Altered States – or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Partial Capoing

Is this your dilemma? You love the rich, full, ringing sound of open tunings, but you don’t know if you want to inflict all that retuning, string breaking, and neck twisting on your favorite (and in many cases, only) guitar. If you play out, you realize (or I hope you do!) that switching back and forth between open tunings on one guitar during a gig is tantamount to musical suicide, a disaster waiting to happen. Most established artists use a different guitar for each alternate tuning they use. You, unfortunately, don’t have the bucks to plunk down on a battery of eight vintage pre-War Martin D-45’s like David Crosby.

Have you ever considered partial capoing?

This is an economical alternative to dealing with alternative tunings. With open tunings, you change the PITCH of the strings. With partial capoing, you change the LENGTH of one or more strings to achieve tuning-like effects, and that rich, full, ringing sound we mentioned earlier.

The easiest way to get into partial capoing is to buy some cheap capos and file them down so that some strings are clamped and others ring open. Or, if this sounds like a lot of work, and you don’t want to carry around a bagful of capos for all your different “tunings,” the Third Hand Capo Co. makes a slick little gadget called, appropriately enough, the Third Hand Capo. Shubb and Kyser, among others, also make partial capos, but none are as versatile as the Third Hand, in my opinion.

The Third Hand Capo Co. was started in Nashville in 1979 by fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Harvey Reid and his partner, Jeff Hickey. I’ve got two of these little beauties myself, and the possibilities for finding tuning-like effects are limited only by your imagination. If you want the math, the folks at Third Hand say there are 756 ways to put their capo on a 12-fret neck, and over 40,000 musically different ways to put TWO capos on your guitar– and that’s just in standard tuning. If you alter your tuning to start with, the possibilities become endless. For the sake of this article, however, we’ll leave our guitar in standard tuning. That’s the beauty of it; you can get all these incredible open-tuned sounds without touching a machine head!

The Third Hand Capo is a lot like a standard Russell-style 12-string guitar capo with two elastic straps. Instead of a solid rubber capo bar, however, there are six separate rubber eccentric cams. Rotate the cam down toward the fretboard, and the flat spot of the cam clamps the string. Rotate it up and away from the fingerboard, the strings ring open. You can clamp any combination of strings to get an open-tuned sound without retuning your guitar! As an added bonus, you don’t change chord and scale patterns the way you do when use an actual altered tuning because you’re essentially still in standard tuning.

A perfect example of this is a capo configuration called Dropped “E.” Place the partial capo at the second fret. Clamp strings 1 through 5, but rotate the cam over the sixth string upward so that the string rings open. If you wanted to spell out the “tuning” your guitar is in from bass to treble, it is EBEAC#F#. This is essentially the humble Dropped “D” tuning, but raised a step. Play a standard first-position D chord. The bass string has that nice, booming, ringing sound a la Dropped “D;” it’s just a full step higher. And you didn’t have to touch the tuning peg.

Now comes the sweet part. When you go to play a “G” chord in “real” Dropped “D,” you have to slide your hand so you fret the 6th and 5th strings on the 5th fret, and the 1st (high “E”) string on the third fret. Not impossible, but awkward. Why work so hard? With a partial capo in the Dropped “E” configuration, you just play your normal 1st position “G” chord. Piece of cake!

You can also configure the capo to a Double Dropped “E.” With the capo still on the second fret, rotate the cam over the first string up and away from the fingerboard, leaving the string ringing open. With the top and bottom strings open and the rest of them clamped, you get a dangerous, ringing, droning sound. This is an analog to the tuning that Neil Young uses on Cinnamon Girl, among others, only a step higher. If you play solo, this tuning effect can make you sound like a full band. I use it often to play songs in the key of G to get a nice, full sound. To do this, I put a partial capo (still configured to Double Dropped “E”) on the fifth fret and a standard capo on the third fret. Now I’m playing in the key of “G” while using “D” fingerings. This works really well on the Eagles’ Take It Easy and Mellencamp’s Pink Houses. As an example, play the chords below using this setup:

Standard capo on third fret, partial capo allowing top and bottom strings to ring on fifth fret. Chord names relative to the partial capo. (Notes in parentheses indicate the “tuning” your guitar is in at the 5th fret using the partial capo/standard capo combination).

Capo chart

(By the way, don’t hold me to these chord names. These are what they are sometimes called in standard tuning. I just call them this so I can keep track of them and know what to play. You can call them Joe, Fred and Mary if you like! The important thing is that you know where to place your fingers to get the sound you want).

Play this sequence twice in a nice, up/down rhythmic fashion, and you should have something that sounds supsiciously like the intro to one of the Eagles’ greatest hits, the aforementioned Take It Easy. Now, you can play this song in “G” quite easily. It’s not very difficult. I’ve just always liked the way this intro rings with a partial capo. It sounds dead-on to the record. People immediately know what you’re playing; it’s a “signature” hook. Over the course of a night, when you’re playing 30 to 40 songs, it’s nice to inject a little variety. It keeps it interesting for your audience–and you.

This is just one application. We’ve still got 755 to go! This was baby stuff.

The easiest way to really get started is to “tune” your guitar to an open chord. Let’s use a standard 1st position “A” chord. Put the partial capo on the 2nd fret, clamp the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th srings, and let the rest ring open. When you strum your guitar, you’ll get an “A” chord sound without fretting any strings. Now you can play around with various chord shapes above the capo to get some really nasty sounds! You’ll find that most normal 1st position chords will work in these “tunings,” particularly on even-numbered frets. They may sound different from what you’re used to hearing when you play them, but they do work. You’ll also find that you can get some absolutely beautiful sounds with one- or two-fingered chord voicings all up and down the neck. And a barre chord or a closed-position scale played above the capo will fret and sound normal. If you need to adjust the key of the song higher to fit your vocal range (or to play along with a CD or another picker), simply move the partial capo up the neck, remembering to put a standard capo two frets below the partial one once you move up from the second fret.

My favorite configuration at the moment is what’s called “Esus tuning,” or as I dubbed it, “DADGAD without tears.” With the partial capo again at the 2nd fret, clamp strings 3, 4, and 5 and let 1, 2, and 6 ring open. If you’ll check, you’ll see that your guitar’s “tuning” in this configuration reads EBEABE from the 6th string to the 1st– which is simply DADGAD transposed up a whole step. If you’re so disposed, this is great for Celtic and fiddle tunes. I use it to play Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown using one- and two-fingered chord shapes. Lightfoot barres strings 3, 4, and 5 at the 2nd fret (relative to the capo) to play those nice droning chords. Why not let the partial capo do the work for you?

You can also play a lot of three chord, I-IV-V songs in the key of “E” with only one-finger formations. It’s also a great way for kids to start learning guitar painlessly.

Using partial capoing requires some trial and error to see what works, and what doesn’t– but then, so does using alternate tunings. However, I can tell you from experience that you’ll find something cool just about anywhere you grab the fretboard. When you find a progression that works, write it down so you don’t forget it. If you’re a songwriter, you may find that partial capoing will jumpstart the creative process. I wrote four new songs within a few days of receiving my Third Hand capos. At the risk of sounding like a salesman for the Third Hand Capo Co., you really should check out their website at If you choose to get one or more of their capos, you’ll find that they include detailed instructions to get you started in the wonderful world of partial capoing. They also have several books available, but they will be the first to tell you that they’re still finding new things after years of using the capo.

Whichever road you decide to take– either the Third Hand or your own homemade partial capos– you’ll find a lifetime of musical challenges (and enjoyment) to investigate. There is a little work involved, but it’s fun. And believe me, it’s well worth it. If you’d like to contact me with any questions or comments, I can be reached at [email protected]

Happy exploring!