Non-Standard Scale Harp Guitars  

by Gregg Miner, July, 2009
Updated, October, 2009


"Not just for the petite woman...ideal for the emasculated man!" *
* With apologies to Andy Wahlberg

Introduction

This article developed out of a discussion with several luthiers about what to call the harp guitars with shorter scale lengths that they were recently building.  I was reminded of when I was asked the simple question a few years ago, "what is a harp guitar?".  That little research exercise took months and led to the creation of Harpguitars.net!  This question led me on a similar wild goose chase and, instead of a simple list of terms, I realized that a full overview of the instruments and options was necessary.  I'll start with that and follow, not with the simple list of terms I was hoping for, but another long-winded research project involving music history, musicology, semantics, linguistics and mathematics....

The timing seems to be right.  Small harp guitars - either tuned to standard, or designed for higher pitch - are infinitely more uncommon than even standard harp guitars, yet I have seen a huge increase in interest in just the last year or two.  As owner of Harp Guitar Music, I've gotten at least half a dozen requests for smaller harp guitars from potential players with small hands - women mostly, plus a youngster or two.  A couple of modern builders have started building smaller instruments, usually at the request of a player.  I myself have been searching for a builder for some time to supply these for my own customers.  So far, higher pitched harp guitars are extremely few, but I predict a future craze.  Having just finished recording my first piece on a restored Knutsen "3/4 size" harp guitar (truly 3/4 size and scale, by the way), tuned up a minor third from my standard open tuning, I am captivated by the possibilities.  The effect with steel strings seems even more noticeable than on the similarly pitched, nylon-string modern Doolin harp guitar which Muriel Anderson has been touring with for several years.  And I just heard that Stephen Bennett has commissioned a miniature Dyer-style harp guitar from his friend David Enke.  Mark my words - this concept is going to explode.

Overview

As mentioned in the introduction, there are two main groups of smaller or shorter-scale harp guitars: those meant to be tuned to standard pitch and those meant for a higher tuning.  Regardless of the intent of the builder or player, neither goal need be considered locked in stone.  Just like any standard guitar can be re-tuned to various alternate tunings that include higher and/or lower pitches (with or without re-stringing), so can any short scale guitar.  Simply change string gauges, and you can experiment with the pitch and "best voice" or range for any small or short scale guitar/harp guitar.  The exact length of the vibrating string is not necessarily a limiting or dictating factor.  Just bear in mind that changing the pitch - and thus the nature - of such an instrument may play havoc with your naming etiquette, as will be seen below.

Examples of Short Scale Harp Guitars

Historical

The concept of a "terz guitar" - a standard guitar tuned up a third - began as early as 1807 (Buckland > Verrett). Original options of using a capo on the third fret, or even re-stringing a normal guitar with thinner strings were soon replaced with dedicated instruments with a correspondingly shorter scale.  Scholar Stefan Hackl states that approximately 35% of all Viennese guitars in his historical database are terz scale guitars (though I would imagine that some would represent "ladies" or "children's" instruments in standard tuning).  They were most often used in conjunction with other instruments, such as piano.  Whenever two or more guitarists got together, you would invariably find a terz among them.  Harp guitar versions of terz guitars soon followed, though to what extent isn't clear.  On one hand it seems silly - why move higher in pitch for clarity, brilliance and projection only to just add back in the lower notes?  Well, the best of both worlds, for one.  A higher range with better treble projection could be combined with floating basses to give an optimum range and tone.  I suspect that if we were able to collect the scale length data on all the early harp guitars we have archived, we would find a large proportion to be terz size and scale - substantially more than the scant examples shown below.

One of the most distinctive harp guitars ever created was the "lyra" form of Friedrich Schenk.  Above is a terz version from 1839.

In the early part of the next century Luigi Mozzani made many terz guitars and terz harp guitars, copying and adapting Schenk's designs.  Ledgers and records help identify some of these specimens in cases where the scale is not necessarily noticeably shorter than Mozzani's typical guitars.

munich-stevens.jpg (195317 bytes)

Heinrich Albert's Munich Guitar Quartet (all harp guitars!), 1912.  Fritz Buek (2nd from left) plays the above Schenk terz.

Mario Maccaferri plays the above Mozzani chitarra lyra (he owned it at the time). This one is clearly a small specimen and almost certainly a terz.

While the terz harp guitar waxed and waned in Europe for well over a century, America saw a different phenomenon in the many small harp guitars of harp guitar pioneer Chris Knutsen.  Of his approximately 165 harp guitars known, at least two dozen were built in true 3/4 scale, from 19 to 20 inches.  Were they tuned to terz or a higher tuning?  Possibly, though most of us conjecture that they were mainly intended to be "normal" guitars scaled down for children, women and anyone with small hands.  More to the point, I think that the tuning question was never specified or bothered with.  Considering the bulk of the clientele and heir lifestyles, I imagine that most of these Knutsen harp guitars were just tuned to "relative pitch" - meaning, that without a piano (or pitch pipe) in the household (or log cabin), the owners would just tune up to comfortable playing levels or perhaps to suit their singing range.  Knutsen didn't invent the concept of the small or 3/4 guitar; plenty of builders and catalogs offered small instruments for children and others.  Perhaps he may have actually gotten the idea from Otto Anderson, who built his (Knutsen's) early harp guitars.  Otto built harp guitars for his own children, one of which is an adorably small, fully miniaturized "one-armed guitar" with a 19-3/4" scale. 

Shortly after or concurrent with Knutsen's short scale instruments, the Larson brothers built a similar "Style 3" harp guitar for Dyer, theirs with a more typical ~ 22" scale.  I don't believe I've seen any other obvious American harp guitars with this feature.

Don't be misled or confused by the "parlor guitar."  This is a modern term (discussed in Terminology below) used to describe America's original standard guitars, the vast majority of which were much smaller than what we have since become accustomed to.  They had very small 12-fret bodies (think Martin "0" and narrower), often had slightly shorter scale lengths, and were tuned standard.

Most of Knutsen's 3/4 harp guitars were built in the Seattle period and are thus of his "Lower Bass Point" form. We have no idea how he may have referred to these smaller instruments. The "restlessly creative" Knutsen even built (or perhaps modified into) a near-half-scale (13-1/2") "octave harp guitar"!  

The Larsons built a few Style 3 harp guitars for Dyer that all have a shorter scale.  It's quite likely that they got the idea from Knutsen.  Similarly, we don't know if they were given a specific name due to the smaller size and scale length.

Jeannette Detlor with the child's harp guitar built by her grandfather Otto Anderson.

For the first time in a hundred years, Bob Hartman and I were able to examine, compare and share with the public both the Knutsen and Dyer/Larson versions of short scale harp guitars at HGG6 in 2008.

Modern
Mitsuhiro Uchida
Japan
1997

Every instrument Japan's Mori Yasuda (below) owns was built by local legend Mitsuhiro Uchida.  Mori's harp guitars all have super-trebles, as his original inspiration was John Doan and his Sullivan-Elliott 20-string.  After playing his full size model, Mori dreamt up two miniature versions. The first was the "18-string Mignon Harp Guitar" featuring 6 neck strings tuned up a fourth and 12 diatonic super-trebles.

Scale: 484mm (~19")
Tuning: up a fourth
Max width: 355mm (~14")
Max depth: 97mm (~3-3/4")
Overall length: 740mm (~29")
 

yasuda,mignon-yasuda.jpg (53534 bytes)

Mitsuhiro Uchida
Japan
2001

Mori's next Uchida marvel was this "27-string Terz Harp Guitar" which has 6 subs, 6 neck strings (tuned a minor 3rd higher) and 15 diatonic trebles.

Scale: 545mm (~21-1/2")
Sub-bass scale: 665-810mm
Tuning: up a minor third
Max width: 390mm (~15-3/8:)
Max depth: 100mm (<4")
Overall length: 960mm (~37-3/4")

yasuda,terz-yasuda.jpg (72009 bytes)
Mike Doolin
Oregon
2003

Mike Doolin's request for a nylon-string "harp requinto" came from Muriel Anderson (below), who wanted a “classical” harp guitar that was easier to carry and travel with.  It has a scale of approximately 21-1/2” and is tuned a minor third higher than standard (see Terminology below for traditional requinto tunings).

Scale: 547mm (~21-1/2”)
Sub-bass scale: 27.9" to 32.9"
Tuning: up a minor third (terz)
Max width: 14.3"
Max depth: 3.8"
Overall length: 38.6”

Michael Dunn
British Columbia
2003

Michael Dunn is a big Knutsen fan, and enjoys adapting the general Knutsen design into new instruments. This is the first ever "harp tenor guitar" (as opposed to a "tenor" harp guitar). The main neck has four strings in standard tenor guitar tuning (CGDA) and the two subs can be tuned to whatever one desires. This was a custom commission, a wedding present from Bob Brozman  to his wife Hayley.
Scale: 19-5/8"
Sub-bass scale: 22-3/4" to 23"
Tuning: standard tenor CGDA
Max width: 13-1/2"
Max depth: 3-1/2"
Overall length: 29-3/4"

David White
England
2007

When David discovered the under-appreciated value of ladder-braced parlor guitars, he decided to build a harp guitar version. The result was a much smaller bodied harp guitar with a slightly shorter scale length for standard (or open) tunings. He labels his instrument "concert" size ("parlor" being very general [see terminology below]).  Video of the owner Dave Campbell (below) is up on YouTube.
Scale: 624mm (just over 24-1/2")
Sub-bass scale: ~720mm
Tuning: DADGAD (nominal)
Max width: 335mm (13-3/16")
Max depth: 85mm
Overall length: 940mm (37")

Stephen Sedgwick
England
2006-2008

Though not precisely a harp guitar, the Arpa Viola Caipira (or "AVC"), shows the potential for the miniaturized harp guitar. This unprecedented instrument was a collaboration between Steve and Brad Hoyt (below), who first played a standard viola caipira, a type of Brazilian "folk guitar."

See also Arpa Viola Caipira, Part 1 and Part 2.

Scale: 580mm (22.83")
Sub-bass scale: 670mm to 750mm
Tuning: subs: dD, eE, f#F#, g#G#, aA 
               neck: bB, eE, g#G#, bb, ee
               supers: bb, c#c#, d#d#, ee, f#f#
Max width: 380mm (15")
Max depth: 100mm (3.9")
wpe3.jpg (35440 bytes)

Dennis Mitchell
Texas
September, 2009

Dennis Mitchell has been working on his prototype for the last year.  Inspired by Knutsen's instruments, his first harp guitar build turned into a shortscale after seeing specimen HGS71 at a guitar show. His unique, modern design is something of a cross between a Knutsen and Rich Mermer's "Thor's Hammer." He intends it to play in standard tuning

Scale: 22.875”
Sub-bass scale: 27" to 29"
Tuning: To Be Determined
Max width: 14.75”
Max depth: 4”
Overall length: 37”

Done!

Mike Brittain
Florida
2009

Mike's goal was to create a "standard Dyer look in a compact size," and says he got the idea after seeing Bob Hartman's small Dyer Style 3 at HGG6 in 2008. He built his first short scale instrument for new harp guitar convert Stephanie Jackson (below), and has since built another for Muriel Anderson. Mike was on the fence about using "harp requinto" to refer to these instruments. A key reason was that neither he nor the customers wanted to lock in a tuning, allowing for standard or terz tuning as the player or instrument preferred (Jackson even trying a fourth above). By naming this model "The Traveler" (coined by Jackson after one of her compositions), a flexibility for different tunings remains implicit. Ironically, it was Mike's naming question that started me on this whole article, and now he doesn't have to use any of my tediously researched names below!
Scale: 579mm (~22-13/16")
Sub-bass scale: 615mm to 715mm
Tuning: standard, terz or fourth
Max width: 13"
Max depth: 4-1/4"
Overall length: 36"

Kathy Wingert
California
August, 2009
Kathy decided to build her own 21-1/2" scale harp guitar (above) after a series of unrelated factors made her realize the many advantages.  Her soundboard wood supplier shorted her on the length of some sets, and she had a long set of cocobolo that couldn't quite work for a full size HG.  Why not put them to use?  With shop space at a premium, why not build yet another model? A gifted guitarist/singer herself, she found that capoing a harp guitar "is impossible to understand," so tuning up the entire instrument a fourth would make more sense.  Tuned up to A, she realized that "with half of what I sing capoed on the 4th fret, requinto tuning would be off by only half a step."  The key reason:?  "Because it's just so dang much fun!" She's planning on either 6 or 7 subs (7 increasingly becoming her standard).

Done!

 

Terminology

What do / can / should we call these little buggers?!

This is an incomplete and very basic list in which I'll attempt to disseminate what I know (and think) about all the terms that have been kicked around for awhile now when referring to new sizes of harp guitars.  You would think that one could just adapt the exact same terminology used for standard guitars, but it turns out that there isn't full consensus out there (yet).   So here goes my brief stab at it.

Note: All of the following applies to 6-string guitars as well.

The first question one should try to answer before choosing a proper name: Which of these features does the instrument actually have?

  • Small size
  • Significantly Shorter Scale
  • Higher Tuning

The presence of one, two or three of these factors will undoubtedly have some bearing on the term or name options, so let me clarify these three "ingredients."

  • A small size is generally a natural result of having a short scale, but is not the determining factor.  It is, however, a key factor in the related “travel guitar” and "parlor guitar."
  • A short scale may be intended for standard tuning (for smaller players/hands) or for a specific higher tuning (for musical effect).
  • Tuning (usually the player’s decision, which could later change) can be anywhere from standard to a full 5th above (equivalent of capo on fret 2, 3, 5 or 7 for example).  However, for super short scale guitars, tuning may reach an octave higher, and even a full octave and a fifth higher than standard (true - see below)!

Term / Name Options

  • Terz                 Terz Harp Guitar
  • Requinto           Harp Requinto
  • Alto                  Alto Harp Guitar
  • Soprano           Soprano Harp Guitar
  • Sopranino         Sopranino Harp Guitar
  • Octave             Octave Harp Guitar
  • Piccolo             Piccolo Harp Guitar
  • Short Scale       Short Scale Harp Guitar
  • 3/4                   3/4 Harp Guitar, 3/4 size Harp Guitar, 3/4 scale Harp Guitar
  • Parlor               Parlor Harp Guitar
  • Petite                Petite Harp Guitar
  • Travel               Travel Harp Guitar

The above list of harp guitars is of course theoretical, as most have yet to be built (though wouldn't you love to see one of each?!).  Note that only "requinto" (a specific instrument, rather than a musical "descriptor") becomes a new "harp something" - the others are all forms or types of harp guitars.

Next are what I found to be the salient points of each.  This was a somewhat haphazard study, so I welcome clarification and additions.  I understand the complexity and debate concerning provenance of "terz guitar," and modern generalizations of "parlor guitar" (for example), but cannot resolve them here.  I also realize that one may find the odd historical reference to some of the other terms used for an unusual "one-off" instrument.  If there are specific inventions or provenance that I am unaware, please let me know.

Terz Guitar

  • Early 1800’s to present
  • German for “third”
  • Extremely common historically (Vienna, then spread), still used today (mainly by early music practitioners)
  • Tuned a minor third above (1st string = G)
  • Scale length ~ 530-570mm (~21" to 22-1/2")
  • Original options were to capo a standard guitar at the third fret or string it with lighter strings

Guideline: Use when a minor third is the intended tuning (there is debate about reserving term for short scale instruments or allowing for tuning with any scale; I prefer the former).

Requinto

  • Date of introduction anyone?
  • Spanish and Portuguese term for “smaller instrument” (or “small guitar”?)
  • No direct translation (“quinto” means “fifth”)
  • Tuned a fourth higher (1st string = A), option of a minor third higher noted by some
  • Various scale lengths, with 530-540mm considered “standard” by some (average ~21”)
  • Common Spanish/Mexican instrument, traditionally used in guitar trio
  • Increasing contemporary use, though usually with the less common terz tuning (Jeff Linsky, Mike Doolin)

Guideline: Ironically, “quinto” = “fifth,” yet is tuned to either a fourth or, less commonly, a minor third.  Use when you have both a shorter scale and are tuning to A (or optionally, G), preferably for Spanish/Mexican instruments/music.

Alto Guitar

  • No obvious historical provenance
  • Derived from Latin altus, meaning “high”
  • For voices or instruments, used to denote the second highest (of quartet), rather than a specific transposition from a standard
  • Two current types:
    • Sweden’s 1960 George Bolin creation of 11 or 13 strings
      • Not precisely tuned a minor 3rd higher: the 3rd string is dropped a half step, so technically it is a lute tuning (as was its intention)
      • Scale ~ 574 (first 7 strings)
    • Japan ’s 1957 6-string guitar created and named by Dr. Hiroki  Niibori for the “Niibori Guitar Orchestra,” a quartet of voiced classical guitars
      • Tuned a fifth higher (1st string = B)
      • Scale 435-535mm

Guideline: Use if deliberately creating a specific harp guitar version of one of the above instruments

Soprano Guitar

  • No obvious historical provenance
  • Derived from Italian sopra, meaning “above”
  • For voices or instruments, used to denote the highest (of quartet), rather than a specific transposition from a standard
  • Created and named by Niibori for the Guitar Orchestra
  • Tuned an octave higher (1st string = e’’)
  • Scale ~ 400-430mm

Guideline: Use when creating a harp guitar to be tuned an octave higher.

Octave Guitar

  • No clear historical provenance
  • Though “octave” does not specify lower or higher, for guitars it means tuned an octave higher

Guideline: Interchangeable with “Soprano.”  Use when creating a harp guitar to be tuned an octave higher.

Sopranino Guitar

  • No historical provenance
  • For voices or instruments, used to denote a higher voice than soprano
  • Created and named by Niibori for the Guitar Orchestra
  • Tuned an octave and a fifth higher (1st string = b’’)
  • Scale ~ 365mm

Guideline: Use when creating a harp guitar to be tuned a full octave and a fifth higher (!)

Piccolo Guitar

  • No obvious historical provenance
  • Italian for “small” or “little”
  • Pitch precedence:
    • For the common piccolo: an octave higher than the flute
    • For the trumpet: many variations, different valves for different keys
    • For the mandolin: a fourth higher
    • For the guitar: is used as an alternate name for both the soprano and sopranino

Guideline: A lovely name that has yet to be clearly established.  Use when creating a (presumably very small) harp guitar with a tuning anywhere from a fourth higher to a full octave and a fifth higher than standard.

Short Scale Guitar

  • Can clearly be taken to mean any guitar with a less than typical scale length – however…
  • Today the term has been appropriated by fans of short scale electric guitars introduced in the 1950’s by Fender (also Gibson & Rickenbacker) in the form of various entry level “student” guitars
  • Tuned to standard pitch
  • Scale of 22-1/2” or 24” (as opposed to standard 25.5")
  • New re-issues, plus several other manufacturers (mostly electric)

Guideline: Use for anything non-standard that doesn’t specifically fall under one of the above terms for a specific tuning. 

3/4 Guitar
3/4 Size Guitar
3/4 Scale Guitar

  • Very common specific or general “name” or type, applied to many instruments
  • Rarely accurate, usually just intended to mean smaller. If “3/4 size” or just “3/4” is used, what is meant or implied? Length? Width? Weight? Overall cubic volume?
  • Only “3/4 scale” is quantifiable (19-1/8” is 75% of a 25.5” scale)
  • Tuned (nominally) to standard pitch
  • Scale length tremendously variable

Guideline: Use “3/4 Scale” only if the scale falls somewhere in the 19” range, and “3/4” or “3/4 Size” if the entire instrument has been fully scaled down by 25%.

Parlor Guitar

  • Modern term commonly used to denote a small bodied, 12-fret guitar like those of turn-of-the-previous-century America
  • Strings originally of gut or silk & steel, later steel
  • Tuned to standard pitch
  • Scale unspecified, but typically less than standard (24-25")
  • Body width unspecified, but all the way up to Martin O size generally accepted

Guideline: This is a very general, undefined term, so plenty of leeway. Use for a harp guitar with a size consistent with the general guidelines for the term above.

Petite Guitar

  • No historical provenance
  • Means “small” or “diminutive”
  • Does not denote or imply any specific tuning or scale
  • I used it in listing heading for my 3/4 Knutsen

Guideline: I just liked it!  I may or may not continue to use it.

Travel Guitar

  • Fairly obvious descriptive name
  • Common marketing concept today
  • Does not denote or imply any specific tuning or scale
  • Indicates that it is smaller, collapsible, or stripped down to bare essentials – the end result being easier to carry or travel with

Guideline: Use for any size or scale harp guitar if it has true “travel guitar” potential.


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