Among the wide selection of guitar accessories, the one that is probably the most famous is the trusty capo. As with today’s saturated guitar market, there is a colossal number of options to choose from and it can be a rather confusing task sorting the good from the bad. With this guide, we hope to make the task somewhat easier and give an overview of the best capos available.
What is a Capo?
Historically, the capo was called a capotasto, which is an Italian term signifying head fret, or in modern vernacular, the nut. The nut is a small inlay that sits at the top of the neck, just below the headstock and guides the strings to the machine heads, which then determine the tuning of the strings. The capotasto, therefore, alludes to any accessory capable of temporarily changing the position of the nut on the fretboard.
The reason a musician may want to do this is simple. When the position of the nut is shifted, the scale length of the strings is made shorter, allowing the pitch of the open strings to change without having to completely re-tune the guitar with the machine heads as is customarily done. This is turn allows players to play chords with different tonal qualities because the tuning of the guitar is essentially moved up.
The chords are also much easier to play with a capo due to the tonal shift it provides. Essentially, normal tuning requires complicated finger positions to ring out certain chords. With a capo these are much easier to perform.
A capo is fixed onto the fretboard just above the desired fret and applies pressure on each of the six strings simultaneously, in the same way a finger would do if it was held in the same position. With a padded side wrapped around the underside of the neck, the capo makes sure the guitar isn’t damaged.
Capos work equally well on electric and acoustic guitars. They are generally favoured by acoustic guitar oriented music, but are increasingly popular in other styles of music, notably ones that employ techniques such as tapping or technical passages.
The core concept of the capo is, therefore, functional.
Types of Capos
There are three main types of capo, each with its own qualities and attributes. There are other types, but these tend to be less common. It is up to you to determine which suits your needs best, though we recommend keeping in mind the functional aspect of each design and how easy it is to use.
Among the different types of capos, the strap-on capo is generally the cheapest available due to the minimal design and low cost of the components involved in making it. The clamping mechanism is held in place by a material strap or band that sits on the underside of the neck. It is attached to one end of the clamping bar, then secured on the other side by a buckle to create the tension that holds the strings in place. It is one of the few capos that stretches uninterrupted all the way around the neck.
Strap-on capos do present some problems as the basic band system has a tendency to loosen, causing the pressure exerted on the strings to weaken, creating all sorts of strange sounds and effectively putting the strings out of tune. It also tends to shift back and forth when the strings are played, causing them to bend. In addition, repeated use can cause the band to stretch, rendering it obsolete.
In our opinion, this type of capo is the least reliable and the low price tag seems to suggest the same. We recommend these for beginners or guitarists with very limited funds and recommend you reserve their use to the practice room. We won’t cover these in our recommended list as it is much wiser to pay a little more and get a far superior capo in either of the types described below.
Spring Clamp Capo
Possibly the most common type of capo, the spring clamp capo uses the tension created by a spring to secure itself on top of the strings. It is built with four protruding tongs, two of which represent the spring clamp acting as a pivot. When pulled together they release the spring and when released they allow the spring to tighten.
The other two tongs are fixed to the guitar, one is the bar that sits on the fretboard, the other shorter concave one on the underside of the neck. Together they ensure the strings are securely barred. These two are often covered in a protective rubber strip or other similarly padded material to avoid damage.
Generally, the spring clamp capo is viewed as the easiest and fastest to install, facilitated by the fact that it can be done with the use of only one hand. The only downside is that the pressure is set and cannot be changed. This causes issues with some neck shapes and requires proper installation to avoid securing the strings incorrectly. If this happens the strings can ring out of tune.
Another consideration is that after repeated use, the spring can lose some of its tension, but given the low cost of the spring clamp capo, it can easily be replaced. A word of caution; it is best to avoid spring clamp capos made of plastic as these tend to fall apart easily and are not reliable.
Screw-On or C-Clamp Capo
The final type of capo is the most complex in terms of design. Like a traditional c-clamp used in carpentry and other fields, the screw-on capo uses a screw to determine the pressure applied by the bar on the strings. The barring tong is similar to that of a spring clamp capo in that it is padded and rests on the strings to create the capo effect. The underside neck tong acts similarly except that a screw can be wound to change the pressure applied by this tong. The tighter it is wound, the more pressure it exerts, and vice-versa.
C-clamp capos are the most time-consuming to install and take some getting used to especially when determining sufficient pressure to bar the strings correctly without going overboard or not applying enough. Different neck shapes can also make this task more difficult given different pressure requirements. With this downside in mind, it is worth noting that this type of capo is the most reliable due to the secure mechanism, and the most versatile thanks to the adjustable screw.
Screw-on capos are the most expensive option, though you do pay for the peace of mind of a secure locking mechanism. It is regarded as the most serious option and is often used by professional musicians.
Budget and Quality
The capo’s price tag is fairly affordable, even when considering the most expensive models and it is important to remember that you are not spending hundreds of dollars. This means that for a few dollars more, you can get a much better accessory. We therefore recommend forking out a little more to get a better capo as the benefits far outweigh the minimal extra cost.
Quality wise, it all comes down to how well a capo holds the strings. Are they in tune? Is the intonation held throughout the length of the fretboard? Do the strings bend? And of course, how easy is it to put the capo on and take it off? These are all question you should be asking yourself when buying a capo.
Best Spring Clamp Capo
Among the very wide selection of spring clamp capos, we were rather taken with the Kyser KG6B. Kyser pride themselves on the efficiency of this model and it is understandable why this is the case.
The KG6B is a one hand job that is very easy to mount and remove thanks to Kyser’s spring tensioned Quick-Change clamp. The strong, durable yet light aluminum design keeps the strings nicely in tune with perfect intonation throughout the fretboard. The pads are thick and don’t leave any lasting marks or damage to the neck. The tension is just right and you feel it is doing its job without endangering the wood on the underside of the neck.
We highly recommend the KG6B for the build, precision and price. This model works for both acoustics and electrics making it a versatile option. It can also be easily secured to the headstock for easy access when not in use. The made in USA is also a reassuring attribute.
Next on our list is the Kava LegendPro. Here we have a lightweight premium alloy capo that screams durability. The main features are a heavy-duty internal memory spring that offers just the right amount of tension to secure the strings without hurting the guitar neck or fretboard. The silicone padded bar is also purposefully curved to guarantee balanced pressure on all the strings including the top and bottom ones that are notoriously more difficult to hold down.
Once on the guitar, the LegendPro holds intonation well and is even fairly forgiving if positioning isn’t quite perfect, a much appreciated feature for first time capo users who have yet to get accustomed to how they really work. The LegendPro is also designed for one handed use and the clamps hint at this with their ergonomic shape. This allows easy off the cuff adjustments if the capo isn’t in quite the right position.
Kava are so convinced of the superiority of their capo, they have even slapped on a lifetime guarantee. The LegendPro also works on a variety of string instruments, including banjos and ukuleles.
Overall, we have to agree with Kava, the LegendPro is reliable and versatile allowing you to concentrate of playing rather than fussing over a temperamental capo.
Our final capo among the spring clamp family is the Dunlop 83CB Curved Trigger Capo. Jim Dunlop is one of the most respected guitar accessory manufacturers in the business today and is known among other things for its Cry Baby wah pedal. With the Trigger capo it stays true to form and offers a functional, simple solution.
The Trigger works on both electrics and acoustics, including 12 string guitars. The bar tong is curved so as to cover all the strings with equal levels of pressure, keeping intonation nicely held and in tune without out any buzzing from the frets. The easy squeeze clamp can be manipulated with one hand and offers enough tension to feel secure without hurting the guitar or requiring inhumane strength to remove. It’s also made of lightweight aircraft-grade aluminum with a slim design.
Overall, we like the simple functionality of the Trigger. It does the job well and that is all we can ask from a capo.
Best Screw-On Capo
When it comes to screw-on capos there is really only one manufacturer that is worth your time and that is Shubb. The company specializes in, and only makes capos. It is their bread and butter, and they are masters of their craft. All their products are hand-crafted to guarantee quality.
First off, we have the Shubb C1K Capo Noir. A capo designed for any guitar with steel strings so appropriate for an acoustic as well as an electric. The C1K uses Shubb’s one of a kind level locking mechanism that ensures that once the screw is adjusted to the desired tension it stays firmly in that position until the securing lever if flipped, at which point the tension can be modified.
The screw uses a roller design at its tip. It ensures that any drop off in tension at the extremities of the capo are counter balanced regardless of the size or shape of the neck. This offers a grip security that is unheard of in spring clamped capos. The idea here is to mimic the hand of a player, which is essentially what a capo is, a third hand.
The bar tong is curved for ideal pressure across the strings. It is also covered with a soft, durable custom made rubber that mimics the pressure of a finger keeping the strings nicely centered and in tune by not bending them over the fret. The whole capo is black chrome plated and feels extremely resilient and well-built.
One of the best features of the C1K is that once you’ve set the length for the screw for your guitar it will stay that way forever, unless you change it. This means you won’t waste time re-tightening it every time you want to use it. For a screw-on capo, the C1K is nearly as easy to clamp on as a spring capo.
Overall, this is by far the best capo on the market today and if we can recommend any capo, it is this one. You can’t go wrong and the C1K simply eclipses all its competitors.
We will also mention the Shubb Deluxe S2, which is a comparable model to the C1K, though this one is specifically geared towards use on acoustic guitars. Its features are identical to those of the Shubb above with the exception of the shape, which is more suited to the flatter and larger fretboards found on acoustics.
You can’t go wrong with this one if you have an acoustic and we can’t recommend it enough.
Similar to the two models above in terms of build and quality, except that the Shubb Deluxe S1 is geared towards electric guitars. It offers the same locking mechanism, curved bar tong and unique finger-mimicking rubber padding. The only difference is the shape is far more suited to the thinner and curvier necks found on electric guitars.
Overall we have to pick the Shubb C1K Capo Noir. The C1K is the type of product you buy once and never have to replace. It is rare to have one product stand so far above the rest ,and even rarer to be able to say with certainty that this is the one you need to get. It is, hands down, the best one available and though you may be paying slightly more than other models, it is well worth the few extra dollars.