An Alternate-Tuning Capo

Spider Capo

UPDATE, 03.07.13: I should have mentioned a point that several readers noted in comments: The capo only alters the tuning of open strings. Which means that while you can play many harmonies normally available only in dropped tunings, any notes above the capo appear at their usual frets. For example, all barre chords are played exactly as in standard tuning.

After all the digital guitar stuff I’ve been writing about lately, I really wanted to spend an afternoon without plugging in any frickin’ USB cables. So I finally got around to experimenting with the SpiderCapo I picked up last year on a whim.

The SpiderCapo his six independently adjustable clamps, each of which can either stop the string or let it ring freely. That means you can dial in most dropped tunings without actually detuning any strings — instead, you transpose the entire voicing up. It’s a lot of fun to play, and seems like it could be a cool composing tool if you’re the sort of musician who gets inspired by unfamiliar tunings. Plus, it looks kind of wicked when you fret the unstopped strings behind the capo.

Here’s a little video I made, noodling around in a few tunings I particularly liked:

Anyone else tried one of these? Or any other “tricky” alternate-tuning capo? How about those gadgets that (unlike the SpiderCapo) can stop strings at differing frets?

23 comments to An Alternate-Tuning Capo

  • Bear

    That’s pretty freaking cool. That’s the sort of thing that makes more sense to me than pitch shifting individual strings on a guitar synth setup — the connection to the fretboard is right. I do seem to recall seeing some demo with two, maybe more of the Spiders used at the same time, which could be quite awesome and/or baffling.

    (Interestingly, the Kubicki Factor basses had a built-in drop-D feature that works on a similar principle. I knew a bassist who used to play one who said that he could do some tricks with it that he couldn’t with a normal drop-D-tuner, ala Hipshot. I can’t recall if the behind-the-nut stuff was playable or part of the trick.)

  • smgear

    the tunings and capo are great and all, but I’m having a hard time pulling my focus away from that beautiful guitar and how much I would love for you to extend your little improvs to a solid 5-8 minutes each……….. ok. I will be getting that capo because my only concerns about it in the past were about the quality and stability, but it looks and sounds solid in the video. But in all seriousness Joe, while I do love the commentary, discussions, and info, I suspect that the main reason why many of us originally tuned in here was just to hear you play. Have you done any session work lately that we should be looking for? When’s the next Mental 99 album coming out? Is it too much to hope for that one of these days you’ll just self-record and release a album’s worth of your sittin-around-the-house improv and arrangements that we can pay you a pittance for?

    • joe

      Aww, thanks for saying so, though your words are pushing my guilt button a bit. The Mental 99 album is taking forever because — well, because I’m taking forever to track the guitars. (Dawn’s drums are all finished, and they sound amazing.) I just have a little too much work right now, not that I’m complaining. Better than the alternative!

      My years at Guitar Player instilled a profound distaste for self-absorbed guitar solo albums, though I am eager to do a lot of guitar recording this year. Believe me — I’ll pimp announce it here first! 🙂

      • smgear

        ha, I know the feeling about ‘most’ solo albums, but I certainly have a few in the rotation that I love. Perhaps, the follow-up question should be “‘do you dislike those solo albums because your own playing and compositions are way more interesting?” You’re too modest to say it publicly, but I’m sure you’ve thought it at least a couple times (I’ve thought it and I’m a terrible guitarist). In which case, you should do it. I think these types of projects are where the advances of home recording gear shine. Just hammer out some tracks on the rare free afternoon and put them out there. If they find an audience, great, if not, you can always listen to them on depressing commutes and smile about them (or whatever your preferred venue is for digging up the archives).

        • joe

          Thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

          And I couldn’t agree more about the benefits or recording just to express yourself and document your music, even if there’s not much of an audience. It’s one of the most gratifying aspects of being a musician in this day and age. 🙂

          • mwseniff

            Recording is one of the few activities that my failed back has left me with the ability to do without limit (I can still do other things like garden but I need to force myself to stop after an hour or so and do it in small chunks). When I finally came to the conclusion I would never be able to work at the job I love it was very disappointing to me. It was then that I realized that playing guitar was a gift I had given myself over the years and am very thankful I did, it left me with a purpose and goals.

  • thomas4th

    That’s a really brilliant idea. I only have a “normal” capo at the moment, and I primarily use it at the 5th fret to emulate low-G ukulele tuning (until I get a uke, of course). I’ll get around to doing smart things with it, I promise!

    And yes, fretting behind the SpiderCapo does look clever. 🙂

  • Digital Larry

    OK but if I remember my cultural anthropology, it’s not really creating an alternate tuning. It’s more like having Steve Vai standing behind you to lend a hand with fretting positions that would otherwise be impossible. Thanks Steve! I don’t care what Frank said, you would not have fit in with Linda Ronstadt.

    For example if you do some barre chords up the neck, it’s just like regular tuning again? So this creates a new world IN BETWEEN, which in order to exploit YOU GOTTA use unstopped strings? Not that this is a bad thing, just trying to be clear about it.

    • joe

      Larry’s right, as usual. 🙂

      Yes — I should have made clearer that the altered tuning only applies to open strings. I updated to post accordingly.

      Steve’s a real nice guy. He probably WOULD help you out like that. 🙂

  • mwseniff

    I have one of these as well as another one which has rubber fretters and an elastic strap. One of my favorite uses is to tune the guitar to open E major except one half step down (Eb Bb G Eb G Bb Eb). I put the spider capo on the first fret but the finger is up on the G string which gives an E minor (E B E G B E) when you strum a chord open. If you put the slide on the strings all the chords become majors i.e. at the 4th fret you get a G major chord (G D G B D G). This makes for a nice platform for a lot of styles of music. I also have a couple of capos that are shorter and only cover 3 strings or less that can be added further down the neck or even above the capo. I have seen a few videos where players use a dizzying array of combinations of capos and they use the partial capos a lot. There are some links from the website for spider capos.

    I also use the E B E A B E tuning a lot and have for nearly 30 years I have always called it E modal. It works particularly well for slide as it can be played over both minor and major chords equally well. I keep my acoustic tuned to a D modal tuning as it is very useful and inspiring. E modal is a very old tuning from what I have read it was used in ethnic musics for hundreds of years.

    There is really something very cool about capos and open tunings the guitar seems to sing and resonate in a totally different manner. The spider capo is a very cool device. I have not used mine enough to be totally proficient like some of the videos online. In one video I have seen the player was actually flipping the levers during the song he was playing (tho’ the intonation was slightly off in a couple of places but I have dog ears for intonation from playing slide) it was very cool to say the least. BTW it is a great post the sound was quite nice.

    • joe

      Hey Matthew — thanks for posting such interesting comments on your use of alternate tunings. Though now I feel a bit self-conscious posting my feeble EBEABE noodling. 😉

      • mwseniff

        Your noodling was not feeble :-). The longer I play guitar the more I am impressed with simpler stuff that can contain great emotion. Simplicity is a lesson that I have had taught to me over and over in my life but it took a long time to sink in. After all if we truly want a wide audience we have to do more than just impress other guitarists. One of my biggest triumphs was when I came down from my old shop in the garage after an hour and a half of playing by myself and my father said to me “You played some beautiful things and I liked it a lot” (but he was pretty well affected Alzheimer’s Syndrome by then 🙁 so YMMV ). It was the first comment he ever made about me playing guitar in fact only my youngest sister has ever really listened to my playing. But for me (and I expect many others here) the buzz you get from an appreciative audience is a big payoff almost as good as the buzz of just playing guitar.

  • NotSoFast

    I’ve got one of those but also haven’t used it too much. Its fun though – like alternate tunings it opens up new area and busts ruts. Its also nice to get that sympathetic resonance of drone strings.

    Two things I’ve noticed. The first you mentioned: unlike alternate tunings, the fretboard notes don’t change. Its a lot easier – you can hit the new territory by plucking an open string but you can stay in the familiar by playing up the neck. In this way you can dynamically control how much “newness” you introduce – gradually adding more as you experiment. Of course all the cool is in the new.

    The other is a drawback – its difficult to fret the notes under the capo. For instance in the modal-E style tuning (EBEABE) the low E string F# is underneath the capo but not fretted. I guess the cool kids fret it behind the capo – I hadn’t thought of that until reading about fretting behind it here. Behind the capo was no man’s land for me. Capo habits that no longer apply!

  • Dustinw

    My favorite trick is to take a regular clamp-style capo and clamp it at the 2nd fret but leave the A and E string un-clamped … it creates an open A6 and it’s awesome for blues-rock noodling.

    • joe

      Cool — thanks for the tip?

      Do you have trouble performing string bends with the capo on?

    • mwseniff

      You can get partial capos that are only long enough to cover 3-4 strings depending on the guitar neck width. I have one and it is great for doing things like you describe. I also use it with other capos to create more complicated open tunings. I remember seeing a lot of folkies back in the late 60’s and early 70’s using capos in the local university coffee house. The ringing capoed tones of unfretted strings on a big bodied acoustic were very sweet music.

  • Joe, Great post, and brilliant tool for us open tuners. I just wanted to ask re your experience with this capo on electric. Having watched you perform electric, and your full use of the fretboard, by using the capo you might feel restrained by not accessing the notes behind?

    Cheers :beer: , –Carl

    • joe

      Hi Carl — thanks!

      Great question. I haven’t ever tried it on electric. Though your question makes me realize that I almost never use capos on electric. Not by design — it just works out that way. Maybe because I sometimes used acoustic to play strummed, open-position chords, whereas I rarely strum anything on electric. Plus, I have this perverse attraction to playing in “bad” guitar keys like Ab and Db, and using the open strings for chromatic dissonance.

      But I’m sure the SpiderCapo would work great on electric, and I know there’s a lot more you can do with behind-the-capo fretting than the little trick in my video.

  • Rodger Richey

    Do a lot of fingerstyle playing too. Main axe is a 1990 0028, which I love, but am very impressed with the sound you get from the Martin in your vid. What model are you using, a 0015? Tone is warm and vibrant, and are you happy with the mike you have? Thanks for the time. Love those small bodied, long-necked Martins. Ideal would be to find a slot head.
    Keep up the good work!


  • m-ga

    This is a great site! I discovered it recently, and have pretty much read the whole thing over the last few weeks. It’s radically improved my approach to the guitar, and following several of the recommendations has led to immediate improvement in my technique. I couldn’t be happier!

    I felt the urge to de-lurk to make a few comments on partial capos. I investigated these earlier in the year. Bizarrely, I can’t remember exactly what attracted me to them – they’re the kind of thing I’d normally dismiss as gimmicky. I think I got interested after watching a player get a great sound, albeit useful for just one specific song, by capoing at the seventh fret but leaving the low E string open.

    Anyway, it turns out that partial capos are no gimmick at all. The best source I’ve found is Harvey Reid’s “The Big Book of Partial Capos”. Getting into this is like entering an alternate guitar universe, one in which exotic voicings and unusual inversions are commonplace.

    The partial capo idea is actually very old (more discussion at the end of this post), and is best seen as a complement to alternate tunings. The beauty is that, whereas an open tuning changes the relationship between the strings permanently, the partial capo changes the relationship only for chords or scales containing open strings. If you use barre chords or play scales up the neck, your fingering is identical to that used in standard tuning. I think this is a major advantage over open tunings.

    A few examples will be useful at this point.

    (1) If you use a partial capo on the second fret to cover the ADGBE strings only (i.e. the low E is uncapoed) you get the equivalent of a drop D tuning (D shape sounds as E). Most people reading this can try it out immediately. Many trigger or screw-on capos (for example, several D’Addario and Kyser models) will cover 5 of 6 strings if you place them carefully. Some models of capo work better than others.

    There are a couple of differences to an actual drop D. Firstly, you lose the easy power chords available in drop D. This is the chief disadvantage, and you’ll prefer retuning to drop D if you want those easy power chords. But, if you weren’t going to use the easy power chords anyway, the advantages are numerous.

    Firstly, you still have the massive first position D chord (sounds as E) that’s so attractive in drop D. But also, the first position G chord (sounds as A) remains available – you simply stop the low E string at the fifth fret as you would when using a full second fret capo. This is the key advantage over retuning to drop D. The chord shapes for C, F, A, Bb, Bm, B7 and so on are also available as in standard. It soon becomes apparent that for many songs which would benefit from bass strings supporting a D chord shape, this capo formation is preferable to both an actual drop D tuning and to standard tuning. This will apply more to solo players than in a band setting, where the bass player covers the low end.

    Try it with Alberquerque by Neil Young (Em with D bass, then D, G and A variously), or Hyacinth House by the Doors (D with the G and high E occasionally open, then Am, G, Em/F#m/A for the bridge and there’s a C just before the end). Pretty effective, huh? In short, this capo arrangement works extremely well on any song where you don’t need a full E or Em shape. And even then, you often can use a full E or Em shape anyway, keeping in mind that the low bass string will make it a seventh with the seventh as the lowest note.

    If you’re worried about limitations on the key you’re playing in (i.e. first position D shapes become E chords with a second fret capo), keep in mind that you can downtune all the strings or capo all the strings up (i.e. use a full capo in addition to the partial capo) to play in practically any key you like.

    (2) Here’s something more exotic with a couple of partial capos. It should be possible with two full capos which have trigger or screw mechanisms – no need to buy more capos just yet! Capo low E through B string at third fret, and low E string through G string at fifth fret. Open strings are now ADGCDE. Then, finger the 5th string (A string in standard) at the 7th fret, the 4th string (D string in standard) at the 9th fret, and the 3rd string (G string in standard) at the 6th fret. Plucking strings individually, you get much of an A major scale. Or, finger the 5th (A) string at the 12th fret and the 4th (D) string at the 9th fret for a similar effect with a minor scale.

    These chords sound amazing. When you see the capo arrangement for them, it is obvious that they’re unplayable without the capos, and would require custom string gauges with an alternate tuning.

    Using capo arrangement just described, it is also possible to play any scale and any barre chord as if in standard tuning (remember: you actually are in standard tuning!). Try a D barre at the 10th fret and a G shape (sounds as C) at the 8th fret (maybe leave the treble strings open for both chords) to build a progression with the A major and minor chords described above.

    (3) If you tune away from standard, the capo possibilities multiply. Here’s one example. Tune to all fourths (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E), and capo the first fret from the low E to the G string, so the open strings are EADGBE as in standard. Now, you can play a first position E shape next to the capo and it will sound as an E chord. Move the same shape up a string, and it sounds as an A. Move it up one more string, and it sounds as a D. Neat, huh?

    Across the rest of the fretboard, you get the advantage of all fourths tuning – namely, that scales and fretted chord shapes are movable vertically as well as horizontally, with no need to move fingering down a fret when going from the G to the B string. You also get the major disadvantage of all fourths, that standard tuning barre chords are not easily usable. But another disadvantage of all fourths – lack of easily usable first position chords – is mitigated somewhat with the capo scheme just described.

    Hopefully these ideas will whet the appetite. I’ve adapted most of them from the Reid book described earlier. This is in essence a massive chord dictionary which lists usable partial chord formations. There are some useful comments on chord theory as well. Reid says that a lot of partial capo positions aren’t musically useful, which seems very likely to me. Finding this out through experimentation could get pretty dispiriting. So the book is not only a huge timesaver, it also overcomes a major initial frustration when exploring partial capos.

    Anyway, the historic precedent? At the end of Reid’s book, he describes and shows photos of what are effectively partial capos on a variety of fairly ancient harp-lutes. There’s also a suggestion that music was written specially for the instruments. You can read this section for free on Reid’s website:

    It’s well worth checking partial capos out. I think they’ve got as much potential as alternate tunings (i.e. Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth, Pavement, the “Kashmir” riff etc) to change the way guitar music sounds. And, of course, one could always combine a partial capo with an alternate tuning. I think getting into unchartered territory in this way is tremendously appealing.

    • joe

      Hi Max! Wow — those are some of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received for the site. (Especially since I tend to view myself as an eccentric guitar crank mumbling to himself in the back of a dark closet.) There’s so much cool info here about partial capos — would you mind if I shared your insights as a front-page post? Thanks!

  • m-ga

    Please do! I think partial capos are a great topic. Would love it if their use became more widespread.

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