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Equally mystifying is why the “mirror image” idea of the partial capo hasn’t taken hold. As early as 1799, a few instrument makers in Europe were tinkering with the idea of using strings of different lengths on a fretboard and building partial capos into some odd instruments. The 5-string banjo is the only common fretted instrument with different length strings, though many harps have had “sharping levers” for centuries, and for over a 100 years upright bass players have used a one-string partial capo called a “bass extension” on their low-E string.
Even non-guitarists can understand that by changing the length of some of your strings with a partial capo, you can achieve a different set of open strings along with some new drones, resonances, and musical possibilities. Harder to grasp is that if you use a partial capo (or more than one) in standard tuning, then you preserve the scale and chord geometry, and you can achieve many of the sounds open tunings offer more easily than by retuning.
The reasons you would use a partial capo are essentially the same reasons why you would use different tunings. There are now nearly 20 different kinds of partial capos on the market that clamp anywhere from one to five selected strings. It can be helpful to think of them as “open tuning capos,” which is how they are sometimes (and wrongly) marketed, though they do not work the same way. You should think of them as a “parallel universe” of new musical sounds rather than a substitute for tunings.
The truth is that both ideas—open tunings and partial capos—are very useful, and they can even be used together, but they don’t offer identical musical landscapes. The partial capo reveals a largely unexplored musical world hiding in every guitar. Players ranging from total beginners to concert soloists can play things they couldn’t do otherwise using the skill set they already have.
Partial capos also have a more subtle advantage in that you can still sound like standard tuning when you use them (because you are in standard tuning), yet create a ringing, open sound that’s not possible with normal fretting techniques. A big bonus is that you can pretty easily switch back and forth between these sounds in the same song. Usually when you are in altered or open tuning, you can’t make it sound like a standard-tuned guitar.
Below I’ve written out an arrangement of “Für Elise” by Ludwig van Beethoven. With a few slight adjustments, it lays very nicely on the fretboard. This arrangement came from a piano book notefor note, and does not require changing or omitting any of the notes ol’ Ludwig wrote for his gal Elise.
The basic idea behind this notched partial capo setup is something I call the “E-minus” effect. Basically, if you use either an open-D or open-E tuning you will end up with the 3rd of the chord on the third string.
However, if you capo all the strings except the 3rd string at the 1st fret, you create an open minor chord by strumming all the open strings. Yet whenever you play a barre chord across all the strings, you get a major chord. (This clever technique also works wonderfully for minor-key slide playing. It allows you to have a Im chord, yet also slide into major IV, V, and bVII chords—perfect for many blues and rock songs.)
For this arrangement, we want to tune to an open-Eb tuning (Eb–Bb–Eb–G–Bb–Eb) and then use a split capo to cover all the strings except the 3rd. This creates an open-Em tuning (E–B–E–G–B–E), which will be our starting point for Beethoven’s ode to Elise.
Now that our tuning and capo is in place, we can dig into the arrangement. Since “Für Elise” is in a minor key, we want to create a lush and resonant sound but easily switch to a major key for the second section of the tune.
Note: The TAB is written relative to the capo, even for the open 3rd string. In the third measure of the second page, there is a harmonic on the 4th string at the 7th fret. You can either loosen the barre with your left hand and play the harmonic or use your right-hand index finger to pluck an artificial harmonic at the 19th fret.
Other than that, the arrangement is pretty simple in terms of form and rhythm. You can visit the online version of this column and listen to my recording of “Für Elise” from my Capo Voodoo album.
If you put some time into this arrangement, pretty soon you’ll be able to impress your friends with your version—and maybe even woo your own Elise. I never did get around to finding out whether Ludwig got any mileage out of this piece with Elise.
One of the pioneers of the partial capo, Harvey Reid has been at the forefront of folk guitar since the late ’70s. He even wrote the first college textbook on the subject, Modern Folk Guitar (Random House). His latest album, Capo Voodoo, is a collection of arrangements and originals that showcase his inventive use of partial capos. For more information, visit woodpecker.com.