What is it that makes us excellent musicians? Sure, we might be tempted to attribute a certain amount of it to our own innate, musical brilliance, but that only gets us so far. For most of us (those who aren’t child prodigies) the key to any excellence we have is time and effort. We put in the long hours working on scales, learning chords, learning theory, and practicing to a click to sharpen our rhythms. There really is no substitute for diligence and hard work.

Well, almost no substitute.

Enter the miraculous capo. A Capo is probably not an unfamiliar item to you, but I’d like to explore some of the reasons why a capo is an especially useful tool to have in your
mandolin case.

In a previous issue of [WM] I wrote about the best and worst keys for mandolin players. I’ve spent a fair number of hours working out my skills on those “good” keys—A, E, G. Not so much the bad keys—B, Bb, F, Eb. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll play my mandolin in those keys. I just don’t have the muscle memory and experience in them to play as confidently and creatively as I can in the easier keys. Thankfully the miracle invention of the capo lets me take all those hours I spent working on the easy keys and transfer them to the difficult ones.

So, yeah, the capo lets us play well in keys that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to rock that well. But that’s no surprise. That’s what it is for, right? But there is another subtle reason why this is helpful for mandolins.

In modern worship the mandolin has the freedom to use a wider musical palette than it might be restricted to in a traditional bluegrass setting.

In modern worship the mandolin has the freedom to use a wider musical palette than it might be restricted to in a traditional bluegrass setting. I most enjoy playing in the keys of A and E because the mandolin’s open A and E strings allow for a lot of creative options. I let those open strings ring out for different cross-picking techniques. That lets me get more notes into the cross-picking pattern without requiring difficult left-hand fingerings. More notes, more interesting patterns, less effort in the left hand—how can you go wrong
with that?!

Similarly, having those open strings is wonderfully useful when playing tremolo parts. I like to use an open string (when appropriate) as a drone note alongside of a moving tremolo line on a different string. The combination of the two together really fills out the sonic space, especially if you are using your mandolin tremolo as a substitute for a keyboard or organ pad in the arrangement.

Having those creative options in my cross-picking and tremolo play style lets me be happy and musical and impresses all my friends! I don’t like it much when I see a set list full of keys at worship practice that take away my open E and A strings. That’s the beauty of bringing in the capo. It is about more than just not wanting to play the ‘hard’ chords. With a capo, I can still leverage the patterns and techniques that make my mandolin playing sound better.

So, what’s the right mandolin capo to use? In the past I have used a cut guitar capo—literally. It was before purpose-built cut capos were available (or perhaps I was too cheap to buy one) so I took a hacksaw to a spare Kyser capo I had laying around. Happily, it is easier to find a cut capo these days without risk of losing a finger. That’s one way to go. But if you can, test it out first. A cut guitar capo may be a perfect fit for your mandolin, but you can’t really know until you put it on to see how well it holds.

My preference now is to use something more purpose built. I’m using a Planet Waves NS Banjo/Mandolin capo, and it fits perfectly on my mandolin. I especially like it because of the slim profile. Mandolin frets are close together, and that can be difficult if you have large (or even just normal-sized) fingers. A low-profile capo option keeps the fretboard from getting cluttered. As a bonus, my mandolin capo doubles wonderfully as a cut capo for my guitar. Happy times
all around!

I’ll never tell you that there is a shortcut to excellence. Practice, practice, practice. But don’t be afraid to have some tools like the mandolin capo to help maximize your
practice time.

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