The guitar capo is a super simple device. It attaches to the neck of the guitar and helps to raise the pitch of the instrument.
Despite this simplicity, it has a long, rich and fascinating history.
The Dawn Of The Capo – The 1700s
The capo appears to have originated in the 1700s, the word “capo” is the short form of “capotasto” which refers to a bar/movable nut that you attach to the fingerboard of a guitar (or, indeed, any stringed instrument) to uniformly raise its pitch.
It would have started out as a piece of c-shaped brass, it wouldn’t have been finely engineered and probably did a fair bit of damage to the instrument while it was in use.
So, the first change in the 18th century was to improve this design and the English Yoke Capo (which used a clamp to move it around the neck) and the Spanish Cejilla Capo (which was super easy to make – in fact, you can make one at home, if you like) arrived.
The First Iteration Of The Capo – The 1800s
In the late 19th century, there’d been a bit more iteration of the device and a lever on the top of the capo (as in Ashborn’s capo) was readily available.
And Sears, the indomitable retailer, was making capos as well. In their 1886 catalog, you can find five different capos all made from aluminum or brass.
They were pretty cheap too, though not by the standards of the day, at only 20-50 cents each.
The Twentieth Century Capo – The 1900s
In the 20th century, thanks to huge incremental improvements in engineering and design methodology the capo would go through an incredible number of iterations.
James Dunlop would introduce a plastic capo which used a rubber strip with metal notches back in the 1960s.
The Kyser quick change capo arrived in the 1980s and, today, it’s almost the standard choice of capo for most guitarists as it made tightening and adjusting the capo while in place super easy.
Believe it or not, these capos are made by hand, even today and are not mass produced by machine in China.
Current Capo Developments – The 2000s
In 2007, the G7th capo became the first major development on the capo scene in nearly a half-century with its string pad mechanism which allows the user incredible control over the tension in the strings.
And in 2011, Intellitouch released a capo tuner which, as it sounds, is a chromatic tuning device that also acts as a capo. It even has a built in LED screen which makes setting the tone suepr easy and it looks awesome.
Final Thoughts On The Guitar Capo’s History
Who would have thought that a device as simple as the capo would have had such a long and interesting history?
And it’s not an idle device – changing the tone of an instrument dramatically increases the flexibility of that instrument which is why George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and RY Cooder (among many others) have used a capo for their guitars.
If you’re interested in music history, you might enjoy these awesome books about music, or our examination of the history of headphones or even these excellent music blogs which deal with the history of music as it happens!