Railroad Spike Capo for Your Guitar or Banjo

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Introduction: Railroad Spike Capo for Your Guitar or Banjo

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of www.zcorp.com, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Step 6: 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

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.

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    43 Discussions

    Thanks for another
    one of your great ideas.

    "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".

    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.

    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?

    9 replies

    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.

    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?

    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?

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

    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?

    1 reply

    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.

    What kind of crazy tuning are you using, haha

    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...