Shopping for the Perfect Harp Guitar

by Frank Doucette
Illustrations by Christa Percival

Gregg Miner, editor

Ask any harp guitarist what is the question most commonly asked about the instrument and the likely reply would be “What the heck is that thing?”, often followed by “Where do you get one of those?”. does a first rate job of answering the first question (and then some).  It also provides valuable resources toward answering the second question.  If you’ve asked that question as someone interested in playing the harp guitar, the next question would be “How do I find the harp guitar that’s right for me?”.  The goal of this article is to help outline what you need to consider, and what resources are available to you, in selecting the right instrument.

The beginner will undoubtedly have many questions besides the obvious "Where can I try one?" and "Where can I buy one?"  This article will help your address the key points you should be asking yourself up front, including:
  • What kind of music do I want to play?
  • Style of instrument - hollow arm or other?
  • Stringing: steel, nylon, or combination?
  • Number of sub-basses; super-trebles?
  • New or vintage?
  • What is my budget?

It may be wise to start with that last point first!  So let us begin with:

1. Cost / Commitment  

Of course, it is not necessarily true that the more money you spend on an instrument the greater your commitment to making music.  You may, however, be unsure of your commitment to play harp guitar in the long term, and don’t want to spend a lot of money on an instrument to help you decide.  It may also be true that you could have limited finances available for the purchase of an instrument.  Even if you have several thousand dollars just waiting to be spent on a harp guitar, step one should be to determine exactly how much you could reasonably afford to spend on an instrument. 

New Instruments

For those of you who may not wish, or be able, to spend a lot, there are still a number of options available.  Probably the least expensive choice for a new instrument would be one from luthier Steve Wishnevsky.  His website mentions that he will build a no-frills instrument for approximately $50 a string.  For a standard 12-string (6 guitar and 6 sub-bass) this would come to about $600.  The harp guitars he’s made thus far look a bit crude but one of these may be of sufficient quality to get you playing.

Lark in the Morning

The Dyer-style harp guitars made in Mexico for the California-based company Lark in the Morning were the first modern harp guitars to be somewhat "mass produced" (at left).  These instruments are well known in the harp guitar community.  They are generally not regarded as professional quality instruments though there are artists regularly performing with Lark in the Morning harp guitars.

Today, companies such as Holloway Harp Guitars and Tonedevil Guitars are working with the goal of providing a decent quality instrument at an affordable price.

Belgium-based luthier Benoît Meulle-Stef has made a student-grade harp guitar with super-treble strings (as well as sub-basses), based on John Doan’s Sullivan/Elliot instrument (right).  Benoit also specializes in instruments in the German and Austrian tradition known as kontragitarres or Schrammelgitarres.  Both the “no-frills” kontragitarres and the Sullivan/Elliot-style instrument have sold for around $2,000.

Holloway Model 8
tonedevil,S-12.jpg (30820 bytes)
Tonedevil S-12

BMS Guitars

If interested in the traditional kontragitarres, Austrian luthier Fritz Harich offers 2 styles of kontragitarres.  His website lists these at 2,005.77 Euros, approximately $2,700.

If early music is more up your alley, Brazilian luthier Luciano Faria has made a reproduction 10-course theorboed guitar for $2,000.


British luthier Stephen Sedgwick has gained a strong reputation in the harp guitar community for building fine quality hand-made instruments at very reasonable prices.  There are a number of Sedgwick harp guitars in use by professionals.  Stephen builds hollow-arm instruments, his original “broken heart” design, harp guitars with super-treble strings, and custom instruments.  He is also an acknowledged harp guitar expert.  The hollow arm instrument is a Dyer/Knutsen influenced design though smaller than most instruments in that style.  The “broken heart” is based loosely on the old Gibson Model R harp guitars with a unique broken heart double soundhole.  His prices have justly risen in the past few years to reflect the quality of the instruments.  His current base price is 3,450 ₤ or approximately $5,450.  This may be a bit steep for those of you who don’t want to spend much on a harp guitar, but I include him here as his prices are still quite low as compared to more well established luthiers making top quality harp guitars.

There are a number of luthiers listed at who did not have prices posted on their websites.  It is certainly possible that you may find that one of these may be able to make the right harp guitar for you at the right price.

New luthiers are making themselves known to us all the time.  You may find something of interest to you by keeping an eye on the forum at  Luthiers building their first harp guitars sometimes post their work there as they go along.  An up and coming harp guitar builder may be willing to part with an instrument for comparatively little money.

Vintage Instruments

If a vintage harp guitar is more to your liking, then you may also find something at a budget price.  Again, may be of use.  A 5-bass Knutsen Symphony harp guitar sold there for $1,245 and a 1900 Brazilian rosewood Harwood double-neck sold for just $1,100 (right).

Harp guitars do show up on eBay fairly often. members often post these listings in the harp guitar forum.  It usually doesn’t take too long for someone in the know to post an opinion on the instrument in question and the asking price.  EBay sites in other countries may also list instruments not shown on the US site.  I have found listings for kontragitarres at eBay’s German and Austrian sites.

Believe it or not, craigslist is also a possible resource.  I recently saw a listing for an old Lyon & Healy style harp guitar for sale in Chicago for $690.  Sadly, the listing disappeared before I could go back and look at it in detail.

Vintage instrument dealers have harp guitar bargains on occasion.  Pamela’s Music in Britain and Palm Guitars in Amsterdam seem to have them quite often.  Most of these are kontragitarres.  Aforementioned luthier Benoit Meulle-Stef also specializes in reconditioning old kontragitarres to sell.  

When I bought my first harp guitar back around 1992, I placed an ad in a vintage guitar magazine stating that I was looking for a playable harp guitar for under $1,000.  I ended up with an early 20th century kontragitarre (right).  The seller promised that the instrument was playable as it was and even sent pictures.  I paid a few hundred dollars plus shipping and found myself having to spend a few hundred more to actually make it playable.  Remember to make sure that you have written proof of a seller’s policy for returning an unsatisfactory instrument and plan some extra money for repair work on an instrument that may well be worth keeping.

2. New vs. Vintage

Certainly, this is as much an intangible matter of personal preference as a matter of logical reasoning.  Our own harp guitar pope, Gregg Miner, has told me that, besides the obvious antique vibe, he prefers vintage instruments as he finds them easier to play than the new instruments he’s tried.  While I have enjoyed playing several vintage harp guitars over the years, my experience is pretty much the opposite of Gregg’s.

If you haven’t the experience to have formed an opinion one way or the other, I would first recommend that you try out as many harp guitars as you can.  A trip to one of the annual Harp Guitar Gatherings can be money well spent in determining what is best for you.  You will not find a greater diversity of harp guitars old and new in any one place at the same time.  When asked, I found all participants at my first gathering to be very open to letting a respectful newcomer try out their prized instruments.

Failing that, see if there are any vintage guitar dealers near you who have any harp guitars in stock that you could try.  There are also traveling vintage guitar shows where you may find vendors with harp guitars.  Check vintage guitar magazines for listings. 

You won’t find new harp guitars in your corner music store, but there are dealers that will occasionally have new harp guitars such as Elderly Instruments, Dream Guitars, and increasingly, Harp Guitar Music.  A guitar show such as the Healdsburg, Montreal and Newport Guitar Festivals may allow you to find a number of new instruments in one place.  If none of those are options for you, it is possible to contact individual luthiers of interest to see if they might have instruments owned by people in your area.  They may not have harp guitars in your area but playing one of their regular guitars can give a good idea of build quality, sound and playability.

Perhaps playing a number of instruments still hasn’t made the decision for you.  In that case, there are a number of questions to ask yourself.  First, how do you plan to use the instrument?  Will you be playing bar gigs, touring, or just enjoying making music at home?  If playing in bars or touring, how would you feel about subjecting a vintage or new instrument to those conditions?  There are a number of performers playing vintage instruments, some like Stephen Bennett and John Doan who began performing with vintage instruments but now use modern instruments, and some who began performing with new instruments.  It becomes a matter of which you would feel best about subjecting to the rigors of performance, and only you can tell how much stress that would put on an instrument.  Stephen Bennett, for example, retired his great-grandfather’s Dyer in favor of a modern Merrill.  One look at the Merrill will tell you how much stress Stephen’s travels around the world can place on one harp guitar.

Does a vintage instrument offer everything you may want in a harp guitar?  If you like the feel of the nut width, string spacing, and neck profile of vintage instruments, you may be able to find a great harp guitar for a very reasonable price.  If anything has bothered you about a vintage instrument, a new instrument can often be made to exactly fit your needs.  

Perhaps you just love the sound of the vintage instruments you’ve come across.  Many vintage instruments were made with tonewoods of a quality that can be harder to find today.  Instruments that have been played regularly over the years can have a fuller, richer, more open sound than some new instruments.  Instruments that have been in someone’s attic for 50-100 years may require some hours of playing to achieve that.  My personal feeling is that, with advances in luthiery since most vintage harp guitars were made, you can find new instruments that also have a full, rich, open sound almost right at birth.  You may, however, have to pay more for one of these than a nice vintage instrument.

Would it mean something to you to own a piece of history?  Part of the charm with owning a vintage instrument could be a connection with the past.  It can be fun to dream a bit about the life your prized vintage harp guitar had before it made its way to you, and particularly interesting if a seller can provide some of that history.

As mentioned in the section above, make sure you know the return policy of the seller of any instrument you buy.  Some vintage instruments may have suffered abuse not obvious in photos or a seller’s description, especially when found on eBay.

The proper price for a new harp guitar is whatever the builder quotes you.  It can be more difficult to decide what is a fair price for a vintage instrument.  In this case, your best resource is the forum.  You won’t find more expert advice anywhere.

If you decide that vintage is the way to go, old instruments crop up on eBay all the time and there are a number of vintage instrument dealers who will have a harp guitar now and then.  A good listing of these can be found on the links page of 

Of course, also keep an eye out at  There have been some very nice vintage pieces sold there.  Unlike eBay, Gregg also provides full disclosure on what is nice and not so nice about an instrument he’s selling.  In this case, the price quoted has been determined by an expert who really knows what each instrument is worth.

3. To Super-Treble or Not To Super-Treble

If you’re asking this question, you have likely decided to buy a new custom harp guitar, or have found one of the ultra-rare old Knutsens with super-treble strings.  When I decided to order a new harp guitar, I did give serious thought to having super-treble strings on the instrument.  My reasoning was that a harp guitar shouldn’t place any limitations on my creativity, it would be made to open up new avenues for me, so naturally it would make sense to have additional pitch range in both directions.  The realist in me then chimed in asking just how much time I wanted to take in learning how to use this instrument.  I must give credit to John Doan for helping me make my final decision.

I visited with John when he was at Gregg Miner’s museum filming for the “In Search of The Harp Guitar” DVD.  John was kind enough to leave his 20-string Sullivan/Elliot harp guitar in my hands for much of the time while filming.  After filming was completed, he even was kind enough to provide a harp guitar lesson which helped show ways to get used to all those extra strings.  Then he said something to the effect of “It does take some time to really learn how to use the extra strings but if you really love that sound you’ll make the time.”  That got me thinking.  I do love hearing the sound of super-trebles in the hands of those who really know how to use them in a way that makes sense musically.  I just couldn’t hear a way to effectively make use of them in the music that I was interested in playing.  The bass range of the harp guitar is what really matters to me.  Thus, my decision was to not have super-treble strings on my new harp guitar.

Consider what style of music you play and how you might use the super-treble range in playing that music.  Who knows, you might decide that the super-treble range is more important to you than the bass range.

The standard (Doan-style) bank of super-treble strings consists of 8 strings, one octave, and individual strings can be re-tuned for playing in different keys (left).  More and more new instruments with super-treble strings are being fitted with harp sharping levers to allow quick half step changes of these strings for different keys.  Some players are even using instruments with more super-treble strings for greater range and more than one bank of super treble strings.  You may find it useful to have a bank or two tuned to specific chords or perhaps an octave and a half would better suit your melodic ideas.  Or even a full two octaves as in Mori Yasuda's Uchida harp guitar (right).

4.  Finding The Right Luthier to Build Your New Harp Guitar

Assuming you have made the decision to obtain a new instrument, the first step in finding your luthier is to examine what options are important to you (super-trebles, sharping levers, etc.).  You can then look at instruments from luthiers listed at to see if anyone already builds something along those lines.  Any luthier should be able to accommodate requests for specific nut widths, string spacing, and neck profiles.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that you love the hollow-arm design of the old Knutsens and Dyers, but need a newer instrument, there are a lot of options open to you.  This is the most popular base design of new harp guitars.  In this case, prime concerns would be tonal quality, build quality, and playability.  A trip to the annual Harp Guitar Gathering will allow you to see and hear a variety of new instruments in this style.  You’ll also find some at guitar shows and at specialty dealers as mentioned in section 2 above.

It is also possible to approach a luthier, whose work you may like, to see if they may be interested in taking on a harp guitar project.  J. Thomas Davis built his first harp guitar at the request of guitarist Bill Dutcher.  My new Dyer/Knutsen inspired instrument is the first harp guitar from luthier Kathy Wingert.  Before Stephen Bennett approached the Merrills about making a copy of his great-grandfather’s Dyer, they had never made a harp guitar.

There are pros and cons to working with a luthier who has not yet made a harp guitar.  You have to really trust the builder you are working with to know that this person has the skill to put something together that won’t implode with all of the tension of the extra strings.  You also have to be patient.  It can take time for the luthier to work out how to best support the string tension with bracing and wood thicknesses, even if you are looking for an exact Dyer copy.  Most luthiers will tell you that the Dyer plans that are available are a good place to start but they may make some change for strength or tonal reasons.  If you want something based on the Dyer/Knutsen model, but not an exact copy, it will take time to design the instrument.  The design aspect was something I found to be very rewarding and a bit frustrating.  Kathy Wingert and I worked together to find design elements that we both liked and were functional.  I’m very proud of our final design but it took several changes in a number of details to get to a finished plan.  I will have the perfect harp guitar for my purposes though I may have had an instrument to play much sooner had I gone to a luthier with an established harp guitar design!

Now, anyone who has spent some time wandering around should know that the Dyer/Knutsen model is just one of many possible harp guitar configurations.  There are other variants of the hollow arm, instruments with second (unfretted) necks under the harp strings, some with support rods from the guitar body to the harp headstock, and theorboed instruments.  The guitar bodies can be different sizes and shapes.  Harp guitars have been made with flattops, carved archtops (and backs), and even double tops.  Many are acoustic steel-string instruments but some use nylon strings or a combination of steel and nylon strings, and there are even electric harp guitars.  There are harp guitars with super-treble strings (and no sub-basses), super-trebles and sub-basses, sympathetic strings (in addition to harp strings), some with multiple banks of strings (mostly super-trebles), and some without any frets at all that use a fretless guitar neck.  Numbers of harp strings range from one to however many a player may want!

Think about the music you want to play on a harp guitar.  If you want to play Michael Hedges’ music, Michael used instruments with 5 sub-bass strings, even on the electric harp guitar Steve Klein made for him (left).  If you want to play classical music, you may want a nylon-string instrument.  You may also elect to have extra sub-bass strings in order to accurately play lute music.  Nylon-string guitars are also fairly common in jazz and popular music.  If playing jazz, you may want an archtop harp guitar like the one Mike Doolin made for himself (right).  You may focus on Celtic music and want super-treble strings to allow you to play in the range of the Celtic harp.  Maybe you play the blues and want a ladder braced harp guitar.  Perhaps you play a variety of musical styles or original music with certain influences.  Analyzing the music you play can help you to determine how many sub-bass strings you’ll need, what tuning you may want to use for the harp strings, if you’ll want super-treble strings and how many, the type of string material, if you’ll want sharping levers on any strings, and what sort of harp guitar form most suits you.

If you are unsure of where to begin, there are many examples out in the harp guitar community.  Muriel Anderson (left) plays classical and popular music and originals influenced by those genres.  She found that she wanted a smaller bodied nylon-string instrument with 7 sub-bass strings (to have access to all notes in a scale) and sharping levers on each for quick key changes.  The result was her Doolin Harp Requinto.  Mike Doolin chose to have 11 sub-bass strings on his archtop instrument to allow chromatic movement.  Tim Donahue built his own fretless electric harp guitar for his rock/jazz/new age fusion music (right).  Fred Carlson has made harp guitars for people who want to make use of sympathetic strings passing over a jiwari bridge for a sitar-like sound (left).  William Eaton made himself an electric harp guitar with a computer based transperformance system inside to allow changes to any of the many tunings he uses with the touch of a button (right).  John Doan’s Sullivan/Elliot harp guitar is a steel-string instrument though he is strongly influenced by classical and Celtic music.  Super-treble strings make perfect sense for his musical vision.

After playing his instrument for a while, John decided that he wanted nylon-core sub-bass strings for the tonal quality and so as to not have to spend so much effort in muting strings (lots of strings and a larger than normal guitar sized sound chamber can mean added resonance and cross-talk across the range of the instrument).  This move has caused builders like Mike Doolin and the Milburns to also build steel-string harp guitars with nylon-core sub-basses.  I find that this can make it sound like you have two separate instruments in one.  You may find that this approach enhances your music or you may prefer to have a more uniform tone across the range of the harp guitar.  Again, the music you play will help you decide if you want all phosphor bronze strings, nickel wound, flat wound, silk & steel, silk & bronze, or any combination of strings made with different materials.

Aesthetics can play a big part in how your harp guitar eventually comes together as you may like the look of a particular form.  Ergonomics may also be an important part of your harp guitar.  My Wingert harp guitar is based on Kathy’s Model E (grand concert size) which I find much more comfortable than larger bodied instruments.  You may find that a body bevel, like Duane Noble uses on his instruments, puts your right arm in a better position allowing more relaxed playing.

The woods used on a harp guitar are a major factor in determining the final tonal signature of the instrument.  Sitka spruce is the most common top material as it is easiest to find in sizes long enough for a harp guitar top.  I’m quite partial to European spruce.  Though it took a little extra searching, Kathy found some nice Italian spruce for me.  The most revered vintage guitars are made with Adirondack (also called red) spruce.  Stephen Bennett’s Merrill has an Adirondack top.  Backs and sides will certainly color the sound produced by the top wood.  The Dyers were all made with mahogany backs and sides.  Other vintage and modern harp guitars have used a large variety of woods for backs and sides.  Parts of the instrument not generally thought of for tonal influence can also have an effect on the way the instruments sounds.  Neck material, the guitar fretboard, and the bridge can also influence what comes out of the soundbox.  Even if you think you know the basic tonal qualities of various woods, the result can be quite different from board to board and luthier to luthier.  Talk with luthiers about the type of music you play and the sound you are looking for in expressing that music.  Are you looking for a dark, complex sound or a light and more direct tone, or any point in between?  The luthier will be able to determine how to get that sound or can tell you if that is not a tone they care to get out of an instrument.

There are other issues in harp guitar design currently being debated among players and luthiers.  One is the spacing between the guitar and harp strings (specifically sub-bass, but it would apply to a super-treble bank as well).  Some players prefer a gap in order to more easily tell where they are amongst all those strings.  Others feel that the same spacing as the guitar strings would feel most natural.  The debate continues among those who prefer the gap as to what the right spacing should be for the gap. 
Another issue in debate is the use of the nut posts (or any other form of a “nut”) for the sub-bass strings before they reach the tuners.  These were used on all Dyers and Knutsens.  Gregg Miner took them off of his 1899 Knutsen and found that he preferred the sound (increased brightness and sustain) without the posts.  I had to agree, so my Wingert is also sans nut posts.  Independent of either of those instruments, Duane Noble decided to skip the nut posts on his harp guitars.  Most builders do use them and may feel that it allows a more consistent tone or may be easier to properly intonate.

Yet another issue is the use of a clamp from the harp headstock to the guitar headstock.  Some people feel that the clamp improves tonal quality and stability of the instrument.  Others don’t find it to make any appreciable difference.  Of course, this doesn’t come into play on instruments with a common headstock for all the strings.

Certainly, if you come across a luthier whose work you love, you may not want to question whether they use nut posts or clamps or whatever.  You can talk to luthiers to get their take on issues, particularly with one who has never made a harp guitar before, but you do have to ultimately trust that a luthier is the one who can make the instrument right for you.   

If you have an idea for an instrument that is different than what anyone is currently making, you have to see who may be willing to take on such a project.  Brad Hoyt discussed the ideas he had with a number of luthiers at a Harp Guitar Gathering.  He wanted a harp guitar version of a Brazilian viola caipira (a small-bodied guitar with 5 courses of 2 strings each) with harp strings extending the pitch range in both directions.  It didn’t take Brad long to determine that Stephen Sedgwick was the right person for the job with the necessary skill, proper level of enthusiasm, and agreeable pricing.  Cost for such projects can be significantly more than other harp guitars as the luthier will be designing it as a one-of-a-kind that may never be reproduced.

Of course, as mentioned in section 1 above, know how much you can reasonably spend on an instrument.  Also, ask yourself, if a luthier quotes you a price for your dream harp guitar that is more than the amount you want to spend, is there significant room in your budget to sacrifice other things to make up the difference?

You should be prepared to accept changes in design from whatever your original concept may be.  Good communication between you and the luthier will help avoid any ill feeling regarding changes.  Let your luthier know what is important to you and let the luthier tell you what is important for your harp guitar to function properly as a musical instrument.  For example, a luthier may not be able to accommodate your cool new bridge design idea if it would be detrimental to the instruments tonal quality and/or structural integrity.

When you find a luthier who makes high quality instruments that sound and feel great, communicates well with you, is interested in your ideas, has the skill to build the instrument you want, and can accommodate your budget, you have found the right luthier for you.

5. Conclusion

I hope this inspires you to go out and find a harp guitar that feels like it was made just for you, even if it was built before you were born.  We are in the midst of a harp guitar renaissance with more instrument choices available than ever before and a wider variety of music finding its way onto the instrument than ever before.

Perhaps someday people will see someone playing a 6-string guitar and say “What the heck is that thing?”.  



* Remember that prices listed are subject to change.


About the Author

Frank Doucette lives in Los Angeles (with a parakeet or two).  He is well-known as an assistant to Gregg Miner's activities within, Harp Guitar Music recordings and the non-profit Harp Guitar Foundation.  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.

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