Volume 6, Issue 1, April, 2007
TD ELECTRIC HARP GUITAR APPROACH
by Tim Donahue
TIM DONAHUE HARP GUITAR WORKSHOP SERIES, PART 1
After watching Tim perform at his workshop for the 4th Annual
International Harp Guitar Gathering in Naples, Florida, I asked him if he
would pen an article about his remarkable approach to music and his fascinating
self-invented harp guitar techniques. He has generously obliged with
an entire series! I had originally imagined this presentation more
as a "How I" than a "How To" article -
thinking that Tim is the only one that has this instrument and the only
one who can perform the techniques. But Tim has written a true
player's article, and explains below which instruments these techniques
can be applied to. I also believe that the article will be equally
interesting to those who may never play a similar instrument. And who
knows - it may even inspire someone to adapt a Dyer-style or other acoustic harp guitar
to this configuration (I, for one, am very curious to hear how these
techniques would translate to an acoustic instrument!). Regardless, Tim's
creative efforts have
once again reminded me that there are indeed no limits. The
"world is your oyster" and the harp guitar its future!
- Gregg Miner
I’d like to thank Gregg for this opportunity to pass along some of my ideas relating to electric harp guitar composition & performance. It seems that while some of the concepts I utilize are common to harp guitarists, some others are quite unusual. Because my overall approach to the harp guitar is slightly left-of-center, let’s start with an overview of my instruments and my approach in playing them.
My fretless harp guitar
compositions feature different
tunings for each piece. This is fine in the studio, but live
performances have always been tricky because song order is dependent on
choosing songs back-to-back whose tunings vary in a gradual, step-wise
way. Drastic tuning departures take more time to nail between
songs. Over the years I’ve gotten quick at navigating multitudes
of tunings in concert, but I must admit it can be a nightmare.
Now, I rarely if ever, touch the tuners during a
concert and life is great! What
After fretting the maple harp guitar a couple of
years ago, I ran across a tuning that has given me more compositional
freedom than others I’ve used before. Since then, I estimate
writing over a hundred pieces in this new tuning alone.
Here it is:
You’ll notice the guitar is basically in standard
tuning, with the exception of the high E tuned down to D. This immediately
gives G major triad inversions DGB & GBD on open strings and
chromatically across any barre. These triads sound great when played with
the harmonics technique I employ, which I’ll discuss later.
One advantage of this tuning is that being so close
to standard guitar, improvising solos is easy (but of course, the player must watch out for the
lowered D). It’s amazing how
altering even one string from standard tuning gives the fingerboard a
different harmonic “feel”.
At first glance, the harp section is tuned straight
up an A major scale. Interestingly enough though, I have yet to
write anything in A major! Since these 6 notes are also diatonic to
D major, B minor, F# minor, and modes of E Dorian,
Besides A, B, C#, D, E, F# being diatonic to the
keys above, many other keys are possible in this tuning.
Some of them include G major (avoiding the C#) and D
minor (avoiding C# and F#). In a key like F major, only three harp
notes are diatonically available (A, D & E), and Bb major has even
less (A & D). Even though fewer harp notes are available in
these keys, my composition approach integrates the harp and guitar
sections, and I rarely feel the need for more notes on the harp (or
changing tuning). I’ll be explaining this approach more in detail
in future articles, but for now let’s remember that one’s approach to
composing is the key to being able to utilize the harp notes available at
any given moment, in the key of the moment. This is certainly true
for all harp guitarists, as no single tuning gives equal freedom to play
in all keys (outside of using sharpening levers on the harp).
The next discussion is not specifically related to
harp guitar, but relates very much to how I approach music and in turn,
harp guitar. From a very early age, I can remember seeing red and
white colors in my mind as I listened to my mother play Debussy’s Claire
De Lune on our living room piano. I was just a few years old, but
the memory is vivid today. Since then, I’ve always visualized
musical pitches & notes in color and have never given this much
thought- seeing music in color was as natural to me as breathing.
But a few years ago I happened to watch a TV documentary about this phenomenon. It turns out I experience “synesthesia”, a condition where the senses are cross-wired, so to speak. People with synesthesia “see” music, “hear” shapes, “smell” colors, etc. More on this topic can be found here.
Without getting too much into the issue of
synesthesia, I must say that my approach to the harp guitar is heavily
based on seeing colors of each note on the instrument. In my mind,
each harp note has a specific color, as does every note of the
fingerboard, including harmonics up and down each string. Every G is
red, every B is yellow, every C is orange, A & D are both blue (but A
is lighter than D). F#, G# and C# are all shades of brown, but each
is distinct in my mind. I’ve never sat down and memorized these
relationships - they are a part of me naturally.
I’ve come to realize how this music/color
visualization enabled me to play in a multitude of tunings during my
fretless harp guitar days. Music color/visualization also enables me
to “zone out” and play without the need to look at the
fingerboard. Most of all, I remember how to play songs by the way
colors come to me in my mind, during a performance. If the colors
aren’t coming to me on a given night, then I’m playing the music less
naturally, with more thought involved.
As a practical matter, music theory to me not only
concerns note names like A, B, C, E, F#, Bb, but concerns the relationships between reds, blues,
browns, whites, yellows, etc.
Here’s an example:
When I play
a Bmin9 (voiced B-F#-C#-D low to high) on the fingerboard, I not only
think “root, 5th, 9th, minor 3rd”,
but I also see “yellow, medium brown, dark brown, dark blue” in my
mind. At the same time, since the harp is tuned A-B-C#-D-E-F#, I not
only think of their theoretical relationship to B minor (namely b7th,
root, 9th, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th), I also
see their corresponding colors (light blue, yellow, dark brown, dark blue,
white, medium brown) in my mind. The colors tell me these notes are
diatonic to the key of B minor, and thus confirm that any harp string can
be played against the Bmin9 chord I’m fingering on the fingerboard.
Given this approach, it’s easy to see how
synesthesia has helped to integrate notes on the fingerboard and harp
in my mind. Synesthesia also reinforces the relationship
between melody and harmony. This is especially useful on the harp
guitar, as harp guitarists often play a melody and chordal accompaniment
at the same time.
How does all this relate to the player who doesn’t
“see” music in color?
If anything, I think it’s important to realize
that we all have vastly different ways to perceive music.
I’ve never thought that my musical color
perception was anything out of the ordinary. It’s like breathing
to me (and no one goes around discussing how one breathes, right?).
But on further examination, it’s clear that this way of perceiving music
has directly shaped my approach to the harp guitar.
And for the player who wishes to know how I create music on the
harp guitar, I hope this discussion sheds some light on part of the
Although I mostly play solidbody electric harp
guitar, many of the techniques I employ work on acoustic harp guitar as
well. Let’s dissect my basic
Alternating notes between the fingerboard and harp
can be done with all kinds of melodies, in many keys.
Tim Donahue is a pioneer in the development of the rare fretless electric guitar and the rarer fretless electric harp guitar. He designed and built his own instruments in the 1980s and used some of those when studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Since then, projects have included jazz, rock, progressive metal, and music for various film and television productions. Inspired by the Fourth Annual Harp Guitar Gathering, Tim has recently focused attention again on solo work with his fretted harp guitar. He has developed an unusual method of playing his electric harp guitars using his right hand to pluck the harp strings while his left hand taps notes on the neck. Tim is a well known recording and performing artist in his adopted homeland, Japan. - FD
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