Using a capo is an important part of banjo playing. If you are a new player and have not tried one it can add a whole new sound. The new tension on the strings gives the banjo a fun new feel and with the frets closer together it can even make your banjo easier to play. In the 3-finger Scruggs style and other bluegrass techniques we use the capo often, not only because it makes it easier to change keys without "changing what we already know" but also because in most cases the more open strings we have to work with the better. (This often just sounds better, but that depends on the genre played.)
For those of you who are new to this, here is a little chart to help you.
2nd fret - A 3rd fret - Bb 4th fret - B 5th fret - C 7th fret - D
When to Use a Capo
When playing up-tempo style traditional bluegrass in the keys of A, Bb, and B, I recommend using a capo. In other types of music other than bluegrass, or at slower tempos in these keys, depending on the sound or feel you desire, it could be appropriate and preferable not to use a capo, but generally speaking, in bluegrass banjo technique you would use a capo for A, Bb and B.
When playing songs in the keys of G, C, D, or F at any tempo, I would recommend playing out of open G and not using a capo. If you are more novice, you certainly could use a capo on the 5th fret for C and even 7th fret for D. When doing that though you lose many of the rich low notes. So, I recommend that it be your goal to not use the capo above the 4th fret, especially not at the 7th fret for the key of D.
When playing in the key of E, I normally don’t use a capo but tune my fifth string to high B or sometimes F#. However, capoing to the second fret in G tuning and playing as if you were in the key of D can very often produce the sound you want.
I recommend using a capo that you can easily adjust the pressure on the strings. Your goal in using the capo should be to be able to get it on quick, but more importantly, minimize retuning!
This is the type of capo I use, this one is inexpensive and does the job well: Paige Banjo Capo
Attaching a Capo and Minimizing Re-tuning
A good way to attach the capo is to push the capo bar against the strings, straight on (being careful not to push or bend the strings) and hold it there with your right thumb while you tighten the screw with the left hand. I place the capo right behind the fret very close to it or even touching it. You should only tighten the strings as much is needed to make solid contact. Over tightening can throw the banjo way out of tune. For practice, after you have the capo in place, get out your electronic tuner and see where the strings ended up. If you’re lucky, you’ll still be in tune. More likely, however, you will need to make a small adjustment or two. Now, take note of what happened to each string and write it down so next time you’ll know what to expect. You can also experiment with exactly where you place the capo for the least re-tuning.
Important tip: If a string or two went sharp, before you start turning pegs, push on the string down near the bridge and see if that straightens it out. Many times that will push the string back where it belongs. My technique is to put the capo on quckly but carefully, then I take the palm of my right hand and push down on all the strings near the bridge. On my banjo, that's often all I need to avoid re-tuning. (keep in mind, if you strings are not fully stretched out and you do this, they all might go out) Try pushing on the strings next to the bridge with your palm in open G first to make sure they hold. I have a video on changing and stretching strings here. Video / String Changing/Setting the Bridge/Tightening the Head
The trick here is to learn how your banjo tuning reacts with a capo at each fret. Take the time to practice and study how to tune quickly and effectively with a capo. If you learn good capo placing and tuning technique, you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience at the gig or jam without the hassles of tuning or, even worse, playing out of tune.
If you need a capo or want a backup one, I put a great low price banjo capo available on sale for $15.00 this month at my website, Banjoteacher.com. If you like my free instruction on Banjo Hangout and need a capo, I'd appreciate your support.
Big Doug Says:
Monday, February 24, 2014 @8:38:23 AM
Good information. I really appreciate it. Doug A
Monday, February 24, 2014 @5:05:44 PM
i have great success with a shub...you can fine tune the adjustment to the minimum required with precision
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @6:15:29 AM
You're going to hate me for this ('cuz it's picky), but the capo doesn't put "new tension on the strings," as mentioned in the first paragraph. Rather, it shortens the strings without changing the tension (much). Same as fretting a string. The tension stays basically the same but a shorter string gives you a higher pitch. Sorry, my Physics of Music class from college is constantly lurking around in my head.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @8:37:12 AM
Thanks for posting this. Good useful info.. Think I'll grab one of your capos now that they're discounted.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @9:29:23 AM
Thanks for the info. I will be referring to your tips a lot in the future.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @10:39:28 AM
The best capo I have run across for ease of use is the G7th. Quick one hand installation. There are two styles, the one WITHOUT the screw is the best as it just squeezes on.
Larry Richardson Says:
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @10:39:44 AM
Good article. I must mention though that I teach students to play in C as well as G (not D as Ross mentions.) Playing in C allows you to capo up to D, E and F and adds the benefit of having the open G chord as part of the playing!
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 @2:23:10 PM
Great information! I know a lot of players use 'spikes' for a 5th string capo, but I wanted to mention my homemade 5th string capo solution. Using a blank bone saddle, I fashioned a capo that neatly fits under the 5th string while also straddling the fret. It’s thick enough to apply tension to the string giving a very clear tone. The nice thing about it is that it can be used on any fret for the 5th string. I’d like to post a picture on the blog, but there doesn’t appear to be anyway to do that. Anyone who would like to see pictures of my capo, please send me an email at: email@example.com
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 @6:01:48 PM
All of these are good comments, its hard to cover all the bases. I like the shubb capos too, I also use the G7 but unfortunately they just discontinued them, but they are still making the G7 Newport. The Newport is also good because you can adjust the tension with a knob. Playing in C out of G tuning is a good technique and I use it often when playing in the key of C. My issue with playing in the C position as opposed to the D position is no open fourth string as a root note, (or unless you drop the fourth string to C tuning) and also using the capo when it might not be necessary. That's all free will though and it certainly doesn't mean anyone is wrong choosing to approach playing in different keys that way. Not only that for many it might produce the sound they want and that should be everyone's bottom line. As far as the tension, I'm not too scientific but the strings feel much tighter to me with less give and have less sustain with a capo on. I think that is what I am trying to describe by using the word tension. For instance, when you are capoed to B, the strings have a tighter feel, less sustain and it produces a much more percussive sound than in open G.
Just to be clear, most of my intention with this article is to encourage a lot of players that are new to using capos to get one out and practice with it. Many students never put one on at home and then are faced with it the first time they jam and never get any guidance on types of capos, putting one on, and minimizing any retuning. I also want to encourage those that have not used a capo or used one much that it can be fun and it gives your banjo a new sound and feel. Everyone will have a slightly different experience with it and form their own opinions but again getting to the bottom line, my humble advice and encouragement is to experiment with it and get to know your banjo when using a capo. Thanks, Ross
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