Hands-on review: Bob Kilgore's Harmonic Capo -- Multi-dimensional sound
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-06-25)
“Throw a capo on it” may simply be a shortcut to not having to learn to play in odd keys for many guitarists, but the seemingly lowly capo opens up new universes of sound in the hands of a thoughtful user. There’s even a picture from the mid-60 showing of Paul McCartney with a capo clamped on his Rickenbacker bass – although McCartney says he can’t imagine why he did it. Most players are familiar with strap-on or clamp-on capos, and Ned Steinberger even came out with a headless guitar with a built-in sliding capo that drops behind the neck when not in use. But today we’re going to look at a rather specialized animal: Bob Kilgore’s Harmonic Capo.
Let’s start by understanding that the Harmonic Capo is not a conventional capo. In the general sense, a capo is a tool applied on the neck of a stringed instrument (usually a guitar, mandolin or banjo) to shorten the playable length of the strings. This enables a rise in pitch to alter the key in which the instrument is played. Placed close to the desired fret, it acts as a new nut, holding down the strings securely so that the player can perform a musical piece using different fingerings than s/he would if played ‘open’ (without a capo). Of course, many modern musicians use capos to alter the key of an instrument to better match an appropriate key for singing accompaniment.
There are various sizes, shapes and styles of capos, although most commercial types consist of a rubber-covered bar that clamps to the instrument in some manner. Kilgore, a finger-tapping marvel, invented a capo that plays harmonics – the Harmonic Capo. But before exploring this cool device and how it is unique from other capos, a brief background on harmonics and the usual applications achieved by modern guitarists.
A guitar harmonic is a musical note (a bell-like ‘ding’) integrated in compositions to add musical variety and changes in tonal quality. Harmonics ‘ring out’ when you prevent or amplify certain overtones (a frequency higher than the main frequency of a sound) of a guitar string. The harmonics we hear in guitar playing usually are so high in pitch that they are difficult or impossible to reach by way of normal fretting.
Various electronic gadgets can produce harmonics, but the most common method is by way of manual playing technique, by lightly placing a finger on a string at an appropriate nodal or fret point and striking that string with the picking hand. The fretting hand does not press the string down all the way, in order to make contact with the fret, but applies only enough pressure or touch to allow the harmonic to sound clearly. Different fret locations do ring out louder, and different locations do have different tonal qualities. Some of the more discernable harmonics come from the 5th, 7th, 12th and 19th frets and what you hear at each location is different. At the 12th fret you hear an octave higher pitch, but at the 7th or 19th fret you hear the equivalent of an octave + a fifth. At the fifth fret you hear a second octave tone (an octave higher than at the 12th fret).
Eddie Van Halen uses a unique application of sounding harmonics by way of his tapping hand. He frets a note as usual, but instead of striking the string to sound the note, he lightly bounces or taps on a fret at a harmonic nodal point. Most guitar players, however, tend to apply pinch harmonics in their playing, produced by lightly touching the thumb of the picking hand against the string immediately after it is picked. If the reader is not familiar with this technique, an easy way to visualize it is to hold a pick so that very little of the end or tip protrudes between the thumb and forefinger; and then as you pick the string at an angle (not straight down) the thumb snaps up against (pinches) the string immediately after it is picked. The action of the thumb serves to silence or partially mute the main tone and overtones except those harmonics at that particular location on the fretboard.
Everything thus far relates to the Harmonic Capo. With typical capos, the device straps onto or at the point where you want to ‘shorten’ the fretboard in order to play in the desired key. This capo operates differently in that it does not alter the key in which you are playing, but adds harmonics relative to your tuning. In essence, it acts as a third hand; while the right and left are doing something, the Harmonic Capo executes those beautiful harmonics without you having to do so.
Opening things up
Kilgore prefers open tunings, such as DADGAD, since all the notes of the open strings are part of the scale/chords one would use in open tuning (although he does demonstrate standard tuning compositions on his site). And so, when the capo is added to the 12th fret, one octave up from the open string pitches, hitting any ‘open’ string rings out the harmonic for that string.
Here’s how the mechanics works. With the Harmonic Capo in place at the 12th fret, little rubber pads are pressed down gently until they touch each string and then remain there. And so, when you strike an open string you hear a harmonic as opposed to a regular note. But because those little rubber pads are just barely touching the strings – just enough to resonate those harmonics – any notes played in front of or behind the Harmonic Capo play as usual since the pressed strings remove any contact with the Harmonic Capo. And do keep that in mind – with a regular capo, you play notes in front of the device, but with the Harmonic Capo, notes can be played on either side of the device. As well, you still can play regular harmonics at the 5th and 7th frets with this capo in place. Those at the 5th fret sound as usual, but at the 7th fret they will be an octave higher.
So far all this may sound a bit abstract, and so I encourage readers to visit www.weaseltrap.com just to see how this device can be used with two-handed tapping and how rich one’s playing can become with harmonics flying in all directions. As Kilgore demonstrates, you can play arpeggios of harmonics over moving bass lines, and much more. But as inspiring as his videos are, it’s not my style of playing; I don’t have the skills or patience to get into Kilgore’s preferred methodology and to make best use of the Harmonic Capo.
I’m more of a riffs man, a la Hendrix, Page, Iommi, etc. But that has not stopped me from experimenting with this capo.
When I do my lead work higher up on the neck, I don’t want the Harmonic Capo in my way, at the 12th fret. Consequently, I tried putting the capo at the 5th fret, which is in an appropriate place not to interrupt a lot of riff work, and certainly out of the way for lead soloing higher up on the neck. It works very well in that position, and every time I hit an open string in some of my rolling licks, or if I include those open strings within my trills and tapping, you get those high-pitched rings sounding out. If the listener didn’t know better, he would wonder what the heck the guitar player is doing while all this is going on, since the harmonics are coming and going too fast for them to be selectively and manually performed while playing fast riffs and lead.
The Bottom Line
For $34.95, the Harmonic Capo adds another dimension to playing, just as any pedal 2+ times its cost would do. It’s worth the minor investment as it does take one’s playing into a different direction and helps one think outside the box and get out practice ruts.
A few caveats come with the Harmonic Capo. It was suggested that notes often cannot be sounded at the first fret (it gets muted), but usually OK from the second fret upward. I found this to be true in general, but I am able to hear the first fret notes without a problem when using my Eastwood Airline ’59 Custom 3P DLX. Apparently there are always exceptions to the rule and this may or may not be true with your guitar.
Second, the Harmonic Capo sits gently and somewhat securely in place, but you have to be careful about knocking it off center and having to reset it (consequently, it may not be ideal for an acrobatic ‘showboat’ to use it in concert, but is more suitable to a stationary player demonstrating skills). Playing with it for a short while gets you used to where it is and to avoid knocking it about.
Also of note is that this device is made for most 6-string guitars with normal actions (very low action guitars do not respond as well since the strings are already so close to the frets) and suitable for those guitars with the 12th fret exposed, which is not the case with most classical guitars and dobros. However, the Harmonic Capo can be used on many guitars, and if you do install it at the 5th fret, as I have done, string height action and having the 12th fret exposed are non-concerns.