Partial capo

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A four-sting partial capo on the second fret. This simulates the open tuning of FBEABE.
A regular capo on the first fret and a four-string partial capo on the third fret. This simulates the open tuning of GCFBCF.
Two uses of a four-string partial capo: on the left, by itself, on the right, in conjunction with a regular capo.

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, this affects only the open tuning of the strings, 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.


Various kinds of partial capos

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 many alternate tunings to change the musical possibilities and the pitch of the open (unfretted) strings.

Recently, guitarists have begun to use capos that only clamp some of the strings, usually called a "partial capo," which offer similar options to guitarists as alternate tunings, with drone strings and new chord voicings. Although partial capos are most commonly 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 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.

The first partial capo released, in 1976, was called the "Chord-Forming Capo". It was invented by Lyle Shabram, and called "A Tool For the Creative Musician." Harvey Reid and Jeff Hickey started the Third Hand Capo Co. in Nashville, renaming Shabram's invention "Third Hand Capo".[1] A popular style of partial capo is the "Esus" style, which clamps the A, D, and G strings of a guitar.[1] When placed upon the second fret, it forms an Esus chord, and when turned upside down, it forms an A chord. 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 devices do a variety of things, though not all of them will fit all guitars. The Third Hand Capo and the SpiderCapo (appearing in 2008) are the only universal capos.[1] 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-sus" 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.


A six-string Planet Waves capo and a homemade "cut" version

Harvey Reid has web-published an article that details the 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.[2] Modern use of the idea does not turn up 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.[1] Guitarist Jerry Faires says that in 1967 a man 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.[citation needed] The idea has spread virally, however, 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.[original research?]

Harvey Reid[edit]

Guitarist and songwriter Harvey Reid has made an enormous contribution to the partial capo. 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.[citation needed]

Reid and Jeff 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.[citation needed] Reid published a book in 1980, "A New Frontier in Guitar", detailing 25 ways to use a Third Hand Capo, at the time the only existing partial capo.[1] 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.[3] "Sleight of Hand: Guitar Magic" followed in 1983, and was the first book of solo guitar arrangements for partial capoed guitar.[4] Both books have been in print ever since. 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.[5] 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 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. 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 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 the 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.


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 cut capo must be placed on the second fret. "So the tuning of the strings change to EBEABE, which if you notice, is the same as DADGAD, but each note raised by two notes: D modulates to E, A to B, D to E, G to A, A to B and D to E."[6]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d e Reid, Harvey. "Partial Capo History". Retrieved 2 April 2015. 
  2. ^ Reid, Harvey. "Very Early Partial Capo History". Retrieved 2 April 2015. 
  3. ^ "Duck Soup Guitar". Retrieved 2 April 2015. 
  4. ^ "Sleight of Hand". Retrieved 2 April 2015. 
  5. ^ "Partial Capo Books". Retrieved 2 April 2015. 
  6. ^ "DADGAD chords: the key to master the cut capo". Retrieved 18 February 2016. 

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