Last updated September 17, 2011
Greetings fellow harp guitar enthusiasts!
The instrument that started it all for me was a Dyer Brothers Symphony Harp Guitar that belonged to my great-grandfather – Edgar Pierce.
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.
Dyer Brothers was a chain of music stores that sold instruments built by Carl and August Larson – the Larson Brothers. Dyer would simply put their label on the inside. There is a handwritten date of 1909 on mine. For lots of great information about the Larson Brothers’ instruments, visit a website which features the work of one of their descendants, my friend Bob Hartman –
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
Harp guitars are wonderful, indeed magnificent, instruments and I feel quite fortunate to have inherited mine. Think of a regular 6-string guitar with an extended sound chamber arching up out of the top shoulder. There are 6 sub-basses which for a long time I primarily tuned G-D-C-B-A-G (descending in pitch).
I did not discover until after I had the instrument for a while 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 sub-bass tunings quite often in order to get particular notes or overtones but for the first decade or so of playing harp guitar, I generally started with the above tuning.
These days, my lowest sub-bass is more often an E or an F, rather than a G. The other sub-basses I don’t change the pitch of that much, generally only a half step either way. I’d change the B to Bb, for example, or the C to C#. Recently I had sharping levers put on my newest harp guitar (made by Kathy Wingert out in California, see below). With those, I can change my low C string to a C#, for example, very quickly and easily.
On of the sonic effects of a harp guitar is a bit like what the sustain pedal does for a piano. The “harp” strings start singing immediately, triggered by the sound of the regular guitar. Then, when you reach down and grab the occasional bass note, you really have added some extra depth to the sound.
I didn’t know my great-grandfather – he lived in Oregon and I grew up in New York. Though I was born in Oregon, my parents moved East before I was two. 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 the harp guitar continues to work magic in people’s hearts.
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. Amazingly, it’s still in the family. The Pacific Ocean is the view out the front window and the Siuslaw National Forest rises out of the backyard.
On a few occasions, without announcing the inspiration for 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 from all of my guitars, I think the harp guitar especially 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 and eventually sold that instrument to my friend Andy McKee. Andy is one of the leading lights of the acoustic guitar world these days.
For several years, starting in 2001, I was usually seen playing a harp guitar that was made by Dave and Jim Merrill in Virginia. It’s a fine 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 was 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. And that is the harp guitar I currently play.
For instruments in a more affordable price range, I’m also an endorser of the new Dyer Harp Guitars.
Don’t forget to have a look at harpguitars.net and especially check out the pictures of The Harp Guitar Gathering. The Gathering is an event which I dreamed up back in 2002. The following year it became a reality as most of the various harp guitar nuts I’d met over the previous years showed up in Williamsburg, Virginia to spend a weekend together. It was a blast and we’ve met every year since. The Gathering met for its thirteenth consecutive year in October 2015 in Mooresville, NC. It’s a weekend-long celebration of the harp guitar and features concerts and various presentations by players, luthiers and scholars. Attendees come from all over the US, as well as from abroad. The 14th HGG will take place in Milford, CT October 14-16, 2016 and our 15th is scheduled for October 2017 at the Museum Of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA.
I play my 1930 National Triolian at most shows.
My current 6-string guitar was made by Massimiliano Monterosse in Italy. Rosewood with a cedar top. The beveled top bout is very comfortable.
Before that, my main 6-string was 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 Morris guitars. The first was 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!