I’m sure some of you reading this have wondered what that clamp-looking thing is that you often see guitarists use while playing. Well, that is called a Capo (pronounced kay-poe). Read on and I’ll explain how to choose a guitar capo – what they do, why they’re important, and give you some tips of selecting the best one for you.
What is a Capo?
A capo is a device that clamps on the guitar neck across the strings, just behind a fret. All it really does is hold down the strings, just like fretting them. Only it does all of them (with one exception, explained below), leaving your fretting hand free to play. Sounds simple, right? It is, but here’s the beauty of this simple device. By fretting across all the strings at once, it allows the player to change the key of the song being played. And, it allows you to still use the same chord shapes you normally would without the capo. Meaning, you don’t need to learn a bunch of new chords just to change keys. Pretty slick!
There is one very important issue to keep in mind when choosing a capo. You have to match it to the instrument, specifically the fretboard. Some capos are flat, while others are curved. If you have a flat fretboard, like a nylon-stringed classical guitar or some steel-string acoustic guitars, you have to use a flat capo. Most steel-stringed acoustics and electrics have a curved fretboard, so you have to use a curved capo. Think of it this way, a flat capo on a curved fretboard will not adequately hold down all the strings, likely resulting in some fret-buzz. And vice-versa. Now, maybe I need to clarify one thing: flat versus curved means across the fretboard (from the first string down to the sixth string) and NOT from headstock to the body.
Types of Capos
The basic structure of a capo is a rubber-covered bar that lays across the fretboard, and some means of securing it to the neck so that sufficient pressure is applied to the strings to hold them down. How that is done is the key behind the many different types of capos available nowadays. Let me now describe each of the types of capos on the market, including their advantages and disadvantages.
The strap-on capo uses a strap to hold the bar in place across the strings. The bar is placed on the strings, and then the strap is wrapped tightly around the neck, making sure it is attached to both ends of the bar. The tightness of the strap is adjusted by tightening or loosening the strap. This type has one big advantage – it is inexpensive. However, the strap tends to stretch over time, with the resulting wear-and-tear shortening it’s life. Also, it’s possible to incorrectly position the capo across the strings. This can give one or more strings something of an unnatural twang when picked.
Toggle capos use an adjustable strap for tightening the bar over the strings. It is incrementally tightened along several notches on the back of the bar. This type is lightweight, cost effective and easy to use. It has several disadvantages, however. Over time, the strap will stretch and loosen. But the most frustrating aspect, to me at least, is that the perfect tension often lies between two notches, with one being too loose and the next one being too tight.
A screw-on capo looks like a C-clamp with a single screw that is used to adjust the tension. As such, it allows you to set the tension exactly how you want it. This type has one big disadvantage – time. It takes time to reposition the capo on the fretboard. Every time you move it, you first must loosen the screw, move it into place, the tighten it back. And if you’re not careful when tightening, the result can be poorly set tensions, particularly on one or two strings, affecting the sound.
Trigger or Spring-loaded
The trigger style capo is one of the most popular types, in part because of the ease of use. This consists of two bars, one across the strings while the other lies against the back of the neck. The two bars are hinged on one end, and a spring is used to apply pressure holding down the strings. It often comes with a built-in grip, allowing the guitarist to quickly more or remove the capo, sometimes even in the middle of a song, thus earning this type the nickname of “quick-release” capo. Unfortunately, the tension applied is not adjustable. So, if the spring is too weak, you get fret-buzz; if too strong, you can over-bend the strings resulting in problems with tuning.
Shubb capos are relatively new, and use a patented locking mechanism. After placing the bar over the strings, you flip a lever to secure it. It’s as simple as that. To remove it, flip the lever to loosen. While Shubbs are significantly more expensive than the previous capos, they don’t create tuning problems, and they don’t bend the strings while being used, making them good for both amateurs and pros. The Deluxe version has a re-styled lever, making it even easier to use. One thing to note, though – the rubber sleeves on the bar will wear over time.
The G7th capos were launched in 2004 and are considered by some players to be the top-of-the-line in capos. They have a number of qualities that give them that reputation. They are easy to use – simply place the bar over the strings and flip a lever to secure. Tension on the strings can be easily adjusted. They are unobtrusive, so nothing gets in the way while playing. The inside is entirely lined with rubber, meaning no sharp metal to scratch your guitar. And, some players claim it is better at preserving your tone than other capos. The one downside I am aware of is it tends to be heavier than other capos, which can be a problem for some players.
Roller capos are probably the least popular of all the types, but those who use one tend to swear by it. It uses rollers on both the neck and the strings to apply pressure and hold it in place. To move it, just slide it up or down the neck. To remove, just slide it up over the nut. One nice quality is the roller motion allows a player to quickly change keys in the middle of a song. These capos have fewer issues with tuning than some of the others because of the wider fretting pressure, but they do have more exposed metal which could scratch the neck. Also, the tension is not adjustable. Last, they tend to be limited in size, so one may not fit certain classical or 12-string guitars.
Partial capos are something of a specialty within the capo world. They allow the player to fret certain selected strings only, allowing you to create “chords” not normally found on a guitar. They can be particularly useful when using open tunings by increasing the possibility of new chord and drone combinations. For a beginner, I would not recommend partial capos until you have a more complete understanding of the fretboard.
Effect pedals are electronic devices that allow music to be transposed electronically. Obviously, they are only useful when amplifying. And naturally, they are more expensive.
There are several things to keep in mind when choosing and using a capo, no matter which type you ultimately select.
First, as I mentioned above, you need to match the curvature in the capo bar with the curvature in the fretboard. Failure to do so will only result in a poor sound and frustration. And probably a trip back to the retailer (or post office) for an exchange.
Second, always place the bar of the capo directly behind the fret. Make sure it is positioned as close to the body of the guitar without actually touching the fret. This will ensure the guitar stays in tune.
Have fun and experiment. The beauty of a capo is it allows you to change keys while using the same chord shapes, but it also gives a great opportunity to learn the fretboard and experiment with different chords and chord shapes. Ultimately, the capo is one more great tool in a player’s toolbox. Stay tuned for reviews of different models of the various types.
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