Bluegrass banjo players generally play in the G tuning nowadays. In the old days, it was not uncommon for us to play in several different tunings. While some banjo players can play very well in any key without using a capo, most of us find that for various reasons a capo is useful, if not absolutely necessary.
A capo is simply a piece of rigid, padded material that serves to raise the pitch of a fretted instrument, by forming a barre across all of the strings.* The two things that are absolutely necessary to look for when selecting a capo are:
1 It must not mar the neck.
2 It must not buzz or rattle.
*There are specialty capos that are used on guitars which fret only a portion of the strings, but these are not within the realm of this page.
Types of Capo
There are three basic types of capo.
There is the elastic capo, such as the old Dunlop capo, which uses an elastic band to apply pressure to the bar that holds down the strings. These work fairly well, but they wear out fairly quickly, and they can mar the finish of the neck.
There are the one-handed clamp capos. These use either a spring or a cam to apply pressure to the neck. The Victor and the Shubb are examples of this. The disadvantage is that they are somewhat bulky and can get in your way.
The third type is the thumbscrew style capo. These normally are made of aluminum or stainless steel, and they use a knurled thumbscrew to apply pressure to the strings. The Kyser-Paige capo and the McKinney capo are examples of this. This type of capo became very popular because Earl Scruggs used one like it that was made for him years ago. These capos store above the nut when not in use, and if the knob of the thumbscrew is fairly large, it allows for fast, one-handed operation. They also do not tend to be in the way.
These are the type of capo I personally prefer. However, there are two considerations when looking at these capos. One is the quality of the capo itself. The Kyser-Paige capos are serviceable. Most professionals prefer the McKinney capos to the Kyser-Paige capo. There's just one problem, though--McKinny capos are very expensive, and there is a long waiting list for them.
I had just about given up on getting a really high quality capo, when I saw a reference on the AcuTab listserver for capos made by Phill Elliott, of Rowlett, Texas. After some e-mail correspondence, Phill sent me a couple of capos to try out. They are really nice! They are not cheap; they are completely hand made, but they have some interesting features.
The Elliot Capo
The Elliot capo looks very much like a McKinney capo at first glance, but on close inspection you notice a number of differences. First, other than the hole for the thumbscrew which applies the pressure to the clamp, there are no holes in the metal forming the frame of the capo. The Kyser-Paige capo has slots in it, which keep the clamp from turning in the frame--the McKinney has a small hole which a steel post fits through to serve the same purpose. Second, the stainless steel of the frame and clamp are highly polished, and there are no sharp edges to damage your instrument. Finally, there is a really nice pushbutton release on the standard banjo model, which makes it much easier to open and close the capo. This release is Phill's invention and is unique to his capos.
The standard capo is good for the first 4 frets, but he also has a wider model that will work past the 5th peg for those of us who like to play really "tinkly" banjo solos. The capos feature an allen screw hinge pin so you can remove the bar and replace the plastic tubing that forms the pad. The capo comes with an allen key for this little screw, plus extra tubing so you don't have to panic if the tubing wears out!
The wider capo is made at present with a bail latch fastening such as is found on the Kyser-Paige and McKinney capos, but Phill tells me that he is planning to put the pushbutton latches on them in future production.
The quality of work on these is obvious to anyone who has ever done any metal work at all. They look more like sculpture than a tool! Also, the thumb screw has a reasonably large knob on it, which makes it very easy to adjust when moving it up and down the neck.
I recommend it highly! Get the model that suits your needs.
For more information and pricing on the Elliott Capos, contact Phill Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Important!!! ALWAYS remove the capo from your banjo BEFORE putting it back into the case!!!
Capo Update! January 3, 1999
Yesterday, I received my new Elliott capo in the mail. This is the first of the pushbutton latch wide banjo capos Phill has made. I occasionally capo at the 5th fret or higher, so I need a wider capo than normal. Phill had sent me a wide capo with the bail latch to try out, along with a normal pushbutton latch banjo capo. For most people, the normal banjo capo will be fine. But I like a wider capo, as I mentioned, and the nifty pushbutton release spoiled me! This capo is a work of art, just like the others.
But I did a dumb thing. I fooled around with the hinge screw, and damaged it. Part of the true value of a product is the service behind it. Phill shines here! I called him, and he has sent me a new hinge screw. He also told me how to do the job correctly. This should settle any possible questions any of you could have about his work, and how he values it.
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