Luthier of the Month

William Eaton

Instruments for the New Age
Frets Magazine, January, 1983

Commentary by Gregg Miner, Dec, 2006

A Harp Guitar
Time Capsule

William Eaton was one of the very first modern harp guitar luthiers to be profiled in a major magazine.  His creative designs must have appeared unimaginably unique at the time - as they still are today!

Below are images of the three harp guitar-like instruments featured in the article and my comments.

Read the original article in PDF format.

In 1976, William Eaton designed and built this instrument (at right), which was technically his first harp guitar, although he did not consider it as such.  At the time, he called it simply the 26 String Guitar, as the harp strings were not floating in space, but stretched over the body.  He has since re-named it the Elesion Harmonium.  This site has since established that this fascinating and very forward-thinking instrument is, in fact, a true harp guitar (specifically, what I denote as a Form 4 HG: Body Harp String Attachment).  William used seven strings for each bank, tuning each set diatonically to the key being played.

Here is a rare view of the beautiful carved back of this instrument.


Banjo tuners were used, with custom carved buttons to match the instrument design.


The top is cedar, with a brass rosette.

Brass and maple were used for the tailpiece and harp string harnesses.

Two years later in 1978, William designed and built his next harp guitar, and again it was completely unique.  The two criss-crossing harp banks within one frame is quite an ingenious idea!  Originally labeled a “20 String Harp Guitar,” he changed the name to "Koto Harp Guitar" in 1998 when he added an extra set of position stops to one of the harp banks.  

William kindly supplied this description of the instrument, which was written for the 2007 Carlsbad harp guitar exhibit:

"The 20 string koto harp guitar was designed and built in 1978.  The body / frame is cut from a single plank of curly birch.  The bridge, carved back and front sculptural overlays are made from the remaining cutouts of the curly birch plank.  The oval top plate is made from Spanish cedar.  The fan braces on the underside of the top plate are carved from Santa Maria wood.  The ‘fret’ string stops, bridge saddle and nut are carved from elk antler found in the Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park , Colorado .  The perimeter oval binding is made from pure silver stock.  The strings over the fret board are nylon guitar strings; the remaining strings are harp strings, made from nylon with a silk or steel core.  The guitar strings are tuned with banjo tuning machines.  Harp strings are attached to zither pins for tuning. The back consists of three ‘topographic’ carved pieces glued together.  All sculptural carving was accomplished with the use of square chisels and French curve scrapers.

This was my first harp guitar design. The goal was to create a harp like instrument played in the same ergonometric position as a guitar. The shape utilizes the harmonic curve concept found on concert harps, allowing the varying string lengths under the harmonic curve to resonate within ranges of maximum efficiency. The design process evolved out of crossing two banks of strings, to allow the possibility of playing both banks of strings simultaneously. The over-under string-plane arrangement minimizes the body surface area, given the number of strings used. The harp guitar was renamed ‘koto harp guitar’ in 1998 when position stops were placed under the bottom bank of six harp strings.  The stops are placed at harmonic intervals and the string can be played on either side of the stop, providing two pitches per string.  The timbre and tuning of these strings resembles the sound of the Japanese ‘koto.’ -WE

Designed and built in 1981-82, the “O’ele’n Strings is absolutely unique in every way.  William didn’t think of it as a harp guitar, although we can perhaps classify it as such today – but only if we consider the two 5-course (double-strung) necks as guitar necks.  In truth, this is more of a one-of-a-kind un-classifiable hybrid creation.  The harp strings fill the area between the two necks, and additionally have a specially placed bridge, so that they can be played on either side of the bridge, as in his Lyre (one side an octave higher than the other).  The article also explains that these eleven harp “drone” strings give the instrument its name, although William provides much more reasoning in this current description:

The O’ele’n Strings is constructed from figured walnut and ebony and is designed to play raga melodies and rhythms.  The scalloped fret boards on each of the two necks allows for string bending to achieve microtonal pitch shifting.  The smaller gauge strings that wrap around the bridge and extend to the lower point of the instrument are tuned in harmonious chord variations that match the modal tunings of the two fretted necks.  These strings are strummed in glissando fashion to support the melodic runs played on the necks.  Additional lower pitched strings are plucked for bass counterpoints, and additional higher pitched strings are plucked to accent melodic content.

The shape of this instrument was inspired from seeing an ornamental symbol on the door of an antique armoire.  Two parallel lines extending from a circle, which joined in a point by two arches, suggested a double neck stringed instrument.  The three-chambered body of the instrument takes on the natural patterning of the logarithmic growth of plant leaves.  The top is carved from Spanish cedar.  The back of the instrument was created from a web of arches, with corresponding laminates that define ledges, where paper thin walnut panels were held in place for 30 minutes, by hand, while the epoxy cured.  Thin laminates were then glued in place over the panels to further secure the joints.  If one could see the inner chamber of this resonant body cavity, it would appear as a miniature vaulted ceiling, similar to the arches used in European churches hundreds of years ago.  The sound holes are trimmed in brass, and the nut and bridge saddle are made from brass to add a metallic sustain to the timbre of the steel and bronze wrapped strings.  Zither pins are used as tuning mechanisms, for their lightweight and economy of space.

The name of the instrument: O’ele’n is derived from two words, octave and eleven. Octave is used to signify cycles and the ‘law of octaves’ in music and in Georges Gurdjieff’s mathematical cosmology.  Also, this was my eighth multi-stringed design.  Eleven is a recurring number in this instrument.  There are eleven courses of strings on each symmetrical half of the instrument, and eleven strings that extend below the bridge.  The width of the body (at it’s widest point) is eleven inches.  The fret scale for each neck is 22 inches, or 11 inches at the harmonic – octave 12th fret.  Finally, the punctuation marks in O’ele’n provide another reference to the two ones in eleven. -WE

In the article, William explains how the design was inspired by an engraved design that he saw on an old armoire! 

Left: A look at the incredible carved walnut back which to me resembles a rather large beetle.

Just prior to the above article, William had run this ad in the same Frets magazine.  I was thrilled to find his 8-page folded brochure on eBay this year (I paid a bit more than the $1 he originally advertised!).  The same instruments as above and two others are featured.

Five of these six very progressive instruments can be seen in full color on the Roberto-Venn site.  Almost thirty years later, they still look like brand new, contemporary instruments!

A Harp Guitar
Time Capsule

More Time Capsules!

Player of the Month Harp Guitar of the Month After
The Harpguitar: Its History and Its Only Practitioner
(Guitar Player, March, 1976)
Harp Guitars: Hybrids with a Heritage (Frets, 1979) Playing the Harp Guitar
(Frets, 1988)

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