by Gregg Miner, as part of
Q: You show over a hundred Knutsen instruments on your site. I thought these were supposed to be rare? - Tommy Ryue, Hackensack, NJ
A: They are rare. Remember that this site’s intent is to catalog
all known Knutsen instruments. For a presumed one-man shop, in business
for at most 35 years, Knutsen’s output is estimated by some at only about 300
instruments, 500 max (though the late Dan Most calculated that as many as
1600-2000 were possible). Add to that the fact that many of his instruments were
less robustly built than other makers’, with sometimes questionable luthier
practices, so survival a hundred years later is not always assured. The
instruments inventoried here represent specimens owned (and painstakingly
gathered) by many dozen collectors and players, and most have long since been
spoken for. Whereas Knutsens were obtainable just 10-15 years ago for
$150-$1500, these days instruments can command $1500-$10,000. Another factor of
rarity is that, where popular Weissenborn Hawaiians and Dyer harp guitars were
created in just a few models and styles, each Knutsen instrument is literally
one-of-a-kind. - Gregg Miner
2/1/04: Two years later, I realize that the more we find, and more importantly, the manner in which they are discovered, is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm getting the impression that an impossible number would have had to have been produced (i.e. well over 2000). We also know that Otto Anderson built a number of them in the early years - GM
Q: How do you tune these darn things? And what gauge strings should I use? – Saul Turtletaub, Cucamunga, CA.
A: That’s really two questions.
#1) For harp guitars, Knutsen himself states that the bass strings for his Symphony harp guitars were to be tuned G1, A1, B1, C, D (low to high – highest next to guitar neck). Steve Bennett uses this tuning also for his new Dyer-style instruments (with an extra high G next to the guitar's E string). For instruments with more or less than five bass strings, the choice is yours. No mention of treble string bank tuning is known. John Doan uses e2, f2, g2, a2, b2, c3, d3, e3 (with guitar in standard tuning) as one option for his trebles.
For Hawaiian guitars, there are of course many open tuning options for the main neck. Hawaiian or Steel guitar tutors will help with this. No information has been found that offers how the additional bass and/or treble strings were to be tuned. For his Knutsen Harp Hawaiian, Bob Brozman uses (to great effect on Tone Poems III) CFCFAC, with G, Bb, D, F for the four trebles, and either FC, FG, or FA for the two basses.
#2) I’m not comfortable offering advice on gauges. Steve Bennett uses .070
for the lowest string on his Dyer copies, but these are new, sturdily built
instruments. Knutsens are usually much more delicate. In addition, the length of
the bass strings on Knutsens can vary greatly from instrument to instrument. I’d
recommend starting light, and increasing tension as needed for tone, while
inspecting your instrument carefully. Two cautionary tales: I used the
commonly available LaBella Gibson Harp Guitar strings for my Style U, in the
suggested tuning. Eventually, they tore the metal tailpiece in half at
the 90 degree bend. I had to have it carefully re-welded from the backside and
re-chromed – without damaging the celluloid pin block. Luckily, it came out
looking OK (you can see it on my web site). I now use substantially lighter
strings on the Gibson (call me paranoid), and they sound fine. Another time, I
installed the standard D’Addario Mandocello strings on an old Gibson K2 with a
professionally repaired top seam. The moment I tuned up those final .074’s –
POW – the seam re-opened as the top shifted back to its original damaged
position. In any event, your repairperson is probably the best person to ask
about stringing. Additionally, a lot of discussion on this topic occurs online.
6/22/03: The great harpguitars.com site is now defunct. Recently, harp guitar fan and builder Benoît Meulle-Stef has started a Yahoo harp guitar forum: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/harpguitar/
Q: So how do you pronounce his name again? – Prendy Stamens, Hooterville, TN
A: I asked Knutsen relative Jean Findlay to verify, once and for all, whether the "K" is silent or not. She replys, "Yes. Pronounce the K. Kuh-newt-son. At least that is the way we do it in my family; must be some sort of Nowegian ethnic memory. I have never heard this word pronounced any other way." - GM
Q: Are those real questions above, or are you just making them up? – Corey Neesner
A: Actually, I am making them up – but just to get this column started.- GM
Q: I have a question for you: When did Knutsen started to use metal strings??? And could you say on your site which strings were the guitars using? - Benoît Meulle-Stef
A: Ben - that's a very good question! Unfortunately, I don't think I can answer that yet. We think he used gut strings for the first Patent-style instruments, with steel strings coming in by 1898. I haven't delved enough into the bracing issue (the Noe/Most book mentions a few examples), nor do I have all the information on many of the early guitars on the site. I 'm also not sure know how "traditional" any of Knutsen's bracing was - but have started a new page to show some of his instruments. Kerry Char got a look inside HGP9 and couldn't believe it could even be strung up, there was so little bracing! I hope the rest of the readers help us figure this out. - GM
Q: (responding to the above) I guess that you are right and I will try to prove it (If I may) with the harp strings:
The first ones (up to HGP6) look like gut strings (he's referring to "1898 Patent-style" - GM): The nut for the bass strings is made for "harp strings" of metal-wound gut - even though the angle is steep, the tension is not so much as to damage the nut, even if made of wood. I have seen that on some Italian harp guitars. For these instruments, the use of metal strings would have broken the bass nut. The ones with the newer bass headstock ("Symphony" style - GM) are more likely for metal core strings. Remember that Knutsen was from Europe where ALL the harp guitars use light tension strings (silk or gut, metal wound) for the harp strings even if the guitars strings are metal... I hope it will help.
A: Thanks Ben - it does help. You make a very good case for the first Patent-style guitars using gut or silk core strings, whereas steel would work with the Symphony models. However, Dan Most mentioned one of his 1898 Patent-style instrument as being X-braced - "possibly to accommodate steel strings," but as you mention, this one may have used steel on the 6-string neck and wound gut or silk for the basses. Because of this tricky subject, I've added a Bracing matrix which so far covers the instruments in the Noe/Most book. I wonder how much the fact that Chris was "European" means when he left at three years of age. He undoubtedly grew up in the culture of his family, but how much access to and knowledge of European instruments did he have? - GM
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