Opinions vary on the best way to go when capoing the 5th string on the banjo. Traditionally there have been two prominent versions of the 5th string capo, with a few lesser-used variations thrown in, and I have had a definite favorite during my picking lifetime. I’ve always had the nagging feeling that none of the options were perfect for various reasons, which is why I was blown away and thrilled to discover the subject of today’s blog post.
The 5th-string capo options haven’t been perfect so far
In all the years I’ve been picking banjo, I have many times wished that you didn’t have to permanently modify your banjo to use a 5th-string capo. Now, in fairness, it isn’t strictly required; there are non-invasive options for capoing the 5th string. I’ve seen a handful of products that you simply add to the neck and then remove, without marring the neck. In my never to be humble opinion, they were “chintzy” and not to be taken seriously. It has always seemed to me that there are only two serious options for “real” banjo pickers: installing railroad spikes or the Shubb 5th-string sliding capo. Now hang on all you pickers who are yelling out loud as you read this! I understand that this is personal opinion, and for every one of me that says the other options aren’t serious options, there are at least 5 of you who will tell me you prefer the versions that I dislike. I can accept that and I wouldn’t consider arguing with you over your preferences. Having said that, I also know that I can find hundreds of pickers who share my opinions. And since I’m an expert on my opinion, let’s go with that for this article. For the uninitiated, let me give a brief explanation of the two prominent capo styles.
“Railroad spikes” refers to little nails with a hook on the end, almost resembling little tiny walking canes in shape, that you actually tap into your banjo neck, right through the fretboard. You drive these right into the neck, permanently marring the neck. As long as they are never going to be removed, and as long as spikes are your preference, then this isn’t a problem. They’ll stay there for a lifetime and the banjo is none the worse. Now, let me say this as clearly and with as much emotion as I can: I HAVE A BURNING HATRED FOR RAILROAD SPIKES. There…any mysteries on how I feel? They get in the way of fretting the 5th-string, and you are FOREVER retuning the 5th string when you capo. Banjo players have enough of a bad reputation when it comes to forever having to tune our instruments, and this &^%$ capo version is a big cause of that. Yuck. I was very disappointed to see that my recently acquired Gold Star came with them already installed. Definitely not my preference.
The sliding capo I mentioned has been made by more than one manufacturer, but far and away the very most popular brand is Shubb. (The non-Shubb versions I’ve seen have been at best sub-par.) This capo style involves attaching a metal bar to the side of your banjo neck, anchoring it by drilling 3 screws right into the side of your neck. (Definitely permanent!) This metal bar has a little apparatus on it that you can slide along the length of the bar, which in turn has a thumbscrew which when tightened, forces a little metal tab down onto the 5th string, thereby fretting it. Up until now, this has been my favorite. Unlike the railroad spikes, it is possible for me to capo the 5th string and have it stay in tune. I can also fret the fifth string without the spikes getting in the way, and I can capo every fret all along the length of the bar. (With the spikes, if you need to capo between positions what you have to do is capo at the next highest position then tune your string down. YUCKYUCKYUCKYUCK).
In the long run, both versions of these 5th-string capos are fine but permanent. Imagine though if you could pick up a nice new banjo and not have to mar the neck in any way, yet still have a quality, professional capo? Read on!
Introducing the better 5th-string banjo capo
My review today involves the 5th String Fret Capo made by Banjo Highway. As soon as I saw it featured in the email newsletter sent by The Banjo Hangout, I just knew I’d have to try it out. Could it be the magic bullet I’ve been looking for? I’ll give you a sneak peek at my conclusion: most definitely yes. I ordered one and received it yesterday, in advance of a jam session I’d be attending and I tried it out.
My wishes have been answered. What I beheld when I opened the package is a 5th-string banjo capo that is not permanently attached to the neck, yet which out performs any other capo I’ve tried. The workmanship is top notch, the materials are high grade, and the company really delivered on its promise of a good product. Not only is it not permanent, but it functions better than other capos too.
This is a capo that you simply slide under the string when you are ready to use it. It’s revolutionary because instead of every other capo design which presses the string down right behind the fret, this capo acts very much like “moving the nut”. You get much better intonation, timbre, and sustain because the string is impacted at the top of the fret. This is achieved by having the capo sit right over the fret thanks to a raised section, shaped like the fret, which sits right over the fret and covers it.
Another feature of this capo is the tightening knob. This functions to put a slight pull on the string, being sure that the banjo string is in contact with the string slot in all directions. With the fifth string in contact with the capo slot, vertically and horizontally, banjo string vibration is better transferred to the instrument for a better timbre and sustain. The picture at the left shows the knob in the un-tightened position. Once engaged (tightened) the knob comes into contact with the side of the neck, pushing a rubber flange or washer against the neck. You don’t tighten far or hard; just enough to engage the string and get the full effect.
In the picture at the left, you can see that the knob has been tightened and the string is fully engaged. There is a very slight pull on the string. As soon as I got my capo in the mail, I opened it up and gave it a spin on the frets of my banjo which did not have railroad spikes. I was blown away. I was so excited that I immediately got out my needle-nose pliers and pulled out my railroad spikes. Gone and good riddance!!
This product performed amazingly well on my banjo at the jam session
The proof is in the pudding, and off I went to the jam session. 4 hours of picking helped prove that his is a high-performance capo with no drawbacks. I was so excited that I bragged it up to the pickers around me, and I’ll be recommending this capo to all of my students.
This picture shows a neat idea for storing the capo when not in use. The company included this little clip which had double-sided sticky tape on it. They suggested one way to store the capo is on the under side of the peg head. I love it! It works really well and keeps the capo close at hand. I found that I was able to clip and unclip the capo with one hand, no problems, and I’ll admit to it being just a bit awkward to install under the 5th string at first. It’s a new product and a new process, but after a few songs I was working with the capo like a pro.