The Theory Of Bluegrass In Defense Of The Capo By Matt Snook


The Theory of Bluegrass: In Defense of the Capo
by Matt Snook
angst, apologizing as they position
roll in whatever key they like.
magine a festival jam, the night air
their capo for their favorite Hank Wil-
You’ve probably noticed the common
finally cool enough for comfort, the
liams tune, or whatever. The anti-capo
component here. Any music involv-
moon just up and you’re settling in for
ing open strings is dependent upon
crowd can be more than a little con-
a long one. Into the flickering lantern
descending toward what they see as a
that open tuning. Duh. So all the
light steps a stranger. “Mind if I sit
“crutch,” insisting that its use indicates
sans-capo pickers have done is limit
in?” You point him to an empty seat,
a lack of ability.
themselves to those sounds available
and from a well-worn case he pulls
from closed positions. And this on an
a fine hand-crafted resonator guitar,
But wait! Why do they use all six
instrument which can use ringing open
tunes the string and looks up, ready to
strings? Surely our jammer was cor-
strings, double-stopped unisons, etc. to
go. Why the heck, you wonder, does
rect – all tunes can be played on one
great effect.
he only have one string? “Well,” he
string (ask the mandolinists about
says, “I’ve found that all the notes are
Chris Thile’s and Mike Marshall’s
Why would anybody intentionally
right there on that one string, and a
G-string escapade). And I suppose
limit themselves? Especially when it
person really doesn’t need any more
is so easy to make up pretty cool dobro
that with practice, he could do it
now, does he?” “Oh, sorry,” you reply.
“with one hand tied behind his back,”
music that can’t be played without a
“Did I say that out loud?”
as my Grand-dad used to say. But
capo. Let’s look at one last example.
You can imagine your own ending
why handicap yourself? In case you
In Figure 2 is the tab to a dobro break
to this story, but my point is simply
haven’t noticed, there are no bonus
in E, capoed at fret 2, for the Merle
that you would find such antics a
points given out for going without. It’s
Haggard song “You Don’t Have Very
little strange. Who in their right mind
supposed to be all about the music.
Far To Go.” While many great
would not use everything their instru-
sounds can be found in a closed posi-
Consider a couple of standard dobro
Refusal to use a capo is just a
While those with one hand
“licks.” In Figure 1 you’ll see a tab
way of limiting your options.
tied - or no capo - can play
with two tried and true riffs in G. As
Which of us is so good that
long as we stay in G, we’re all in it
this roll only in G, any hum-
together. But as soon as the fiddlers
we can afford to do that?!?
ble player with a capo can
want to play Beaumont Rag in F, or
find this smooth, driving roll
the vocalist chooses C#, the no-capo
ment had to offer? Ah, but some dobro
in whatever key they like.
crowd will be restricted to playing
players, though they might not clip off
closed positions and looking down
five of their strings, do handicap them-
their noses at the capoed cadre who
tion E, they are only a fraction of the
selves by refusing to use a capo!
still have their complete repertory of
possibilities. This example is merely
closed and open position moves – in
one of an infinite number of simple
Now, banjo players don’t have that
every key! Refusal to use a capo is just
breaks that simply cannot be played
hangup. They will happily talk capo
a way of limiting your options. Which
without a capo! And remember, even
all day. Guitar players, same thing
of us is so good that we can afford to
with the capo all of the closed position
– bluegrass pickers, anyway. Actu-
do that?!?
moves are still available – the best of
ally, one of my favorite guitar players
both worlds! Limiting yourself just
routinely uses more than one capo to
Still not convinced? OK, next we have
to prove a point may earn you points
get the effect he wants – a drop F or
a move so simple that I can get people
in somebody’s book, but it sure won’t
G tuning. On the other extreme are
playing it during their very first dobro
help your playing.
the mandolinists, and occasionally a
lesson, and yet it can’t be played in A
guitarist will thumb his nose at capo
by even the most dexterous of profes-
use. But the poor dobro community is
sionals without a capo. The second
sorely divided.
line of Figure 1 shows a lick created
by Mike Auldridge, using a forward
Now I might be able to dismiss the
roll over the IV chord but leaving the
whole issue with some cliches like
first string open. While those with one
“different strokes for different folks,”
hand tied - or no capo - can play this
or “it takes all kinds,” but some sensi-
roll only in G, any humble player with
tive reso pickers carry around a lot of
a capo can find this smooth, driving


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