Arpa Viola Caipira, Part 1: Genesis and Design, featuring Luthier Stephen Sedgwick
by Brad Hoyt, May 2006
Gregg Miner, editor  


Phase I – The Beginning

(1990 – 1999)

It was during a recording session in the autumn of my freshman year in college when I peeked inside the grand piano and gazed at the soundboard. At that moment, I found myself wanting to reach inside and start playing those strings! After pondering this thought, I began plucking piano strings with my fingers while holding down the sustain pedal between takes. This led to incorporating a plucked piano string part in a song I recorded. Although the final recording sounded pretty good, it became obvious that playing the piano in this manner simply was not practical at all. 

In my interest to get a sound similar to the plucked piano without the hassle, I started thinking about getting a double-course instrument like a 12-string guitar or a mandolin. I was studying classical guitar while at the university and preferred using a classical fingerstyle method. Unfortunately, I came to the realization that the mandolin was meant to be played primarily with a pick and, at the time, I simply couldn’t afford to buy a 12-string. Eventually I bought a cheap mandolin and got years of enjoyment out of it. Of course, that wasn’t the same as opening up a grand and playing it like a harp…


Phase II – The Search

(2000-2002)

A few years later, I was walking through a music store in Prague , Czech Republic when I stumbled across a Portuguese mandolin that had four triple courses!  The last time I played a triple course was when I opened up that piano all those years ago. This renewed my interested in playing the mandolin but the same realization came to me: You really need a pick to get enough volume out of a mandolin. The mandolin still sounded good though and it inspired me to search for a double- or triple-course instrument that could more easily be fingerpicked. Thus began the long journey.

At first, I was confident that I could find an instrument out there that would be just what the doctor ordered. However, the instrument proved to be very elusive. I started by looking at the mandolin family instruments (mandola, mandocello, octave mandolin), the Irish bouzouki and cittern. I figured that with the longer scale lengths, these instruments would be easier to fingerpick.

So, over the next few months, I kept an eye out for these instruments and played them when I got the chance. One day, I made a happy discovery when I visited a small music store in Indiana and finally got the opportunity to play a number of the larger mandolin family instruments. Unfortunately, I was unhappy with sound I got out of these instruments when fingerpicking. Every time, the store owner would offer me a pick and I would decline.  Fingerpicking the big double-course unison low end strings just sounded muddy and dead.

After considering the playability of the various instruments I tried out, I resolved to choose the modern Irish cittern. The Irish cittern is similar to a short scale Irish Bouzouki but with five double courses instead of four. The two strings within each course are traditionally tuned to the same pitch and in unison. I was toying with the idea of stringing the lower courses in octaves but I never got a chance to try that out.

After settling on an Irish cittern, I found a luthier named Doug Dieter that lived an hour away from where I lived in Indianapolis that happened to specialize in Irish citterns and Irish bouzoukis (www.kennaquhair.com).  After visiting with him, I was very impressed with the quality and playability of his instruments.

At that point, I was formulating a plan on having a nice cittern made.

But then, a few days later I found Gregg Miner’s Harpguitars.net website… 


Phase III – Evolution

(2002-2005)

Before I visited Gregg’s website, my idea of a harp guitar was an old Gibson that’s only seen in pictures, almost impossible to find, and very costly. After discovering all these new harp guitars and the luthiers that make them, my vision of the instrument I wanted changed considerably.

Modern Bell Cittern

Harp Cittern

So, I went to Doug and we talked about two designs. One was my take on a “bell” shaped cittern (a modern tribute to the old “bell citterns” of the 1800s) with the same stringing configuration as an Irish cittern and the other was; you guessed it, a harp cittern!

His reaction to the bell cittern was fairly positive but he balked at the harp cittern. It was just not something he wanted to tackle at that time.

From that point on, I was definitely into the idea of extra strings! Since this was the case, I held off on getting a traditional Irish cittern and started exploring various harp guitar designs. I felt that a harp cittern or octave mandolin was getting closer to what I was looking for. Again, thanks to Gregg Miner and his harp guitar website, I was able to contact various luthiers who specialize in harp guitars. One luthier that I communicated with that expressed a keen interest in atypical harp guitar-like creations was Stephen Sedgwick.

It was during this initial correspondence with Steve that I learned that the second International Harp Guitar Gathering was going to be held in Williamsburg, Virginia in November 2004. He was going to be there and recommended that I attend. Also, since a long time friend of mine happened to live in Richmond, it was easy for me to make the decision to go there, visit my friend and on the weekend, drive over to Williamsburg, meet Steve and check out all those harp guitars!

Needless to say, I had a great time at the Harp Guitar Gathering. I was able to talk with experienced harp guitar players and luthiers as well as play a myriad of harp guitars. It was a harp guitar bonanza! After this event, my ideas started to gain more focus.

The 2nd Annual International Harp Guitar Gathering

Steve Sedgwick presents his new harp guitar at the Gathering

John Doan and his Sullivan-Elliot 20-string harp guitar at the 1st annual Harp Guitar Gathering.

In particular, the conversations I had with the renowned harp guitarist John Doan led me to make an important decision. I decided that I would like to incorporate super-treble strings. John commented that the range of the harp guitar with treble strings could be comparable to that of a piano. The idea of playing a left handed piano like part with my left hand playing sub-basses while playing a right handed piano like part with my right hand playing super-trebles was very intriguing to me. John’s instrument was the closest thing to a portable plucked piano with frets that I had seen so far, except it had no double courses…

Another important decision I made was to go with luthier Stephen Sedgwick. I was very impressed with the playability of his harp guitars and during our conversations, he seemed very open to exploring new harp guitar designs and ideas. Many established players were all highly recommending him and Fred Carlson, one of the most prominent luthiers in the world, assured me that he was an excellent choice. Master harp guitarist Stephen Bennett even performed on one of Steve’s new harp guitars during the evening concert. It also helped considerably that he was relatively young compared to the other luthiers which meant his waiting list did not extend into years. Not yet anyway…

 

Stephen Bennett and Joe Morgan with two Sedgwick harp guitars.

On the way home from the Harp Guitar Gathering, I jotted down a list of some basic things that I had tentatively decided on:

  1. Stephen Sedgwick would build this instrument.

  2. It would be a harp guitar-like instrument with double courses.

  3. A super-treble bank would be incorporated into the instrument.

  4. To keep the cost down, I would not require any expensive woods or extras. (Well, they just couldn’t be too expensive…)

It was a strange feeling starting a project like this without the slightest idea of what the final result would be!

By far the most important and fortuitous decision that I made was to go with luthier Stephen Sedgwick. In Steve, I found a person who was very accommodating when discussing and implementing different design concepts, even if it meant that he had to invest more of his time in order to carry them out. I got the feeling that he would do whatever it took to get the job done right.

Soon after the harp guitar gathering, Steve and I communicated frequently via e-mail, discussing different design concepts and various construction issues, and we also swapped drawings. The instrument was starting to take on an identity. During this correspondence, I really appreciated his rather unique openness to try so many new things. I felt very lucky to have such a highly skilled luthier like Steve actually take my amateur designs into consideration and then transform them into something practical that could actually be built! When some people make one thing that they like, they stick with it. I noticed that when Steve makes something he likes, he’ll go off and make something completely different, and with excellent results. He was just the guy I was looking for!

Harp Octave Mandolin
#1

Harp Octave Mandolin
#2

The first sketch I made after returning home had a rather bizarre violin-like body design and the second one was based loosely on the Larson mandolins. Both have an unusual bridge setup.

Steve was intrigued with the multiple-bridge options. However, I thought it looked a little too “thrown together.” I did like the body design of the second attempt better than the violin-like body of the first attempt; so I drew up some more basic body shapes based on the second drawing.


#1

#2

#3

Harp Mandolin/Octave Mandolin Body Ideas

After drawing up some initial body designs, I strung them up!

These new designs with the bottom cutaway resembling a crescent moon didn’t feel right to me either. Also, with the straight bridge, it seemed like the super-treble courses were just too short and would sound too different in comparison with the main fretted strings.

I was in a quagmire. So, it was back to the drawing board… Again, the first design that came to mind was the Larson harp mandolin that Robert Hartman brought to the second Harp Guitar Gathering. I really liked the overall design of the instrument. Especially the bottom cutaway which looked more natural compared to my earlier drawings.

Larson Harp Mandolin

Harp Irish Bouzouki

Harp Octave Mandolin #3

For more inspiration, I conducted a search through The Knutsen Archives and found something that looked fairly similar and with a scale length that would be close to the instrument that I wanted to have made. It was a left handed ¾ size harp guitar with a treble bank. http://www.harpguitars.net/knutsen/hgs25.htm 

The main concept that I liked about the Knutsen harp guitar when contrasting it with John Doan’s Sullivan/Elliot model was the idea of having an angled bridge for the super-treble strings. With the super-treble bridge at an angle, the upper bout would not have to be sloped. I thought that if the severely sloped upper bout could be avoided, then the instrument would sit better on the knee. However, I thought the Knutsen super-treble bank was backwards. I wanted the pitches to go from low to high as they move away from the strings on the neck. For this to happen, the bridge would have to angle in the opposite direction.

Left handed Knutsen Harp Guitar

At that point, I started searching for a bridge configuration where the super-treble bridge angled upwards. As I continued to search through the Knutsen Archives, I noticed that the super-treble bridge on the earlier Knutsen harp guitars did just that. This made more sense to me.  

Knutsen harp guitar with upward slanting super-treble bridge

As I was about to start another drawing, I came to a rather disturbing realization. I started asking myself questions like, “Am I sure that I want a harp guitar version of an Irish cittern or octave mandolin?” and “Is there another double course guitar out there that would be better than a cittern?”  I wanted an instrument that would be easy to fingerpick and I wasn’t sure if the cittern would be that instrument. At that time, I began to feel a little disillusioned with the whole project. Was I basing this whole instrument on a compromise?

Then I made a discovery that changed the nature of the entire instrument and would prove, in the end, to be the catalyst that would push this design phase to completion! The missing link was the “Brazilian Viola Caipira.”  

I discovered the viola caipira on the internet while I was browsing though some new instrument listings at an internet music store. While I was viewing the instruments they had for sale, I stumbled across what looked like a small parlor guitar with 10 strings. Now here was an instrument that had the same number of courses as the Irish cittern. However, the strings gauges did not look the same. I immediately started doing some research on what the viola caipira was and where it came from.

Orquestra Paulistana de Viola Caipira – The Paulistana Country Guitar Orchestra in San Paulo, Brazil.

The Brazilian viola caipira (country guitar in Portuguese) is smaller than a standard size guitar and has five double courses. The lower three courses are tuned in octaves, and light gauge, low tension strings are standard. This makes it very easy to fingerpick. In fact, the main playing technique used by Brazilian viola caipira players is a mix of fingerpicking and a flamenco style. As you can see in the picture above, everyone is playing finger-style on these instruments!

After seeing the picture, the first question that came to mind was, “Why is this instrument almost completely unknown around the rest of the world?” It looks popular enough in Brazil . In fact, the viola caipira is Brazil ’s national instrument! Yet, around most of the world, when you hear the word “viola”, you inevitably think of the viola that you put under your chin.

After digging up some more information, I learned that the term “viola” actually originated in Portugal . “Viola” is a variation of “violao” which is the Portuguese word for guitar and the viola caipira actually descended from a myriad of older Portuguese “violas” such as the viola toeira de coimbra , the viola braguesa and the viola Beiroa among others.

(See: http://www.geira.pt/MCordofones/Coleccoes/violas_tip_img.html and http://attambur.com/Instrumentos/Portugueses/cordofones.htm )

Evidently, at some point when settlers from Portugal started colonizing South America , they brought their Portuguese violas with them. These viola instruments were then embraced by rural musicians and became synonymous with native Brazilian folk music and heritage. It was during that time that these 10 string violas evolved into one common guitar that became known as the viola caipira, the country guitar played by Brazil ’s rural folk musicians.

I think that the reason why almost no one has heard of the viola caipira outside of Brazil is because almost no information on this instrument is available in English and it doesn’t even have a common English name. Also, The English translation “country guitar” is much too general and the Brazilian people that I have talked to always referred to the instrument as a “viola caipira” even when speaking in English. No one ever called it a “Brazilian country guitar.”

Giannini Viola Caipira Hootz Viola Caipira

So, after discovering this instrument, I searched for one I could purchase. After trying a mass-produced Giannini viola caipira that I wasn’t very impressed with, I contacted a Brazilian luthier named Marcos Hootz online and started a correspondence with him. Eventually, I bought a viola caipira from him made with a koa top and Brazilian lacewood (or alligator wood) back and sides. These are not the common woods for the viola caipira. Brazilian rosewood is usually used for the back and sides.

When the viola caipira finally arrived, I opened the case, tuned it up and started playing. In fact, I forgot when I stopped playing it! The feel of the instrument was much more delicate than any Irish bouzouki or cittern. Also, the light gauge, octave tuned lower double-courses opened up new melodic possibilities that I hadn’t imagined. The instrument was not very loud but sounded bigger than it was. Seconds after playing it, I knew that this was the right instrument! The uncertainty was gone.

So, keeping the Larson aesthetic in mind and the Knutsen bridge design, I drew up some more designs of what Steve christened the Brazilian “arpa viola caipira” or “harp country guitar.”

1. 2. 3.
Arpa Viola Caipira Evolution

In these drawings, various aspects of the design were being finalized. A couple significant aspects were:

  • Bass headstock design and positioning in relation to the guitar headstock.

With the bass headstock, I wanted it to resemble the design Steve uses on his standard harp guitars. It was important to me that the arpa viola caipira (which I will refer to by the acronym AVC) would be identifiable as a Sedgwick harp guitar which meant that I wanted some of his signature motifs to be incorporated into the final design. To me, what made Steve’s harp guitars stand out was the shape of his bass headstocks.

I still hadn't decided if the headstock should be significantly higher than the guitar headstock or in line with it.

  • The severity of the lower bout cutaway.

I definitely wanted the lower bout cutaway to be a distinguishing feature of the design, but I didn’t want it to turn into an arm rest! So, in the third design above, I made it less pronounced.

After I finished the drawings, I sent them to Steve, and, using these drawings as a starting point, he drew up his first version of the arpa viola caipira.

 

Arpa Viola Caipira – First version by Stephen Sedgwick

After Steve drew up a few more drawings of the AVC, he told me that he would mail them to me. While I was waiting for his drawings to arrive in the mail, I had to confront an issue that I may have been unconsciously avoiding: The possibility of every course having two strings.

Since the beginning of the design phase, I wasn’t confident in making a final decision on whether to have double or single course treble strings.  However, when the time came to make the decision, it was a no-brainer. After actually playing the viola caipira for a couple of months, I decided that I would want the sound to remain consistent throughout the treble bank. By having double courses, I could not have a large number of them since the amount of tension per course would be doubled. In the end, I decided that having a more consistent sound with five double treble courses was better than having more single courses.

Unfortunately for my sanity, this logic led to the question: For the sake of consistency, why not have five double-course basses as well? While this proposition definitely makes sense, thirty strings is a lot of tension! Here I am, I’ve already paid a significant down payment on this instrument and my logical conclusion is to make an instrument that could possibly implode!

For reassurance, I called up Steve. To his credit, when I asked him about having double course basses, he gave it the green light with almost no hesitation. At that time, he had completed a new 21-string harp guitar with great success. He was very happy with the playability and sound quality of the harp guitar and he believed it held up very well to the tension. This was apparently due to the fact the he was using a new construction technique based on “piano construction technology” that significantly strengthened the instrument without sacrificing the tone.  He told me that he would use this same construction technique with my harp guitar. Even though I didn’t entirely comprehend his new method, this made me feel more comfortable with the idea of having a 30-string harp guitar. After talking to Steve, I tentatively decided to go with double bass courses. However, I still felt that I needed a third opinion.

So, with Steve’s blessing, I called the leading worldwide expert on the harp guitar, none other than the redoubtable Gregg Miner! I described to him the string characteristics of the instrument so far:

  • Like the standard viola caipira, the fretboard would have five double courses, with the lower three courses tuned in octaves.

  • It would have a bank of five double treble courses, tuned in unison.

Then I asked him what he thought of having five double course basses tuned in octaves to match the lower courses on the fretboard and his immediate response was, “Yes. Go for it!” Although he could understand my lingering concern regarding the tension, he agreed with me that musically, it would make much more sense to have the open bass courses match the lower courses on the fretboard. He also mentioned that his German Theorbo also had descending open double-course basses tuned in octaves which further supported the idea.  

Finally then, after having Gregg confirm my inclination to go with double-course basses, the decision was made to go with thirty strings! The final configuration of the instrument was complete!!

Soon after this decision was reached, I got Steve’s drawings in the mail. I rolled them out and wrote some notes and suggestions on them. Since the AVC would have double-course basses, I set up one of the bass headstocks on Steve’s drawings with ten tuners. The result incorporated five banjo tuners and five guitar tuners:

Tuner configuration idea for bass headstock Steinberger gearless tuners

After sending the picture to Steve, he suggested that I go with Steinberger gearless tuners for the bass headstock instead of banjo and guitar tuners. Regular guitar tuners limit bass headstock design since they must be installed close to the edge so that one can have access to the tuners. Steinberger tuners, like banjo tuners, allow more freedom in shaping the headstock since they can be placed anywhere. Another reason that Steinberger tuners are a good choice is because they are much more accurate than banjo tuners. When I asked him why luthiers didn’t utilize these tuners for the sub-bass courses on regular harp guitars more often, he informed me that the tuners were not really designed to take those heavy gauge bass strings. They would, however, work for the AVC since the open “bass” strings are not really bass strings at all. Their range would cover only the lower range of a standard guitar, hence it would not use any gauge lower than the low E string on a standard guitar.

After jotting down more notes on Steve’s drawings, I took pictures of these notes and created a document with these pictures and e-mailed it to Steve (to view this document, click here).

Here’s a list of three revisions that were made at that time:

  • We decided not to go with an open headstock.

  • I drew in a third course fretboard extension at the sound hole. With a standard guitar, a fretboard extension on a middle course wouldn’t make much sense. However, there is a practical reason to have one on a viola caipira. The highest pitched string on the instrument happens to be the high G# string on the third course. Since this is the case, a technique I found myself gravitating to when playing the viola caipira was to play a melody on the third course while accompanying on the higher courses. I knew that I would utilize this technique on the AVC so any extra notes I could get out of that third course would be a plus. Again, it was important to me for the AVC to incorporate Steve’s aesthetic so I drew the end of the fret board extension in the shape of his standard guitar headstock. I thought it would be cool to have the head stock and the fret board extension match!

  • After comparing Steve’s AVC body profile with the traditional viola carpira profile, I requested that he slightly widen the lower bout of the body. Since the traditional viola caipira body design usually has a noticeably wider lower bout, I wanted this to be reflected in the AVC design.

After Steve got the document, he OK’ed most of the changes but made two observations that required revisions.

First, he stated that the bass headstock would not actually connect in two places like my drawing due to the fact the guitar headstock is at an angle. So, I slightly revised the headstock attachment as seen below:

Original headstock proposition Revised headstock connection

Also, in the revised headstock drawing, I drew an inlay design at the top of the headstock and a truss rod cover. The inlay could possibly be considered a Sedgwick logo with its “S” like shape. Steve thought the inlay was interesting but made no commitment to the design and he didn’t like the truss rod cover shape so we dropped it.

Steve also remarked that the third course fretboard extension at the sound hole might extend too far. He said that there would be a possibility of the wood warping over time and that it would prohibit access to the truss rod. So, with Steve’s comments in mind, I shorted the third course fret board extension to include one extra fret instead of two.  

Original 3rd course extension Revised 3rd course extension

I sent Steve my revised drawings and he drew up what I think is a pretty accurate representation of what the final instrument will look like:

 

Final pre-construction drawing of the Arpa Viola Caipira

The pre-production phase of this project was finally coming to a close nine months after I first met Steve at the second Harp Guitar Gathering. The next step would be construction. Before that stage would begin though, I would attend the 3rd  Annual Harp Guitar Gathering in Salem, Oregon where I’d get reacquainted with the friends I made the year before and let Steve take a good look at the Hootz viola caipira I’d been playing so he could get an idea of what kind of sound the instrument makes.

I knew that the most difficult part about going to the third harp guitar gathering would be not telling anybody about this project! Understandably, Steve wanted to avoid announcing an instrument like the AVC before he started construction on it.  However, since Gregg was already sworn to secrecy, I told him that the viola caipira was in the trunk of my car and without hesitation; he played it and loved it – noting that he had nothing with that exact sound among any of the 200 instruments in his collection. Now I’m curious to find out what his reaction will be when he hears the harp version!


In the next article, I present in detail the construction of the arpa viola caipira from start to finish. Among the many things that will be dealt with are:

  • What woods to use

  • What tuners to use

  • Bridge design

  • Headstock design

  • Headstock veneers

  • Sound hole(s) and rosette(s)

  • Bindings

  • Bracing

  • Unexpected and exciting new ideas, inventions and possibilities.

  • And much more!

To: Arpa Viola Caipira, Part 2: Construction and Innovation, featuring Luthier Stephen Sedgwick

And see March, 2006 Luthier of the Month


About the Author

Brad Hoyt playing a Sedgwick harp mandolin

Brad Hoyt (www.bradhoyt.com) is a composer, pianist and harp guitarist who has performed and recorded extensively in America and Europe. Brad graduated from Ball State University with a Bachelors degree in Telecommunications and an associate's degree in Jazz/Commercial Music.  Part of his studies included classical guitar lessons and private piano lessons with renowned jazz pianist Frank Puzzulo. Also while attending Ball State, he preformed with the school's big bands, small jazz groups and with his own rhythm and blues band. After graduation, he moved to New York City and performed regularly as a solo pianist and ensemble musician. While living there, he arranged an original piece for chorus and orchestra and his original Christmas arrangements were aired nationally on NBC. Between 1999 and 2002, Brad recorded and performed regularly in Europe. Today, Brad works at Steinberg, the recording software division of Yamaha Corporation, and lives in Carmel, Indiana with his wife Andrea Hoyt and their children Loreena and Luke. Brad is currently working on a new duet album of original material featuring himself on piano with various harp guitarists.

If you enjoyed this page, or found it useful for research, please consider supporting Harpguitars.net so that this information will be available for others like you and to future generations. Thanks!


Harpguitars.net
Home

Iconography
             History             Players

Articles         Luthiers        Music          Harp Guitar Gathering 

Site Map
             Links             About            Subscriptions             Contact             Forum             Search

All Site Contents Copyright © Gregg Miner, 2004,2005,2006,2007,2008. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright and Fair Use of material and use of images: See Copyright and Fair Use policy.