Last updated September 17, 2011
Greetings fellow guitar and harp guitar enthusiasts!
The harp guitar that started it all for me is a Dyer Brothers symphony harp guitar that belonged to my great-grandmother’s second husband – Edgar Pierce. They were married for 50 years so I think of him as my great-grandfather, even though there’s not actually any blood relation.
He played on Portland, Oregon’s first radio station in a band called the Hoot Owls. He also played in saloons in the Yukon during a gold rush earlyin the last century. Talk about a tough gig, imagine playing for a bunch of lonely miners in Alaska in 1915 or so; I bet he played whatever requests he was asked to do. Just picture it: some drunk miner asks you to play Misty – you play it, even though it won’t be composed for another twenty years yet!
This harp guitar was built by the Larson Brothers in Chicago. (Dyer Brothers was a chain of music stores that ordered instruments from the Larsons and then put their store label on them). There is a handwritten date of 1909 on the label of mine. For lots of great information about the Larson instruments, please visit a website which features the work of my friend Bob Hartman – LarsonCreations.com.
Another site to visit ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE OR KNOW SOMEONE WHO HAS ONE OF THESE WONDERFUL INSTRUMENTS, REGARDLESS OF ITS CONDITION is The LarsonBrothersRegistry.com
The harp guitar is a wonderful, indeed magnificent, instrument and I feel quite fortunate to have inherited one. It is a regular 6-string guitar with an extended sound chamber arching up out of the top shoulder. There are 6 sub-basses, tuned (descending in pitch from the closest sub-bass to the regular 6th string E) G-D-C-B-A-G.
I did not discover until after I had the instrument for awhile that the original tuning of the bass strings of this particular harp guitar was pretty much a chromatic descent down to A. At the point that I discovered this, I was already very happy with the above tuning that I had worked out and I felt no need to change. Besides, I didn’t particularly care for the chromatic tuning. I do vary my tuning of these strings quite often in order to get particular notes or overtones, but I often start with the above tuning. My lowest sub-bass can be anywhere between a G# and the E a third lower, for example. The other sub-basses I don’t change the pitch of that much, generally only a half step either way. The B will go to Bb, for example, or the C to C#.
Mechanically, it is a bit like having a sustain pedal from a piano combined with a minimalistic, but dependable bass player. The additional strings start singing immediately, triggered by the sound of the regular 6 strings. Then, when the thumb reaches down and grabs the occasional bass note, you really have some extra depth to the sound.
I didn’t really know my great-grandfather – he lived in Oregon and I grew up in New York. Although I was born in Oregon, my parents moved East when I was 2. After that, we only went back twice, in 1963 and 1965. That last time, I was 9 years old, and although I can form a fuzzy picture in my mind of my great-grandfather (for whatever reason, he was called Gonky) playing the instrument, I really can’t remember what it sounded like. Anyway, I like to think that he would be delighted knowing that it continues to bring magic in people’s hearts, which I know beyond any doubt that it does.
I wrote a song for him some years ago (the one that’s playing now) entitled Sea Rose Beach. I had very little to do with the composition of this piece of music, it literally came through me and out the instrument. Sea Rose Beach is the name of the spot of Oregon coastline where my great grandparents lived the last years of their lives and it is a beautiful place indeed. The ocean is what you see out the front window and the Siuslaw National Forest rises out of the backyard.
On a few occasions, when I had not announced anything about the origin or title of this song, people have spontaneously told me that they heard the ocean in the music. I am moved by such things. And though I always strive for such communication on all of my guitars, I think the harp guitar really lends itself to magical sounds.
For several years, I also played a harp guitar built by Ron Spillers in Virginia. After recording many tunes and doing lots of shows with that instrument, I loaned it for a while to my friend Andy McKee, and eventually sold it to him.
Starting in 2001, I was usually seen playing a harp guitar that was made by Jim and Dave Merrill here in Virginia. It is a very faithful reproduction of my great-grandfather’s Dyer.
A wonderful harp guitar I got in late 2007 was made by Kathy Wingert in California. This instrument wasn’t designed to be a reproduction of a vintage instrument at all; rather, it is Kathy’s vision of what a harp guitar should be. After a while I decided that the dimensions of this instrument didn’t suit me perfectly, so I traded it back in for another amazing Wingert instrument. This is the harp guitar I currently play most often.
Don’t forget to have a look at harpguitars.net and especially check out the pictures of The Harp Guitar Gathering. This is an event which I dreamed up back in 2002 and with the help of my friends and fellow harp guitarists Gregg Miner, John Doan and Andy Wahlberg, in 2003, this dream became a reality. The Gathering met for its seventh consecutive year in October 2009 in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s a weekend-long celebration of the harp guitar and features concerts and various presentations by players, luthiers and scholars. Attendees came from all over the US, as well as from Europe and Canada. The Eighth Annual Harp Guitar Gathering was in Indianapolis, IN in 2010. And the Ninth is in Milford, CT (where I now live) October 7-9, 2011.
I play my 1930 National Triolian at most every show.
Lately I’ve been playing a Collings 000 style cutaway. It’s a mahogany guitar with a German spruce top and is a 12 fret model.
From mid-2003 until September of 2010, I exclusively played a Morris guitar. There are two of them. The first is a mahogany body guitar with my initials on the headstock. It’s a slightly deeper body instrument and is featured on the Beatles For Acoustic Guitar, Everything Under The Sun, and Reflections cds. In 2006 I started playing a smaller body rosewood Morris. I’ve just started to play the original mahogany guitar again and am remembering all over again why I love this guitar.
Prior to 2003 I played a Merrill cutaway for 6 years and before that, a Gibson Nick Lucas reissue.
In late 2009 I got a wonderful baritone guitar made by luthier Tony Karol in Ontario. Tony had brought one of these amazing instruments to a number of my Toronto shows for me to try. He’d always invite me to use it in the concert and I invariably would, drawn by the great deep sound they produced. Of course I knew he was hoping I’d buy one – and I’m glad I finally did!