Introduction: Railroad Spike Capo for Your Guitar or Banjo

Picture of Railroad Spike Capo for Your Guitar or Banjo

Here's how to install a railroad spike capo. These are actual HO guage model railroad spikes you pound into the neck of your instrument.
You can push a string under the head of the spike to hold it down, just like a regular capo that only affects that string.
They're very popular for banjo. Earl Scruggs uses them. My "Gold Tone" banjo came with them installed under the fifth string at the 7th and 9th frets.

The reason they're so popular for banjo:
The 5th string on a banjo only goes from the bridge to the 5th fret. Let's say you want to capo up two frets. A regular capo works on the four low strings, but misses the fifth string. That 5th string is unaffected unless you've got a railroad spike to tuck it under at the 7th fret.

Step 1: The Spikes

Picture of The Spikes

Here's what the spikes look like. I bought four of them from a music store. Later I got a million identical ones for free from a friend who does model railroading.

The spikes are .033" square with little hatches to help them grip the wood better. The heads are all different. Pick through them for the spikes you want. You want spikes with thin heads.

That's a .032" circuit board drill bit I happened to have. "99" doesn't mean anything.

The guitar is a Martin Backpackpacker guitar I'm stringing like a banjo.
The two highest-pitched strings on a 5string banjo are both .009" thick, which is about as thin as a steel string gets. That's why the "thumb string" on a banjo starts out at the 5th fret, otherwise it would have to be either very thin or under tremendous tension.

Instead of adding a tuning knob halfway down the neck like on a 5 string banjo, I'm just going to add these railroad spike capos at the 5th, 7th, and 9th frets.

Step 2: Mark the Spot

Picture of Mark the Spot

The spikes capos I've seen have been just to the right of the string. The head faces to the right.
That's on a right-handed instrument facing you, head up.

Here I am marking the spot with an awl.

Step 3: Drill the Hole

Picture of Drill the Hole

Do a test on a piece of hardwood first to make sure your bit is the right size.
If it's too small the spike might split the wood. If the bit is too big the spike will be loose.

I like a dremel tool for these small sized bits. With a larger drill it's easier to break the bit.

Step 4: Pound in the Spike

Picture of Pound in the Spike

Pound it in til it's below the level of the frets.
If it turns, use pliers to rotate it before pounding it more.
It should be just high enough that the string can tuck under it.
If you pound it too far you can pry it up with a knife.

Step 5: And There They Are.

Picture of And There They Are.

The finished railroad-spike capos.
They could probably be a little closer to the string (laterally).

Step 6: Pencil-Rubberband Capo

Picture of Pencil-Rubberband Capo

Here's a simple Capo you can make anywhere.
Add more rubberbands or get thicker ones if it doesn't press hard enough.
If your neck has no crown (totally flat) and the thick strings keep it off the thin ones, rub it lengthwise on the strings. The wound thick strings will wear into it and it'll hold all the strings down.

If your neck has some crown (transverse curve) just whittle on the pencil til it has the shape you need.

Earl Scruggs originally used this type of capo. source: "Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo"

Step 7: Endless Possibilities

Picture of Endless Possibilities

It's beyond my knowledge, but apparently there are techniques for that call
for very elaborate capo arrangements.
For instance this book on the subject.

It seems to me like the railroad spikes are a great way of doing this - the ultimate capo.
If you do a lot of "partial capo" stuff, let me know how you like the railroad spikes for that.


ShilpaAtwaal (author)2016-05-27

Thanks for another
one of your great ideas.

Ed226 (author)2015-08-20

"This here man is such a sap, he won't hold you om his his lap, unless you are an old five string banjo!" Lester Flatt - Retort to "Earl Scruggs and the 5 string banjo" in "Pearl".

rollie.mice (author)2014-12-09

Your 5th string goes all the way down to the nut on that Backpacker - why bother with spikes? You can use a regular guitar capo. Spikes are only useful on the short 5th string of a real 5-string banjo.

Hatredman (author)2009-05-20

I followed this instructable and put capos in the 5th fret of my 1957 Fender Stratocaster (no a reissue, the Pre-CBS one). ao I want to take the capo out. How do I do that?

batjonesy (author)Hatredman2010-01-08

You gently pull it out with pliers. Then you push in the end of a cocktail stick intot he hole as far as it will go. Then you trim the protruding bit of the cocktail stick flush with the fingerboard and touch the end of the remaining cocktail stick wood with a brown marker pen to make the colour blend in with the fretboard.

Hatredman (author)batjonesy2010-01-08

Oh, my god! I've just crached the fingerboard. My dad's gonna kill me!

shogunskot (author)Hatredman2014-11-12

I always say that sarcasm is poorly conveyed in text. Great troll job Hatredman.

Kazeem (author)Hatredman2009-05-21

I think it was a bit of a bad idea to go hammering nails into an expensive strat from over 50 years ago... What exactly compelled you to do so?

Hatredman (author)Kazeem2009-06-24

Well, the Instructable told me to. It was published, so it's true, right?

Kazeem (author)Hatredman2009-06-24

Yeah, but at the same time, you've gotta use some discretion as to where you go defacing things. If there was an instructable on how to graffiti your neighbour's car, would you do that?

Hatredman (author)Kazeem2009-06-24

But grafitti is a bad thing. I anted a capo, which is a good thing.

freeza36 (author)Hatredman2012-01-07

some one thought this through..............

corey_caffeine (author)Hatredman2010-07-09

*facepalm* you should have either A) bought ones or B) used the rubber band pencil capo

david.jesus.5832343 (author)2014-09-07

I only had roofing nails... works GREAT on a 1974 Les Paul Custom! :D I'M GONNA BE RICH! :D

Max_Radius (author)2014-02-09

The number on the drill bit is a 66, indicating it is a #66 drill bit (0.033 inch diameter.)

cerealism (author)2010-09-13

If its just used as a drone string why don't you just tune that string up to the desired note? Change the string to a lighter one if need be. Or am I missing something here?

yoyology (author)cerealism2012-05-13

He mentions that the string is very thin. In order to tune it high enough, the tension would be huge, leading to broken strings and possibly pulling the whole instrument out of tune.

freeza36 (author)2012-01-07

Is this a Martin Backpacker?

BobMarleyFan (author)2011-09-01

What kind of crazy tuning are you using, haha

dhargreave (author)2011-03-06

I don't know much about banjos, but with the placement of the capo, you'll have to tune it again anyway since it won't be in tune. The metal edges of the fret are where the note is, which is why you hold your finger over the metal part instead of between the frets for the harmonics.... so there's really no point to this except for wrecking your instrument, since you'll have to tune it again anyway, pretty much defeating the purpose. But on top of that, it'll throw all the frets out of tune and just leave the open string in tune, so you're basically screwing yourself one way or the other. They make special one-string capos that pull the string down into the existing fret instead of working as a makeshift fret for a reason yanno...

lhawkyard (author)dhargreave2011-08-14

It seems you are missing the point, if he is tuning it as a banjo, the 5th string will always be under the capo. I bet he doesnt even plan to keep a string on the 6th slot. This seems like an attempt as a quiet and portable banjo. Which I hope is a success as I will be doing the same thing next time I have the cash so that I can take a banjo on a 6 month backpacking trip.

strings3002 (author)dhargreave2011-04-03

You are correct, often the string will ,"go sharp" after being capo'd. Every festival I've been to has at least one guy with a Tee-Shirt that says,"Tune It Or Die!" A touch of practice and the 5th string becomes quite easy to re-tune as needed. But, this string is mostly used as a drone and is only occasionally fretted. Therefore, even if it ,"Throws the frets out of tune." Who cares? They aren't often fretted anyway. The purpose is to change the pitch of the string to match the key you are playing in. The banjo or banjo like device is key of G centric without capo'ing.

So if we capo the first 4 strings to the key of A, we must also capo the 5th string separately to A as it is open on the 5th fret as a G.

As to being a make shift fret...not. The string is pulled downward much as a finger pushes it downward, thereby forcing the string against the fret and changing the pitch via the existing fret. The spike merely holds the wire against the fret.

You can just tune the string to the key you desire but, the string may break if you go much higher than A.

dhargreave (author)strings30022011-04-03

Gotcha, makes more sense that way. To me it seems easier to just tune the string (which isn't always possible when you want higher notes) or to just finger it, but that could get tiring and create ridiculous stretches.

All of that makes sense for a banjo, but I don't quite get why he's doing it for a guitar. Sure, maybe he wants to play it like a banjo, but they make special capos that only grab some of the strings for that. I guess this is the "poor-man's" solution, but it just doesn't seem worth it to mess up the instrument for that when the instrument isn't exactly cheap.

dhargreave (author)dhargreave2011-04-03

Then again, the holes are rather small, and I suppose it isn't that huge of a deal to fill them.

JacobElisud (author)dhargreave2011-04-27

No, it's not a big deal to fill them at all. Done properly, you'd have to look mighty close to notice there was ever anything there, if you could notice at all. In fact, the spikes themselves are hard to notice.

But I agree, I don't get why anyone would do this to a guitar. I've never heard of using spikes on anything but a 5-string banjo (or 5-string banjo-like instrument).

For banjo these tend to be the preferred solution. They do make various types of 5th string capos, which each have their problems. The Shubb 5th string capo requires drilling screw holes into the side of the neck. Others are small and get lost easily, or break strings, or are difficult to use, etc.

But for every 5th string capo there is someone who uses and likes it. Different strokes...

lhawkyard (author)2011-08-14

This is a common modiification on 5 string banjos. Many Banjos come with this modification already done. It sounds great and has been practiced by many professionals for decades. It sounds ghetto but is a great tool.

I actually am going to be getting a Martin Backpacker and tuning it like a Banjo just as the starter of this thread is. The options for travel banjos are very expensive, and well too banjoey. Meaning they are loud because of the noise put off by the drum head. Having a martin backpacker tuned as a banjo allows the instrument to practice like a banjo, but be quite like a Martin.

Just sitting in my room, plucking a banjo versus my full size acoustic guitar, the banjo is much much louder.

Sure you arent going to play to a sellout crowd with this modification, but it lets you practice banjo on the run. Something no travel banjo i have seen for sale succesfully does. They are all too heavy, loud or bulky.

NightHawkInLight (author)2011-08-08

Very cool, I've never even heard of these. Something for me to think about. Thanks for posting

Mr. Potato Head (author)2010-09-06

You'd have to be out of your freakin' mind to drive tiny railroad spikes into the fretboard of your guitar. I'll be havin' nightmares about this...

its a lion (author)2007-12-09

how far down do you drive them? im with randofo, wouldnt it catch somewhere? it would probably work well if you dont mind screwing up your fingerboard by driving spikes into it... im not too partial to doing that to my guitar though. overall, nice instructable. i would have never thought of using anything like that.

batjonesy (author)its a lion2010-01-08

Go here for a very good explanation re how to fit railroad spikes.

thesamhill (author)2009-09-27

If you're not keen on putting holes in stuff you can make a fifth-string capo out of sheet straps. It works like the "Suspender Fifth String Capo"- cut out the plastic tabs, bend the metal ends around like hooks, and tighten it up so it fits the banjo.

revcdub (author)2009-06-29

Had them installed on my cheap Saga kit banjo. They work fine, but on my much nicer Fender Leo, I use a cheap Bic ball point pen cap with the clip trimmed short (with a fingernail clipper) tucked under the fifth string up against the desired fret.

Hatredman (author)2009-06-24

AWWWW.Now I realised it was a joke, but now I alrady have two spikes in my 57 strat. My dad gave it to me two Christmas ago, when I went to College. Now he wants to see me play. I'm in trouble. What do I do? Please do help, my father is going to kill me.

capt. caveman (author)2009-04-25

yeah thats the last thing you wanna do to an instrument

NEED HELP sorta (author)2008-08-07

This is interesting, but you might add a disclaimer to people with really expensive guitars and things, for example vintage and hand-made guitars/banjos. It kills me to think someone might be hammering little nails into priceless instruments. o_0 Useful to know though. :)

If an instrument can't make the sound you want it to, what good is it? We're musicians not museum curators after all. Still, if you have a guitar worth $100000, sell it on ebay and buy 20 that you're not afraid to play to drive spikes in.

I just don't want people hammering nails into the fingerboards of (like you said) multi-thousand dollar guitars.

NEGATIVE : reality check - if someone OWNED a "multi-thousand-dollar" guitar, i doubt they'd be checking instructables for ideas. they'd buy another instrument or have someone mod it for them. either way, who cares? POSITIVE: the disclaimer may be smart, however, for those younger and more naive kids browsing the internet, who may decide to drill holes in the guitar daddy just barely scraped $200 for and bought them for xmas. now THAT would be upsetting. and for anyone who cares, i modify the crap out of my guitars. every one of them is second hand, or free, never having paid more than $100, usually paying under $50 for something i plan to tear up and have fun with.

billym1571 (author)2008-08-04

who would want to do that to their guitar??

aparition42 (author)billym15712008-08-25

This is most commonly done to 5 string banjos. The fifth string starts at the fifth fret and is used as a drone. consequently, first position chords can't incorporate fretting the fifth string. "Railroad spikes" alow the player to effectively utilize the characteristic drone that banjo is known for without constantly retuning the string.

Leonard Zelig (author)2008-02-08

FYI, the "crown" you refer to on the neck is called a radius.

randofo (author)2007-12-09

Do these catch the string, or worse, your finger, while playing? I would imagine having these embedded in the fretboard would affect the playing to some extent.

TimAnderson (author)randofo2007-12-09

They're not very big. I didn't even notice them on my gold tone banjo until I read about them in Earl Scruggs' book. He made his from pieces of his wife's bobby pins. One funny advantage over a regular capo is you can "play way up the neck" with this invisible capo.

About This Instructable




Bio: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output ... More »
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