I have to admit that I only recently heard of the harp guitar via YouTube and a very talented man called Jamie Dupuis (Check out his YouTube Channel here).
I should also admit that I can only find one maker of a left handed version and one player, but I love the sound these instruments make that I had to write this post.
The word “harp” is used in reference to its harp-like unstopped open strings and so a harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard, which is usually played as an open string.
This family of guitars consists of several varieties of instrument configurations. With the most readily identified being the American harp guitars with either hollow arms, double necks or harp-like frames for supporting extra bass strings, and the European bass guitars (or contra guitars). Other harp guitars feature treble or mid-range floating strings, or various combinations of multiple floating string banks along with a standard guitar neck.
Invention of the harp guitar is attributed to Chris Knutsen who patented the harp guitar in 1898. He was born in Norway in 1862, and moved to Minnesota, USA, with his parents at the age of 3. In 1895 he moved to Washington State, where he began patenting and making unusual guitar designs. He started making Hawaiian steel guitars in 1908 and in 1914 moved to Los Angeles and began to make harp ukuleles and Hawaiian guitars.
Although Chris Knutsen patented the harp guitar it appears that there were European versions of the instrument long before that. For example in 1848, a review of a performance by Mertz refers to a guitar with four extra bass strings. Then in Russia in 1871 an advertisement for Mark Sokolovsky’s concert includes the statement: “a duet on two Russian songs (“How did I upset you” and the finale “Along the street”), to be performed on two harp-guitars by Mr. Sokolovsky and Mr. Shokhin.”
Other historical harp guitar players include the German composers and guitarists Adam Darr (1811–1866) and Eduard Bayer (1822–1908), and the Italian virtuosi Pasquale Taraffo (1887–1937). Alfred Karnes (1891–1958) was an Old Time Country and Southern Gospel singer and guitarist, and his records show the only known use of the harp-guitar in Old Time Music.
English guitarist John McLaughlin even played a harp guitar, particularly with the group Shakti, often using the harp strings for Indian inspired drones and open chords. In Shakti he played a custom-made steel-string J-200 acoustic guitar that featured two sets of strings over the soundhole, with one a conventional six-string configuration and then seven strings strung underneath at a 45-degree angle which were independently tuneable and known as “sympathetic strings” like the strings on a sitar or veena.
I was surprised by the number of makers of harp guitars including Gibson and Tonedevil Guitars (http://www.tonedevilharpguitars.com/), and others as highlighted on harpguitars.net (http://www.harpguitars.net/luthiers/luthiers.htm). Although, I should warn you that these beautiful looking and sounding guitars are not cheap.
I was also surprised by the number of wonderful players of these strange and amazing instruments, including Jamie Dupuis, Andrew Kasab (http://www.andrewkasab.com), Tupelo Kenyon, Leon Atkinson, Andre Feriante and David Powell, one of the founders of Tonedevil Guitars.
Note: According to “The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments” (Second Edition), a Harp Guitar is a guitar with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking. These instruments, a separate and distinct category within the guitar family, are those most commonly and popularly referred to today as harp guitars. In this case (whatever the original intent of the use in the hybrid name), the word “harp” is now a specific reference to the unstopped open strings, and is not specifically a reference to the tone, pitch range, volume, silhouette similarity, construction, floor-standing ability, nor any other alleged “harp-like” properties. To qualify in this category, an instrument must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard. Further, the unfretted strings – whether they were intended for playing or only sympathetic vibration – can be, and typically are, played as an open string. Beyond that, literally almost anything goes. Undoubtedly, the most common configuration is a series of from 1 to 12 sub-bass strings adjacent to the main neck’s low string (ex: Gibson, Knutsen/Dyer, Schrammel guitars). Less common varieties feature super-treble strings on the opposite side of the sub-bass strings (Knutsen, Sullivan/Elliott-style), sub-bass strings on both sides of the neck (Altpeter), or chord-group, melodic, or other non-bass strings only (Knutsen “zither harp guitar,” Meulle-Stef tzouraharp). Additional styles of true harp guitars include Manzer’s “Picasso” guitar and new creations by luthiers Fred Carlson and William Eaton. The earliest surviving specimen of what I would consider a true harp guitar that I am aware of is a 10-course French instrument built by Deleplanque in 1782 (rather than the earlier Naderman bissex; see Hybrids below) – though possible “theorboed guitars” made a brief appearance over a hundred years earlier.
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