do people learn to play the harp guitar?”
there any instruction books that would teach someone how to begin
playing a harp guitar?”
there a beginner level repertoire to start with?”
there any harp guitar music or tablature?”
As head of both Harpguitars.net and Harp Guitar
Music, I am asked these questions with an ever-increasing frequency.
Unfortunately (and ironically), the
harp guitar’s popularity continues to grow exponentially faster than any
supporting educational groundwork, so there aren’t many good answers
for these questions at the moment. But I will try to provide a few
ideas. That will come next
month, however – first I must ask you
some important questions.
- Which harp guitar are
you referring to?
- Are you interested in
a particular instrument or performer?
- What kind of music do
you play or hope to play?
I ask because, in most every case, this very
basic information is left unstated, and without it, no one (myself
included) will be able to adequately address your questions.
Let me explain why.
A first assumption I make about potential harp
guitar players is that they are already guitarists.
Most state as much - though they may run the gamut from
6-string virtuosos (who are nevertheless mystified by the harp
guitar’s techniques) to beginners with only limited guitar playing
experience. While 95% are
probably well-prepared guitarists and musicians, I don’t think that
learning to play the harp guitar “from scratch” should be all that
more inherently difficult than learning 6-string guitar (or any
instrument). However, the
fact that most beginners on other instruments have easy access to
entry-level instruments, a variety of published methods and music,
with a corresponding array of available teachers or courses, while the
harp guitar does not (yet), will make learning from scratch more
A second assumption (my guess) is that when
potential players ask the questions above, saying simply “harp
guitar,” they are actually referring specifically to one
particular instrument, or player, or type of music.
And since this is rarely stated up front, it may be that
(again, a guess) they are unaware that what they saw, heard and became
enamored by is not “the” harp guitar, but more likely “a
random” harp guitar.
So this is where we should begin. In
fact, let’s begin with something we all know about, the
“standard” 6-string guitar.
Let’s imagine one is going about learning how
to play the 6-string. This
student would ultimately choose both the type of guitar and the type
of music they are hoping to play. A
beginner might not know and start with the very basics, and move into
a distinct category (or several) later, while an adult or experienced
listener might have their exact goal in mind. Is
it acoustic or electric? Acoustic?
OK – is it classical nylon-string, or steel-string
(“folk” guitar)? Steel-string?
OK, do you want to learn just chords or accompaniment?
Solo? OK, do you
want to flat-pick Bluegrass, or play fingerstyle?
– are you going to play more traditional “Travis style” with a
thumbpick perhaps? Or are
you going to go straight for DADGAD to emulate one of your favorite
players, say, Pierre Bensusan? DADGAD
it is! OK, if you
haven’t already (there’s no rush, believe me), you’ll eventually
be trying out different guitars with different attributes: nut width,
scale length, body style and proportions, and tone, just to name a
few. You’ll also
experiment with, and finally settle on, your choice of playing with
fingertips, nails, acrylics, or different types of picks.
By this time, you’ll likely have a collection of
instructional DVDS, some tablature, hopefully a teacher or two,
perhaps even a week at Pierre’s own workshop.
Now let’s talk about the harp guitar.
Right off the bat, we’ve got the same choices and options as
the 6-string. There are
electric harp guitars, jazz harp guitars, nylon-string harp guitars
(including a huge variety of historical configurations), and also
endless steel-string acoustic instruments.
The fun part is that unlike the 6-string guitar, which has (obviously) six
strings, harp guitars have any
number of “harp strings.”
In fact, besides the most common “sub-bass” strings, there
are plenty of options for “super-trebles” or mid-range melody or
chord strings in any combination. (Just
so you know, I’ll address these in the coming months, but not in
The point being that harp guitars have all the
musical and physical variations of standard guitars, multiplied by an
almost infinite choice of stringing configurations and tunings.
So you have to establish
what harp guitar you’re considering learning.
As I mentioned in my “assumptions” at the start, you may
already have in mind the harp guitar you are hoping to acquire and/or
play. And 9 times out of
10, it’s a Dyer-style instrument, am I right?
Meaning either a vintage Dyer, a Dyer “copy” or some
hollow-armed variant by another historical maker or modern luthier.
These are popular today because most of us think they look
really cool, but also, by a wonderful combination of coincidences,
happen to be some of the best-sounding steel-string guitars ever made
– a perfect fit with our modern “steel-string acoustic guitar”
sensibility and “Golden Age” of guitar lutherie.
They’re also popular due to the artists that stumbled upon or
adopted them in recent times: Michael Hedges, Stephen Bennett, and
Andy McKee, to mention three of the most popular Dyer (or Dyer style)
players. And they keep
coming! Don Alder, Carter
Lancaster, Antoine Dufour are among the more recent fingerstyle
virtuosos who have added a Dyer or similar HG to their performances
(and I must not omit the original Dyer instrumentalist, Andy Wahlberg,
who’s 30+ years ahead of most of these guys…).
So, unless you have something different and
specific in mind (which I commend – variety is a cornerstone of our
Harp Guitar Gatherings), this could be considered the most
“standard” harp guitar today.
If it hasn’t become so already, well then when the first-ever
factory production Holloway harp guitars start shipping, it’ll be a
So can we finally begin discussing our
“standardized harp guitar” instruction?
Well, not quite yet. You
see, while most of these instruments have 6 sub-basses, there are a
bunch of Knutsen and Dyer harp guitars in circulation that have only 5
basses, and many players have based their tunings and repertoire on
this configuration. More
recently, builders and some players – from Muriel Anderson to Pete
Bradshaw – have settled on 7 subs (though Pete’s and Muriel’s
tunings are completely different).
But 6 is still definitely more common, and the
basic Holloway has 6, so let’s start with this as our entry-level
instrument. Now we have
just one last decision to make – Standard Tuning or Stephen Bennett
Tuning? What the heck?!
Both are based on the original 5-bass Knutsen tuning of
(low-to-high) G-A-B-C-D. Standard
adds an F to the bottom (yes, this can be easily be re-tuned to E),
while SB adds an extra G at the top (the equivalent of the 3rd
fret on the low neck string). Both
use (nominally) standard tuning on the neck.
Remember, I’m only discussing the two most common variants
– some players (myself, for example) use custom neck and bass
tunings of their own.
While standard tuning would seem to make the most
sense (Wahlberg’s been using it for his entire career), a lot of
players have adopted Bennett’s more unique, but easily-assimilated
tuning – either to play his music and arrangements, their own, or
both. If it hasn’t
occurred to you yet, notice that a 5-bass instrument could
be used to play either of the 6-bass configurations, with one note
unavailable in each case. (Q:
Are all 6 basses used for every
song? A: No, not
always, and sometimes not commonly)
Q: Do I
have to decide now? Can I
use both tunings? Well,
yes and no. Normally, a
Dyer or similar harp guitar is strung for one tuning or the other.
Sub bass strings do have quite a wide usable range of
tuning/tension (though your plucking strength must change), but you
don’t want to tune them much higher than they are intended for, and
tuning down too far will cause buzzing or the “boing” effect.
Thus, the physical logistics would indicate that you could use
a Bennett-tuned set of basses and tune down
to try Standard Tuning (ignoring the temporary “flabbiness”), but
must be careful about the reverse.
String shoppers on my commercial Harp Guitar Music site know
that Bennett sub-bass sets are a bit cheaper and also more readily
available. There is as yet
no satisfactory production string (in my opinion) for the lowest
string of a standard set (I’ve been working on it for 4 years now).
Still, players get by with anything from an .080” to even a
.070” for that string. (Shaft
holes are easily drilled out for thicker windings if it comes to that.
Do that instead of trying to unravel).
You’ll have plenty of time to experiment with these two main
tunings – or some of your own – before “locking one in.”
Eventually, your brain and fingers may find the need to stick
to one, to make it easier to get around intuitively.
Before I close this first issue, I want to add that this final
6-bass harp guitar configuration that we’ve established as today’s
common option (in any of the discussed tunings) need not be a
Dyer-style, nor even, a hollow arm, instrument. Check the Form
Galleries and the Luthier entries for other options. For
example, the new Brunner Outdoor
Harp Guitar is a portable double-neck instrument, but has the same
tuning configuration as the Dyer, and a tone nearly as wonderful.
There are many other modern and vintage doublenecks that can
accommodate Standard and Bennett tuning as discussed above.
Even if you have some sort of instrument already, or even if you
have something in mind, you should thoroughly explore Frank
Doucette’s invaluable article Shopping
For the Perfect Harp Guitar, as it relates directly to my
I’ll stop here for now. If I haven’t discussed the
particular harp guitar you’re interested in, send me an email, and
I’ll try to include it before I wrap up this series. Next
month, I’ll discuss some instruction resources for the basic Dyer