Previously, I've told the tale of an extraordinary modified Gibson Style U harp guitar that dodged a fiery death at Søren Venema’s Palm Guitars in Amsterdam. Its modifications included a small headstock from a bandura—the traditional Ukrainian zither harp—in place of the usual harp-string extension, along with an integrated bridge and tailpiece that allowed individual tuning of all 12 harp strings behind the bridge. The guitar astounded me when I first saw it three years ago, and it astounded me again when it suddenly appeared in my shop sometime after the fire, where I’d assumed it had perished. As it happened, the instrument was on loan to musician Shahzad Ismaily at the time of the blaze, or it would surely have been among the instruments lost.
The coda to this tale has an interesting twist. Shahzad paid Søren for the guitar and managed to get the fat Gibson in its soft faux-leather bag through four intercontinental flights unscathed—a monumental feat. I’m considerably more cautious, having just returned myself from a trip to Colombia with my beloved classical guitar in a spanky new Hoffee carbon fiber flight case thrown in with the suitcases. If you knew how far and wide Shahzad typically traveled, you could imagine my astonishment when I saw him walking into my Brooklyn shop with that distinctive infernal brown bag. I simply marveled at this wonderful freak of circumstance that had survived more abuse than a New York City public telephone booth.
Though the guitar still needed minor repair work, it was with me mainly to be fitted for a custom case that would protect it from further harm. Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I obtained cases from a company called Harptone, who built them in the Seventies through the Nineties out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of those places in New York where one still could use notoriously explosive, acetone-based glue to attach the fuzzy lining to the plywood outer shells. You could order any case you’d like in a bewildering choice of cover materials, custom-colored inside linings, and shell thicknesses—all you had to do was provide a dependable drawing of your guitar. Here lied the rub with custom Harptone case making: They would use your drawing as a pattern, cutting it up and gluing it onto the shell material, which meant you would have to make an entirely new drawing every time you needed an odd-size case.
After Harptone ceased production, most of its services were taken over by the TKL/Cedar Creek company in Oilville, Virginia, who have made a number of odd-size cases for me with very good results. All cases fit upon arrival, and the cherry on top is that their system memorizes all previous orders, so all they have to do is pull my file to make a second alligator form-fitting case with a Con Edison–blue interior for my Teisco Spectrum guitar.
The art of making a reliable case drawing for a straightforward guitar became a bit easier in the computer age. In addition to indicating the instrument’s silhouette, one simply fills out the factory’s thorough spec sheet with reasonable precision. However, for a multi-angled instrument like our Gibson U harp, with its complicated arched surfaces, the process still requires meticulous drawing skills, particularly since once the case is made and delivered the case maker usually won’t take it back. It took me about five hours to come up with a reliable three-dimensional depiction of this oddball guitar, the specs of which I copied for future reference before sending it off to TKL.
Three months later, a humongous box arrived and I was enjoying the anticipation of lowering the guitar into its new abode. Would it fit in the case? When I strummed the strings and closed the lid, would the strings keep ringing until the lid fully closed? Or would they dampen with the lid only three-quarters closed, which would mean the case was too shallow and the top could be severely damaged by the bridge if excess force was applied on the case lid? (This is especially important for resophonic guitar cases, which need a bit of extra space to protect the fragile aluminum cones from excess downward pressure.)
As it turned out, the harp guitar gave the TKL case a big thumbs up. When it’s not being enjoyed in Shazad’s Figure 8 studio in Brooklyn, this wonderful black Gibson snoozes comfortably in enough pink velour lining to make a three-piece suit with a cummerbund.
Thanks to Shahzad Ismaily, Søren Venema, and Stephanie Hensal of TKL/Cedar Creek. Special thanks to Jeff Hoffee who made the excellent Hoffee flight case that protects my guitars from harm.
Flip Scipio makes and repairs guitars in Brooklyn, NY. Visit flipscipio.com.