From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY HARVEY REID
Capos have been around almost as long as guitars, and for such a simple device, there are a surprising number of brands, types, and subtle factors involved in choosing one. They are valuable tools for changing the tuning of your guitar, and as such, you should learn how to use a capo and not view them as “cheaters.”
It would be impossible to test every capo on all of your guitars for looks, compatibility, or problems. Ideally, there should be capo stores at the mall, or an old-fashioned Capo Man vendor who brings his cart through your village with every kind of capo for you to try and buy. Luckily, capos are not super-expensive, and since they rarely wear out or break, many of us end up with our own mini-collection. There isn’t a single “best” capo that does everything perfectly for every player, and your favorite go-to capo will likely change a number of times over your life. Here is a breakdown of things to consider when choosing the right capo for your needs.
Full Capo vs. Partial Capo
Full capos all do the same musical job: shorten all strings across the fingerboard, allowing you to sing and play in different keys. The vast majority of capos used by players and available on the market are this type.
Partial capos are the new kids on the block, and like their name suggests, they clamp fewer strings to the fretboard than full capos do. They change the landscape of fingerboard possibilities in much the same way as altered tunings, though they can be used in a way that does not change the fretboard’s geometry the way that retuning does. The most common single-purpose partial capos clamp either five outer strings or three inner strings, though lesser-known ones can clamp one, two, or four. While partial capos maintain fretboard geometry, they unfortunately block access to parts of your fingerboard.
You use partial capos and altered tunings for similar reasons; they both give new resonances, chord voicings, and fingering possibilities, but a partial capo is not a tuning. You can even do both at the same time, which is the exciting new frontier. They can be confusing, but partial capos work in any tuning on any guitar or fretted instrument, offering a head-spinning new world of possibilities for any level of player or songwriter, plus revolutionary easy-guitar options for children, special-needs players, or beginners.
Fit and Radius
The biggest issue in selecting a capo is that steel-string guitars have a curved (radiused) fingerboard, and nylon-string guitars typically have a flat fingerboard. Neither is better, it’s just tradition. Most capos are labeled prominently as flat, radius, or curved, but it’s messier because there is considerable variation in capo and fretboard curvature, affecting a capo’s performance. Each guitar manufacturer chooses a fingerboard radius that suits them, which can be a hidden factor making some capos work better on some guitars. If the capo curvature doesn’t match the fingerboard’s radius, your outer or inner strings might buzz or stretch out of tune. Some companies have developed designs that can adjust to different fingerboard radiuses, like G7th’s capos with Adaptive Radius Technology, or Thalia’s interchangeable snap-on feet that can accommodate variations in radius, though those can be lost or misplaced.
Guitar necks vary widely in every dimension, so you might find that your sleek, modern guitar neck, especially at the first or second fret, is too thin for a particular capo, or too wide or too thick at higher frets. Your guitar’s neck shape or width will likely vary at different places, greatly complicating capo fit issues. Every capo has a range of how thin, thick, or wide a neck it can handle.
Partial capos also have the issue of string spacing. Only the pioneering Third Hand (discontinued) and the SpiderCapo, both universal partial capos, adjust for string spacing, which also typically increases at higher frets. A three-string capo that can clamp 007770 (only strings 2, 3, and 4 at fret seven) on a fingerpicker’s acoustic might have trouble with 022200 on a narrow, very curved electric.
The type of rubber varies in different capos, affecting performance. Softer rubber will deaden your guitar’s tone slightly, as compared to a harder grade, but can also mute strings better with less force. (Fingers are soft, but they work.) On a 12-string, softer capo rubber oozes down a little, stopping the octave strings on the bottom four courses better than a harder capo.
Force is a major factor in capo functionality. Elastic, spring, and screw clamping mechanisms exert varying amounts of force, which gets applied in slightly different ways to your strings. You’ll need a capo that applies just enough, but not too much, force—that might cause tuning problems. You’ll also want to choose a capo that can handle both your choice of string gauges and the action (or height) of your strings above the fretboard. Popular spring-powered capos work fine for standard light-gauge strings and normal actions, but if you have medium or heavy strings, high action, a 12-string, or even if you just play really hard, you may experience some rattling and buzzing if you don’t choose a model specifically designed for the job.
Playing in Tune
The more you tighten a capo, the more likely it is to put you slightly out of tune. The bass strings, particularly, will be stretched the most, especially with thicker strings or higher action. This is complicated, because guitar necks are not the same thickness over the whole fingerboard, and usually get thicker and wider at higher frets. Fixed-force capos will thus generally get tighter as you go up the neck. Open-jaw capos apply slightly more force from one side, and you will want to experiment with attaching them from the bass or treble sides to see if that makes a difference in the behavior of your bass strings.
The dizzying number of generic spring capos, or established brands like Kyser Quick-Change, Jim Dunlop Trigger, and D’Addario NS-Tri-Action capos can be popped on and off very fast with one hand, moved to another fret in mid-song, and stored on your headstock or strap. Vital for some performers, this convenience comes at a cost, since spring capos weaken with age, may not be adjustable, and have a tendency to pull slightly sideways and a little off-center on some guitars. Children and some adults have trouble with hand strength when operating spring capos or some snap-on models, and might prefer screw clamps. Rubber dries out and wears a little, and Shubb capos allow you to easily replace the rubber sleeve, which is not an option for most other brands. The Paige, Dan Crary, and G7th Heritage capos form a closed loop when latched, clamping more evenly, and can be stored above the nut where they don’t get lost. My own creations, the Liberty Flip capos, are the first two-sided capos. The Model 65 is both a six-string (curved) full capo and a five-string partial; the Model 43 clamps either four or three inner strings, depending how you put it on.
The bodies of some capos may get in the way of your left hand, especially with partial capos, since you may want to reach over or around them for notes under or behind the capo. Most capos work best from the bass side, but you will want to try attaching a three-string partial capo from either the bass or treble side, to minimize it wiggling out of position in mid-song.
Not all capos are equally adjustable, and this is a big concern. Screw-clamp mechanisms are reliable and can be adjusted precisely without over-tightening, but more control means more revolutions, and slower operation. Several brands combine an adjustable thumbscrew with a snap mechanism. Adjust for the size and tightness, then snap on and off quickly. The ingenious Ned Steinberger-designed D’Addario capos allow the convenience of springs with the added advantage of a screw-adjustable clamp, but they may need to be adjusted for higher frets or times of year with high or low humidity. You may enjoy the pressure-fit snap-on mechanisms of the Shubb, Thalia, or the G7th, or you might prefer to stick with a classic spring, clamp, or screw-knob.
Attaching a heavy mass of metal to the neck may interfere with the resonances of your instrument, and you’ll want to consider that issue if you are attracted to a Thalia, G7th, or Dan Crary model. It’s also harder to keep a heavy capo in your pocket when you go to a party or gig. Small, compact, less visible capos have advantages, but are easier to lose.
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No matter how good an $80 capo is, it might be unreasonable for you to spend that much, and you can be forgiven for buying a cheap one on the internet if it does what you need, which is to sing or play in a higher key. At the same time, you might feel better about yourself with a really nice capo that works well. It can make you feel good when you use it.
When I was young, most people used Bill Russell or Hamilton capos, and I remember feeling like a pioneer with my new Jim Dunlop nylon-strap mechanism before I saw more people using them. Inexpensive capos are usually made of aluminum, which can be painted or anodized in a number of ways to make them sexier or more fun. Some people are fine with plastic, and others are drawn to brass, pink, camo, or even wood. Shubb makes its flagship capo in both brass and nickel-plated brass, since nice gold-colored brass will tarnish, especially near salt water. The uber-modern machined look of the G7th, the playful Shark capo, or the hardwood Wingo all might appeal to you. Thalia is using exotic woods and creating limited editions. Flamenco players used to sport jeweled capos as a sign of status. A beautifully machined hand-made-in-the-USA capo makes many players feel better than using something that may feel cheap and gaudy.
Good luck, have fun, and don’t be afraid to splurge and try a new capo now and then. You can never have too many capos!
Harvey Reid, winner of the 1981 National Fingerpicking Guitar Contest, is a pioneer in the use of partial capos and founder of Third Hand and Liberty Flip capos. partialcapo.com
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