Frank E. Coulter Harp Guitars
and Other Stringed Instruments

by Gregg Miner
July, 2013
Updated August, 2013

After creating three separate blogs on Coulter - almost one for each harp guitar discovery - after the fifth, I decided I had better give this obscure Portland, Oregon historical maker his own page!

At right are Coulter's known harp guitars (so far) in the order of their discovery.  Below, you'll find additional details on these, plus many of his other strange stringed instruments, along with rare historical photos - and even an original catalog!

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Coulter, of which two photos are now known, remains somewhat of an enigma.  Only recently have people started to pay attention to his curious and distinctive instruments, while only one or two bits of rather bizarre biographical material have shown up on the Internet.

Here’s a rare and strangely fascinating interview with Coulter from 1939.  Even more interesting is this 1937 piece in "Everybody's Business."

He seems to have been actively building in Portland, Oregon from the 1910s into the 1920s, though a 1939 repair label one of his own mandolins shows that he was still working on instruments up until that time.  Personally, I think Coulter's unique passion and specialty is summed up in the final line of his labels, offering “Odd instruments to order.”

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I learned of Coulter many years ago from John Doan and Kerry Char.  John owns an unusual mando-cello by Coulter, while Kerry owns various guitars and mandolins.

Years ago, the owner of an unusual Coulter harp guitar – Gordon Anderson (shown in 2000 at age 48 with the harp guitar, at right) – shared the family’s treasure with John.  It was custom ordered from Coulter by Gordon’s grandfather, Leroy – shown below at around age 20 with his brand new harp guitar and then (next photo) late in life with the well-preserved instrument.

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Gordon once did some research on Coulter at the Historical Society and discovered that Coulter “was a pastor, made an unsuccessful bid for the Oregon State Senate, and stumbled into luthiery repairing church violins and such.”  Coulter was clearly interested in gaudier decoration, and the instruments are said to be a bit crude, but are nevertheless fascinating designs.  This harp guitar has 6 subs with zither pin tuners.  It’s currently in the possession of Gordon’s uncle.

Old newspaper listing courtesy of Gordon Anderson

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In 2011, a second Coulter harp guitar turned up.  Note that it has 12 strings on the neck!  It also has 7 sub-basses, as opposed to the 6 of Anderson's above.  coulter-D-Orazi.jpg (129955 bytes) coulter-D-Orazi3.jpg (191239 bytes) coulter-D-Orazi7.jpg (134549 bytes) coulter-D-Orazi4.jpg (150053 bytes) coulter-D-Orazi6.jpg (95476 bytes)
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Though it was certainly a rare and interesting harp guitar, it was not a project I wanted to take on, so the owner eventually eBayed it.  The lucky auction winner and brave individual was John Riley, from Newnan, GA, who had previously acquired and restored both a Wishnevsky and a Gibson harp guitar.

John shared his experience “real time” on our Forum here, and completed the project in September, 2012.  At right is the result.

John provided these specs and comments: “The Coulter is 42” long, with a 17” lower bout and a body thickness of 4”.  The scale of the neck is 24.75”. This compares pretty well to my Gibson (45” x 19” x 3.5”, same neck scale). The big difference is weight! The Coulter weighs a scant 7 lbs, as opposed to 12 lbs. for the Gibson!”  John also describes it as “loud!”

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In a staggering coincidence, the very day the eBay auction ended on Coulter #2, Coulter #3 was listed (perhaps not so much a coincidence, but that the present owner happened to note the other, and figured the timing was right…).  This one is again fairly identical to the first two – which seems rather unusual for the eccentric Portland custom-maker.  It has (had) 6 subs, which long ago decided to go AWOL from the top, like those of #2. coulter-ebay-7-11.jpg (59594 bytes) coulter-ebay4.jpg (78082 bytes) coulter-ebay3.jpg (91565 bytes)
It was purchased by Kevin Dunham, who sent in photos after he cleaned it up (last 2 photos).  Now he's got his work cut out for him!

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Meanwhile, John Riley (owner of #2) had contacted a great-granddaughter of Coulter, Jane Sanford Harrison, who wrote, “My great-grandfather was quite a character, by all reports (he died a year after I was born) – extremely opinionated, and apparently very individual in the way he built instruments.”  Because of John’s queries, she went digging in the family archives and found this remarkable Coulter heirloom – an original brochure!  Thanks to Jane for kindly sharing this important document with us.

Lucky for us, it includes a harp guitar.  This one (specimen #4) has a dark-ish top with a 6-string neck and 6 sub-basses.  But this is this grainy, black and white image with the cleaned up specimen #3 above.  The fingerboard inlays seem to match exactly (when the others are more random).  Ignoring the light colored areas of (???) around the end of the fb, the shell inlay pieces even seem to match shape...or am I crazy?  Could this be the very same instrument?

Coulter mentions “six to twelve contra bass strings,” implying that he knows that that’s how harp guitars were typically configured, and that he offers same (the harp guitar above has 7 subs).  Below, I will include the complete brochure and its line-up of illustrated instruments.

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Which brings us to the most recent discovery, which is either #4 or 5...

This instrument is definitely a new one.  It has nine strings on the neck (the high 3 are doubled), accomplished with three extra friction tuners in the middle of the headstock like the 12-string above.  It appears in the beautiful photograph at right owned by Cynthia Kirkley (kindly forwarded by Dave Powell of Tonedevil Guitars).  Ms. Kirkley wrote: "My great grandfather (Leigh Northrup) played one. Leigh Northrup and John Montgomery built Bethel Mission Church in Tillamook County, Oregon (Woods or Cloverdale). The last photo shows him, my great grandmother, and the Montgomerys."

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Now on to Coulter's many other fretted instruments (but often with strange inlaid, fretless necks).  First the catalog.

The most interesting historical finding in the undated 8-page brochure may well be Coulter’s own introduction to the whys and wherefores of his unusual construction techniques.  He is not lacking in self-confidence!  Next we see all of his “standard” models.  Note the perfectly circular shape of his mandolins and Style B guitar and the opposing off-center soundholes at the soundboard’s top.  These represent some of his key “improvements.”  At the close, Coulter shares his motto, which concerns “great instruments (being the) “product of great loves and the individual efforts of passion driven men.” 

A few interesting catalog observations: Coulter offers a very specific set of mandolin family instruments; in fact, he is one of the very few to list the entire set.  Besides mandolin (or his “Super Mandolin”), he lists Piccolo, Tenor Mandola, Octave Mandola, ‘Cello Mandola and a “Double Mandola Bass.”  Most have scale length listed, along with body diameter and depth.

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Coulter's guitar shows both figure-8-shaped guitars and his preferred round body guitars.  Curiously, his surviving guitars seem to be rarer than mandolins and even harp guitars.

A "typical" example is shown at right.  Dig the back and sides wood!

Another Coulter guitar appears in this photo of the Oregon Loggers, discovered by John Doan. Coulter_Bullcook-doan.jpeg (83362 bytes) Coulter-Oregon_Loggers-doan.jpeg (230138 bytes)

From the catalog, we can also now see that Coulter specifically built three body sizes of the same 14” scale mandolin for different tonal characteristics: 10”, 11” or 12”.  That would explain why different specimens seem to appear so differently proportioned.

At right are several mandolins from eBay or Mandolin Cafe, and below, a final "scaled composite" showing the diverse ratio of body to scale.

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Then things get really strange with what I think are Coulter's idea of  mandocellos...

Coulter's catalog states that his 'cello mandola has a 24" scale, and either a 16" or 18" diameter body (4" deep).  The next (and last) size is a giant mandolin orchestra-intended "double mandola bass" that has a 44" scale.  Yet these two instrumments are quite a bit longer-necked than his 'cellos.  What were they?

Though this 16" diameter instrument has 8 tuners, note the bridge.  It was built for five courses, from low to high, two single and three double courses.  Owner Joshua Levin-Epstein says "The planetary tuners are not original, but I am guessing they were installed by Coulter. The peghead veneer was filled and spacers added to the back of the peghead to take up the extra depth of the tuners. The wood and finish of the spacers matches the rest of the instrument. Scale length is approximately 29.25”. Body diameter is 16”.  Dated 1925 and looks like it was a custom order as there is someone’s name (Chas. Frank?) on the peghead along with Coulter’s.

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The next instrument, owned by John Doan, has a very similar scale (29") and the larger 18" body.  Its 8 strings seem to be in standard double courses.  But check out the frets!  Though they are flush, the instrument doesn’t appear to be meant for slide-playing, as it has a standard nut (and who would put double courses on a steel-played instrument, anyway?

So John and I are thinking that it must be some crazy custom order “fretless super-mandocello.”  Whatever musical effects the player was after, they must have needed and asked for the inlaid fret markers, noticeable in all their multi-colored glory!

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Another spectacular "odd instrument to order" was made by Coulter, as described in the Dec 31, 1927 Music Trade Review.  It's a greatly enlarged, playable "Montana banjo" with a 28" head and a reported 9 foot long neck!  That's obviously an error - the scale works out to less than six feet when analyzed.  Perhaps the entire instrument was 9' high.  

Either way, it's quite an accomplishment and a pretty fitting instrument (Coulter's last?) for the creative Mr. Coulter!

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If you enjoyed this article, or found it useful for research, please consider making a donation to The Harp Guitar Foundation, which supports so that this information will be available for others like you and to future generations. Thank you for your support!

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