From Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Jan. 2004
Valley Ford, a rural, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in northern California, is the last place you’d expect to find one of America’s premier capo manufacturers (www.shubb.com). But in a small industrial building just off the main road, next to a field inhabited by cows and wild turkeys, Rick Shubb and his crew of a dozen workers produce 1,000–1,200
capos a day.
Shubb didn’t set out to be a capo mogul; it just sort of happened. Born in Oakland, California, Shubb took up the banjo at age 14. He soon discovered the small but rabid Bay Area bluegrass community, and by the time he graduated from high school, he was a veteran of numerous bands. Shubb spent his teens honing his playing skills (he shared a house with a banjo-obsessed, pre–Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia and was a member of the Smokey Grass Boys with David Grisman) and drawing posters for a variety of musical events and venues.
By his early 20s Shubb was a respected banjo player, performing regularly at bluegrass festivals around the country and on various studio projects, including a few movie soundtracks. Shubb’s move into manufacturing stemmed from his frustration with the fifth-string banjo capos available at the time. He and former banjo student Dave Coontz decided to try to develop a new method of capoing the banjo’s short fifth string, and in 1974 they came up with a workable design. They made 100 units (Shubb’s old housemate Jerry Garcia bought the first one). But while it quickly became a necessary accessory for banjo players, the fifth-string capo market was so small that Shubb and Coontz treated the venture as more of a hobby than a business.
In 1976 Shubb and Coontz began developing a compensated banjo bridge and started working on a new guitar capo design. By then Coontz had moved to Iowa and was farming full-time, while Shubb was in California, playing banjo for a living. It took a few years for them to come up with what would be a revolutionary new capo design. “Some of our early prototypes were not too bad,” Shubb recalls. “But others might have made a better mousetrap than capo.” The final design was inspired by the mechanical action of a pair of Vise-rip pliers and the clamping motion of a hand making a barre chord. “The first time I put one of those capos on a guitar neck, I knew we had it,” Shubb says. “Surprisingly, one of the hardest things to get right was the rubber sleeve that contacts the strings. A friend had given me a durometer, a device for measuring hardness and elasticity, and I spent a lot of time measuring people’s fingers, trying to come up with a material that had the same consistency.”
Shubb and Coontz released their capo in 1980, and it was an overwhelming success. “Our capo was two or three times more expensive than anything else out there,” Shubb says. “But it worked so much better, and the word got around so quickly, we just couldn’t keep up with the demand.” Coontz quit farming and devoted himself to learning the intricacies of metal machining, while Shubb put his music career aside to market the capo.
The first-generation Shubb capo was made of brass, available in nickel-plated or plain brass versions, and was designed for steel-string acoustic guitar necks. Over time Shubb and Coontz developed models for the wider fretboards of 12-string and classical guitars as well as a shorter capo for banjos. Coontz did most of the metalwork (bending the main arm and riveting on the two moving parts) in Iowa and sent the pieces to California where Shubb did the final assembly and packaged and shipped the finished capos. A few years ago, Shubb and Coontz developed the stainless-steel Deluxe capo, which features a roller mechanism that allows the capo to operate more smoothly. In the early ’90s they expanded beyond the capo business, using their metalworking expertise to make high-quality guitar steels. The first steel they introduced was designed by author and guitar collector (and accessory and string manufacturer) John Pearse. The Shubb-Pearse steel combines the contoured shape of the old Stevens steel that Dobro players favor with a rounded “bullet nose” that Hawaiian and lap-steel guitarists prefer. A few years later, Shubb added steels designed by players Pete Grant and Sally Van Meter to the company line.
In recent years Shubb and Coontz have been working with other inventors on related projects. “There are a lot of good ideas out there,” Shubb says. “But as Dave and I found out with the fifth-string banjo capo, sometimes the market is too small to support a full-time business. That’s why we’re on the lookout for products like Gary Swallow’s wood-and-metal guitar steel and Brooks Story’s Axys reversible guitar slide. Thanks to our experience with capos, we know how to put things like that into production and how to get them into stores.”
Even though Rick Shubb now oversees a substantial manufacturing operation, he still finds time for some of his other favorite pursuits. He recently released The Bodega Sessions, a CD of banjo-and-guitar duets with his old friend Bob Wilson, and he has been restoring the psychedelic posters he drew for the Carousel Ballroom in the 1960s. Shubb’s trip from bluegrass banjo picker to capo tycoon is like many other stories that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s: a long, strange one.