The 2nd Annual Harp Guitar Gathering
here in the Colonel Waller Inn, on the outskirts of Williamsburg,
Virginia, where I’ve come to attend The
2nd Annual Harp Guitar Gathering.
Last year, I had made the cross-country pilgrimage from my home
in California to take part in the first ever event of it’s kind in
guitar history, bringing with me a new, 39-string Harp-Sympitar.
This year I had nothing ready to show off, and though it made for
a much less stressful trip, I’m
feeling a bit naked without some example of my art to hold up bravely
and say, “See, this is what I do!”
arrived a day early, to give my body a chance to recover from the trip,
to better enjoy the experience. A side benefit of this is that I get to
greet old friends as they pull in and wheel their huge cases (harp
guitars are definitely not the easiest instruments to travel with!) from
their rental cars to their rooms. The
Gathering itself, that is, the scheduled portions of it, will take place
at the Regional Library, a mile or so down the road, but the Colonel
Waller has become the official residence and after-hours jam center for
the registered participants. We’ve
essentially taken over the place, which is your basic cheap motel, but
with a few notable exceptions: The 2-room suites are set up ideally for
group jam sessions and socializing, with big front rooms and separate
bedrooms in back. And the
bathrooms have real bathtubs and lots of very hot water!
door to me, Joe and Linda Morgan have
already arrived from Texas. Joe
is perhaps not the quivering type, but if he was, he would be quivering
with excitement, because he’s expecting to have a new harp guitar
delivered to him by it’s builder, Stephen Sedgwick, a wonderful young
luthier from England. Stephen is quite an authority on harp guitars, and
one of the best up-and-coming builders.
Rumor has it he will be bringing two new instruments to deliver
to eagerly waiting customers. This is proving to be a wonderful aspect
of the Gathering: the matching up of players with these unusual
instruments that can be a bit hard to come by.
It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m trying to get out on a food run before everyone shows up and I can’t tear myself away. Although the scheduled events don’t begin until tomorrow morning, I know tonight will be filled with the joyful meetings of old and new friends, and music into the wee hours. But it’s hard to get very far on my intended supply run: just out of my door I get hailed by someone several doors down. It’s Dan Lavoie and Andy Mckee, two hot young players I met here last year. These guys represent the exciting future of harp guitar performance, and like everyone else in this growing community, they’re a couple of the sweetest folks you could hope to meet. We exchange hugs and talk a bit about this and that; I learn that they’ve been on the road doing a little tour together before coming to the Gathering. As we part, Stephen Sedgwick shows up, looking for Joe, who has just left, and we get into a long talk about luthier-related issues. Finally I pry myself away to go off for my groceries. It starts raining; I find a cheap umbrella to buy, and go for a long, wet walk through Colonial Williamsburg, a marvelous re-creation of a large portion of the original town of Williamsburg, including nearly 100 original buildings from the 1700s. I’m delighted, in passing by a lit up tavern, to see a performer inside with a period instrument, a gut strung guitar with wooden pegs. This seems like a good omen for the weekend to come.
at the Colonel Waller, harp guitar enthusiasts are getting as thick as
strings on a Knutsen. My
friend, Benoît Meulle-Stef (“just call me Ben”!), a genuinely crazy
Frenchman from Brussels (and talented luthier who knows a lot about harp
guitars, especially the German
kontraguitarre), has arrived, so I know the party will really be
getting into gear. Gregg
Miner, musician, historian and the moving force behind Harpguitars.net,
the harp guitar community’s home in cyberspace, walks by hauling a
huge case that I later find out contains an original Mozzani lyre-harp
guitar made in Italy in the early 1900s. Gathering founder/organizer and seminal harp guitarist
Stephen Bennett sticks his head in the door of my room to spread the
word about a group meal at a nearby restaurant.
It’s shaping up to be a good night.
time later, our numbers swelled to 20 or so, we converge on the 2nd
Street restaurant. Lots of
talking, eating, introductions, more talking and eating. At one point word reaches the back corner I’m sitting in
that (harp guitarist, composer, teacher) John Doan is in another part of
the restaurant, and a large group of us get up and fight our way through
the crowded rooms until we find John’s table.
More hugs and introductions and talking ensue, and I’m
wondering how the other patrons of this establishment are taking all
this noise and disturbance to their dinners.
Since we have them outnumbered, it doesn’t seem to really
matter; they’ll have to put up with our exuberance.
at the Colonel Waller again, I find enough energy to hang out for a
little while and visit before crashing into the bathtub, then bed.
As I drift off to a fitful sleep (too much excitement), I can
hear the sounds of harp guitars in the room next door.
The Gathering has begun!
sleep in as late as I dare. The
official check in time at the Regional Library is 8:00 AM (who’s idea
was that!!??), which is nice in theory but
a bit difficult to pull off after last night.
I finally drag myself out of bed and go for a walk before
breakfast, knowing I’ll be sitting, listening, talking and so on, all
day and into the night, so now’s my chance to get a stretch.
I don’t even try to get to the Library for the coffee hour,
instead opting to have a quiet breakfast in my room.
So, I arrive just in time to get a seat for the first scheduled
performance at 9:00: Dan Lavoie and Andy Mckee.
Billed, only partially jokingly, as “The Young Studs of the
Harp Guitar”, these guys do indeed rock, opening the Gathering with a
fine set. They both play
lovely, modern instruments built by Virginia luthier Ron Spillers.
These are copies of the Dyer Symphony Harp Guitars that were
built by the Larson Brothers in Chicago in the early 1900s, with 6 main
strings on the guitar neck and 6 unfretted, sub-bass, so-called
“harp” strings running on the bass side of the neck, over a
bass-side body extension. This
body type was also known as the “one armed guitar”; the Dyer Company
licensed the patented design from its inventor, Chris Knutsen, and hired
the Larsons to build them.
Although there are many other (often very different) contemporary
and historical designs for harp guitars, the Dyer style remains the most
copied in this country, and is certainly well represented at the
we have a panel of performers giving hints, tips and observations on how
to make the leap from playing regular 6-string guitar to playing harp
guitar. The model being
used is the aforementioned Dyer style, and as you’d probably guess,
the talk is oriented on how to incorporate the sub-basses into one’s
really excited about the next performer, because I’ve never heard him
before, and because he plays a different style of instrument, an old
Gibson arch-top harp guitar. Gibson
was one of many companies to jump on the brief harp guitar bandwagon in
the early 1900s. Their take
on the instrument was quite different from any other, with carved top
and back and a body shape with spiral/scroll details reminiscent of some
of their other archtop instruments from that period.
And the Gibson is BIG, with an 18.5 inch wide lower bout.
This performer, Tom Shinness, from Nashville, plays a 1913 Gibson
Style U with 10 sub-basses (they were made with as many as 12
sub-basses), supported by a pillar going up to the huge headstock,
rather than a body extension as on the Dyer.
Tom has magnetic pickups on both the main and sub-bass strings,
which give a slightly less “acoustic” sound, but do a great job of
picking up the subtleties of his playing.
And his playing is impressive, with extraordinary technique,
matched by an inventiveness of composition that makes his set a really
Tom Shinness’s set, we have a rehearsal for the evening concert
finale, in which all Gathering participants who have a harp guitar (or
can borrow one) get to jam together on “The Water Is Wide”.
Since I don’t have an instrument with me, I take the
opportunity to shoot a bunch of photos of harp guitars in action.
the time allotted for lunch, I get more visiting in, and take some
pictures of the new 20-string HG built by (Portland, Oregon luthier)
Mike Doolin. This beauty
has the 6 sub-basses common on the Dyer-style instruments, with an
additional 8 high-pitched harp strings running parallel to the main
strings on the treble side of the body.
This style, with these “super-trebles” as well as the
sub-basses, is currently being advanced by John Doan among others, and
shares its roots with the same Chris Knutsen responsible for the design
the Dyer Co. popularized.
lunch we have a question and answer session on the Larson Brothers/Dyer
instruments, hosted by Bob Hartman and Gregg Miner. Bob is the grandson
of Carl Larson, a Swedish immigrant who, with his brother August, built
a wide variety of instruments in Chicago from the mid 1890s through the
early 1940s. They made
instruments for a number of retail labels including Maurer, Prairie
State, Euphonon and Stahl, as well as Dyer’s Symphony
Harp Guitars. Bob literally
wrote the book on the Larsons (“The Larsons’ Creations-Guitars and
Mandolins, 1996 Centerstream Publishing), and may know more than anyone
alive today about those instruments.
Gregg Miner is a marvelously obsessive harp guitar historian and
scholar, who has masterminded the incredible website, www.harpguitars.net,
which contains an unbelievable amount of information on harp guitars
past and present. You can
look at hundreds of photographs of wild and weird instruments from
several centuries ago up to the present day and read about historical
players as well as current practitioners of the harp guitar art.
There is a section devoted to modern HG luthiers, an exhaustive
exposition of Chris Knutsen’s life and work, and a forum where you can
find lively, ongoing discussions on all things harp guitar.
Just being in the same room with these two gentlemen
raises my harp guitar I.Q. quite a few notches!
getting smart, I get to go back to blissing out to an incredible set of
tunes from two of the world’s leading harp guitarists: John Doan and Stephen Bennett.
Both are fantastic musicians, well known and admired in the harp
guitar community and beyond. John,
as mentioned earlier, plays an instrument that includes both sub-bass
and super-treble harp strings and he composes complex and beautiful
music especially for this instrument.
John’s main harp guitar is one built by John Sullivan in
collaboration with Jeffrey Elliott.
This instrument really serves as a bridge between the old
Knutsens with super-trebles and new versions that are being developed
with John’s encouragement and inspiration. Stephen plays several different Dyer-style instruments,
including a lovely original Dyer that belonged to his great-grandfather,
and a contemporary version of it built by the Merrill Brothers.
Stephens’ repertoire ranges from his own original tunes through
a wide variety of American popular and folk music, and the warmth and
directness of his playing is always tremendously moving to me.
I get to mount the stage with the 5 other luthiers who showed up, to
talk about the harp guitars we have been building, answer questions
regarding harp guitar construction and so on.
I talk briefly about the 39-string HG I am working on but
didn’t finish in time to bring (Darn it all!), Mike Doolin talks about
his 20-stringer, pointing out details like the harp
sharping levers on the sub-bass strings, and the violin fine
tuners on the super-trebles. Stephen
Sedgwick shows the two, lovely, small instruments he brought from
England, both loosely based on the Dyer/Knutsen model.
I’m impressed at how small the body depth is on these, and how
full the bass response is. Ben,
the Frenchman, has a really interesting (and great sounding)
“entry-level” instrument, with a sort of 2nd neck to
support the bass peghead, instead of a body extension.
This instrument also has 8 super-trebles. A couple of builders new to the harp guitar community are
Patrick Podpadec and Bob Alexander.
Patrick shows his Dreamcaster,
a very unusual double-neck (6-string standard and 7-string baritone)
with a bank of treble harp strings on the bass side of the body.
Bob Alexander has what are probably the most unusual instruments
of the weekend, 2 large, free-form looking creations that remind me of
sea otters (can you imagine a guitar looking like a sea otter??). These are intended to have 6 sub-bass strings, and Bob had
tried to get the brand new creations strung up in his hotel room so we
could all try them out, but discovered he’d packed the wrong tuning
pegs...oooops! So we are
sadly unable to hear the full effect of these beautiful and unusual HGs.
on, the gregarious Gregg Miner, who promised not to exceed his time slot
by more than 3 hours, gives us an extensive run-down on the harp guitar
“organology” section of the Harp.guitars.net website, complete with
pictures projected from the website.
I miss some of this (no Gregg, I didn’t sleep through it!!)
because I get caught up in a conversation in the lobby (about harp
guitars, what else!) on my way back from the rest room.
it’s dinner break, and not feeling up to the dinner crowd scene, I
head back to the Colonel Waller with friend and client Erik Hinds, and
over bowls of soup prepared on my camp stove, we discuss his next
instrument, a 38-string harp guitar I’ll be starting on in 2005. This
keeps us occupied until we realize it’s time to high-tail it back to
the Library if we want to get seats for the evening concert, which is
open to the public and will be crowded.
Back at the library we stake out seats and I set up my camera
again, to try for some good performance shots.
are a number of unexpected treats in the line-up this evening.
A couple of great players who showed up for the event have been
added as performers at the last minute, and they get to come on at the
beginning. Brian Henke who
has come down from Ohio, with luthier Patrick Podpadec, gives us a
magical opening with his Dreamcaster double-neck, followed by Kip Martin
from Baltimore, who plays a delicately beautiful rendition of Michael
Hedges’ transcription for harp guitar of Bach’s “Cello Suite #1 in
“young studs” Dan Lavoie and Andy Mckee, each get to crank out a few
more tunes, to the great joy of the nearly capacity crowd.
Bill Dutcher gives us a tune on a beautiful, new Dyer-style HG
built by J. Thomas Davis. Bill
is a fine player and a great guy, and his instrument has a fantastic
piece of figured black walnut for the back...the sort of thing
luthiers’ take notice of! We
get treated to a wonderful set from Andy Wahlberg, the biggest of the
big Florida harp guitar slingers (he is BIG), who also holds the record
among those present for the length of his harp guitar playing career: he
has been playing an original Dyer (and now a new copy by Florida luthier
Eddie Villa) almost every day for some 32 years!!
Andy is a true entertainer, and adds harmonica, mouth trumpet and
some great original songs to his stellar harp guitar playing.
We get to hear more from most of the players we heard during the
day, including another amazing set by Tom Shinness, who is
blowing everyone’s minds with his big old Gibson.
Another great treat is a set from Muriel Anderson, who had been
expected earlier in the day, but had gotten delayed somewhere.
She is elegant as always, and plays a couple of classical/Celtic
tinged pieces on her lovely, small “harp requinto”, a nylon-strung
HG built for her by Mike Doolin.
We also hear from Stacy Hobbs (“from
Roanoke-by-God-Virginia!”), who knocked me out last year with his
massive sound and steamroller technique.
He somehow manages to combine intricacy with raw power, a guy who
definitely sweats for his supper! Stacy
plays a couple of vintage Dyer instruments that are absolutely great
sounding. He plays
“plugged in”, which allows him to wander the stage while playing,
and also lets him dial in an amazingly big sound from the sub-basses.
Go Stacy!! The
irrepressible Gregg Miner makes an appearance with Larry Berwald, a fine
harp guitarist from the Williamsburg area.
Gregg and Larry met at last year’s Gathering, discovered a
mutual love of Hawaiian music, and surprise us with a set of tunes
combining Dyer-style HG and Hawaiian lap steel. The
supposed excuse for bringing the lap steel into a concert of harp guitar
music is that it was built by the same Chris Knutsen who patented that
first “one-armed” harp guitar.
The audience couldn’t care less about historical justification,
these guys are just plain great, and the added variety of sounds really
propels the concert forward. John Doan gives us an enchanting set that makes full use of
both the sub-basses and the super-trebles on his elegant instrument, and
host Stephen Bennett plays a wonderful closing set, followed by the
group finale. The stage fills up with a wild variety of many-stringed
instruments (including even a couple of harp-mandolins), possibly
setting a world record for the number of harp guitars played together at
one time. The Water Is Wide is a sweet closing to a gorgeous concert, but not
the end of the day by any means for this group of hard-partying harp
at the Colonel Waller, things really get hopping some time after
midnight. I crash at about
1:00 AM, knowing that I’ll be told tomorrow about all the amazing
stuff I missed, but I’m pretty saturated with music, and very tired.
morning, the schedule says 3 hours of everyone just sitting around
taking turns playing for each other.
This sounds wonderful, but since I didn’t bring an instrument
(and don’t yet have a repertoire of harp guitar tunes), I decide I can
sleep in a little. When I
finally get to the Library, I end up mostly hanging out in the lobby,
trying out instruments and visiting with some of the folks I haven’t
had a chance to get to know yet. Apparently
I’m missing some pretty good stuff on stage, like a Beatles song
play-a-thon, but I’m having so much fun and making such good
connections with people that I don’t mind.
I drift along this way straight through lunch break and before I
know it 3:00 PM has arrived, time for the 2nd public concert.
crowd is smaller than last nights’, but enthusiastic, and the
performers give their all again. The
concert line-up is pretty similar to Saturday nights’, with the big
surprise treat being when, in Stephen Bennett’s closing set before the
group finale, Tom Shinness joins him onstage with a ‘cello and they
launch into a marvelous, unrehearsed set of Beatles songs.
the concert, we take over another local restaurant, where among much
talking and eating we also manage to learn the Secret Harp Guitar
Gathering Handshake, which I cannot possibly describe here (besides,
it’s secret!). We get a few impromptu speeches and generally revel in
each other’s company, eventually drifting back to the Colonel Waller.
I make an attempt to rouse myself for a little more harp guitar
partying, though I’m fading fast.
Luckily, most everyone else actually seems to be starting to wear
out a bit, too. Not much after 1:00 we say good night, and in many cases
goodbye ‘til next year, with hugs and warm feelings.
the Gathering is officially over, sooner than I would have liked.
But my flight home isn’t until tomorrow, and an unexpected
benefit of the extra day is that my French friend Ben, Gregg Miner and a
new friend, Frank Doucette, are all around for most of the day, with no
plans. So we spend a lovely
few hours walking around Colonial Williamsburg, relaxing in the early
winter sunshine. We drift
in and out of conversation about harp guitars, our “other lives”
outside the Gathering, and so on. Ben,
Gregg and I spend a while up in a huge pin-oak tree, acting like little
kids and loving it. This is
the perfect winding down to a perfect weekend.
Finally we wander back to the now nearly deserted Colonel Waller,
for a last minute photo shoot (of each other), and more hugs before
Gregg and Frank leave to catch planes.
Ben and I join Joe and Linda Morgan, Stephen and Linda Bennett
and the Bennett’s son Will for a final dinner together.
This is the last sweet moment of what has been an event filled
with such love (of music and each other), that I wish it could last
forever. Finally, we have
to say our goodnights and goodbyes.
Ben and I will get one last walk together tomorrow morning before
heading off to separate airports, to fly a long, long ways in opposite
directions, already anticipating the joy we’ll have in meeting again
at next year’s Gathering.
love to see you all there, too. Mark
your calendar for September 3rd and 4th, in Salem Oregon.
This one will be hosted by John Doan, and is already shaping up
to be an unforgettable experience. See you there!!
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