Word of the Month: Capo

David Zapatka

While listening to the Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks tune, “I Have a Capo on my Brain,” last night, I thought, how could a “capo” be on a brain, and secondly, haven’t I heard this word used in another context? The movie The Godfather came to mind. This sparked research into this word.

Capo noun ca·po | ˈkā-(ˌ)pō 1. a movable bar attached to the fingerboard of a fretted instrument to uniformly raise the pitch of all the strings. 2. the head of a branch of a crime syndicate; a rank in the Mafia.

Origin and Etymology—In the first sense above: short for capotasto, from Italian, literally, head of fingerboard. In the second sense above: Italian, head, chief, from Latin caput.

First Used—mid-1700s in the first sense above. 1952 in the second sense above.

Capo used in a sentence:

Again, this creates no change of fingering above the capo.

This included a number of da capo arias with recitative secco.

By 1987, the witnesses said, Petrizzo was a capo.

Prosecutors are still pursuing the retired cop and the reputed capo.

Genovese was now a capo of his former Greenwich Village Crew.

Here’s a little history about capos:

The history of the capo is small, but its impact is huge.

The word capo comes from the Italian capotasto, capo meaning head, and tasto meaning key, tie, or fret. In a 1640 document, the Italian Musicologist Giovanni Battista Doni used the word capotasto to describe the nut on a viola da gamba, a family of hollow, wooden stringed instruments now referred to as viols.

The first known capo dates back to the mid-1700s. The “yoke”-style capo looks much the same as today’s capos with a simple metal frame, static bar and adjustable screw plate underneath the neck which controls the string tension. The Spanish cejilla is an inverted version of the capo, constructed with a fixed leather strip that loops under the neck and a more substantial wooden bar with a top-mounted screw.

In 1850, James Ashborn of Wolcottville, Connecticut, a renowned luthier, applied for the capo’s first official patent. Recognizing the value of the capo, hundreds more capo designs hit patent offices. In 1931, W. H. Russel patented the elastic capo, likely the most popular capo of all time.

The 1960s and 1970s rock and roll movement brought more variations improving on the capos of old. Speaking of old capos, the second definition of capo was the head of a branch of a crime syndicate; a rank in the Mafia. Remember The Godfather trilogy from 1972 through 1990? A fan survey produced the 10 most likable capos from the series. 10. Frank Pentangeli 9. Tessio 8. Willie Cici 7. Anthony “The Ant” Squigliaro 6. Rocco 5. Fausto “Nick” Geraci 4. Richard “Ritchie Two Guns” Nobilio 3. Sonny 2. Albert “al” Neri 1. Clemenza.

Please submit your favorite capo and why, or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments, to [email protected].