tuned up to pitch without need for a capo.
In different music styles
For guitar playing, some styles such as flamenco, Irish traditional music, and British and American folk music make extensive use of the capo, while it is used very rarely, if at all, in other styles such as classical and jazz playing. Many rock and roll musicians who are influenced by folk and blues, such as Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, Ian Anderson, Steve Earle, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Noel Gallagher, Steve Rothery and others also use the capo. In many cases, they have extended its use past the traditional purpose of changing the key, and broken new ground, employing it in new ways. A good example of using a partial capo to produce alternative sounds can be heard from guitar artist Antoine Dufour.
Mechanisms and styles
In a strap-on capo, the rubber-covered bar is placed over the strings and a strap is attached to either end of the bar (wrapped around the back of the neck of the instrument) which holds the bar tightly to the neck. A strap-on capo commonly features either an elastic strap, or a fabric strap which can be adjusted by some method to set tightness.
Modern twists on the strap-on include a semi-flexible plastic "strap" connected to the bar on one side which is adjustable on the other side by a ratchet system. Strap-on capos vary from the other types of capos in that most other capos contain only rigid parts, and most other styles do not wrap entirely around the neck of the instrument. This full wrap allows for fairly even pressure of the capo bar across all of the strings of the instrument. The strap-on capo is commonly a low-cost capo option, and is one of the earlier styles of capo. Because the strap material is stretched to create a tight fit, the straps on these capos can be prone to stretching and wear.
One of the more common modern capo styles is the spring-clamp capo (sometimes termed "trigger-style" after the Dunlop trademarked Trigger capo). The most common form of this type of capo has two bars: a rubber-covered bar to barre the strings, and another that presses against the back of the neck of the instrument to hold the first bar to the strings (this second bar is commonly curved or shaped to match the contour of the back of the neck). The two bars are attached on a pivot at one end; a spring presses the bars together.
Each bar has a 'grip' attached at a right angle to the bar; the two grips, when squeezed together by the user, pull the two bars apart, allowing the user to quickly release the capo's grip, apply or adjust the capo, then release the grips, allowing the spring to pull the bars together again. The look of the grips, and the action of squeezing them is akin to a gun's trigger, leading to the name of this capo. These are the most common design referred to as "quick-release" capos.
Though other styles also use that term, the spring clamp capo, because it can be operated by one hand in one single squeezing motion, is typically the quickest capo to apply or move on the instrument; other capos can be quicker and easier to remove from the instrument. One disadvantage to the spring clamp capo is that the pressure of the spring is not adjustable. The spring will apply its maximum pressure to hold the strings down, which could have an effect on the tuning of some guitars if not applied properly. These capos can typically be applied either to the treble or bass side of the instrument, depending on the player's preference. Two of the most recognizable models of spring clamp capos are manufactured by Dunlop and Kyser.
Certain manufacturers have created their own unique attempts to create the ideal capo. One of the more popular and well recognized capos is the Shubb capo. The Shubb capo is applied by holding the capo in its desired location, and closing a lever to secure the capo. The unique aspect of this capo is that the lever presses against a second arm that presses against the back of the neck of the instrument. The amount of pressure the lever exerts is adjustable by a screw so that the capo can exert the minimal amount of pressure required to hold down the strings.
This is claimed to have the least impact possible on the tuning of the instrument. The Shubb capo has the disadvantage of requiring two hands to properly apply or move, and its adjustment is more complicated than some other capos; however, because of the lever design, the capo can be removed very quickly by simply releasing the lever. This is particularly true if the capo is applied from the treble side of the instrument, which will allow the capo to drop off of the instrument in an instant.
There are numerous other forms of capos, many of which are variations on the above-noted designs.
- A screw-on capo has some form of surface that presses against the back of the neck of the instrument to hold the bar in place against the strings. This back surface is held to the neck by a screw which is tightened to apply direct pressure. One form of this capo is effectively a rubber-covered bar built into a C-clamp.
- A roller capo facilitates quick key changes in the middle of tunes or sets by having rollers both holding down the strings and behind the neck, allowing the capo to roll along the neck when needed. This is a particular advantage in playing Irish music on the guitar, as it enables the player to move quickly between keys without sacrificing drone strings.
- Fifth-string capo: The five-string banjo, with its short fifth string, poses a particular problem for using the capo. For many years now Shubb has had available a fifth-string capo, consisting of a narrow metal strip fixed to the side of the neck of the instrument, with a sliding stopper for the string. Other options are to use model railroad spikes to hold the string down at higher frets or simply to retune the string to fit with the pitch of the other strings with the capo applied.
Though most capos are designed to raise all of the strings of an instrument, there are niche designs called partial capos which specifically capo only some of the strings of an instrument. This may appear to have a similar effect to alternate tunings, but there are differences. A common example is a capo that covers the top five strings of a guitar leaving the bass E string uncapoed. When played at the second fret, this appears to create a drop D tuning (in which the bass E string is detuned to a D) raised one full tone in pitch. In fact, these are often marketed as "drop D capos". However, the same difference applies with a drop D capo as with a regular capo; namely, only the open tuning of the strings is affected, and thus, when used at the second fret, an E chord using the D shape will have the "Drop D sound" with a low E note. However, a G-shape chord can be played as well, as the fretted E string will not be affected as it would be if the string was retuned.
Partial capos are a relatively recent development in capo design. Until their creation, some innovative players used their standard capos (or altered capos) to cover only some of the strings of their instruments. The above-mentioned drop D design was previously achieved, for example, by applying a spring clamp capo to the treble side of the fretboard but leaving the bass E string uncovered. Similarly, users of the Shubb capo altered their capos by cutting off some of the rubber-covered bar's length or by altering the rubber covering to leave certain strings uncapoed.
Other common partial capo schemes include capoing the 2nd fret of the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings (producing the effect of DADGAD tuning raised two semitones), or on the 2nd fret of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings (open A major). Again, this creates no change of fingering above the capo.
Guitarist Dominic Frasca uses unusual single string "mini capo", attached by drilling through the neck of his customized 10-string guitar. These are similar to the single-string "capos" many Eastern instruments use, which look like nails driven down into the fingerboard; the string is hooked under the head of the "nail" when one wants to capo it. This is often done during the performance of a musical piece, so that the "tuning" at the end of the piece can be quite different from the one used at the start.
This is a common method of capoing the fifth string of the banjo, since the string begins at the 5th fret. Thus, it needs to be capoed individually since it is not covered by a capo on the other four strings.
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