A capo, from the Italian capotasto (which means head fret), refers to a device used on the neck of a stringed (typically fretted) instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings, thereby raising the pitch. It is frequently used on guitars, mandolins, and banjos. Giovanni Battista Doni first used the term in his Annotazioni sopra il compendio (Annotations on the compendium) of 1640, though capo use likely began earlier in the 17th-century. The first patented one was designed by James Ashborn of Walcottville, Connecticut, USA (he applied for the patent in 1850).
Often, it is used to transpose a song up a whole or half-step. This helps to accommodate a singer’s range when a guitarist provides the accompaniment. Guitarists can use a variety of techniques to alter the sound of their playing, including the partial capo, which clamps and changes the playing length of just a few strings. Other types include clutch, lever, trigger or quick release, strap-on and screw-on capos. They can also differ for electric and acoustic guitars, as well as banjos, ukuleles and other stringed instruments.
Popular songs that employ the use of a capo on guitar include, “Hotel California” by the Eagles (7th fret capo), “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor (3rd fret capo), “Cat’s In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin (8th fret capo) and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones (2nd fret capo with the guitar in open G tuning), to name a few.
It’s important that a capo evenly distributes pressure along each fret, especially if the back of your guitar’s neck is curved. This prevents buzzing from strings that aren’t held tight, and ensures that strings aren’t pulled out of tune with too strong of a clamping mechanism. Bring your guitar with you when shopping for a capo so you can try it. Experiment with different tunes and be sure to check that the rubber on the capo is sufficient to protect the finish on the guitar’s neck.
Different Types of Capos
With strap-on capos, a bar presses the strings, while a fabric or elastic strap wraps around the back of the neck and hold it in place. Designed for flat fretboards, they are simple to use and inexpensive.
Trigger-style capos have one rubber lined bar to barre the strings and another that presses against the back of the neck. A spring holds them together. There are quick to attach and remove.
Partial capos press only some of the strings. For example, a drop D capo has a special notch that leaves the low E untouched. A SpiderCapo lets you capo strings individually.
Lever capos use a spring-operated mechanism and can be removed quickly and easily with one hand. However, that same mechanism can give them too much strength and cause them to pull strings out of tune. Applying the capo close to the fret may reduce this problem. Lever capos can move, or even come off, if they’re knocked during an intense jam session, so be sure to place them securely.
Clutch capos can work efficiently up to the 11th fret. They have no extra levers to get in the way, do not pull strings out of tune, can be adjusted in tiny increments, and are quick and easy to adjust with one hand. However, than can be more expensive, price around $40