I'll be honest with you, I hadn't really thought much about ukulele capos before, and I think that is because I am a guitar player. You see, my guitar capos tend to be fairly heavy, substantial pieces of metalwork, with powerful strings and imposing jaws. Similar (but scaled down versions) are available for the ukulele, but to my mind they would seem overkill on such a diminutive instrument. Then the good people at Sutherland Trading made contact with me and asked me to review a brand new and rather exciting looking product - the VOLCAPO.
Volcapo - tenor/baritone front, soprano/concert rear - image copyright Barry Maz
For my beginner readers, a Capo is a device that effectively moves the nut of the instrument to a different fret. It attaches around the neck of the ukulele at a fret position of your choosing and tightens (in the case of the guitar styled capos, usually with a spring or ratchet) a padded strip across the strings at that point. This raises the pitch of all the strings equally, and you can then play at the next fret down as your 'new' first fret. Why would you do this? Well several reasons, but for beginners, it's usually for those occasions where you find the song and chords you have learned are too deep for your voice. The capo allows you to play exactly the same chord shapes, but the notes will all be uniformly higher.
As I said in the introduction, I don't like the idea of bolting a large sprung metal device to my ukulele, so the Volcapo has really caught my attention, as it is made of wood, leather, string and a something that looks like a tuning peg!
The Volcapo was developed by Chris Baird, the guitar technician for American band Korn, as a guitar capo. Chris made them privately and sold them to various 'stars' whilst on the road, but only as a sideline or hobby. The product came to the attention of Sutherland Trading in the UK via Dean Markley strings, and they made contact with Chris to enquire whether he could fashion the same product for the ukulele. The Volcapo Uke Capo was born.
Volcapo fitted to neck of Fluke Concert ukulele - image copyright Barry Maz
They are completely handmade in Long Beach California from wood, leather, nylon and that tuning peg, and are rather ingenious in the way they work. You have a carved piece of wood, that in profile looks to me like the shape of those low looking Hawaiian volcanos (presume that's where the name comes from) with a padded piece of leather glued to the flat base. The leather extends from the wooden block as this will provide the neck padding, and a nylon thread runs through it attached to a plastic peg shaped like a ukulele tuner.
The wooden part of the Volcapo is placed across the strings in normal capo fashion, with its padded leather side down onto the strings. You then pass the leather strip around the neck of the instrument. The string is guided into a notch on the side of the wooden block and the peg inserted into the hole on the top.. By turning the peg and thus winding the string around it, the Volcapo tightens. I'm a sucker for simple things that just work, and this just works!
Volcapo - image showing attachment around neck - image copyright Barry Maz
For me, it is the style of the product and the handmade origin of it that suits the ukulele perfectly, That use of wood goes perfectly with the uke, and the product will CERTAINLY cause people to ask questions (I certainly haven't seen anything like it before). It certainly stands out when fitted to your instrument.
So, how does it work? - quite simply, very well. The main positive with this capo, that sets it apart from other metal sprung capos, is the weight – this thing weighs very, very little. The ukulele is a very light instrument that, in most cases, is held without a strap and cradled by the arm. The bane of many cheap ukes are those that have cheap, heavy geared tuners fitted which weigh the head down and make it tricky to hold. I would imagine fitting a heavy metal capo would do the same thing, and the Volcapo causes no problems in that regard – you really cannot feel it is there.
The friction peg works just fine, and you can actually finely adjust the tension quite well. Moving the capo from fret to fret is just a case of slackening the peg a little, relocating the wooden block and re-tightening the peg. I found no issue with uneven pressure or strings being muffled, and found it hugely entertaining to play some of my favourite chord progressions at ridiculously high places on the ukulele neck. It must be said that it isn't as quick to move as a sprung trigger capo, but it really isn't that much hassle.
The only slight gripe I have is that the tuning peg can get in the way a little with certain chords. It isn't a huge problem, but I did find myself bumping my knuckles on a couple of chords, most commonly E7, or those that use a lot of fingering at the first fret. Perhaps a smaller block or peg would solve this, but to be honest on a small instrument such as the uke, I suspect any capo may have this issue. It didn't trouble this ukulele player and found it quite easy to adjust my fingering, but you should be aware of it.
The product is available in the usual ukulele sizes (soprano /concert or tenor / baritone), and are shown below. It retails in the UK at £9.99 and should be available at the big uke stores such as Duke Of Uke, Eagle Music and Southern Ukulele Store. US distribution is not yet finalised, but I am told that Chris is working on it. Keep an eye on his new website for details at www.customcapo.com
Volcapo - image copyright Barry Maz
In summary, I think its a very nice product, in particular the way it fits the whole feel and ethos of the ukulele. It's simple, works ingeniously well and is nicely priced. Keep an eye on some of your finger placements, but on the whole I think you will get on well with this. In fact, one lucky reader can try one first hand as in the next week or two I will be running a new free to enter competition on the blog to win a Volcapo!
Thanks to the guys at SUTHERLAND TRADING for the product to review