Normally, I don’t advocate cheating, but it’s hard to play bluegrass guitar, and next-to-impossible to play bluegrass banjo without a capo, also known as a “cheater bar”. I first discovered capos when I saw Keith Richard using one with the Stones, so I bought one of those cloth-covered, elastic ones, and began a love/hate relationship with the devices that continues to this day. In rock music, they’re pretty much an option – bar chords are very prevalent, and amplification often makes up for the lack of the sound of open strings.
Once I started playing Bluegrass though, I learned there are several ubiquitous riffs (a/k/a the “G run”), that necessitates playing from a first position (that is, on the first three frets) regardless of the key. So the capo became a standard item in the guitar case. I grew adept at popping that bad boy on when playing in anything but G or A. Now–you mandolin, fiddle and bass players may snicker–but for guitar and banjo pickers, capos are a big deal.
Of course, I graduated from the cheap, difficult-to-use stretchy capo to more dependable models. The Kyser worked well for me: one-hand action, easy to store on the peghead when not using. Later, I switched to a Shubb for purely aesthetic reasons – I liked the slim, low profile of it. They both worked well. Maybe I’m easy to please, or maybe my ear is not critical enough to notice much difference between decent capos.
My pal Lynn Q is a different story. She has had a long quest in search of the Perfect Capo. Oh, she’s tried the Kyser, the Paiges and the Shubbs – they weren’t right to her critical ear. So, she invested time and money in various other configurations. She prowled the vendors’ tents and tables at festivals all over the country, ready to spend whatever it took to get the Perfect Capo. And it was elusive, my friends. She would find what seemed to be the Holy Capo, only to discover, after some weeks of use that there was a tell-tale buzz or rattle on certain areas of her guitar neck. My heart went out to her, and I felt like a musical Philistine for being satisfied with my $20 models! Her search seems to be at an end. While in Nashville at IBMA a few years ago,, she located what may be the Perfect Capo for her. She found a Ptacek – boasting fine construction, and Paige-like ability to slide above the nut when not in use. I wish them many happy years together. It was nice that the seller was able to arrange a reasonable mortgage for financing the device, too!
Capos perform another, less well-known function. They are frequently the source of Extreme Performance Anxiety when they become lost or break just as the band is about to hit the stage. And you can’t ask the audience for one, because you’d be pelted to death by flying Shubbs, Paiges and Kysers. No one would throw a Ptacek, though!