The Price Of Value
When you find something, some tool or accessory, that works extremely well, there tends to be a good amount of effort into keeping that something as long as possible. Upon first glance, the Dudley Quick-Release Capo for mountain dulcimers is as inorganic as it can be for an authentic American instrument.
Made of brass, and looking quite steampunk, it’s distractingly ugly when perched upon the fretboard, but what it lacks aesthetically is made up by its effortlessly practical performance. Instead of using two hands to secure the capo to the fretboard, the Dudley Quick-Release capo is easily pre-sized to whatever instrument you use it on, and can be applied and secured with one hand, quickly and cleanly. Where most capos use various types of rubber contacts to compress the strings, the Dudley uses leather or rawhide and is slower to develop ruts.
The design is so revolutionary that James T. Dudley, a former operator of a radiator and welding service, took out patent 5373770 on it. The link goes to a really interesting page, with a full-on description of the invention, and the reason for its creation, by its inventor. Scroll all the way down.
For a while, you could find them in lots of places, including Elderly Instruments and Prussia Valley Dulcimers (edit: Gary Sager of Prussia Valley Dulcimers says they never carried the Dudley capos), but rumors of Dudley’s failing health preceded a drying-up of stock at these and other music stores. I’d heard that Mr. Dudley’s son had taken over production, or some member of the family had done so during that time. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure, but the capos began to materialize once again in selected outlets after a while and I highly recommended them to students.
Not too much time passed and I began to receive e-mails stating that there seemed to be no sign of the capo anywhere on the internet and did I have any idea on how to get one. I actually had two, and wasn’t too keen on letting go of either with the rise and fall of availability that was taking place. Again, murmurings that Mr. Dudley’s condition had gotten worse and that he had passed.
So, I did a little internet sleuthing and came up with this obituary for James “Tom” Dudley, 99, of Granite City, IL, who passed on March 9th, 2019. That would match the information found on his patent page.
I never met Mr. Dudley and don’t know much about him, other than tributes that were posted to his obit. He seemed to have a passion for music and a knack for invention. Maybe he was planning to expand production of the Quick-Release Capo, and maybe other designs were coming for other instruments. Only his family knows and, maybe they will once again fire up production at some point.
Though, it appears that the patent expired in 2013, so maybe they’ve no intention of moving forward with them at all.
It would be a shame if not another Dudley Quick-Release Capo was produced. So many people would benefit from its ease and speed of use. I know diddly-squat about patent law, but I’d imagine that the Dudley family has some other kind of protection on this design, you’d think? Can they still sell the concept to someone who could then re-apply for the patent?
The Walworth brass capos appear to be inspired by the Dudley Quick-Release and I don’t have any experience with them, so I can’t speak to their quality of build, ease of use or overall value. I’ve never seen one anywhere but online, so maybe they aren’t getting very far out of the homes and out to the festivals. If you’ve got one, I’d love to get some feedback.
Whatever may or may not happen with the Saga of the Steampunk Capo, it’s a valuable part of my every day life as a mountain dulcimer player and I wish I could’ve met Mr. Dudley to give him my thanks. I’m sure anyone who has owned one would do the same. I hope he knew that he really created something special that made a difference for a lot of people.