From the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS
If you’re drawn to the creative possibilities of alternate tunings but don’t want to completely lose your bearings on the fingerboard, a partial capo may be just the ticket, no matter what your skill level. Like an alternate tuning, a partial capo changes the intervals between the open strings, enabling you to find chord voicings and melodic ideas that might not have occurred to you—or wouldn’t be possible—with standard tuning or a standard capo. And yet with a partial capo you can keep your strings in standard tuning, so that when you fret notes above the capo, everything works in the usual way. Much of what you know how to play still applies. A partial capo provides, in many ways, an ideal mix of the familiar and the unexpected.
For performing, too, partial capos are a great tool, since they allow you to switch quickly into an alternate-tuning-type setup and then back to standard while sparing you—and your audience—a lot of retuning time.
You can find partial capos in many varieties, typically covering five, four, or three strings while leaving the others open. For the uninitiated, a great starting place is a five-string capo. You can buy a capo designed for this purpose, such as the Shubb C8, Kyser Drop-D, D’Addario/Planet Waves NS Drop Tune, Liberty Flip Model 65, or G7th Newport Partial #5. (Also, the Spider capo allows you to choose which strings to leave open, so it can handle any partial capo configuration.) These models will be the most stable for five-string capoing, but you can also try out this setup with any regular capo that doesn’t wrap completely around the neck. Just place the capo off center to leave one string open.
So with this Weekly Workout check out some of the enticing sounds you can get with five-string capoing.
The most common use of the five-string capo is what’s often called a drop-D capo position. With your guitar in standard tuning, place a capo at the second fret covering the top five strings; leave the sixth string un-capoed. Hold down a D-chord shape, as in Ex. 1, strum all six strings, and listen to that big, lush sound—much fuller than the D chord you normally play with the root on the fourth string. Switch to a Dm shape, as shown, and again revel in the ring of all those low open strings.
Now try the other chords in the example: G, A, F, and C. If the shapes look and sound familiar, that’s because they are exactly the same as in standard tuning—you are in standard tuning. The only time the partial capo affects the sound is when you leave the sixth string open.
In Ex. 2, put a few of these shapes into practice in a short progression from D to G to A. On the D, you’ve got that low bass note on the sixth string, but the G and A are the standard open chords, unaffected by the partial capo.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Although people call this a drop-D capo position, remember that the capo raises the pitches by a whole step, so a D shape sounds as an E.
As with drop-D tuning, you can play sweet-sounding bass runs with this partial capo position. That’s the focus in Ex. 3, inspired by Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down.” Throughout this example, mix bass notes and strums—go from chord to chord via runs on the bottom three strings. For the quarter-step bends, give the string a slight pull (toward the treble side of the neck) for a little bluesy edge.
You could play essentially this same pattern in drop-D tuning, but the nice thing about the partial capo is that your G note on the sixth string is in its usual spot, three frets above the capo. If you were in drop-D, you’d have to slide up to the fifth fret to reach that bass note.
Beginners’ Tip #2
The chords in Ex. 3 have only roots and fifths (no thirds)—that’s why they are named 5 chords.
One wrinkle with the five-string capo comes when you want to play an E-chord shape or anything else that would normally use the open sixth string. With the partial capo, the open sixth string is effectively lowered by a whole step—it rings two frets below the capo. So if you’re playing an E shape and want a sixth-string bass note, you need to fret the sixth string alongside the capo. If you think of the capo position as zero, essentially you’re holding down the zero fret. It’s a somewhat awkward maneuver, but gets easier with practice.
Ex. 4, a progression similar to James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” includes a few E-minor shapes with the sixth string fretted alongside the capo. Start on a D to G, then walk down the sixth string from G to Em. For the Em, fret the fifth and fourth strings with your third and fourth fingers, and grab the sixth string with your first. Your first should be in front of the capo (toward the soundhole), angled so the fingertip reaches over to the second fret. If you can move the capo a bit further from the fret (toward the nut) and still get a clean sound, you’ll make more room for your first finger to get in this position.
The example goes three times between Em and A—that gives you more practice fretting alongside the capo. Then in measures 3 and 4, play a descending bass line starting from the open fourth string. Wrap up the example with a JT-esque hammer-on/pull-off figure, bolstered by the low bass note on the sixth string, thanks to the partial capo.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Throughout Ex. 4, let the bass notes ring as long as possible.
To wrap up this introduction to partial capoing, play an example inspired by the Grateful Dead’s “Althea.” The main chord progression of this Deadhead favorite goes Bm–A–E–A, and neither Jerry Garcia nor Bob Weir used a capo—their whole style relied on having the freedom to travel anywhere on the neck at any time, rather than being fixed in one position. But when I was arranging “Althea” for Vol. 2 of my Homespun video series on Dead songs for solo-acoustic guitar, I used the five-string partial capo because it gave me a lot of freedom to use open strings and add lead lines. With the capo at the second fret, the main chord shapes became Am–G–D5–G, as shown in Ex. 5.
Because of the partial capo, you have an open bass string for the Am shape—in measures 2 and 6, walk up to it chromatically on the sixth string. To deepen the groove, use a little palm muting (rest your picking hand palm lightly on the bass strings near or on top of the bridge). In measures 4 and 7, take advantage of the capoed open strings by adding some short single-note phrases. In my full arrangement of “Althea,” I carry this idea further with instrumental interludes that mix single-note soloing with bass notes and chords, in a way that would be tough to pull off without the partial capo.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what you can do with the five-string capo. Take advantage of the open-string bass notes by moving up the neck on the treble strings. Experiment with the partial capo in other positions, too—put it at the fourth fret and play a C shape with the sixth string open, or put it at the seventh fret and play A or Am shapes, again with the open sixth string. You can also flip the capo around to leave the first string open rather than the sixth. With any of these setups, you’ll quickly discover nonstandard sounds—without leaving standard tuning.
Beginners’ Tip #4
For the Xs in the Ex. 5 notation, mute the strings with your fretting fingers and strike them percussively with your pick.
Now Take It to the Next Level
You can expand the range of a five-string partial capo by tuning the sixth string down to D or C, for example. One of my songs, “Turn Away,” uses a five-string capo at the second fret, as in this lesson, but with the sixth string down to D. This way, when you play a C shape (which sounds as a D), You get an open bass note on the sixth string that adds real depth to the sound. Try a little sample just by moving between Am and C shapes.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, just published in an expanded second edition, and the video series Learn Seven Grateful Dead Classics for Acoustic Guitar. jeffreypepperrodgers.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.