For those who don’t play the guitar or banjo, a brief lesson on how such things work may be needed here. The beauty of what I am about to explain takes some background to understand.
A guitar, or a banjo, has strings that run from the saddle, at the body end of the instrument, down to the nut at the end of the neck. Along the way there are frets, which are bars of metal inlaid into the neck. Pressing a string down against these frets effectively shortens the string, thus creating a higher tone when the string vibrates. The thing to notice here is that everybody who has ever played a guitar or a banjo has thought about raising the tone as something one does by pressing down on the string, to hold the string against the fret.
The strings are tuned relative to each other. Which means that if you hold different strings down against different frets, you create different chords, notes that harmonize with each other. A song usually has a number of chords that go together to make up the key that the song is played in. Most of the time a key will have only three chords in it. For example, the key of C has the chords C, F, and G7.
Sometimes a guitar player, or a banjo player, is accustomed to playing a song in a certain key with certain chords. But then he or she gets together with other musicians, or with a vocalist who needs to sing in a certain range, and maybe they want to play the song a bit higher or lower. Say they want to play the song in D instead of in C. That means instead of C,F, and G7 you would need to play D, G, and A7, each chord one note higher than the chords in the key of C. A good player will just play those chords. But sometimes it gets all complicated, with special bass runs and other frills that are really hard to work in to the new chords. It’s a lot easier to do this if the same chord “shapes” could be used and one could simply tune up all the strings by one note. And this turns out to be easy to do. You can use a “capo”, a kind of specialized clamp that holds down all the strings on a fret, thus raising them all by any number of notes desired. Note that, again, the idea is that the strings are held down against the frets. That’s how everybody thinks about raising a note. By holding strings down against the fret.
Now we come to the problem with the five string banjo. Such an instrument has four long strings and on shorter string that only goes part way up the neck. So if you use a capo on such an instrument, the four long strings stay in tune with each other, but you need some way to raise the note on the fifth string. A banjo player can do this by just tuning that string up to match the capoed strings. That takes time and only works for a couple of notes before the string gets too much tension on it. So the fifth string needs a separate capo of its own.
I bought my banjo when Earl Scruggs died and I decided that the world needed to maintain the same number of banjo players. I’m relatively new to playing the banjo. The book I bought explained that one can buy a specialized fifth string capo, but that many banjo players use the tiny spikes used in building model railways. These are embedded in the neck, and the string can be hooked under a spike head to hold it down on the fret. Note again, hold it down on the fret.
Not liking the idea of having somebody drill holes in my banjo neck and put in little railway spikes, I investigated fifth string capos. They also call for drilling and screwing into the banjo neck, so that a rail can be attached to the neck and a clamp can be swivelled down on just one string. That’s when I found this little video showing how to make a fifth string capo out of a ball point pen cap. What?
This blew my mind. Not just because it is so simple and effective, and doesn’t require compromising the integrity of my banjo neck, but because this dude, or somebody, completely inverted the thinking required. You don’t have to press down on a string to hold it against the fret. You can raise the fret to press up against the string. Genius. So simple. But duh, nobody thought of it in all the long history of banjo players playing banjos. I didn’t think of it until I watched this video.
I told this method of capoing the fifth string to a banjo maker, Grant Wickland, on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, and suggested that a more elegant version of the capo could be machined out of brass. He came up with this, the worlds first, as far as I know, brass fifth string capo inspired by the ballpoint pen cap. I now have it hanging from a tuning peg on my banjo and I think Grant is adding one to each banjo he makes.
When I think about all those banjo players drilling holes into their banjo necks so they could glue in tiny railroad spikes, or screw on a rail on which a capo could slide, it really makes you wonder how it could take so long to discover this simple method. Why isn’t this the standard way to capo the fifth string?
Considering this time lag between necessity and technological improvement helps me to understand why the hand axe was the only human tool for a million years. Think about that. A million years using the hand axe and nobody thought of putting a handle on it. Something as obvious as putting a handle on that tool only seems obvious once somebody has thought of it and done it. Until then, we all keep doing things just the way we’ve always done them.