Guitarists have been experimenting with different tunings since before the age of modern guitars. Players of all levels, cultures, and styles have used a surprising number of tunings to expand the possibilities of their instruments. The new options in chords and scales, together with new resonances and droning open strings have been enchanting, confusing, and mystifying millions of guitarists for centuries.
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
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
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
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