Back in 1974, banjo player Rick Shubb and Dave Coontz, a student of Rick’s and an auto mechanic comfortable with metalworking and design, decided to make Shubb’s unique concept for a fifth-string capo a reality.
Forty years later, Shubb Capos is one of the most respected names in the industry, with 16 employees, two office/design/warehouse/production facilities just outside the Bay Area in California, and a nearly endless list of string instrument players who wouldn’t use anything else but a Shubb.
We recently checked in with Rick to learn in more detail about the past and present of the company he co-founded, as well as his thoughts on the future.
MMR: 40 years is quite an achievement. Can you talk about the very early days – the start of the company?
Rick Shubb: Our first product was not the guitar capo, but our banjo fifth-string capo. I’d been carrying the idea around in my head for a long time. I preferred the functionality of a fifth-string capo over those miniature spikes that most people put in the fretboard, but I was not satisfied with the quality or design of fifth-string capos that were available. I envisioned one that used a lever to press the string, so you could get the pressure just right.
An innovative concept, no question.
RS: Dave Coontz was one of my banjo students. At his lesson one night I began ranting about my idea for a better fifth-string capo, making sketches to illustrate the concept, and finally he said, “If nobody else will make you one, I will.”
People will often offer to do things with the most genuine intention, but then fail to follow up, for whatever reasons. But when Dave arrived for his lesson the following week, he showed me what he had made, based on the concept I had explained. It was crude – made with a hacksaw from aluminum and scrounged up bolts and springs – and it was larger than it needed to be, but I was impressed with the fact that he’d actually made it. We installed it on my banjo, and it worked! Now we were both excited. I don’t think he even got a lesson from me that night. We knew that this first attempt could be improved upon, and we discussed just how.
Dave worked as an auto mechanic. He and a partner ran their own two-man repair shop in the East Bay, about a 45-minute drive from where I lived in Mill Valley. He invited me to come out to his shop later that week and work together in the evening on refining our new gadget.
It turned out not to be a one-time thing; the sessions continued for several weeks, usually twice a week. I would arrive at 7:00 pm, when the rollup door was rolled down, and we’d work and brainstorm until well past midnight. We’d take a short dinner break at the local Denny’s, the only place still open by the time we thought about eating. Dinner wasn’t really a break, though, as we would scheme and sketch ideas on paper napkins. About once a week we’d produce a new prototype, which would replace the one from the previous week on my banjo, and I would then use it on a gig.
How long until you arrived at what you considered – for the time, anyway – a “final” version?
RS: After a few weeks, with each prototype more closely resembling the last, we declared the product to be ready. Carrying two prototypes in a shoebox – one assembled and the other disassembled – we ventured into the industrial neighborhoods of the S.F. Bay Area in search of a manufacturer.
Were there any takers?
RS: We struck out. For various reasons – the quantities were too small, the parts too unconventional, pricing too high, or they simply didn’t take us seriously. We were having trouble finding anyone to make our product.
Finally Dave said, “Let’s just make it ourselves.” This idea seemed less daunting to him, being the tool guy that he was, than it did to me. But it only took a few minutes for him to convince me that we could handle it. We pooled most of the money we had and made two investments, each of which cost about $2,000: a sturdy, 20-year-old Bridgeport milling machine, and a patent.
We made a hundred fifth-string capos. I signed each of them by hand with an engraving tool. It was nearly summer, and the plan was for me to go to bluegrass festivals in the South to sell them. Dave was already becoming a crackerjack machinist; now it was my turn to step up to the plate and try to learn to be a salesman, and eventually to run a company. Whether I ever made that transition is still open to debate.
You had a pretty high-profile early adopter of the product, no?
RS: Before I left, I called a few local banjo players and told them about my new product. Some were interested, and the first to buy one was my old housemate, Jerry Garcia.
Then I packed the rest of those hundred capos in that same shoebox, and hit the road. I went to five bluegrass festivals in five weeks, showing off my new fifth-string capo to the banjo players in the bands. I stayed at a friend’s house in Nashville during the week, and went to a festival each weekend. About halfway into the trip, I got a job playing banjo with Buck White and the Down Home Folks, now known simply as The Whites. Besides being a great experience for me musically, this gave me added credibility in showing my new capo. Now I wasn’t just some suspicious outsider from out West infiltrating the jams – I was Buck’s banjo man.
By the time I got back home, the shoebox was more dog-eared, and it was not empty. But it wasn’t full, either. I had sold four or five capos at each festival, and considering how novel the capo was, and the commitment required to install one, I was pleased with the result.
I placed a 1/6-page ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, and soon orders began arriving in the mail. The demand was moderate, and the business remained easily manageable part-time, while I continued to support myself playing gigs and teaching.
A few months after that, Dave moved back to the Midwest, and I moved to Oregon. We were able to keep the business going with Dave doing the machining in his garage in Iowa, me assembling the capos and running the business end of things from Portland, and my mother taking mail and phone orders, and shipping out the capos from her home in California. At the volume we were dealing with then, it worked out fine.
Once or twice each year I would visit Dave in Iowa, spending a couple of weeks or more brainstorming. It was during these visits that our little company would advance the most. We developed a second product; a compensated banjo bridge. It gave each of the five strings its proper scale length, reducing existing intonation problems.
It wasn’t until 1979, five years after our company began, that we developed and introduced our guitar capo – the product that would push our business from part-time to full-time, and then some.
Let’s discuss the original capo design and how the lever operated, over-center design differed from other models available at the time.
RS: On one of my trips to Iowa, I had brought with me a collection of every sort of capo I could find, old and new, and spread them out on Dave’s kitchen table. They would remain there for the duration of my stay. We’d push them aside temporarily at meal times. The kitchen table served as our office where we spent many hours each day, picking up and handling the different capos, thinking about them, considering which features of each were good, if any, and which were not. We wanted to come up with something new, and neither of us felt that the answer lay in simply combining the best features from existing designs. So while the pile of capos on the table kept our heads in the game, it mainly served as a reference for what not to do.
What did all of these capos on the table have in common that ours would not? They all put the guitar out of tune, to varying degrees. Despite what some of them may have claimed in their advertising, they did. And why? In some cases because the material that pressed the strings was so hard that it stretched them over the fret. But also because of the manner in which they closed onto the guitar neck. All were modeled after some prior mechanical device that exerted pressure: a vise, a c-clamp, a belt, a clothespin, a rubber band, a pair of pliers, and so on, all of which pushed, pulled, or stretched the strings as the pressure was applied.
So was there a mechanical model we could use that did not have this flaw? Yes –that most marvelously versatile tool of all time, the human hand. The over-center closing and locking principle we employed mimics the human hand in many subtle ways, all of which serve to avoid the string stretching, pushing, pulling, or bending problems created by these other clamping methods.
How long have you been at the current Rohnert Park, California facility?
RS: We’ve been at the Rohnert Park facility for about six years. Before that, we were at Valley Ford for about 15 years. We’ve kept that facility, too, and use it for warehouse storage and for my own private office. The two places are about 20 minutes apart, and I split my time between them. Our buildings in Rohnert Park, Valley Ford, and Missouri are each in the neighborhood of 5,000 square feet.
Can you describe your current distribution model?
RS: Most of our sales are through wholesale distributors, and most of them international. But we remain accessible at all levels – dealers, teachers, and end users included. We don’t undercut our distributors or dealers – we respect the sales structure and do our best to support it – but our main priority is that anyone who wants our products should be able to easily get them, and if that means coming to us, well, here we are.
Our online sales are relatively small and center mostly on products that are harder to find. We sell at list price on the web, and there are hundreds of websites selling our capos at a discount. But there are those people who prefer to buy from the manufacturer, in the same spirit that they like to buy a CD from a band at a show; they appreciate the contact and support. Plus, not all of our dealers and distributors carry our full line – and I don’t blame them, it is pretty extensive – so for someone looking for a partial capo, or a certain color or finish, it can be simpler to get it from us.
While a number of high profile, respected artists have a relationship with the company, Shubb doesn’t go after musicians to be endorsing artists. Can you talk about the philosophy behind that?
RS: A professional musician’s choice of gear is a very personal thing, and I respect that. They’re going to use the stuff they want to use, and that’s it. They’re not like famous athletes or movie stars who might get paid a fortune to pretend they prefer some brand of soda pop or underwear. When it comes to the tools of their trade, musicians’ loyalty can’t be bought. And I wouldn’t want to. So when you see someone using a Shubb capo, I guarantee you it’s because that is his or her choice.
Now, I won’t say that we don’t give complimentary capos to famous players, but it’s always when they are already Shubb users, or want to be. Many years ago, when our capo was still relatively new, I received an order in the mail for a 12-string guitar capo from Pete Seeger. I sent him a 12-string capo, a banjo capo, and his check, along with a note saying, “What kind of a son of a bitch would I be if I didn’t give a capo to Pete Seeger?” He sent me back a note saying, “Thanks, I’ll use ‘em both!” And he did.
We’ve formed many wonderful lifetime friendships within the music community, and some of these players have honored us by performing for us at the trade shows. They do this as a token of that friendship. I can’t think of another business I’d rather be in.
Do you have any special events or projects lined up to celebrate the 40th Anniversary?
RS: I’ve been holding contests on our Facebook page in which I give away free capos. And we have some 40th anniversary t-shirts and fancy embroidered jackets. At the Anaheim show we held two drawings each day and gave some of these away, along with some other swag, and we’ll do that again in Nashville.
Looking to the future, what are your hopes and expectations for the Shubb Company?
RS: To just keep doing what we are doing, and to keep getting better at it. Honestly, that’s it. A design this good never gets old, but it’s up to me to stay on my toes and make sure we’re doing the best job we can – as a company – so that people don’t forget just how good our product is. That’s why I came up with the catchphrase that we’ve been using lately: “Still the Best.” Maybe not the newest, but...
When I first started exhibiting at NAMM shows I was blown away to meet people – in person – whose names were iconic in the music products trade; Leo Fender, Ernie Ball, Mel Bay, Jim Dunlop, and others. Those were brands, not people, right? But those guys were actually there. And then one day about ten years ago, I said to my dear friend, John Pearse, “You know what? People are thinking that about us now.”
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