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The mandolin is a popular instrument in some music genres but you may not have seen or heard a lot of it in mainstream, radio music. If you are a fan of country, bluegrass, various types of folk music, and classical music you may be well aware of the look and sound of this instrument. If you are a guitar player looking to start playing the mandolin, one of the questions you might be asking yourself is whether mandolins use capos.
Mandolins do use capos. They are used for the same reason as you would use them on a guitar; to raise the pitch. These are often used to make songs easier to play in different keys. A capo on a mandolin will allow you to play in different keys while maintaining the same chord positioning.
Throughout this article, we will go over a few topics related to this question, including what capos are, which instruments they are used on, and why one would want to use one on a mandolin. Now let’s get straight into it!
What Is a Capo?
A capo is a tool used by musicians attached to the neck of a string (and typically fretted) instrument. It is also sometimes called a capodastro, capo tasto, or capotasto, which roughly translates to the “head of the fretboard.”
If you have ever played the guitar, you have probably used one since they are commonly used on guitars. I used mine on my guitar nearly every time I play it as it allows me to play songs in different keys more easily.
Capos are usually applied after the instrument has been tuned and they lay across the strings from above, directly behind the desired fret, so all the strings experience a uniform pressure. Using it will shorten and rearrange the length of the strings, which will in turn bring up the pitch of the instrument.
Musicians want to raise their instrument’s pitch to play the same chords in a different key. It’s as if you were creating a nut on the instruments higher up the fret.
Anyone can use a capo but those who play music styles like British and American folk music, Irish traditional music, and flamenco often use capos on their instruments to create new and different sounds in their melodies. The classical and jazz music styles seldom use capos as they prefer a more pure sound from their instruments.
Manufacturers have started focusing more on how the capo actually looks in recent years to make them not only functionally useful but aesthetically pleasing as well.
Different Types of Capos
The first known use of a capo dates back to 1640 when Italian musicologist Giovanni Battista Doni used it. Still, the capo design wasn’t patented until James Ashborn patented his design in 1850. Since then, the design of capos has expanded, and there are more than a few varieties in use today.
Strap capos are attached to an instrument’s neck by using a tight strap or elastic to secure a bar onto the instrument’s neck. They are easy to use and inexpensive. However, the straps are prone to wearing out quickly.
A toggle capo looks and works similarly to a strap capo, except that after you’ve pulled the strap to your desired tightness, you then snap a toggle closed, which ensures that the capo stays in place. This kind of capo is also relatively inexpensive, but the toggle mechanism may sometimes pull strings out of tune.
Trigger capos work similarly to the clip you would use to close a bag of chips; you open the clamp, place it over your desired fret on the instrument’s neck, and release, clamping the capo down on the neck.
These are some of the most popular capos because of their ease of use, firm attachment, good quality, and the fact that they can be moved quickly, often beneficial, and necessary during live performances. However, this capo design means that it starts exerting pressure one string after the other as you attach it to the neck, which could make the instrument’s intonation abnormal.
This is the type of capo that I prefer simply because it is easy to work with. It’s quick to put on a take off and one of the most affordable options on the market. I have been using this type of capo all my life and have never had an issue with it.
The spring capo is designed similarly to the trigger capo; however, it is somewhat more sophisticated in the spring mechanism it uses. These are also a popular style of capo because they are easy to use (especially if you only have one hand free), they are a bit more sturdy than the trigger capo, but they still might produce the same intonation issues.
Adjustable Screw Capo
Adjustable screw capos are some of the oldest types of capos. They work by applying pressure gradually to the back of your instrument’s neck as you turn a screw that brings an arm closer to the back of the neck. This tightens the capo in place and distributes the pressure evenly across the strings.
This capo style keeps your instrument in tune better and is less jerky than spring and trigger capos, and is relatively inexpensive. Their only downfall is that they take longer to put in position, and moving them around isn’t easy.
The yoke-style capo works similarly to adjustable screw capos in that both styles use a screw on the back of your instrument’s neck to increase the pressure of the capo. The yoke-style capo, however, wraps around the neck of the instrument completely. The pad that presses down on the strings is attached to a hinge and swings open to allow you to fasten the capo to your instrument.
These capos allow you to screw them onto your instrument most evenly and thus exert the evenest pressure of all capo styles. They are a bit more difficult to put on; however, once they’re fastened, they stay in place well but also let themselves be adjusted with relative ease.
These are great capos but when compared to the trigger capos that I prefer, they are more cumbersome to use.
Most capos are designed to put pressure on all of the strings at once, though partial capos only pressure some of the strings, as the name suggests. The type of partial capo you use will depend on the instrument you are playing, but some popular variations will apply pressure to all strings but one or cover three and leave the other three exposed (on six-stringed instruments).
Which Instruments Are Capos Usually Used On?
As mentioned before, capos are used mostly on string instruments with frets, as this is when they are most effective. The instruments most commonly used with a capo are guitars, ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, mandolas, and bouzoukis.
Can You Use a Capo on a Mandolin?
Though playing the mandolin with a capo is often seen as controversial or even ‘wrong’ (especially by mandolin fanatics), they do have their uses. They can actually at times improve a mandolin’s performance.
They are often beneficial for beginners on a guitar since they help to “move” the frets closer together. By doing this, you won’t have to stretch your fingers too much to play chords. However, the mandolin frets are already close together so this benefit is not useful for this instrument.
One of the main reasons to use a capo on a mandolin would be to achieve a certain sound and one that wouldn’t be possible if you were playing your mandolin ‘open’ (without a capo).
There are various kinds of capos to choose from, but you’ll get the best results if you get one specifically made for use on a mandolin. Some examples include this SHUBB C5R Standard Capo, this PAIGE Banjo/Mandolin Capo, or this SWIFF Deluxe Quick-Change Capo.
All that to say, you really shouldn’t let what someone else says affect how you’re going to play your instrument. If you want to use a capo and like the way it sounds, you should use it.
Contrary to popular opinion, mandolins can be used with capos, and using them isn’t bad or wrong. If you have the right kind of capo and know how to use them properly, the melodies produced by your mandolin-capo combination can sound really nice.