Harp Guitars

January 22, 2007

The Museum of Making Music (musuemofmakingmusic.org) recognizes the spirit of individualism in which harp guitars have been made throughout history, and will exhibit a collection of these instruments starting in early 2007. The Museum has gone about collecting pieces from different eras in the harp guitar’s development, from the mid 1800s all the way up to the present day. Located in Carlsbad, CA, and associated with NAMM, the museum will also present a series of concerts by some of the world’s leading harp guitarists, including Stephen Bennett, John Doan, and William Eaton. The exhibit runs from February through July, and it offers the public a chance to see some of the best examples of harp-guitar artistry in history—from its European origins, to the early American efforts of Chris Knutsen, Dyer, Gibson, and the Larson Brothers, to contemporary builders Fred Carlson and William Eaton.

“The harp guitar exhibit is particularly intriguing because the instruments themselves are not mainstream,” says Carolyn Grant, the museum’s executive director. “They don’t conform to a specific set of rules, which is similar to our museum, which is a museum of processes, and not just of products to be seen. It can be a challenge to display a process, but the creative process comes through these instruments. Harp guitars are symbolic because they’re an exploration of non-uniformity.”

“The central idea for the whole project is about innovation and imagination,” adds museum curator Tatiana Sizonenko, “but also the passion and artistry linked to these concepts. Our museum deals with the inspiration in the music-making industry. And innovation is important, because it deals with the human capacity to move beyond what is already known.”

In order to sort out and prioritize the pieces, trends, and individual builders that spanned centuries—as well as continents—Grant and Sizonenko turned to Gregg Miner, the world’s leading authority and “lightning rod” for all things harp guitar.

“Harp guitars have a super-prolific and rich 250-year history,” says Miner. “There were long periods in music where seeing and hearing the harp guitar was a completely normal occurrence. But much of the history was never known until about five years ago.”

That we know as much as we do about harp guitars is largely through Miner’s efforts.

He has assiduously gathered, classified, and otherwise organized most of the world’s information on harp guitars, presenting all of it on the Web site harpguitars.net.

One of Miner’s early challenges in bringing order to a world of instruments that eschews conformity was to determine just exactly what a harp guitar was. Miner writes that a harp

guitar is: “A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.” That means that it can be of any shape and size, as long as it has at least one playable (as opposed to sympathetic) string that lies off of the fretboard. The additional strings of a harp guitar are usually of the bass variety, and most people picture the Gibson or Dyer model, with its large curved arm on the top that anchors long, heavy-gauge bass strings. But, recently, people have added unfretted treble strings that can be pressed into melodic duty.

The history of harp guitars started in Europe, and then emigrated to the U.S., where it developed through the efforts of Chris Knutsen in Seattle, and then the Larson Brothers, Dyer & Bros., Lyon & Healy, and Gibson.

“W. J. Dyer & Bros. were a Minnesota company that originally distributed the Knutsen instruments,” explains Miner. “This was in the late 1890s. Then they got the Larsons in Chicago involved. The Dyer Company got the license from Knutsen, who signed their labels. The Larsons built Knutsen’s exact model—give or take some improvements—which looked like the Knutsen symphony model, rather than the Dyer we know today. Then, a few short years later, in 1906, someone changed it to the new design that we all associate as the Dyer with that wonderful, cloud-like bass headstock.

“That became the classic harp guitar, and you see a ton of pictures of people playing it. Larson instruments were better than anyone’s. At the time, Martin was just doing gut-string instruments. There was no Martin to compete with—it was all steel-string Larson instruments. They were killer then, and they’re killer now. Gibson jumped into the game in 1903, and stayed until the end—the ’30s. But their instruments, ironically, with those huge arched tops, were meant to be gut strung—though we all play with steel strings now, because that’s part of our aesthetic.

“As far as the exhibit, the tough thing is that there are so many unique instruments. In the end, the collection will include about 30 pieces: 10 American, 10 European—including Luigi Mozzani who built instruments for virtuoso Mario Maccaferri of Django Reinhardt/Selmer guitar fame—and some others that are ‘harp’ in name only. The Americans will include Knutsen, Dyer, Lyon & Healy, Gibson, and the Larson Brothers, who built instruments for themselves and for Dyer. Tatiana and I chose instruments that were not only historically important, but attractive and fascinating.”

Harp Guitar Today

The current harp guitar scene has an established cadre of quality builders who, thanks to modern travel and communications technology, keep in contact with each other.

“Today, we have an active community of advocates,” says Miner. “We’ve got John Doan in Oregon, Stephen Bennett in Virginia, Andy Wahlberg in Florida, William Eaton in Arizona, and myself in Los Angeles. It usually starts in isolation. A player finds a decent instrument in a pawnshop, and says, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ and hangs it on the wall. But the more enterprising ones learn to play it. All of us were fingerstyle players, so what we did is just use those bass strings—and treble strings, in the case of Doan and others—to expand fingerstyle into a more piano-like range.”

In the spirit of Chris Knutsen—the solitary early-20th-century visionary in Seattle—luthiers such as Fred Carlson and William Eaton are carrying on the tradition of harp guitar building. Even though Carlson and Eaton know and respect each other, they are quite different in their approach. Carlson produces instruments such as the one shown on page 18. He creates masterpieces, one at a time, averaging about one per year.

Eaton, an Arizona-based builder and performer, is a co-founder and current director of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix. Certainly the most forward-looking approach to a harp guitar to date is Eaton’s double-neck harp guitar (above), on which he will perform at the museum on April 21, 2007. The double-neck features some cutting-edge technology, such as computer modeling and microprocessor-driven tuning servos, but the woodwork is flowing, graceful, and beautiful.

“It has two necks for acoustic and electric,” details Eaton. “The lower neck is electric, where the corresponding lower portion of the body is solid. The neck above it is designed to play an acoustic ‘thin-line’ sound, where the upper half of the body is hollow. The electric neck has the TransPerformance system, developed by Neil Skinn. A dedicated computer stores information used to initiate real-time tuning changes via servo motors that tighten or loosen the strings. There’s a touch-up function for fine tuning, a tempering function, and copy, insert, delete, and edit operations. The system comes with 200 preset tunings categorized in keys, chords, unison, and open tunings. I have input 96 custom tunings, using some presets and my own tuning inventions.

“On the acoustic neck, which has RMC pickups, I use the Roland GR-1 and GR-33 guitar synthesizers with the Roland VG system. This allows me to change tunings, as well, but it uses computer modeling and pitch shifting, rather than actual physical string manipulation. So I can change tunings at will with either of these two different necks—which is kind of cool, because it’s playing guitar with another set of open strings. You play a fretted bank of strings, and then you select various open strings, like you would on the harp, lyre, or zither.

“It’s important to note that most of the aesthetic and the design attributes come out of the function. Some of the lines are altered slightly to make the lines aesthetically pleasing, but, for example, in my spiral clef, a star pattern of two-triangles in a round circle is formed underneath the strings. But it’s really the result of the connecting the pickup iron loads, which were brass plated to match the brass decorative pieces that complete the design. It’s cool when that happens.”

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