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Why the Partial Capo Has Not Become Widespread

by Harvey Reid

Partial capos (in particular the Third Hand, which showed up first) have been around since about 1976- so why doesn't everyone have one? They don't cost much or take up much room, and they do a lot. There are a startling number of reasons, in my opinion-- so many that this would make a nice topic for a marketing class to study

• It may be that the intonation on guitars was not good enough until modern times to do this sort of thing. People might have tried it and been little out of tune and given up.

• A number of mechanical chording devices such as Arthur Godfrey’s Chord Finder, the Chord Buddy, and the Fret Finder have appeared and been heavily marketed as an easy way to play guitar, and music store personnel who see the partial capo often dismiss it as another such “crackpot” idea. It is not at all clear at a glance how valuable a partial capo is. In fact, if you gave a partial capo to 100 guitar players chosen at random from the phone book, I would estimate that about 5 would end up using it, and at most one of them would find more than 2 ways to use it musically.

• New capos come out almost every year, and as I found out, musical products salesmen often trade jokes about new capos.

• The partial capo is much more useful to acoustic guitarists than electric. When I first started marketing the Third Hand Capo, in 1980, disco was king, Madonna, Blondie and Michael Jackson were exploding with popularity, and electric guitar was a vastly larger market. It has taken decades for the acoustic guitar to reach a sort of equal footing in the fashion-conscious music world.

• People who see a partial capo almost all tend to see it as being valuable for someone else. Beginners see it as something complicated, and professionals see it as something for beginners. In truth it has value to all of them, and its usefulness is not actually dependent on your skill level.

• Capos have always been called "cheaters" and are associated with doing something "wrong." To accept a partial capo is to somehow accept that you aren't good enough to play guitar "right."

• The partial capo is an inherently confusing idea, and seems to run contrary to some kinds of human instincts. There clearly has to be something about the human brain and this simple idea that has kept millions of guitarists from using it for centuries.

• I am convinced that the partial capo reminds people how little they understand their guitar fingerboard, and triggers a nearly universal guilt, especially in amateur and self-taught guitarists that they should have “studied music” or learned guitar “properly.”

• It takes a startling amount of time to sell a customer on the idea of a partial capo, and music stores could sell an amp or a PA system in the same amount of time they might take to explain how a partial capo works.

• The partial capo is not a large-enough profit item to warrant a big ad campaign or in-store displays, or even make it worth a salesman’s time to go to stores and sell it. (Though we tried that anyway.) And in a distributor’s catalog it does not stand out as something that every guitarist needs.

• The Third Hand Capo and also the new Spider Capo are inherently clumsy devices that clutter up the guitar neck noticeably. They look like a “wacky” idea more than a deep concept. If the Third Hand Capo was electronic, sleek, had a battery and LED lights and cost $149, it might be widespread. Because guitars have quite a wide range of width of necks and fingerboard, different string spacing, gauges and action (height of the string above the fingerboard) none of the other partial capos on the market made by Shubb, Kyser and others actually work on all guitars, nor are any of them as universal.

• Beginning in about 1982, the Windham Hill record label made a huge impact on the world of acoustic guitar, and sold millions of recordings of mostly open-tuned fingerstyle guitar music. The emergence of this record label coincided almost exactly with my attempts to market the Third Hand Capo, and none of Windham Hill’s leading guitarists like Michael Hedges or Alex DeGrassi used a partial capo. Though the partial capo makes a sound much like an open tuning, it could not be used to imitate the fashionable players at that time.

• No hit song has ever been written with a partial capo (yet), and even if there was one today, I wonder if anyone would even hear the acoustic guitar, since pop music is so heavily oriented toward drums and electronic instruments. This is changing, and I have high hopes that young players will find partial capos and glamorize them.

• Partial capos are tricky to understand, and don't give up their secrers easily. Most players who get a partial capo to "explore" do not find anything meaningful without some guidance.The configurations in my books were surprisingly slow to arrive, and long periods went by when I did not find or stumble on any new ones. I did not start using the popular Esus configuration until about 1980, after 4 or 5 years of using a partial capo regularly. It took 30 more years to find the most valuable one of all, that I call "Liberty Tuning." I had no idea it existed, and there were no clues, and it uses an odd capo-ing and an odd tweak of the tuning.