Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

G. A. Carlson c.1900 Harp Guitar
by Gregg Miner, September, 2014

carslon,ga1-miner.jpg (198425 bytes) As I hail from the Chicago area (1955-mid 1970's), I naturally feel a particular affinity for harp guitars built in the Windy City.

Indeed, Chicago was one of the major harp guitar centers in America from 1890 until the instrument's demise in the 'twenties.  The list of individuals and firms who built very early and very wonderful harp guitars in Chicago includes Almcrantz, Altpeter, Bohmann, Carlson, Carlstedt, Hansen, Harmony, Larson, Leland, Lyon & Healy, Mayflower and Meyers.  The Larson brothers are thought to have built a few of these brands, and of course built for Maurer, Stahl, Dyer and many others as well.


The maker G. A. Carlson first came to my attention in 2012 when a reader sent the photos below of his instrument and a description of the label, which reads: G. A. Carlson, Manufacturer of Mandolins and Guitars, 741 W.63rd Street, Chicago, Ill.

I told the owner that it was an interesting new Historical Maker for our list, noting its eight sub-basses on the uniquely-shaped headstock and of course its offset soundhole.


Meanwhile, on a (then) unrelated topic, I had earlier snagged this wonderful image from eBay (should have gotten the original!).

As always, I do my best to identify the instrument in these fascinating photographs.  This gentleman's harp guitar didn't match anything in the Galleries, though it bore many suspicious similarities to this one-of-a-kind specimen by one Henry G. Tabbert of Cleveland, Ohio:

Specifically, the body was the same, it had a large, offset soundhole and the same placement of the two necks. Additionally, there was that straight, tapered bridge (increasing from treble to bass side), and a vaguely similar sub-bass head array with pin tuners, affixed to the main head via an extension.  I thus postulated that the instrument in the group photo might also be a Tabbert instrument.


Then about two years someone listed on eBay a second harp guitar by G. A. Carlson.  It had the same label as the first, but the instrument had a slightly different design.

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As it was in pretty poor shape, I passed on it, but grabbed the small photos, noticing the curious headstock logo (at left).

I also remembered seeing this style of harp guitar before - of course!  It reminded me of both the Tabbert and that old historical player's instrument.  That enabled me to safely switch the historical player's instrument from "attributed to" Tabbert to "att G. A. Carlson.

But I still had lousy, incomplete photos of this Carlson from eBay...until this year, when the previous buyer put it back on eBay and I was able to acquire it (see Blog).  Here it is, after restoration:
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I already knew that it wasn't the exact same specimen as in the historical photo, as the carved sub-bass head piece had a slightly different shape.  

But it's a very close match!

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I was anxious to analyze the overly elaborate pearl logo, which we imagined spelled out the maker's initials.

But where did one end and another begin?!

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The "C" was easy:

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As was the "G"...

...which leaves whatever is left as some sort of crazy "A"?

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The previous owner had repaired a few cracks (leaving many to go) and also replaced the bridge.  Sadly, he replaced the split original Brazilian rosewood bridge with ebony.  We decided to leave it when we determined that the wood underneath had not been addressed, thinking it less risky to trust it would hold tension than to remove the bridge which would have almost certainly made more of a mess and require a potentially visible top patch (the inside bridge plate is all but non-existent).  In the end, the top remained incredibly flat and the bridge has not ripped off, even with 18 light to extra light strings tuned to pitch.

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Even lightly strung, this harp guitar turned out to be a cannon!  Yes, that term is overused, but is not an overstatement here.  This may be the loudest harp guitar in my collection (of dozens of already loud harp guitars)!

Perhaps it's mostly due to the offset and oversize soundhole (over 4-¾")?  Like many early harp guitars, it is also large – 17-⅜" wide and 4-⅞" deep at the tail block.

Or it could be the very unusual bracing.  There are the expected two hefty cross braces just above and below the soundhole.  But no other "ladder bracing."  Instead, there are five long angled bars extending from the lower cross brace all the way to the tail.  As these angle toward the bass side, there are three additional short cross pieces on the treble side, but nothing further for the bass side.  As I said, the bridge plate is the thinnest bit of extra spruce running under the pins.

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Then there's that heavily domed back, something Carlson undoubtedly copied from his Chicago neighbor Joseph Bohmann.  

I suspect that the back and sides are the same 3-ply that Carlson's neighbor Joseph Bohmann used: thin maple sandwiched between two pieces of Brazilian rosewood veneer.

Unfortunately, as in Bohmann instruments, this outer rosewood layer invariably ends up with hundreds of small splits that we've so far found no feasible way to restore.

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Harp guitar sub-basses can work successfully in many configurations, but obviously longer is better – and Carlson clearly understood that − more so than Bohmann (at left), whose harp guitars often had basses shorter than the neck strings.

While Carlson's neck scale is a typical 25", his subs range from 31" to almost 37", substantially longer than most other configurations out there.

Both mahogany necks are super straight, the bass neck strongly made with an extremely deep "V."


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It is now possible to say with a large degree of certainty that one of the unusual harp guitars in the New York Clef Club Orchestra photo from 1911 (at right) is also a G. A. Carlson instrument (see "James Reese Europe
and the Clef Club Orchestra

Though fuzzy, we can see what is likely the same logo on the headstock.  It also has the same bass headstock design with 12 subs tuned with pins, the large offset soundhole, and the straight tapering bridge, with an additional medallion-like piece added.

I had never been able to discover any other info on G. A. Carlson, so was happy to find him under Musical Instruments in the 1900 Chicago directory, under the name Gustav A. Carlson, 753 W. 63rd.  This is a couple doors down from the 741 W. 63rd listed on his labels, but doesn't tell us how long he was in business.  He doesn't appear in either the 1892 or 1910 directories like Bohmann, his colleague across town.

Presumably, he came and went.  Searching has unearthed no G. A. Carlson mandolins or standard guitars.  So far, his output remains these four harp guitars, two of which survive.

Or is it five?

While taking one last look at the Clef Club harp guitars above, I noticed at the end of the article the small 1905 photo of Ernest Hogan's group with its 3 or 4 harp guitars.  In grayscale or enhanced to show the outline of of the left instrument, not only do I see the same bass headstock shape, but what looks like our infamous "G-A-C" pearl headstock logo!

As Hogan's players may have later joined the Clef Club (which Hogan protégé' James Reese Europe directed), it's certainly possible that it is actually the same instrument.

And what of Henry Tabbert, who first clouded the issue above?

Again, nothing is known of the Cleveland maker, but I have to assume that the two builders either knew each other or that one saw and copied the others' work.

Gustav A. Carlson, Chicago, IL, c.1900
Miner Museum collection

Note how the two most distinctive features are shared: the large offset soundhole and the straight, tapering bridge.  Add to that a similar double-neck and bass head configuration, with each having twelve long sub-bass strings tuned with pins.  The Tabbert owners describe it as a much cruder instrument than Carlson's.  He was listed in a city directory, but was probably a part time builder.

Henry Tabbert, Cleveland, OH, c.1900
Courtesy jfrenchbanjos.com, instrument owned by Smakula Fretted Instruments


People always ask about how these instruments were originally utilized, and I always treasure finding evidence of the original owners of these wonderful inventions.  Here, we can actually see two of the ensembles that included the rare and obscure G. A. Carlson harp guitars.  In the case of Europe’s orchestra, we can even hear recordings of his groups and the strong, rhythmic drive of their Marches and similar American music.  In concert, the Europe orchestra harp guitarists had to somehow back up over a hundred musicians of all types: banjos, horns, drums and multiple pianos.  They therefore really had just one musical criterion for their instruments: they had to be loud.

And G. A. Carlson delivered!

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