All photos copyright Lukas Brunner, except where noted

Lukas Brunner and the World’s First Travel Harp Guitars!

 by Gregg Miner
(special thanks to Luke Brunner and Philippe Fouquet)

“The Natural Sound of Innovation”

The slogan of Switzerland’s Brunner Guitars sums up founder Lukas (Luke) Brunner’s guiding force.  Finding innovative yet practical solutions to the design and construction of guitars is something he considers both a privilege and a gift.

During his youth, Luke apprenticed with a furniture maker after hanging out in his dad’s custom furniture shop from his earliest years.  At age 14 he started playing guitar, and with his woodworking experience, his interest in guitar building began to grow.  By 1992, now age 18, he built his first guitar, a dreadnaught.

Brunner Guitars soon opened in 1995 when Luke started building guitars full time at the age 21.  His experience as a cabinetmaker and occasional guitar builder prepared him for the challenge and enabled him to become established, but it was his invention of the Outdoor Guitar that really got the ball rolling.  He now works with a small team of three additional workers and can “batch-build” high end guitars to sell for very attractive prices.

Luke (on right) sanding lacquer


In 2000, the business moved to its current location in the town of Lavin in the incredibly beautiful valley of Engadin.

> What in the world am I doing in L.A.?!

The Outdoor Guitar

The first “Outdoor Guitar” was created for Luke’s honeymoon trip – a tandem-bike ride around New Zealand and Australia in 1997.  After encouragement from many friends, he decided to start building small runs of Outdoor Guitars in 2001. 

They have since become so popular that they are now the main product line of Brunner Guitars, built in an amazing array of models.

Full Scale, Small Body Series Acoustic Bass Electric Series Multiple Neck Custom 7-string
But what exactly is an Outdoor Guitar?

Well, a crude explanation would be that it is a portable travel "kit" guitar, but that doesn't remotely begin to describe it.

Where to begin?  I suppose it all starts with Luke’s patented S.N.A.P. system (Simple Neck Attachment Procedure).  With two matching specially designed metal plates – one in the neck and one in the body, the instrument goes together in literally seconds.  One simply pushes against the moderate string tension to “snap” in place.  Then you simply tighten the strap button a few turns, fine tune and play.  I’m completely serious.  Disassembly procedure is exactly the reverse.

The trick to staying in tune are these other bits of ingenuity.  The unique two-piece bridge has a removable section that contains the strings when the neck is removed, and allows for quick and easy assembly and disassembly.
At the other end, a special captive nut and a zero fret allow the strings to remain aligned, while the locking Gotoh tuners help keep things consistent while the neck is off.  All three features combine seamlessly with the Snap-On neck to provide near tuning-free reassembly.  Pretty cool, so far, huh?  We could probably stop there and call it a success...

But how to get decent tone out of this portable “kit” guitar?  Ahhh, Luke’s next bit of wizardry…

The Flying Top

In 2002, Luke invented his unique “Flying Top.”  Thinking about how standard X-bracing divides the top into different vibrating areas, he brainstormed on a way for the top to “float” more freely and thus vibrate more evenly at all frequencies.

As I understand it, there are two key components to Luke's design, both rather ingenious.

First, the top is strengthened with a smaller, thin piece of book-matched spruce that is feathered at the edges.  With the grain of the center piece at a slight angle to the top, the two pieces are glued together in an arched press for even greater strength.

Next, in place of standard X-braces glued to the top for their entire length, Luke developed a strange form of “flying brace” that connects to the top only along the center of the brace and attaches to the sides at a slight distance from the top.  These flying braces then direct the tension to the sides, leaving the top free to act as some sort of miniature wooden trampoline (well, that’s how I imagine it!).

The unique flying top, developed for his standard, full-size guitars was later modified for the Outdoor Guitars.  Though the neck connection necessitated a re-design, the neck support and the smaller body size actually allowed a simpler flying top design for the travel guitars.  Though he acknowledges the long and successful provenance of X-bracing, Luke feels that he never achieved the results with it that he has since gotten with this flying top construction.  He has found it to increase volume and balance and make the instrument very responsive – more light and free, without losing clarity.

So does it really work?  Read on….

The Birth of the Outdoor Harp Guitar

In June of 2008, French harp guitarist Philippe Fouquet (at right) wrote me about a new harp guitar he was ordering.  Philippe, an excellent steel-string fingerstyle guitar player had been using an old kontragitarre strung with silk and steel.  He was desperate for a Dyer-style instrument to begin fully exploring his harp guitar technique and compositions, but was finding it hard to invest in the sort of instrument he knew was needed.  What he decided on was a custom instrument that he had talked Luke Brunner into building for him.  Luke would need to modify his small, portable Outdoor Guitar into a doubleneck version, with the second neck able to handle six sub-basses tuned all the way down to low E!  I know – I didn’t believe it either. 

Photo © Philippe Fouquet

I had never heard of Brunner Guitars, and when I started exploring the site, I was obviously intrigued, if a little dubious.  For one thing, I was hoping for Philippe to get a “real” harp guitar, as we were tossing ideas back and forth on some new harp guitar music he was beginning to create, and I was anxious to hear it on a Dyer-quality instrument.  For another, as a fan of the Knutsen/Dyer hollow arm and the incredible, deep tones it can produce, I was doubtful that the Outdoor could possibly get anywhere near the volume and tone that Philippe was looking for, let alone be strung in such a way as to provide a decent low G (let alone Phillipe’s E!).  Yet Philippe seemed confident about the outcome, and I noted the testimonials of Phil Keaggy and others – all of which convinced me that the 6-strings (at least) were clearly professional instruments.  But beyond than the aesthetics and tonal quality, I was very intrigued by the possibility of a true “travel harp guitar” - one that might be an actual tour-worthy instrument.
Luke had built the occasional multi-neck, but never on  the Outdoor Guitar body.  Phil Keaggy takes a custom triple-neck for a spin (Phil owns an Outdoor Guitar and a fine custom Brunner Baritone 12-string , not this one)

The Project

So while Philippe was choosing his instrument's options, I began a lengthy correspondence with Luke about the possibility of an instrument or two for Harp Guitar Music.  He convinced me that they would probably sound very good, due to the flying top, and I was also encouraged by the fact that he had recently added both a “full scale” and a “full size” body option.  While I loved the idea of a “baby” travel harp guitar, we agreed that for the bass response, we would need the larger body.  Full 25.5” scale would also make it better suited to professionals and at the same time, allow for the longest possible sub-bass neck to match.  While all this was sounding pretty compelling, I was (sorry to be so frank) still not expecting anything exciting in the tone department. 

OK, Now I was convinced, but we still had to convince Luke!

This photos series: Building Philippe's OHG

Luke was perfectly willing to build me a personal instrument, but unfortunately his business is not structured to be able to supply instruments to dealers (it didn’t seem to matter that I was the “harp guitar pope” – I guess I am a legend in my own mind).  Ultimately, my tiresome cajoling paid off, and he agreed to build two additional instruments along with Philippe’s.  After crunching the numbers, it took me some time to bite the bullet and commit to the project and come up with the deposit.  The wait included some further trepidation, but I am very glad I stuck with it.  I did start to become rather hopeful after talking to Don Alder at HGG6 (Harp Guitar Gathering) in October, where he told me about his Brunner Outdoor baritone guitar and his complete satisfaction with it.
Philippe had chosen a spruce top with rosewood back and sides, a sharp cutaway, arm bevel, fancy binding (and more of it) and electronics.  One reason for the cutaway was the fact that we all agreed to move the guitar neck to a 12th fret body connection, rather than the standard 14 fret for this body.  This was to accommodate the longer sub-bass neck, which was essentially a 30.5” baritone neck with the frets missing (and here we might as well get it out in the open….yes, it could almost be a fretless baritone/bass neck as part of a “doubleneck guitar” in addition to, or in place, of a “harp guitar.”  It does sound pretty cool!  Unfortunately, the spacing is just too narrow to get your hand in there comfortably).

Spruce & rosewood (Philippe's), cedar & mahogany, spruce & rosewood

Since I was getting two instruments, I wanted to try the different wood options for both tone and appearance – mahogany and Indian rosewood for the back & sides options and spruce and cedar (which Luke urged me to try) for the tops.  I wanted to see one with a cutaway and one without, and also try one with a side port (after reading a great article by Alan Carruth on the subject in American Lutherie #94.  Turns out they are perfectly OK, useful and not just affectations!).  I chose different levels of trim in order to be able to offer the least expensive professional Outdoor Harp Guitar possible and one “mid-priced” model.  Neither was a disappointment, and each has its own appeal.

This photos series: Building the spruce and rosewood OHG with cutaway and soundport

For the harp guitar version of the Outdoor Guitar, Luke added a third layer of thin feathered wood to the top (grain aligned with the top, angle to the middle piece).  This is to support the extra tension of the sub-bass strings.  As Luke explains, this 3-layer "top sandwich" is about 6mm thick in the area between bridge and soundhole, feathering out to about 2mm along the outside.  He likens the theory to the principal of a Hi-Fi speaker cone.

The final piece of the puzzle is the distinctive rosewood bridge  plate (nice and clean - no bridge pin holes!).  Primarily this was developed to stiffen up the top in the bridge area and to add more mass to the centre of the top, which provides more sustain.  Again, lightness and flexibility along the edge - in tandem with the freely vibrating top - are the keys to the success, only achieved after much innovative experimentation.

By the way, if I've given the impression that I am responsible in any way for this unique instrument, I didn't mean to.  All credit should go to my friend Philippe Fouquet, who had the conviction and willingness to break the "hollow-arm harp guitar" paradigm, and to Luke Brunner, for so brilliantly realizing these instruments.  Innovation indeed! 

P.S. We're almost done.....

This photos series: Building the cedar and mahogany OHG

OK, OK!  So how do they sound?!

Frankly, they are somewhat mind-boggling.  For the few who have played them so far (including none other than Stephen Bennett) the tone and projection are a complete surprise.  Both Stephen and I agreed that had we not each owned a couple of fantastic harp guitars, we would not mind in the least touring, performing or recording with one of these (the string spacing at nut and bridge – less than we’re used to on our Dyers - being our one and only complaint).  Philippe also loves his and is starting to concertize and record even now.  But you don’t have to take our word for it - click over to the instrument listing at Harp Guitar Music for a direct A/B comparison with a vintage Dyer and see for yourself.

As The Monkee's said, "I'm a Believer."

Philippe enjoying his brand new OHG
Photo © Philippe Fouquet

In 2006, with worldwide interest still growing and around 150 guitars sold, Luke was able to expand the shop to about twice the size.  He now has the capacity to build about ten instruments a month. 

Let’s make sure that some of those are harp guitars!

- GM

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