Partial capo

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A capo, or, rarely, capo tasto (from Italian capo, "head" and tasto, "tie or fret") 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. G.B. Doni first used the term in his Annotazioni of 1640, though capo use likely began earlier in the 17th-century. Alternative terms are capo d'astro and capodastro, also Italian.

The capo is most commonly used to raise the pitch of an instrument so that a player can perform a piece in a certain key using different fingerings than 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. No matter the style, the capo is typically placed as close to the desired fret as possible, just behind the fret. This holds the strings down behind the fret as securely as possible with the sharpest possible angle to ensure they will remain fretted.

A partial capo is a type of a capo designed to 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 which 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 (where the bass E string is detuned to a D) raised one full tone in pitch. In fact, these are often marketed as "drop D capoes". 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.


For centuries, guitarists have used capos to clamp across all the strings of the guitar, to raise the pitch of all the strings. This is done to change to a brighter timbre of the guitar or to transpose the music to a higher-pitched key. Guitarists have also used dozens and possibly hundreds of different tunings to change the musical possibilities and the pitch of the open (unfretted) strings. Only relatively recently have guitarists begun to use capos that only clamp some of the strings, and this is usually called a "partial capo," which offer similar types of options to guitarists as tunings, with drone strings and a new landscape of fingerings and chord voicings. Though you will most commonly find partial capos used in standard tuning, creating "simulated" open tunings, they are also used in combination with many different tunings, and are also combined with other full and partial capos. A number of the partial capo manufacturers incorrectly call them "open tuning" capos. What they do for the guitar resembles what a tuning does, but the open strings are changed by varying the length of the strings and not the pitch.

From 1976 to 1996 there was only one partial capo, the Third Hand Capo, and now there are about 15 types of devices on the market that clamp anywhere from 1 to 5 strings. A number of players have made their own custom versions by cutting or otherwise modifying existing capos. The various capo devices do a variety of things, though not all of them will fit all guitars, and it is important to carefully select the ones you need for your size and shape of fingerboard. The Third Hand Capo and the SpiderCapo (appearing in 2008) are the only universal capos. Each can clamp any of the 63 combinations of strings at any fret of any guitar, although only the SpiderCapo can produce any combination at a given fret without repositioning the capo. Shubb and Kyser each make a 3-string "E-suspended" capo as well as a 5-string "Drop-E" capo. The Esus capo creates a sound similar to the popular DADGAD guitar tuning. Woodie's G-Band capos clamp 1 or 2 outer strings, and Kyser now makes a series of "K-Lever" capos that incorporate a spring lever to allow temporary fretting of some notes that lie under the capo.

Origin of the Partial Capo[edit]

Harvey Reid has web-published an article detailing the probable surfacing of the partial capo idea in Europe in the early 19th century, but that seems to have died out and is likely unconnected to contemporary partial capo use. Modern use of the idea does not turn up anything before the 1960s. There are unconfirmed anecdotes from the 1960s and 1970s indicating that some people may have started to use some basic kinds of partial capos. Guitarist Jerry Faires says that in 1967 a guy by the name of Carr came into his St. Louis area coffee shop sporting a Bill Russell capo with the two ends sawn off so the high and low E strings were open. Faires says he thought it was interesting, but did not have much use for the open high E string, and proceeded to cut off just the end for the low E to ring through. Unquestionably, though, the idea has spread mostly virally, and surprisingly no hit songs have been involved and no extremely famous guitarists have yet used the capo in their work, so it remains an "underground" phenomenon.

Harvey Reid

Guitarist and songwriter Harvey Reid's contribution to the partial capo cannot be overstated. He has pioneered most of the known capo configurations, spread the idea widely, sold thousands of books, over a hundred thousand recordings, and tens of thousands of partial capos at his concerts, by mail and in stores nationwide. He has also compiled a large body of songs and instrumental work (currently nearly 200 recorded tracks spanning 25 albums) of published, composed and recorded guitar work using a variety of partial capos. In 1976, guitarist he began sawing up Bill Russell capos, and saw an ad in a magazine for a "Chord Forming Capo." Reid, along with Jeff Hickey licensed the patent from the inventor, Lyle Shabram Jr., and the Third Hand Capo Company was born in 1980. Reid and Hickey had booths at the NAMM music products shows for a number of years, bought regular ads in a number guitar magazines, and sold the capos to hundreds of stores and thousands of players in about 30 countries. Reid published a book in 1980. "A New Frontier in Guitar" about the partial capo, detailing 25 ways to use a partial capo, which at that time consisted only of the Third Hand. Reid recorded 2 albums in 1982 and 1983 in Washington DC, which were the first commercial recordings to use the partial capo, and he published the "Duck Soup Guitar" book in 1982 that was the first published use of the partial capo in music education. "Sleight of Hand: Guitar Magic followed in 1983, and was the first book of solo guitar arrangements for partial capo-ed guitar. Both books have been in print ever since then. Reid also co-wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar, Modern Folk Guitar, which has been in print since 1984 and is used in university music education and music therapy programs. It contains a chapter on using the partial capo for beginning guitar. Guitarist Al Petteway played bass on the 2nd of Reid' LP's, A Very Old Song, which was the first recording to feature the now-common Esus capo configuration. (Reid used Esus on 6 of the 10 tracks on the album.) Petteway has himself done some interesting partial capo work in recent years. Rick Watson also played on that album, and was one of the first artists to record with a partial capo. Reid's circle of friends widened when he moved to New Hampshire in 1984, and Cosy Sheridan, Jerry Tillett, Tom Richter, Tom Pirozzoli and some others began to use the capo in their music. Reid discovered the immense value of the Esus capo configuration around 1980, and stopped using the Third Hand Capo on stage around that time, in favor of a sawed-off and notched Shubb capo he has used ever since then. He took the capo with him to Winfield, Kansas in 1981 when he won the National Fingerpicking championship (without using the capo) and there he introduced it to Seth Austen (who took 2nd place and who also recorded 2 tracks for Kicking Mule Records in 1982 using the Esus capo, but has not used one since then) and also to Chris Proctor, who won the contest in 1983. Proctor became an early adopter, and has continued to perform and record with the Esus capo, and has showed it to hundreds of music stores in his workshops sponsored by Taylor Guitars. Tom Pirozzoli showed a sawed-off, notched Shubb capo to songwriter David Wilcox in 1989 at Kerrville Folk Festival, and Wilcox subsequently became one of the widest-known users of the capo. Wilcox has been featured in a number of guitar magazine articles (where he incorrectly claims to have originated the idea) and has introduced the partial capo to thousands of other players, mostly singer-songwriters. Reid showed English guitarist Adrian Legg the capo in 2 workshops they did at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1992, and Legg has continued to use it since then. In recent years, the number of partial or cut capo players has grown considerably, and it is no longer possible to list them all or trace the spread of the idea beyond the early years.

Who Is the Partial Capo For?

Partial capos are unusual in that they have equal value for players of all levels, ranging from total beginners to the best guitarists. Partial capo users fall roughly into 4 groups:

1) Music education, therapy and beginning guitar- Certain configurations of a partial capo allow much easier fingerings of basic chords, and young children and people with learning disabilities have a powerful new tool to allow full-sounding guitar accompaniments

2) Songwriters and singers- This has now become the largest and most creative group using the partial capos, and thousands of players have now found out that they can accompany songs with fresh, full and interesting new chord voicings.

3) Serious instrumentalists- As you might expect, (and following Harvey Reid's pioneering solo guitar instrumental work) good guitar players are writing and arranging guitar music with partial capos, ranging from classical, folk, blues, bluegrass, new age, Celtic and experimental music.

4) Christian and Worship Guitar- cut capos have been used widely in recent years by worship leaders such as Chris Tomlin, Mitch Bohannon and many others in this musical sub-culture. These players of course fall into the previous categories, but it is worth mentioning their significant impact on the partial capo world.

Using the Partial Capo[edit]

Owing to the configuration of the guitar fretboard, the design has some inherent limitations. To gain the benefit of the DADGAD tuning and simplified chord positions the capo must be placed on the second fret. "This causes the strings to sound these notes: E-B-E-A-B-E, which is DADGAD modulated to the key of E."(Votive Praise)

Thus, in order to continue to play the DADGAD tuning chord positions at different pitches, the user is required to use an additional regular standard capo two frets behind the cut capo to effectively raise the pitch of the guitar to different keys. Recent products such as the Transpo Capo have attempted to solve these limitations by incorporating a patented double capo system.

Though the partial capo can simulate the open chords of a particular tuning, it does not mean that chord fingerings meant for a particular tuning can simply be adapted to the other tuning. In most cases, this is not possible, and unique fingerings must be calculated that take into account the position of the capo and the original tuning.

The following is a description of how the partial capo works on a guitar in standard EADGBE tuning:

The partial capo must be placed two frets away from the nut. This applies if using the partial capo with a standard capo to achieve various tunings.

If the partial capo is used without a full capo—placed on the second fret covering the A, D, and G, strings—then the guitar player can use simple one to three finger chord shapes in order to play songs. This gives nice open chord sound.

The key is determined by the bass note. When placed on the 2nd fret the bass note is E. When cut capo chords are applied then the songs played will be in the key of E. If the guitar player puts a full capo on the first fret, and the partial capo on the 3rd fret, the bass note is F, and therefore the guitarist is playing in the key of F.

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