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The History of the Partial Capo

by Harvey Reid

Little is known about partial capos prior to the appearance around 1976 of Lyle Shabram's "Chord-Forming Capo." There are rumors and stories going around about things people may have done with it in the 60's (a couple are posted at the bottom of this article) but so far I can find no evidence that anyone composed, published or recorded any partial capo guitar music before I started in 1980. I am now convinced that some different versions of the partial capo idea idea surfaced in Europe around 1800, and I have posted a long article about this elsewhere on this site. It is indeed a tantalizing musical mystery.

What surprises me most about the partial capo is how such a simple idea, which becomes almost obvious after you get used to it, has remained hidden for so long. You would think it would have been around all along, or once it was propagated that it would spread like wildfire. The idea that a device that costs a few dollars can open up a lifetime of new musical opportunities to any player seems like it would have to "catch on,"  but it hasn't, and people have been and still are very slow to understand and accept it.

In the Fall of 1976 I began experimenting with capo-ing only some of the strings of a guitar, during the only period in my life when I was playing much 5-string banjo. (The issue of what happens when you capo the banjos's 5th string up to A or tune it up to A is exactly the same issue involved in the Third Hand Capo.) I was teaching guitar classes at the University of Maryland. By coincidence I happened to see an ad for a chord-forming capo in a guitar magazine, the very night I was sawing up Bill Russell capos to make A chords and trying to design a variable capo. I figured somebody had beat me to the idea, and thought no more about it for a while. I eventually contacted the company that made them, bought a few capos to use, and exchanged some letters with the inventor (Shabram), not fully realizing how little he knew of how to use the device. I was sure someone had beat me to the idea.

In 1979 I moved to Nashville to make my fortune, where I met Illinois songwriter Jeff Hickey, who asked me a question I still cannot answer when I showed him the capo at my apartment one night. He asked me "Why doesn't every guitar player on Earth have one of these?" He had some experience in running a music store, so rather than wait for our turn to get famous in Nashville, we formed the Third Hand Capo Co. of Nashville, TN which began marketing the capo that fits any guitar and that allows any combination of strings to be clamped using the mechanism devised by Lyle Shabram.

The "Chord-Forming Capo"

Lyle Shabram's Chord-Forming Capo was sold to a few people and a handful of music stores in California in the mid 1970's, with the subtitle "A Tool For the Creative Musician." Lyle was correct about this, though the instructions from his capo (shown below) and subsequent discussions with him indicated that though he suspected correctly that it had musical value, he never found any of the configurations any of us actually use. The picture here (I scanned the original instruction sheet with the capo) shows 2 diagrams of how to make an E chord with 2 capos, and how to capo both E strings at the third fret with one capo.

I self-published a book in 1980 called A New Frontier in Guitar, revealing what I knew about the subject, after realizing that the capo itself did people very little good without a lot of information on how to use it. Since then, most of the information in the book has been crammed into the instruction sheet that comes with each capo. DOWNLOAD THIS BOOK FREE! (Incidentally, this is very likely the first desktop published book in history. It was made on a Xerox Alto computer, the predecessor and inspiration for the Apple Macintosh, using the first desktop publishing software, called Scribe. It was printed on the first Diablo laser printer prototype at Carnegie Mellon's computer research laboratory. 1000 copies were printed by a printer in Virginia, and distributed by the Third Hand Capo Co.)

In 1982 when I recorded my first guitar album Nothin' But Guitar, it included 7 cuts with the Third Hand Capo. I believe this is the first commercially available recording made using a partial capo, though it did not make much of a splash, and there are only 2000 copies of it out there. Since then I have recorded nearly 200 tracks using about 25 different capo configurations (see the list of tracks), and only a handful of people ever noticed that something very different was going on. On stage I most often use sawed off straight capos, for speed and appearance. (I did not use the capo when I won the 1981 National Fingerpicking contest in Winfield, KS. ) Now that the idea has spread rather widely and other musicians are claiming to have developed this concept, (Go look at SpiderCapo for example) I feel it is time to stand up and take credit for discovering and propagating it.

Most of those who use a partial capo use primarily the "E suspended"  or "Esus" configuration, which I first started using in late 1980. The first serious guitar piece I wrote for this configuration was "Suite in F: For the Duchess", which I recorded in 1982 and 1983 released in 1984 on my 2nd LP "A Very Old Song." The title cut, written in 1980, also uses this configuration, as does "I Will Learn to Love You," and "Dreamer or Believer." This recording is also out of print, and there are only 2000 copies of it also. I have continued to use the partial capo on all of my subsequent recordings, which now number around 25. I showed the Third Hand Capo to ther guitarists at Winfield, Kansas in 1981, the year I won the FIngerpicking Championship there. The 2nd place winner, who now lives an hour away in New Hamshire, was a picker from Virginia named Seth Austen. Seth recorded 2 fiddle tunes using the Esus configuartion in 1982 on his LP "Appalachian Fiddle Tunes for Fingerstyle Guitar" that was released in 1982 on Kicking Mule records. He might have beaten me by a few weeks in releasing a guitar piece in Esus configuration, but since I gave him the capo and showed him how it worked, I don't think it makes him the headwaters of the Esus capo. He tells me has recorded nothing since then using a partial capo.

I have published many books about the capo (1980, 1983, 1984, 2008-2015) including a discussion of the ways to use a partial capo to teach beginning guitar which appeared in 1984 in the first college-level folk guitar textbook ever published: Modern Folk Guitar (co-written with Terry Lee Kuhn.) The book has been used to train thousands of music teachers in folk guitar, and I somehow managed to get a chapter on the partial capo past the academic peer-review jurors, who removed all the chapters in the book about open tunings, which really had more right to be there. Around this time I developed a revolutionary method of using a partial capo to teach beginning guitar with simplified fingerings, which became the Duck Soup Guitar method. I gave talks on the subject at the National Association of Music Therapists (1982) and National Assoctaion Of Music Educators (1983) conferences. I published an article (with co-author Dr. Terry Kuhn of Kent State Univ.) in the Journal Of Research of Music Education on the same subject. The capo has been in constant use by dozens of university music departments and music therapy centers since about 1983.

The Third Hand Capo Company started selling them all over the country in 1980, and since that time have sold close to 100,000 of the universal-type capos in the US and about 25 foreign countries.

I am working on a database of the first 20 years of recordings of songs using the partial capo, and if you have information you can add to this list please do so.

A number of stories are circulating of people chopping up capos in the 1960's and 1970's (below) , though I am not currently aware of any recordings or books released. A couple emails I have received from people are below

Guitarist extraordinaire Stephen Bennett wrote me in 2009 "I thought of you immediately today in the studio where I was finishing up a CD celebrating the 100 year birthday of my great-grandfather’s harp guitar. His name was Edgar Pierce and he lived from 1885 to 1968.  On one tune that he recorded on a home reel to reel tape recorded in the early to mid 60’s, he is capoed on the 4th fret with the 6th string open. I had no idea until today."

E-MAIL FROM BOB INGRAM (Coconut Grove FL) 2001

"In 1961 I met Peter Paul and Mary who at the time were playing a gig in Miami . They were the first one to use an elastic capo and being the son of a guitar player and a singer myself I was intrigued and began using an early Bill Russell Capo which I found superior to the chrome clamps of the time. To this day I prefer the Russell to anything I have found on the market. In 1962 I got the first 12-string guitar built by the Cuban Luthier Miguel Company recently off the raft from Havana fleeing the Castro Regime and bringing with him and his family some rosewood and a few pieces of 40 year old air-seasoned spruce and of course some hand made hand tools. David Crosby and I used to hang out in the old man's kitchen and listen to tales of Spain Franco Guitars and Castro. He built that first 12-string with the wood previously described. It was a 12-fret fan braced giant cannon of a guitar and was played over the years by Bob Gibson, Fred Neil, Roger McGuinn, Dick Rosmini, and Bob Dylan . When I needed a 12 string capo I found that the elastic in a Russell was inadequate so my simple solution was to remove the pin, buy 2 capos and add an extra rubber it worked of course and over time I made others for friends.

In 1963 Crosby and I were in an early folk group called Les Baxter's Balladeers. We were operating out of LA and found ourselves in Sacramento playing the California state fair. In the Motel one morning I was reading a Sing Out Magazine and saw Bill Russell's ad. Wow he is in Sacramento, so we all trooped in the rental to go find him. The address was on a street called Ferger ave and much looking and driving we stopped to ask the directions at a house with the address but seeking a factory figured was a factory. Bill Russell answered the door and found on his porch the first musicians to ever visit. A most gracious man was he, and showed us the garage where he worked. I showed him my modified capo and he flipped telling me he would go into production and name the new model after me. Ever determined to remain obscure I declined so he said he would call it he professional model to honor the event. He turned us loose in his shop and we went nuts inventing capos. First a bass capo for David's brother then my first D tuning capo which was simply a narrow tube inserted in the original rubber but cut short to leave the 6th string exposed . Voila 2 frets up and instantly you are in D. No retuning. Later by the creative use of notches we had a G tuning capo. Thats it the whole yarn ask Crosby if you need verification he may remember, old as he is... "

Recent Developments

Many people mistakenly assume that I invented the Third Hand Capo mechanism, and that I use only it. In fact, I was the first person to saw off a Shubb capo, which I did in the early 1980's, and have used ever since on stage instead of the clumsier Third Hand. There have been unconfirmed reports for over a decade that various Third Hand Capos have appeared in the concerts of Dan Fogelberg, John Sebastian, Lindsay Buckingham, Ry Cooder, and others, but I have no evidence.

We gave a lot of Third Hands away to famous people at concerts and trade shows over the years, and many music stores have had them on their shelves since 1980. The Third Hand Capo Company has sold tens of thousands of these capos since 1980, in nearly 25 countries, and they have been given to many many well-known and not-so-known guitar players, most of whom did nothing with it. Chris Proctor got his in 1981 or 1982, as did Seth Austen, and these two players jumped on the bandwagon quicker than most, and have been quite active, especially in using the Esus configuration. Below is an August 1982 letter from Leo Kottke claiming he was afraid of it, and showing his lack of understanding of it.

The recent expansion of the use of the idea of partial capoing owes a lot to several of my friends from New England who have used the device for 30 years. Tom Pirozzoli is a songwriter from Sunapee, NH who took his Third Hand Capo to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, TX (a mecca for modern songwriters) where he tells me he showed it to David Wilcox in May of 1989. Tom has told me that at that time David was not using any partial capoing in his playing, though in the last few years he has begun to use it quite a bit, almost exclusively the Esus configuration, for which he saws off a Kyser capo. (He has claimed in several interviews to have been using the idea for longer than this.) Cosy Sheridan, Cormac McCarthy and Rick Watson are also players from the Northeast who have begun to tour the country quite a bit in the last few years, and they have no doubt spread the capo around. (The list of players who have been given a capo and not used it is a much longer list.) At the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1993 I did 2 guitar workshops with Adrian Legg, who at the time was not doing any partial capoing. Since then he has started to use one, especially the Open A configuration, I have been told.

I have been trying to find out what a few other players have been doing, who were "early adopters" of partial capos. Texan Bill Nash started quite early using sawed-off capos and has been very creative with them. Jay Toups, John Hasbrouck, Dan Schwartz, Glenn Jones, and a number of other players that Jeff Hickey and I met over the years also have been using capos for a long time. Michael Gulezian has used a Third Hand since the mid-1980's. Now I find out that Patty Larkin, John Gorka, Janis Ian, Carrie Newcomer, Peter Mulvey, Jim Infantino, John Smith, Brooks Williams, and many others have also been using them in their music in recent years. The list of users is already too long to include in one place.

I have released 2 compilations of my partial capo work, that are available as CD's and digital download on iTunes (search for "Capo Voodoo") released in 2010 and 2011. They contain many things culled from my in-print catalog, and also has a few cuts from Nothin' But Guitar (long out of print). Soon I hope to make available the the original version of The Albatross, along with several new tracks available nowhere else, and probably some alternate takes of earlier things.

The largest challenge now facing the partial capo issue these days is the issue of notation, and I have posted an open letter to the guitar community about this problem.

If anyone knows any relevant historical information not included here, please notify me.