Featured Harp Guitar of the Month
The Bohmann Monster
by Gregg Miner, December, 2004
I first chose to highlight this instrument 15 years ago to coincide with my original special feature The Harp Guitars of Joseph Bohmann. That page has since been fully rewritten, with other Bohmann-related articles since added.
I updated this feature after gaining access to this featured instrument. I will add now that, in person, this incredible piece of American lutherie virtually explodes with "vibe." There is simply nothing else like it.
Harp guitar fans should be very familiar with this beast. It was owned by the late Scott Chinery and included in his 1996 book with Tony Bacon, The Chinery Collection, 150 Years of American Guitars. The book is a must have, and was later reprinted (with Chinery's name largely absent) as The History of the American Guitar. Bacon has since produced numerous guitar books, often featuring this instrument.
Although c.1910 was given by Chinery/Bacon as a date for this instrument (which is not impossible), I suspect it more likely coincided with the final patent date, thus c.1915.
Mr. Chinery's various harp guitars are all featured on this page. Upon his death, this particular guitar was sold to persons unknown, from whence it made its way to a private collection in my neck of the woods and I was able to see it (right)
Scott Chinery wrote of this guitar, "I often think it looks almost like a Gothic torture device." I have to agree! And yet, there is a very thorough logic to Mr. Bohmann's ultimate creation - in fact, nearly every feature was important enough that he patented it.
Bohmann had earlier patents (including a strange hand rest for bowlback mandolins in 1889), but the first one to concern us is # 1,128,217. Applied for on Oct 28, 1911, it wasn't granted until 3-1/2 years later, on Feb 9, 1915. The two key "improvements" it offered were a set of sympathetic "strings" inside the body, and a bulging convex top and back.
For the former, Bohmann attached thin metal rods inside the instrument from the neck block to the end block. These were then tuned, via wing nuts, to specific pitches, in order to vibrate in sympathy when played. He even figured out the best materials to use - copper for G, brass for D, steel for C, and German silver for F. Has anyone ever heard of this "musical metal matching"?! There was also a damper pad which could be locked into place or left free by depressing a button next to the fingerboard. Four of these were specified in the patent, but up to seven were used in the harp guitars. You can count the seven rods through the soundhole of Chinery's instrument below, and also see the damper pad, with the activating button coming through the top to the right of the fingerboard (with red felt border). Chinery said in his book that he heard little difference between the damper On and Off positions - it seems like a lot of work for such negligible effect!
I was able to finally test the metal tone rods for myself in 2018. As Chinery said, there was little difference whether the damper bar was engaged or not...that's because there was virtually zero additional volume or vibration from this alleged magical reverb effect. The rods were mostly stiff, but perhaps needed tightening and tuning to the specific Bohmann pitches. I just can't see Bohmann spending so much time on this unless at one time he did hear something!
The second part of the patent addressed the new construction: side walls which were 1/4" thick, with the top and back assembled last, bent under extreme tension. Both concepts were to be applied to "A-shape" mandolins, guitars and "harps" (harp guitars).
March 9 of 1914, Bohmann applied for a patent on his new hand rest,
bridge combination. For reasons unknown, this was never granted, but the
elements were incorporated into the next patent he submitted just
four and a half months later on July 27.
You can see it in the patent and the other known harp guitars below that all have the exact same device. Frank Ford mentioned how fragile the one he inspected looked, doubting that it could have been used as a hand rest - yet, amazingly, these wooden attachments are still intact on all three harp guitars!
Bohmann mentioned a "patent machine bridge" in his 1890s catalog. We haven’t been able to locate a patent, so it was likely never granted. We assume it was in reference to the configuration seen on his c.1890-1900s harp guitars, especially the “Contra Bass” instruments (below). Note that its "saddle" is incorporated into the carving, with the neck replaced with bone.
However, these later ‘teens instruments feature something similar but much more complex, as they are well separated with the tailpiece section doubled up in an overly-elaborate single mirror-image carving. The top set of screws in the double-tailpiece (here, two double-tailpieces, as it is a harp guitar!) serve as "guideposts," the strings then going underneath through holes into the second tailpiece section. Another set of screws here are used to attach the loop-end strings. Note that both the hand rest and the new tailpiece/bridge array appear clearly in the patent.
Bohmann was quite clever to include these features even if we was denied the chance to include detailed descriptions. Instead, he is forced to write “…the tail piece and bridge may be made in any desired form…” while sneaking in “…I prefer to have them constructed in the manner shown in my previous application for musical instrument, filed March 9, 1914…more particularly in order to support the hand rest or guide, such as also shown in said application.” In other words, he seemed to be covering his bases, in the event that the earlier patent was denied (which it was)!
The patent illustration clearly shows the strings being guided under the head of the screws on the bass side, going through holes in each tailpiece and attaching (presumably via loop ends) to the second set of screws.
Note above that the instrument is now strung with ball-end strings (as historical loop-end strings of these gauges are no longer made). The main neck's string balls butt up against their top tailpiece lip, with the anchor screws unused, while the sub-bass strings are jammed in whichever way they can fit! (These are randomly gauged and strung and not yet in the intended chromatic tuning.) On both string banks, the strings are here resting in the slot of the screws, rather than tucked underneath. Though Chinery originally only strung the neck with six strings, this is actually a 10-string, 6-course instrument, with the low four courses doubled. It is now fully strung, in the manner of the well-known late 1890s Grunewald.
Other than his mention of the separately-applied-for bridge design and hand rest, this patent presented two new features. The first was the obvious new body shape (the convex shape already established in his earlier patent) – with a strange upper bout intended to make it easier to access the higher frets (conveniently shown with the illustration of an added invisible hand!).
The second feature was a specific new layout of the top braces (shown in the patent illustration).
Not mentioned in any patent (that we can find) are the bizarre tuners in an even stranger headstock design that helps bring to mind the "torture device."
Yes, those are Bohmann's custom-fabricated pot metal tuning keys and hardware.
The carved "flattened scroll" is extremely eye-catching, and then there are of course Bohmann's infamous oversize and blunt fretboard inlays.
Note the raised lip of the sides over the top. This violin-style embellishment is another striking late-period Bohmann feature.
There are two similar period Bohmann harp guitars known.
The one below is extremely similar to the above specimen, but with 7 strings on the neck. It still resides in the collection of the late Bill Camp.
The other is a 8-string (2 off-the-fretboard) presented on Frank Ford's Frets.com.
UPDATE! Another wonderful example, dated 1911 in pencil was discovered in 2019, and I was able to acquire it. This experimental instrument features double soundholes and double sets of four tone rods inside!
Note that these are
just a small sampling of Bohmann’s incredible harp
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