5th String Banjo Capos: What’s the Best?

by Barry Hunn

"What is the best 5th string banjo capo?" This is one of the most common questions we get asked here at the Deering Banjo Company

For those new to the banjo, the fifth string capo is some kind of device that artificially “frets” the fifth string.  When a banjoist wants to change keys, it is common to clamp a capo across the first four strings.  This clamp raises the pitch of the first four strings all the same by clamping the strings down behind a chosen fret.  However, because five string banjos have the fifth string peg protruding at the fifth fret, the four string capo has no effect on the fifth string.

Hence, there is a need to raise the fifth string when raising the first four.

For example, the typical five string banjo is tuned to an open “G” chord.  But if the banjoist wants to play in the key of “A”, a capo will usually be applied at the 2nd fret to raise the G chord to an A chord. 

The banjoist then uses a fifth string capoing device to “capo” the fifth string at the 7th fret, which corresponds to the raise in the notes that capoing the first four strings at the second fret accomplishes.  So, with the first four strings “capoed” at the second fret and the fifth string capoed at the 7th fret, the banjo has now been changed to the key of A instead of G.

Currently, there are three excellent options that seem to fit every banjo players needs quite well. 

Shubb Sliding 5th String Capo

This capo is made with a thin, flat rail that is screwed into the side of the banjo neck, and has a thumbscrew operated “finger” that pushes down on the fifth string. 

The thumbscrew is loosened so the finger can be moved anywhere on the rail and then when the thumbscrew is tightened, the short finger pushes down on the fifth string and holds it on any fret within the length of the rail.

This capo is fast.  It can be operated with one hand.  These two features allow some players to change the string tuning while playing a song.  Plus, on banjos with full, tall frets (Deering banjos are this way) the finger can fine tune the capoed string.

The only complaint we ever hear about this capo is that for some players it can be a little hard to reach over the rail.  Also, when the finger is capoing a higher fret, the little housing and finger is a little in the way adding another protrusion like the fifth string peg…. albeit a lot smaller.

But, for the player who needs to change tunings fast, prefers to not use two hands, likes having the fine tuning benefit, and who does not notice the rail under their thumb, this capo is fantastic. 

It is a great system, is solidly made, nicely finished and has served banjoists for many years.  We install them on our banjos when we build them for about $64. 

This capo will likely last a lifetime. 

BUY A SHUBB 5TH STRING CAPO HERE!

Earl’s Suspender Capo

This is the newest addition to the fifth string capo selection is this delightful and simple device that can be carried in the pocket and applied when needed. 

It is a flat elastic band.  On the first string side is a tiny, flat metal hook.  This hooks on the first string side of the fingerboard underneath the first string.  The hook is connected to the flat elastic band and connects to another metal hook on the fifth string side.  The fifth string hook however, is covered with a rubber like material and the hook is perhaps slightly longer than the first string side.

The rubber coated hook “capos” the fifth string and is held down by the elastic band that is hooked to the opposite side of the fingerboard under the first string. 

The rubber coated hook does tend to pull the string tightly against the fingerboard which requires the fifth string to be re-tuned slightly.  This is not a major problem and most players are very quick at re-tuning the fifth string when changing keys.

This little beauty is only about $12.95.  Chosen by artists like George Grove of the Kingston Trio, this capo does not require alteration of the banjo.  You can slip it in your pocket and apply it when applying your other capo.  If lost, it is inexpensive to replace and is so small that several will fit in your banjo case compartment. 

This is a great choice if you aren’t sure you want to commit to a Shubb capo or to spikes, which I’ll cover next.

BUY AN EARL'S SUSPENDER 5TH STRING CAPO HERE!

Spikes

The term “spikes” is used because these little devices are model railroad spikes.  They are tiny versions of the huge iron spikes that are used to hold down the cast iron plates that support railroad tracks. They are basically a tiny nail with a head that protrudes more on one side than the other. 

These spikes are installed by drilling a tiny hole in the fingerboard, and tapped into the hole so the head of the spike is close to fingerboard to hold a string down tightly over the adjacent fret.

There are many theories about which way the spikes should face. Deering installs spikes so the string is inserted from the fifth string side of the neck. Other players and luthiers direct the hook toward the first string side of the fingerboard. 

Both work well.  We have found that more players prefer the open side of the spike facing the fifth string side and that’s why Deering installs them this way.

Spikes are tiny and unobtrusive.  They are virtually invisible from a few feet away, they don’t interfere with the player’s thumb like the Shubb, and they don’t cover the back of the neck like the Earl’s suspender capo.  Most players don’t mind the feeling of them under their fingertips when fretting on the string where the spike is. 

Plus, if a player decides later on to switch to the Shubb or the suspender capo, the spikes are so tiny that they can be removed, the hole filled with epoxy filler and the filled holes are virtually invisible.

The spike, like the suspender capo requires that the fifth string be retuned slightly, but that is not a real problem for most players.

The most common approach is the install spikes at frets number 7, 9 and 10.  This allows for capoing in the keys of A, B, and C.  More spikes can be installed for flat keys and above C as well.

Spikes must be installed by a skilled luthier to avoid cracking or splitting a fingerboard. 

What to Choose?

All three systems are excellent.  The Shubb is the fastest to use. The Spikes are the least obtrusive.  The suspender doesn’t alter the banjo. If you don’t know which system you like, start with Earl’s suspender capo.

When you go to a bluegrass festival and you meet a player with a Shubb capo installed, see if they’ll let you try their banjo. If you like the Shubb, you can have one installed. The same is true of the spikes.  If you meet someone that has spikes in their banjo, ask if you can try it.

Earl’s suspender capo will keep you in the game without committing to altering your banjo. 

Again, each system is really great.  The choice is a personal ergonomic choice.  There is no “best” or “wrong” choice.

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