Monday, March 3, 2014

The Capo -Milton Kyser's Passing

Milton Kyser was raised in a poor farming family in East Texas. He grew up during the Great Depression.

As a boy he promised himself that if he ever started a business of his own, he would have all the work done by local people so they could provide for their families. After years of hard work as a metal machinist, he created his own company;  Kyser Capos.

He was 46 years old at the time. His company built unique guitar capos and other products. And as he promised, all of the work is done in the United States. Mr. Kyser passed away on January 23, 2014.

His passing reminded me of what an important device the capo has become in the world of guitars.

When I was learning to play guitar some players referred to them as “cheaters”, since they easily enabled you to play chord shapes in different key. This was much easier than barring with your pointer finger and using the other three for the chord. The great Blues man Gatemouth Brown called them a “Choker”, because you were choking the guitars neck.

Acoustic players have made great use of capos for years. There are some Blues players that used them on many of their songs. I am thinking of Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack. Both men made use of an old fashion capo that is no longer produced.

Lately there are a series of performers that use sets of capos up the neck that enables them to play in unusual tunings.

The word Capo comes from the Italian words “capo tasto” or head fret. The capo can be thought of as a movable nut that alters the length of a guitar’s strings. (Keep in mind capos are not just for the guitar.)

The first mention of a capo was in the mid 1600’s when composer Giovanni Battista Doni uses the term Capo in his work “Annotazioni soprail compendio.”

There are some pictures of antique gut string guitars which have a small round hole in differing sections of the fretboard. This hole enabled the player to insert a wooden capo onto the neck. The capo came with a piece of wood jutting out on its bottom. A short piece of gut held it in place.

Capos are still being produced for classic and flamenco players. These devices, known as cejillas, are made of an ornate piece of wood or ivoroid that usually has a strip of felt on the bottom.

A short leather strap holds the capo on the guitars neck. There is a short bit of nylon guitar string that attaches to a peg on the top of the capo. This peg or screw allows the player to tighten the capo onto the neck.

The first capo patent appeared in 1850 and was licensed to a fellow named James Ashborn of Wallcotville, Connecticut. Since then there are at least 130 United States patents for capos.

Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack both favored an old capo that is no long made, called  the Filstrup Capo. It was sort of a three sided piece of steel. The transverse portion had a thin piece of cork to prevent scratching the fret board.

A spring arrangement attached to on side and locked onto the other. Within the spring mechanism was another bit of metal with cork backing to prevent scratching the neck.

A similar capo is now being made called the Slider Capo. There is a bar that fits over the finger board. The attachment at the bottom of the capo consists of a plastic (or rubber-like) device that can easily slide up the neck.

When I was learning to play guitar in the mid 1960’s, the one stocked by most music stores was the Hamilton CapoHamilton made a couple of different models. Both came with a flat metal bar covered in a clear plastic shield that would fit into a stirrup like clamp. The tension on one model was adjusted by a thumb screw with a curved metal end that was covered in felt.

The more popular spring loaded Hamilton Capo had a similar shape, but came with a spring loaded mechanism that replaced the thumb screw.  This made sliding the capo up and down the neck a breeze. These capos are still offered.

The most popular capo of the 1970’s was invented by (Bill) W.H. Russell and manufactured by the Jim Dunlop Company.  This simple device was a short metal bar that was covered in just enough plastic material to cover the fret board.

The metal ends of the bar stood out just enough for riveted woven polyester elastic band enclosed the capo. One end had enough material to go around the guitars neck. The player could attach the metal rivet to the metal bar.  Dunlop sold thousands and thousands of these capos.

The next capo that emerged was known as the Toggle Capo. This was also manufactured by the Dunlop Company. This capo was an elastic band. One end of the band was anchored to a metal strip.

The bottom of the metal strip was covered with a flat piece of polyester rubber, which prevented damage to the finger board.  On the opposite end of the capo was a metal bar that had edges which jutted up at a 90 degree angle. Each of these edges contained 5 cut out section.

At the end of this capo was a plastic bar which had two points. The player would wrap the elastic part of the capo around the guitar, and then place the twin points of the bar into the serrated edge of the capo. Once this was accomplished the plastic bar was bent vertical which locked the capo into place.

I’ve seen players with this sort of capo, but I must say from that era the original Russell capo was more popular.

Original Shubb Capo
Sometime during the latter portion of the 1970’s a new type of mechanical capo emerged.

The first version was an invention of R. Shubb. It is still in use and known as The Shubb Capo.

Shortly afterward, Trigger Capos came into being. Initially invented by a group of three men, the capo were licensed and marketed by Jim Dunlop.

The inventor(s) claim it was influenced by spring held clothespins.

The Trigger Capo is based on two bits of metal that are hinged together with a spring.  The Dunlop Trigger Capo has two handles on its backside which the player grasps. These open up the sections thus allowing the device to fit on the guitar.

The Kyser Capo design has the handles on the side of the guitars neck.

The Kyser Company offers a partial capo for those of you that like unusual tunings. I have seen players using two and three Kyser partial capos for songs.

If you don’t want to spend money on a partial capo and own a Kyser model, you can put the regular capo on your guitar backwards so it will cover three strings.

The “Third Hand” capo is a variation of the Dunlop elastic capo. Instead of the top bar being solid, this capo has six adjustable pieces. The player can choose which strings to capo and which to leave open. It is an interesting concept.

There is a variation on this type of capo called The Spider Capo.  This device is placed on the guitars neck and tightened by using the thumbscrew.  The top bar contains dampers to capo the desired strings.

The Capo is not just for guitars. Banjo, ukulele and mandolin players make use of them too. Kyser offers capos for all of these instruments. One interesting banjo capo is made by Shubb. It covers just the fifth string of the banjo.

I have seen banjo players that use the top of a BiC pen as a capo by placing it under the banjo’s fifth string. I have also seen nylon string guitarists use a wooden pencil and some rubber bands for a capo.

One of the newer capos that is available is the G7 Capo. The G7th Capo was invented by mechanical engineer Nick Campling. He left his previous company to devote all his time to the G7th Capo development and sales.

He was soon joined by Noel Sheehan, who is a specialist in retail sales and is based in Leicester, England.

Chris Samewell is on G7th board and has been involved in the design and ergonomics of the products that are produced by G7th.

Unlike the trigger capos, the G7th Capo works be just applying it to the desired space on your instruments neck and squeezing the capo. G7th offers a variety of capos, including a trigger model.

If you have a desire leaning toward the fancy G7th offers a gold plated model and a model with Celtic designs on the capos metallic parts.  For those wealthy patriotic Americans, G7th offersa model with Red, White and Blue crystals, but make certain you have enough on your credit card as this one will sells for 539.00 UK pounds.

Most of the others run around 20 to 39 UK pounds.  G7th also offers banjo capos and classical guitar capos.

The last capo I’ll talk about is for the lap steel guitar. Because the strings are set high above the fret board and the fret board is only used for the position markers, a capo for a lap steel guitar presents a unique situation.

Instead of the capo being strapped or held behind the neck, the lapsteel capo fits under the strings. The bottom of the capo rests on the fret board and acts as a sort of stilt.

Lap steel capos are generally made of brass and have some sort of locking mechanism to block the strings.

I would like to remind you of a previous post that discussed Joshua Gomes hand built capos. He calls these Sawmill Capos. They are beautiful capos made of wood and once again they are worth looking into my friends.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Frederich Ebner Sr said...

The best capo video review!

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