A History of the Guitar Capo

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

The term “capo” is derived from the Italian words capo tasto which mean head fret. This term was first used to describe to the nut of a guitar, however as many later on the term was used to describe devices which temporarily altered or changed where the “head fret” was placed, by simply resting on the fret-board and fretting the strings for the player which altered the tuning without any other manual force.

The first capo known to mankind was invented in the mid 1700’s and this device was basically a single piece of brass which was bent to a C-shape. This piece of brass was pressed on to the selected instrument’s neck from the side and was held tightly in place by the brass piece’s own tension. This device was not considered to be ideal since it caused significant scratches on the neck, due to not having any padding. However, this was the start of creating better capos that ended up helping musicians play stringed instruments with ease.


1700s Brass Capo

In the late 1700s, two other types of capos were invented and these devices were called, the English yoke and the Spanish cejilla. The English Yoke got its name since it was shaped exactly like an egg yoke but had a crossbar padded along with that rested primarily on the strings. This type of unique capo was secured through a screw that was in the middle of the yoke, which pressed against the neck of the stringed instrument. In the case of some English guitars, the egg yoke capo had a screw that penetrated the neck of the guitar. The cejilla was shaped like a “little eyebrow” due to the shape of its string. This uniquely shaped capo was a large block made of wood that has a screw at the top and a string was threaded through a hole in this screw which was then looped around the stringed instrument that is guitar and tied to the other side. The capo was then fastened to the stringed instrument or guitar by the means of turning the screw and drawing the strings tighter.

1640: Giovanni Battista Doni uses the term Capo in his work Annotazioni sopra il compendio.

1850: James Ashborn of Walcottville, Connecticut, USA was the first person to apply for a capo patent. The capo he patented looked similar to the yoke capo, but tightened in a different way. This device could be tighten by using a lever with a cam on it and was held in place by the device’s pressure.

1890: The ‘Gutman company’ sold a D Shaped Capo that tightened by using a similar mechanism however; this device had a lever on the top instead.

1900: Sears sold a unique and interesting guitar in the early 20th century, which had a built-in capo. The capo that was fitted into this guitar could be tightened thorough a string, and a slot was cut in the neck of the guitar to allow the capo to slide forward and backward on the fret-board.

1931: W.H. Russel was the first person to patent the first elastic capo. This device was one of the simplest capos invented in its time. The capo was a hard, padded bar that held firmly to the guitar by means of an elastic strap that winded around the neck of the instrument.

1965: James Dunlop of Jim Dunlop was the first to patent a “toggle” capo. This device was quite similar to the strangely shaped ‘cejilla’; however the device created by Jim Dunlop device worked by placing a lever into one of many holes located in the top of the capo. This device worked when the lever was folded down, which tightly fastened the strap against the back of the guitar’s neck.

1973: Herbert Bauerfeird from Germany was the first to patent a plastic capo. This simple yet brilliant device was basically a broken loop that had a pad which was placed over a group of reeds that would cut into the top of the loop to ensure accommodation of the different types of curves and tensions that the various types of guitars provide.

1978: R. Shubb was the first to redesign the side-clamp capo and he did this by adding an adjustable screw to the lowest lever. This allowed the musician playing the guitar to easily adjust the lever to accommodate the width of the stringed instrument’s neck. This capo is now sold and referred to by the person who patented the capo.

1979: ‘Trigger’ capos are held in their place through a spring on the side of the device. The person who patented this type of cap was Nichols, Berner, and Fernande. The inspiration for this device was provided by the clothespins Berner’s wife used. The various shapes of these trigger capos were licensed to different manufacturers such as Jim Dunlop who is now the possessor of the Trigger name. Another manufacturer who was licenses with this type of capo was Kyser. Some capo models of Kyser were designed with a secondary device in the lever to help in pulling the bridge pins.

1980: Lyle Shabram, Jr. was given the patent of the ‘Third Hand Capo’ which is one of the oddest of all the capo designs. This device is similar in design to the elastic capo; however the Third hand Capo has a bar that is divided into six pieces. The pieces in this bar can rotate around the bar to ensure that only the selected strings are fretted. The design of this particular capo allows the guitarist to have some of the advantages of alternate tunings without having to constantly retune the guitar to get the desired results.

1986: Swany Cornette was the one to patent the ‘Glider’ capo which was designed keeping the basic structure of rolling capos in mind. This device not only has rollers on the top but also at the base which, allowed for fast key changes