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A Partial History of the Partial Capo - A Tantalizing and Curious Historical Mystery

by Harvey Reid ©2009-2017

It is not really possible to do forensic science, DNA analysis or carbon dating in the history of music the way we have done so effectively in areas like anthropology, geology and biology. If there is not a recording or a piece of written sheet music, we can't know what was played in the past. We can look at works of art, examine old instruments that have survived, read old books, news accounts, letters and diaries, and not much else. This discussion looks at the history of the idea that underlies the partial guitar capo, and I confess to happily venturing outside of the merely historical and scientific, and enjoying the luxury of some good old-fashioned hunch and speculation.

As more and more books and documents appear on the internet, it gets easier for armchair historians to poke around, and since there is no grant money or incentive beyond curiosity to explore subjects like this, I am hoping to inspire and spur others into helping me dig into this mystery and research this subject. It dovetails quite interestingly with the history of the harp, harp-guitar, string bass extension, and even of the 5-string banjo. There are some documents in libraries and things in museums far from me that I would like to examine, and if you have access to some of them or if you know something I don't, please let me know. I am putting this up on the web right now rather than publishing a book because I am pretty certain that the story will change quite a bit in the near future. I would like to encourage others to help look into this interesting mystery, and to examine the old instruments and books.

Since I started playing guitar with a partial capo in the middle 1970's, it has remained a "black art," barely mentioned in guitar media, rarely discussed publicly, and surprisingly hidden, for a rather simple idea. It tends to evoke reactions that fall into completely different categories, including instant rejection, immediate laughter and acceptance, or head-scratching and puzzled expressions. There are a startling number of oddball inventions that appear every year in the world of guitar accessories, and at first glance, a partial capo can easily be mistaken for one of them. Staring at one, it is not at all clear, even to a good guitarist, just how you would use one to play interesting new music. But like a lot of good ideas, it becomes obvious after you have been exposed to it for a while, and once it has become obvious it's natural to wonder why it has not been around all along. This article explores some interesting historical mysteries that enshroud the idea, and may lead to some kind of legitimate "scholarly proof" that this idea emerged in Europe 200 years ago. (Though in truth, the real historical mystery is why it hasn't been around all along, since it is so nearly obvious.)

The history of invention and new ideas is no doubt filled with the sound of people slapping their foreheads saying "Why didn't I think of that..." when they see something like a paper clip for the first time. It's unimaginable (but true) that the Aztec and Inca civilizations, who did some pretty sophisticated stuff, never invented the wheel, except in children's toys. Brand-new ideas, especially ones that are not based on a new technology, do not surface all that often, and it is even more rare for them to disappear. This very clever and useful idea probably emerged almost 2 centuries ago briefly in London and Paris, but did not take root and has remained hidden in plain sight in a number of stunningly beautiful instruments that are sitting prominently displayed in some rather popular museums. The same idea is now surfacing again in a different form, though it now appears that it is gaining acceptance rapidly this time and is being seen as a breakthrough by a lot of people, and will probably not disappear again.

I have spent much of the past 40 years exploring the use of the partial capo on the guitar (and to a small extent on the mandolin and banjo) and I am possibly the first modern person to record and publish music for the partial capo-ed guitar. I probably have done more than anyone else to explore and popularize the idea in the last decades, and am greatly heartened by what seems to be a large expansion in recent times of interest and acceptance of it as a musical tool. In its various forms, it is quite useful for beginners (to simplify fingerings) and singers, songwriters and instrumental players of all levels. Players are finding ways to use the partial capo to get more and different resonances, unique chord voicings, and to play instrumental music that would otherwise be impossible. Just like an altered tuning, a partial capo changes the landscape of what is possible on the guitar, and allows a new set of possibilities.

     Third Hand Capo3 uses of a partial capo

I have come to conclude that there is almost a built-in mechanism in the human brain that does not feel comfortable with the concept of playing strings of different lengths across a common fingerboard. The idea, though musically very useful, has been very slow to spread among musicians that I have watched. I first got the idea to play with chopped-up (partial) capos in about 1975 while playing bluegrass and dabbling with the banjo. I discovered when I tuned the 5th string (G) up to A, and played chords that fret the 5th string, it behaved differently than when it was capo-ed up 2 frets. I got curious about what could be done with the guitar, which was my main instrument, and have gradually uncovered several dozen musically useful ways to use a partial capo on guitar. I have recorded over 140 pieces of music using about 25 different partial capo configurations. I now see the big picture more clearly, and I see that the musical idea involved is not really just about a capo that covers only some of the strings, but about playing fretted strings of different lengths on a common fingerboard.

Throughout these 35 years I have been constantly surprised by two things: 1) How many different useful forms the idea of the partial capo takes and how many ways it can be applied to interesting music at all levels and in many styles of playing, and 2) how reluctant musicians in general have been to accept it as a valid musical idea. Capos that clamp across all the strings of an instrument have been around for at least 500 years, and through that time, guitars and all their relatives and ancestors have been tuned in hundreds of different ways. Though changing the pitch of the strings of an instrument by retuning certain strings is logically quite equivalent to the idea of changing the length of only certain strings with partial capos, one of these ideas has been common and the other essentially nonexistent. If you put on a mathematical mindset you can see that it is actually harder to play guitar in different tunings than with partial capos, because the scales and geometry of the fingerings are different for each tuning. For the most part (unless you use partial capos combined with altered tunings, which some of us do) the partial capo is a way to achieve much of the same sound of a different tuning without the inconvenience of retuning, and without needing to re-learn the fingerboard.

This is the fundamental awareness of the partial capo: if you tune a guitar to an A chord, (for example) then you have to re-learn the geometry of the fingerboard, chord shapes and scale patterns, but if you use a capo in standard tuning to make an A chord, you get the same open-tuned resonances as if you had retuned, but the left-hand shapes are still the same as standard tuning. An interested observer, especially one who knows nothing about guitar, can see this clearly, and immediately (and correctly) imagine that a musician might find a new world of things to do with an instrument by using a partial capo. What I now see as the underlying mystery is not really who thought of it first, but why has this not been a part of guitar playing all along? Why has such a useful idea been invisible to so many players for so long, and so slow to propagate even after surfacing? Once you understand the concept, it becomes obvious, so why has it been so elusive and hidden? Why have millions of players all over the world and all through history so willingly accepted different tunings and full capos, but not partial capos?

"The SODL Idea" (Strings of Different Lengths)

The question of why people have not used partial capos throughout history becomes even more mysterious when you pull back and look at the whole panoply of stringed instruments. Since antiquity and all over the world, there have been essentially two types of stringed instruments: those like the harp, lyre and psaltery where each string produces only one note, and those where strings can produce more than one note by being pressed on a fingerboard. A handful of uncommon hybrid instruments such as the harp-guitar, zither and theorbo have combined both types, but have never come close to becoming mainstream or widespread.

Because of the "searchable names" of many of the ancestors of the guitar, you can go look at pictures of dozens of them from any internet access point, and if you start looking at the list of lute, theorbo, arch-lute, decacorde, harp-guitar, bandura, torban, chitarre, bissex, cittern, zither, harp-lute, dital harp, vihuela, guittar, chitarrone, angelique, lyre guitar, arpeggione, kantele, arpanetta, buche, cither, harpanetta, diplo kithara, guitarpa, harpolyre, harp ventura, viola franceza, lauten-guitarre, lutar, kora, orpharion, guitarra moresca, guitarra latina, chittarra battente, cytole, tiple, English guitar, kobza-gallichon, cithara, quartguitar, terzguitar, lyre, cetula, poliphant, bandore, orpharion, orphion, penorcon--- you will see that they generally do not have strings of different lengths pressed on a common fingerboard. It is amazing that in all this time and in all the different cultures, strings on a fingerboard were always the same length. The harp-like instruments always have had different length strings, but not their fretted cousins. The general idea of different-length fretted strings could have surfaced anywhere and any time but it essentially never did... except for a few highly visible "special cases."

The "Special Case" Exceptions

I can only find only 4 examples of instruments with SODL: (strings of different lengths) that are all closely related to the concept of the partial capo. These have remained in the musical world as "special cases" while the "general case" idea of different length strings such as a partial-capoed guitar has not spread.

1) The harp- For centuries, harpists have used sharping (or sharpening) levers and pedals to shorten strings (usually by a semi-tone) to allow playing in different keys. Celtic harpists reach up and flip the levers that essentially move the "nut" or end of the string, in the middle of a song, to turn an F into an F#, for example. Classical harpists use foot pedals to do the same thing. (Here are two of the many versions of sharping levers you can put on a harp-- the Loveland and the De La Cour.) It's my theory that this is the origin of the concept in general in Western music.


2) The 5-string banjo- has been the only well-known example of different-length strings fretted across a common fingerboard since its first appearance in Western music in the first half of the 1800's. It generally has one string that is 5 frets shorter than the other 4. The short chanterelle string originated in Africa, though it is unclear whether it was just a drone string or if it was also fretted in the early gourd banjos and "banjers."

3) The bass extension- has existed since the late 1800's on the string bass as a way to flip a lever and move the nut of the bass E string so that the lowest pitch of the bass becomes D or in some cases a low C. Classical and jazz bassists have used this for decades, and there are a surprising number of mechanisms on the market that accomplish the job. I find it odd that bassists accept this idea readily, yet guitarists still resist a partial capo (below are 2 bass extensions currently for sale.) There are a surprising number of mechanisms out there that do this.


4) The harp-lutes -A small number of curious, extinct instruments known as harp-lutes, guitar-harpes and dital harps appeared in London and Paris between 1800 and about 1825, which to my knowledge are the only guitar-like instruments ever made that had strings of different lengths fretted on a common fingerboard. It is now my personal belief that the people who made the "harp-lutes" may have in fact been involved or responsible for the 5-string banjo and the bass extension, as well as the partial capo itself (though their contribution to that has been lost and is not in any way connected to the current popularity of the idea.) You can read a wealth of information about harp guitars at Gregg Miner's wonderful web site www.harpguitars.net, which contains this page http://www.harpguitars.net/iconography/icon-relatives.htm There is no mention of the significance or existence of the SODL concept in anything I can find from the harp guitar community, though it would seem that they would be among the first to understand and embrace it. They are all guitarists who are looking for ways to expand their universe, and one of the most important people in my quest to understand this historical mystery is the man generally credited with inventing the harp guitar.

The SODL seems to have appeared in the early 1800's in Europe and then vanished without a trace. A key person in this mystery seems to be Edward Light (c. 1747-1832), though a more mysterious man named Mordaunt Levien may actually be the headwaters of the idea. The era between 1800 and 1825 was a tumultuous one in Western Europe , and it is unclear how musical information was flowing in various parts of society and between different countries. (The defeat of Naploeon at Waterloo was in 1815-- smack in the middle of this period where I am trying to study some instrument makers in London and Paris!) It is important to realize that contrary to the usual story of the guitar's origin in Spain, there was a lot of guitar in Europe in the 1700's. These included a surprisingly complex and deep Russian 7-string guitar tradition that used an Open G tuning, and a 7-string English guitar or guittar, for some reason classified as a cittern instead of a guitar, and thus dismissed as not being part of guitar history. In both England and France these guitars were usually 7-string, and tuned in an Open C tuning: G C E G C E G, with the G on the bass rather than modern C tuning which is C G E C G E. (These older open-chord tunings more closely resemble modern Dobro tuning with the 1-3-5-1-3-5 string sequences.)

G. Jones gives us an insight into the guitar's place in that era: "The English Guitar was frequently in favor, and about 1770 its vogue was so great among all ranks of people as nearly to break all the Harpsichord and Spinet makers. The ladies disposed of their Harpsichords at auctions for one-third of their price, or exchanged them for Guitars... Kirkman, the harpsichord maker, succeeded in changing the fashion by purchasing a number of cheap Guitars and presenting them to milliner girls and street ballad-singers. These he taught to play a few chords, and so accompany themselves. The ladies were disgusted; the rage for the Guitar passed..." [from G. Jones article MUSIC in the Encyclopaedia Londonensis

The Harp-Lute Era  

The era of what are most often now called "harp-lutes" involves a number of quite different variations of an instrument, made and improved upon by a number of instrument makers in London and Paris, between about 1800 and 1825, called variously harp-guitar, harp-lute, lute-harp, harp-lyre, harp-lute-guitar, Apollo-Lyre, and even harp ventura for the ones made by A.B. Ventura. The Princess Charlotte of Wales played one, and was tutored by Angelo Ventura himself. They were touted as improvements on the guitar and of the harp, and were larger, louder, and had between 7 and 23 strings. They were made by Light, Levien, Ventura, Packer, Wheatstone and possibly others. A considerable amount of sheet music and numerous tutorial books were published for the harp-lutes. Marketed to "ladies" to accompany their songs and play tunes, they often had harp-guitar style extra bass strings, and though they looked sometimes like table harps, they were strung more like guitars, with the bass strings closest to the player. (Harpists normally reach for the bass notes, and have treble strings closest.) The language used to sell and describe them is pretty entertaining, though it distracts serious historians from the fact that these instruments actually contained something of musical value that was lost.

Because the market for nice harps and guitars was rich women, it is not fair to fault the instrument builders for not falling into our modern concept of "cool" instruments being played by peasants. European organized classical music instruction had pretty much killed off the "unschooled" folk music by this time, except in the Balkans and little corners of Scotland and Brittany, and our modern concept of folk music (especially in the forms familiar to Americans) does not really apply to that world. Queen Elizabeth I outlawed minstrelsy in 1498, and street musicians and wandering minstrels were put in jail more often than they were invited into the homes of the wealthy to entertain. Hard-working peasants in 1800 probably had almost no time to play fiddle once they were locked into a serf-like agricultural existence or employed 7 days a week, 16 hrs a day in a new Industrial Revolution factory. Working class people were not buying gilded, inlaid instruments, and as would happen today, the best builders gravitated toward the market, which for guitars and harps, apparently was women in the higher social classes. There really was no middle class as we know it at that time in history.

Edward Light published a book in 1783 called "The Ladies' Amusement : Being a Collection of Favourite Songs and Lessons within Compass of the Guitar." and in 1816 in the "New and Complete Directory... Playing on the Patent British Lute-Harp" he said

"The Patent British Lute-Harp is a very great and essential improvement upon an Instrument originally invented by the Editor and Patentee called the HARP-LUTE, which, tho' it has been so favorably received and patronised by Ladies of the first rank, and Musical taste in the United Kingdom, in number far exceeding the Inventor's most sanguine expectation, yet in process of time, and upon more mature experience, he found it was not so perfect and complete as could be wish'd; tho' acknowledged greatly superior to any Instrument of a similar kind. Anxious therefore to render it still more worthy the flattering preference it has hitherto obtained, by doing away with the principal inconvenience attached to all Instruments of this class, that if being obliged to TRANSPOSE the Music, E. Light has at length, after much study, various trials, and considerable expense, the pleasure of introducing to the notice of the polite Musical world, the improves BRITISH LUTE-HARP, which my means of a new and simple mechanism (for which E.L. has obtained HIS MAJESTY'S LETTERS PATENT) is now capable of performing Music generally in the ORIGINAL KEYS as set either for the Harp or Piano-Forte, consequently obviating all the inconvenience of transposition &c: at the same time rendering the Instrument more generally useful, and by a new method of stringing and tuning, the tone is now greatly improved, being now more equal, much sweeter, and still nearer the quality of the real Harp. Besides these advantages, it accompanies other Instruments and the voice, with much greater ease and perfection, as by means of the new Ditals it is now capable of modulation from one key into another, with the same facility as the Pedal Harp, for which it will be found to be an excellent substitute, particularly by those Ladies who are in the habit of travelling, either by land or sea, as with all the above mentioned improvements, the size of the Instrument is not at all encreased, still being as portable as the Spanish guitar, tho' infinitely more elegant; in a word, the BRITISH LUTE-HARP is now considered (by judges, and by some of the first Musical Professors who have honored the Patentee with their opinion, and decided approbation of its merits) to be the completest Instrument of its kind ever offered to the notice of the Musical Public."

Edward Light

Light was a guitarist, organist, harpist, inventor and instrument maker in London around 1800. He seems to have died in 1832. Light published "The Art of Playing the Guittar" in 1795, and is generally credited as making the first of what we now call "harp guitars" in 1798. Light invented a series of instruments he called the "diplo-kithara", the "harp-lute," "Dital harp" and the "British Patent Harp-Lute" which all seem to contain variations of the idea of sharping levers on the harp. Light invented a lever mechanism he called the dital which was a button you pressed on the back of the harp that pulled down the string end on the other side, thereby pulling the string against a fret that sharped it. The dital allowed passing accidentals, or could be slid sideways to lock it into place. Here is the front & back view of the dital harp knobs where you can see in the 1st photo that one post is lowered, and the next photo shows the locked dital on the back (the 1st one). The 3rd photo shows the way that a small fretboard was used to accomplish the same job as a sharping lever. He also used a mechanism involving a key that sharped certain strings on some of his instruments.


In the different iterations of these instruments, there are a number of ways in which fretted strings were shortened and even lengthened on his harp-like instruments, many of which had guitar fingerboards in addition to unfretted open bass strings like the harp-guitar. In his patent application on June 18, 1816 he explains the dital mechanism carefully, and also mentions that it also lengthens some of the strings: "another of my improvements, which operates upon the string to increase its vibrating length sufficiently to flatten it a semitone when the button or dital at the back of the instrument is pressed by the thumb..." This is essentially the bass-extension concept, though it uses a different method than the ways bass players accomplish the "lengthening" of the bass string. It may be that Light developed the dital mechanism in order to both flat and sharp a harp string, since the pedals and levers seem to be only capable of sharping by a semi-tone.

A number of very beautiful Edward Light instruments survive in museums and collections, though they appear to have been manufactured by the House of Barry and not by Light himself.

A "Smoking Gun" in Partial Capo History: The Harp-Lute "Stops"

All the discussions of how to play the harp-lutes (in particular the meticulous attention given to them in the Armstrong book in 1908) involve sometimes retuning strings to play in other keys than C, and at other times using screw-in "stops" to raise the pitch of a string 1 fret by shortening it. As Armstrong says on page 73 "...on many of the instruments with five or more strings on the fingerboard, a cavity may be seen between the 4th and 5th strings and above the first fret. Into this cavity is inserted a stop, here represented, which when turned presses the B string above the first fret. When the stop is thus fixed the string is B, but when the stop is released the string is Bb." This is a partial capo, plain and simple, and it was apparently used on harp-lutes by a number of builders, who must have noticed that there was a difference in fingerings when they retuned string as opposed to shortening them with the "stops." Busby notes that "...there is generally another cavity upon some portion of the instrument for holding the stop when not in use." So people who played these instruments kept a little pile of screw-in stops (partial capos) in a cavity on the instrument, that they used to sharp certain strings on the fingerboard.

Notice the triple staggered nut and a "stop" on The 5th string of a harp-lute

Mordaunt Levien

Mordaunt Levien (sometimes appears as simply L. Levien on his instruments) was also a guitarist, teacher, luthier and inventor, who, in spite of his French-sounding name, apparently was originally from London. There is a lot less information out there about Levien than about Edward Light. In 1818 he was living at 56 Marchmont St. in London. In fact, his 1825 French patent says he is from London, and he may have fled the harp-lute battle in London to work the market in Paris. Edward Light warned the public on Dec 30 1815 to "...beware of counterfeits offered at some music-shops". Levien was listed in a French violin maker's directory from that period, and there is a marriage certificate on file for a "Mordaunt Levien" in East London in 1843. (Perhaps he had a son or relative, since he would have been at least in his 40's then.) He also made a number of odd but very beautiful stringed instruments, of which several dozen have survived. Variously called the "guitare-harpe," "harpe-lute" "guitar-lyre" and other similar names that sometimes have harp spelled harpe or guitar spelled guitare, and the people who like to classify instruments can't seem to agree on whether these are "harp guitars" or "harp lutes" or even guitars. They are most commonly included in the category of "harp lutes" (whatever that means) though it seems completely clear to me that Levien basically made guitars. His instruments did not have the harp shape that Light's instruments did, and in general their body shape is very similar to the English guitars of that period. Remember that most guitars from this period in England, Russia and France had 7 strings, and an 1814 publication refers to his instruments as variations on the "old French guitar."

Levien called himself "Inventeur et Professeur de Guitar," though the French word "Professeur" just means teacher, so we don't know if he was indeed just a teacher or an actual professor at an institution. Both he and Light sold their books from their homes as well as in music shops, and it appears that they were small-scale operators, much like folk musicians of today. He apparently moved from Pleasant-Row, Pentonville in London and set up shop and applied for a number of patents in Paris around 1825, where he lived at rue Caumartin and at rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin #28 at the house of a Mr. Albert. It is possible that either Light or Levien got the idea of the different length strings from each other, and it may not be possible to ever be sure, though Light seems to have done all his patenting and manufacturing in England, and Levien for some reason decided to go to France. Maybe there were more "ladies of the first rank" there he could sell instruments to and teach. Apparently there was a shift in musical direction for high-class ladies in general, away from the harp and toward the guitar, and Light and Levien and the others who made instruments in this period presumably were chasing a market as do most entrepreneurs. My hunch says that Light's work on harp sharping levers and the subsequent invention of the dital harp mechanism may have been the spark that led to Levien's deeper development of the SODL idea.

Several of Levien's patents explain that he was trying to make improvements on the guitar (rather than Light's which stressed that he was making improvements on the harp)-- in August 1811 he obtained a patent (for) "Pour une guitare-lyre qui presente plusieurs avantages sur les guitares faites jusqu'a ce jour." which translates to "a guitar-lyre that presents several advantages over current guitars ..." Levien published 24 works of arrangements and tutorials for his instruments, and I suspect that if I can find some of them it will shed some light. Robert Bruce Armstrong lists them and includes a couple tunes (that don't use a partial capo as far as I can tell) in his seminal 1908 book "English and Irish Instruments." Only 180 copies of this book were printed, and it offers the closest examination of the harp-lutes and other such instruments. So far I cannot find a digitized version of it online, but I was able to study a copy at the MFA in Boston. Harvard University has one in their library.

A few dozen of Levien's instruments survive to this day, and they contain at least 5 different mechanisms that feature the SODL idea. They probably survived because of their sheer beauty and craftsmanship, and so far I am convinced that those who own them do not understand what Levien was trying to do when he made them. Many of the previous owners even have filled in the holes and removed the mechanisms Levien put it, to try to make them into "normal" guitars. Levien made the only instruments I have ever seen (until recently, when some inventors have started trying to make partial capo guitars) that had a built-in partial capo mechanism. These were clearly not prototypes, and most of them have a stunningly detailed gilded carving of Apollo on the headstock like this one from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as an elaborately carved & gilded soundhole as shown.

Mordaunt Levien and his String-Shortening Devices

1) THE SHORT STRING This one below is in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, and it looks just like the other instruments he was making around 1820-1825, except that it has a short chanterelle string just like a 5-string banjo. (This does not fit in very well with the current history of the 5th string of the banjo, which we will look at below.

  Photos courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

2) THE "STOP LOOP" Levien also made an odd instrument (below) in 1814 that he received a prize of 10 guineas from the Royal Society of the Arts in London for, and it contained a mechanism involving little screw-in "stops" that passed the strings through a loop, which when twisted would shorten the string. Here is the text of his invention, and the accompanying engraving showing the loops at the first fret, to allow the ladies to sharp the strings there and thus play in different keys. (This 8-stringed instrument is rumored to be in the Carl Claudius Collection in Copenhagen, but I have not had time to verify this.)

"SIR, I BEG leave to lay before the Society of Arts, etc. an improved harp-guitar, the tone of which is similar to the harp, add on a construction which enables the performer to accompany the voice with greater effect, and execute in all the various keys with as much ease as in the general key of C ; which prevents the necessity of transposition, and renders facility of performance upon it, much sooner acquired, than on any other guitar, lute, or lyre. As it may be necessary to give some explanation respecting the improvement of the above instrument, I beg leave to state the nature of, and the mode of execution on the harp-guitar now in use. They are made some with six and some with seven strings, and are tuned in C; the music for them is never written but in three different keys, namely, the key of C, which is the most general, having neither flat nor sharp. The key of F, which has one flat, and the key of G, with one sharp ; all other keys are so extremely difficult, requiring so much labour and cross-fingering that they are never attempted even by a master.

It frequently happens, that ladies meet with songs, etc. which they wish to play upon the guitar, but being written probably for the piano-forte, and in some difficult key they are deprived of that pleasure unless they are transposed into one of the above familiar keys, which must take up time, is troublesome, and the rule of transposition perhaps not understood. I have, therefore, invented brass-stops, which being fixed upon the first fret, obviate all the difficulties above- mentioned; for, by turning the stops agreeably to the key intended to be played in, the performer will be enabled to execute with as much facility as in the general key of C. The turning these stops at pleasure for the different keys is also so simple, that any lady who plays the guitar on the common principle, may be taught the improvement upon my instrument in one lesson."

The description of the engraving says:

"This improvement consists in an appendage to the finger board, by which, any of the strings can be raised or lowered half a tone, so as to introduce such flats or sharps as are necessary, in order to perform such music as is ordinarily met with, without the necessity of previously transposing it into the keys of C, G, or F, as is the case with guitars in general.

This is effected, by placing across the first fret of the finger-board a series of metal loops or stops, through which the strings pass, the holes in the loops being widened so as to permit the strings to vibrate therein unimpeded; These loops being screwed into the finger board can be turned so as to compress the string on each side in the manner frequently done on pedal harps, and thereby to raise the tone of the string half a note higher, thus introducing those sharps, 8tc. which are necessaty to the performance of the music, without the necessity of cross-fingering, the only method of producing them hitherto used, and the great difficulty of doing which is sufficiently known.

Fig. 3, represents the head of the improved guitar, and part of the finger-board; a, a, the nut, and b, b, the metal loops arranged across, or in place of the first fret; fig. 4, is a side view of these parts; fig. 5, is an enlarged view of that part of the finger-board containing the first fret, with the loops screwed into it of their full size; one of the) loops, a, a, is here represented as being turned, and acting upon the string so as to raise its tone half a note higher; and fig G shews one of the loops, with its screwed tail or stern and its hole widened as described above, but which more evidently appears in the section or' the hole, 6g. 7. the opposite sides of it being rounded off, so as not to gall or injure the gut or silk string, by pressing against if, when turned. The loops are turned by means of a slit made across the handle of the key, used in turning the pins to put the guitar into tune."

3) THE FINISHED GUITAR-HARPE The "harp-lute" shown here, is a model that seems to be the most common surviving instrument from Levien. I believe there are versions of this instrument in museums in Paris, London, New York and Stockholm as well as Boston.

These instruments contain 3 string-shortening mechanisms: a bass-string extension, a screw-on capo that can capo all 7 strings or skip the bass string if it is flipped around 180 degrees. This came from the era before elastic rubber, when capos were commonly attached this way. If you think about it, only a 7-string guitarist would have this option. With an even number of strings, the capo would work the same even if it were flipped around. With an odd number of strings, it would automatically offset the bass string when attached the opposite way, since the capo is attached using a hole drilled in the fingerboard between the strings. This might have even been the thing that first clued Levien to the partial capo idea, since most guitars of that time had 7 strings, and in the days before the discovery of the rubber tree, capos attached through holes in the fingerboard.

There is also a strange trio of push-button pedals. Here you can see the partial capo at the 4th fret, the bass extension mechanism that uses the round loop at the foreground to either let the string be 1 or 2 frets longer than the others, by either stopping at the brass loop or else be stopped at the 2nd wood & ivory nut which is between the loop and the regular nut.

4. The Strange Triangle of "Pedals" that you see in the pictures above are connected to big brass buttons on the back of the fingerboard, and push upward and then spring back, supposedly to "fret" those 3 locations from below with a thumb rather than when fretted by the fingers. (You also get another nice angle view of the bass extension mechanism.) Here are close-ups of the "pedal" stops  (with the nearest one raised by my thumb under the 6th string...) and of the back of the fingerboard" I thought for some time that these were hooks that held the strings down, but at least the instrument I examined did not work this way. With the huge and in-the-way thumb buttons on the back of the neck there must have been a good reason for him to do this, and I am currently trying to understand what they did and if they could have been capos rather than just push-up stops. They are not in the right position to be in tune, and if the string somehow attached to them and were pulled down to the fret above them, I see the value. I am planning to contact the owners of some of the other Levien instruments and see if they all work like this one.

I have re-created his partial capo configuration on a modern guitar with 3 capos (photo below-- note there is a notch cut in the 3rd capo), and though I only have 6 strings and not 7 and I have not fully explored all of the 7 possible configurations of Levien's 3 "partial capos", I have found a wealth of incredible chord voicings, that are so beautiful and intriguing, that I feel like I understand why he took the time to build an instrument with this mechanism included. My capos prevent me from fingering chords that lie above and behind the "stops" (partial capo hooks) and I wonder if Levien's instrument may have been capable of even more versatility, especially for playing in Bb and mixolydian music in C.

My conclusion is that if Levien's hook/stops were able to be activated as partial capos, very interesting musical things emerge. The open strings become a full C scale, and his choice of the word "harp" become prophetic because this allows a guitar to sound like one. For arpeggiated fingerpicking and cascading scales, I have never found anything better. Unless you have heard (and I need to arrange and record some things I will post here for you to hear for yourselves...) the sound of this "tuning" you will not appreciate the urgency with which I am trying to uncover the mysteries of Mordaunt Levien. I am hoping someone will dig up at least some tablature, since Levien published a certain amount of guitar music. The Armstrong 1908 book only uses the "pedals" on one example, and does not shed much light on why these huge obtrusive devices were stuck in the middle of the neck of a highly refined and beautiful instrument. I would like to find a copy of Levien's tutor or one of the other books he wrote at the time.

The Banjo Connection

The 5-string banjo has existed prominently in mass culture for over 150 years, with its unique chanterelle or short string attached part-way up the neck, apparently without inspiring people to further explore the idea of different length strings fretted on a common fingerboard. The standard story of the 5th string of the banjo being added by Joel Sweeney in the 1850's seems to have been debunked, though it is suggested that he did indeed add or perhaps popularized a 5th string, but not the short string. (Early banjos lacked the low D that modern ones have.) The earliest evidence of a chanterelle banjo string in America come from a late 1700's painting of slaves in Williamsburg VA, where one of them is clearly playing a gourd banjo with a chanterelle string. (below)


Banjo historians currently seem to agree that the modern, 5-string, fretted banjo first appeared in its modern form around 1843, and there is no disagreement that some time in the first half of the 19th century, the African gourd banjo was married to the snare drum and became the modern banjo with its metal hardware and frets. The chanterelle string seems to have a long history in Africa, and I can find no evidence of it appearing anywhere else, so it is probably safe to conclude that it is an African invention. I cannot tell whether or not the African chanterelle string was actually fretted against the fingerboard or merely a drone, which is a more crucial question in the development of the SODL idea and partial capo than it is in the history of the banjo.

So if the modern fretted 5-string banjo appeared when the banjo historians say it did, how did Mordaunt Levien come to build his banjo-like instrument (seen above also) between 1800 and 1820? Like his other instruments, it is not a garage prototype cobbled together with spare parts-- these instruments are immaculately crafted, and usually feature a gilded and carved Bourbon Apollo on the headstock.

It makes me wonder if he or Edward Light saw an African gourd banjo either on a trip or perhaps one came to London. A small but intriguing clue comes in the book (Courtesy of the UCLA Center For 17th- & 18th-Century Studies museum) "Introduction, to the art of playing on the harp-lute & Apollo-Lyre" that Edward Light published in London in 1810, where he includes an arrangement of "Zyzy- a Favorite Negro Tune" as one of the dozen or so songs in the book. He had clearly been exposed to and liked "Negro" music, and the fact that he called the tune "popular" suggests that many other people were enjoying "Negro music" in London as early as 1810. The English were deeply involved in the slave trade, and were apparently fascinated with Africans and getting their first glimpses of them “up close.”

There are a number of fascinating articles posted on the web about the cultural effects of Africans in London around the year 1800. In 1810 an African woman nicknamed the Hottentot Venus was shamefully "exhibited" in Piccadilly (it's easy to do a web search on her and read her story,) and later that same year a Black sailor from Boston named Wilson became the toast of the London art world and the most sought-after model for portraits. Apparently English people came from quite a distance and paid money to stare at Africans like zoo animals. (The Hottentot Venus's main attraction were her shall-we-say "unusual" genitals, that were the talk of prudish London. I'm not making this up.) The fact that the lute teacher to the Princess of Wales (Edward Light) was enjoying "Negro tunes," publishing arrangements of them for his wacky instruments in 1810, and teaching them to ladies of the first rank is culturally mind-bending, and surprising to me. You would think that such a searchable word as "Zyzy" would yield some answers, but I have Googled in vain.

The lesson here is probably one that we are learning a lot these days in the age of rampant information: Never be surprised at how information either spread around or didn't spread around in the past and in different cultures. We are constanty finding new examples of things like how Vikings in Norway got high-carbon steel from Iran in the year 800 to make amazing swords, or how the Basque fisherman probably knew about North America for hundreds of years before Columbus"discovered it." So the idea that instrument makers in London in 1800 saw an African banjo and were intrigued by its drone string is not that far-out a premise.


This raises the very interesting possibility that the history of the SODL shares some history with the roots of the modern 5-string banjo. I am wondering if these clever English guitarists and instrument builders (Light and Levien, as well as Ventura and the other guys who made harp-lutes) who were already playing with sharping levers and harp-lutes helped get the idea of the 5-string banjo launched in Europe. Mordaunt Levien essentially built a fretted 5-string banjo version of a guitar at least 30 years before the modern fretted 5-string banjo was known to have existed, and he clearly understood "The Idea" of the partial capo and built it into his elaborately beautiful instruments. This is cause for wondering whether these enlightened English instrument builders in the early 1800's played a role in the evolution of the modern banjo as well as the bass extension. Both ideas are manifestations of the same musical concept, and the origins of both are shrouded in mystery. Both Levien and Light played guitar in an open tuning, which would have made them much more easily able to understand and assimilate the idea of a banjo's droning 5th string than those who played in the Spanish (so-called standard) tuning. The banjo, which is so associated with Africa and the Americas, has a long history in England, though all the accounts I have read claim that Joel Sweeney and other American minstrel shows first brought it to England in the 1840's.

I am hoping that banjo, harp, guitar and bass historians can examine this idea, pool their resources and knowledge, and collectively we can perhaps piece together the clues to this mystery. Perhaps people will find diary entries, books or pictures from that era to help us shed light on the co-mingling of the origins of the banjo, bass extension and the partial capo, and also perhaps understand how a useful musical idea appeared on instruments of the guitar family and then vanished.The fact that the banjo and the bass extension have been staring us in the face for centuries without stringed musicians in general adopting the idea of SODL on a larger scale may never be understood.

Things to figure out:

• What was the chronology of development of the multiple fingerboards, staggered nuts and loop stops on the various harp-lutes? Is it possible to trace the development of the SODL idea as reflected in the harp-lutes?

• Can someone find some discussions in print of the issues involved in using the "stops" on the harp-lutes. People were using them, and also changing tunings, so they must have noticed that the fingerings behaved differently when the pitches of the open strings were changed by these 2 different methods. This idea is where the concept and musical value of the partial capo really begins.

• Are there other strange or unexplained symbols in other guitar or harp-lute sheet music from that period? People with access to the harp-lute sheet music catalog might find discussions, symbols etc that would indicate understanding of the issues when you change the length of the strings with the "stops" they were using.

• Can anyone find Mordaunt Levien's tutorial publications or arrangements, which might shed more light on the push-button pedals and other partial capos? We need to take a closer look at the other surviving Levien instruments. It is possible that the brass "pedals" on Levien's harp-lute that I wonder about so much were not original, and added by a restorer who guessed what they might have originally been.

• Would it be possible to determine if Edward Light originated the idea of the dital (SODL) or if perhaps the younger Mordaunt Levien was actually the source of the idea. Often the professor gets credit for something the graduate student discovers.

• Why did Levien have such a strange 2nd nut on his harp-lute? What was the musical purpose of the raised nut that stopped only the bass string?

• Were African gourd banjos only played with the chanterelle strings as drones, or were the short chanterelle strings commonly fretted higher up the neck?

• What was going on in the early history of the banjo outside of Africa, between about 1810 and 1840? Could an English instrument maker (like Light or Levien) have seen an African banjo in London and had an epiphany?

• What is the latest thinking on the history of the bass extension and when it first appeared? Could Light and Levien be at the origin of this idea, or did it exist in a folk instrument somewhere?

• How did the Spanish guitar come to completely dominate and essentially eradicate the history of the English, French & Russian 7-string guitars? The Spanish guitars were probably louder, and presumably the music and players were "sexier" and more fashionable.

© 2009-2013 by Harvey Reid , York Maine USA (email at hreid at woodpecker dot com )