Harp Guitars at Healdsburg

Trip Report: The Healdsburg Guitar Festival, August 19-21, 2005

by Frank Doucette


The Healdsburg Guitar Festival is the premiere event for luthiers to show their wares.  The festival gets its name from the California town where it began, though it has since moved down the road to Santa Rosa.  If you’re in the market for a fine handmade instrument, there is nowhere else to find such a large selection in one place.  Over 130 luthiers exhibited at the 2005 festival.  The 6-string acoustic steel-string flat top guitar is king here.  Still, one can find classical guitars, archtops, electrics, ukuleles, mandolin family instruments, and harp guitars.

Photos by Frank Doucette and Christa Percival

logo copyright Luthiers Mercantile Int., Inc.

The first harp guitar to catch my eye was probably the most unusual instrument at the festival.  In fact, it may be the most unusual and original guitar-based instrument ever conceived.  I am, of course, referring to Fred Carlson's Big Red.  For those who haven’t met Red, or those who have but weren’t quite able to take it all in, Big Red has 38 strings (6 on the neck, 5 sub-basses – with the lowest pitched string closest to the neck, 15 super trebles, and 12 sympathetic strings that run through the body and neck), a redwood top attached to a shell-shaped back formed from heavy-duty papier-mâché, a maple neck with a fretless fingerboard for the first half and a fretted further up the neck, a hole in the back of the neck to allow one to strum or pluck the sympathetic strings, and a support spike in place of the endpin so the instrument can be played in cello position.  I can’t wait to hear what music Red’s owner can coax from an instrument with so many possibilities.

Fred Carlson with the author

Fred's display included his personal Sympitar

The next harp guitar I found was just one row over from Big Red.  This is the creation of Mark Deering , who builds under the company name Autumn Guitars.  Mark is a good friend of harp guitar player Dan Schwartz and found himself inspired to try his hand at designing and building a harp guitar.  He is a young builder who has only devoted himself to lutherie seriously for two years.  Mark had only seven guitar builds behind him when he started work on this very original harp guitar.  The instrument was built with a Western Red Cedar top and Malaysian Blackwood back and sides.  One of the most striking elements of this harp guitar is the carved Mahogany harp support post.  This does make for a slightly top-heavy instrument, yet I still found it to be very comfortable to play.  Mark built this first harp guitar with 5 sub-bass strings, the lowest being a .062 or .064 gauge.  Note the use of the Steinberger tuners for the sub-basses.  With such a nice sounding, and visually interesting, harp guitar so early in Mark’s career, I can’t wait to see what he may come up with in future.

Photo by Michael Simmons

A few rows further on, I met Duane Noble.  Duane is a rare individual in that he first got into lutherie because he wanted a harp guitar, but couldn’t afford to buy one.  He began by building something a bit less ambitious than a harp guitar, and soon became hooked on lutherie.  

He has been in business making handcrafted instruments since 1998.  In this time, he has made four harp guitars.  The first two were Dyer copies.  The more recent are an original design inspired by the Dyer instruments.  Duane has, however, based the body shape on one of his other guitar models.  Other features include a neck join with 14 frets clear of the body, a Florentine cutaway, a body bevel, a solid headstock on the guitar neck, Gotoh mini guitar tuners for the guitar and harp strings, and an original bridge design reminiscent of the old Kasha-style bridges.  Duane’s harp guitars have 5 sub-bass strings (all .066 gauge), but he did tell me that he’d be happy to make instruments with 6 or more sub-bass strings depending upon customer preference.  The instrument Duane brought to Healdsburg (and HGG3) features some lovely Madagascar Rosewood for the back and sides and beautiful sectioned Spalted Maple rosettes.


My friend Kathy Wingert had a table right across the aisle from Duane.  Kathy is one of my absolute favorite guitar makers.  She accepted her first commission for a harp guitar (from me) in 2005.  We’ve just about agreed on the final design (more on that in future).  Here’s Kathy with her daughter Jimmi.  Jimmi is a talented inlay artist who has done work for several fine luthiers.


Next, I found Jim Worland.  Jim had brought his latest creation, a mix of his own harp guitar design and William Eaton’s lyra harp guitar.  This is a 24-string instrument (6 on the neck, 10 on the sub-bass side-though not all of those are pitched in the sub-bass range, and 8 super trebles).  Like Big Red, the lowest pitched sub-bass string is the one closest to the neck.  Jim informed me that the instrument's owner, Echo Greywolf, will likely remove the sub-bass strings in favor of additional treble strings.  The scroll work and shape of this all Koa bodied harp guitar reminded me of an old Gibson mandolin, but with a flat top and back.  This is a surprisingly compact instrument for one with so many strings.

I had been so taken with Big Red that I completely missed a harp guitar displayed just a few feet away.  I only noticed it when going back through the festival to visit Fred Carlson again.  This instrument's creator, Frenchman Pierre Lamour, calls it “Behind the Moon.”  It is a nylon-string baritone guitar, tuned A# F A# C F A#, with 2 banks of 6 harp strings stretched across the body.  One bank is pitched in the super treble range and the other falls more in the standard guitar range.  Pierre used Engelmann Spruce for the top and Wenge for the back and sides.  The unusual body shape allows full access to all 26 frets on the neck.

Pierre was also kind enough to share one of his initial drawings for a future harp guitar design.

Other known harp guitar builders displayed instruments at the festival, but did not have any harp guitars with them.  The ones that I noticed were Charles Hoffman, Lance McCollum, Alan Perlman, and Mike Doolin (shown here).

Even if one is not in the market for a new guitar, harp guitar, or other instrument, there is still much to occupy one’s time at The Healdsburg Guitar Festival.  There are workshops throughout the weekend, for players and luthiers, taught by top professionals.  I took a wonderful workshop in Brazilian Guitar (a recent obsession) led by master luthier, player, teacher Richard Prenkert .


There are also 20 minute mini concerts that run all day each day of the festival.  These are meant to demo instruments from particular builders.  Fingerstylist Don Alder played a mini-concert using Duane Noble guitars.

Fred Carlson played his own mini-concert.
Mike Doolin even played a mini-concert using Brent McElroy guitars.
The new Carston Cabaret room was home to somewhat longer concert slots throughout the weekend.  One of these featured singer/guitarist Nancy Conescu, playing her lovely Doolin guitar, accompanied by Mike Doolin on a borrowed acoustic bass guitar.

Tim Brookes, author of Guitar: An American Life – the summer best-seller among harpguitars.net forum readers, was also on hand for a lecture and book signing.  Tim is just as engaging in person as one might imagine from reading the book.  After his presentation, Tim invited people up on stage to try out the very guitar chronicled in the book (his daughter really was right about those blue lines around the binding).

The evenings are devoted to concerts featuring some of the world’s most highly regarded acoustic guitarists.  Concerts this year included the gypsy swing of John Jorgenson, fiery flatpicking from Beppe Gambetta and Dan Crary, and fine fingerpicking from Franco Morone and Todd Hallawell.

The 2005 festival also included a number of vendors not selling guitars.  You could buy anything from wood, guitar hardware, and various guitar accessories to CDs, books, DVDs, and insurance.  I particularly enjoyed the substantial discounts offered by Mel Bay Publishing on their books and DVDs.  I also enjoyed talking with a representative from Heritage Insurance.  Their musical instrument policies seem to offer broad coverage for a reasonable rate based on instrument value.

(Thanks to my wife Christa Percival for many of these photos.)

My wife, who was not thrilled about the idea of ending our vacation with a guitar festival, actually enjoyed herself at the festival, and in exploring the surrounding area.  Santa Rosa is in the midst of California wine country.  There are great restaurants, beautiful parks, and some wonderful museums.  Our favorite attractions were The Petrified Forest and The Charles Schulz Museum.  Santa Rosa was home to the famed Peanuts creator.  I even got to meet Charlie Brown.

The Healdsburg Guitar Festival happens every 2 years in mid-August.  I highly recommend a trip to the festival for luthiers, players, and all lovers of great guitar music.  Check out the 2005 festival website at www.festivalofguitars.com.

--Frank Doucette


One other part of this trip that I wanted to mention was a stop to visit master luthier Ed Claxton.  Ed’s focus is on 6-string steel and nylon string guitars.  He has, however, built more unusual instruments like ouds and hurdy gurdys.  I asked him if he’d ever consider making a harp guitar.  He said he’d love to and was actually surprised that he’d not managed to get around to building one before.  He just needs a customer who wants one.  Check out a full article on Ed, with video, in the first issue of Acoustic Player Magazine (www.acousticplayermagazine.com).

About the Author

Frank Doucette lives in Los Angeles with his wife, artist Christa Percival (www.percivalproductions.com), and their two young children (parakeets) Riff-Raff and Kina.  Frank has a Diploma in Fingerstyle Guitar Performance from The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.  Part of his studies there included private harp guitar lessons with renowned author and educator John Stropes.   Frank is interested in a wide variety of music and is now working to find his own musical voice in influences such as Celtic music, Brazilian Music, Jazz, and more.  An avid history buff, he enjoys studying the cultural and socio-political conditions that have fostered various musical traditions.  Before moving to California from his native Massachusetts, Frank taught at, and helped develop instructional manuals for, Wolfman’s School of Music, the only private music school ever to be endorsed by the Berklee College of Music.  In his spare time, Frank is a Financial Aid Administrator for the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Addendum: Healdsburg Festival, August 2007

Photos by Frank Doucette, notes by Gregg Miner

Fred Carlson, with his original 2003 Flying Dream, just back from the Museum of Making Music harp guitar exhibit (loaned by the owner) Also back from the Museum exhibit, and just before finally being shipped off to the anxious owner is the New Dream, demo'd by Alex de Grassi on Friday night.
Saturday night, I played the Russian Brewery Pub with Don Alder, Doug Young (at right) and others.  Patron noise levels weren't very forgiving for Duane Noble's unamplified harp guitar.  Two of the noise makers were Duane's wife, Lolly, and Frank's wife Christa. The next day (Sunday) I played Duane's brand new harp guitar (see photos) for his 20 minute demo.  A pleasure and an honor!

Absent from this photo gallery are shots of Frank Doucette's brand new Kathy Wingert harp guitar - look for the upcoming feature soon!

The Fretboard Journal editors were on hand as well, and posted photos at Fred's booth on their blog here.

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