Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Neil G. Christian

Can the sub-bass strings be played?

“They can be, but I’ve never played them.”

 

 The Harpguitar: Its History and Its Only Practitioner
Guitar Player, March, 1976

Commentary by Gregg Miner, Dec, 2006

A Harp Guitar
Time Capsule

 

This is the infamous article quoted by Stephen Bennett in his opening remarks at the first annual International Harp Guitar Gathering.  With all due respect to Mr. Christian, it is unfortunate that our one and only public representative in the 1970s was not an actual harp guitarist!

The irony I am referring to of course is Christian’s immortalized quote in the sub-title.  As all Harpguitars.net readers are well aware, harp guitar sub-bass strings were always intended to be played, and we modern harp guitarists are understandably protective of our status.  One cannot simply pick up a harp guitar, strum the neck strings and call oneself a harp guitar player.  It is unfortunate that the writer/interviewer did not question this rather important little detail and perhaps say something to his boss before committing to the piece!  Not only was the public being misled about the instrument’s true potential and use, they were being further encouraged by Christian’s comment that “anyone who can play a regular guitar can play a harpguitar; it’s just bigger…”!

Read the original article in PDF format.

Christian and the Guitar Player editorial staff can be forgiven for not knowing of any other bona fide harp guitar players.  The only authentic one at the time may have been Andy Wahlberg, secreted away in Naples, Florida.  John Doan, already a multi-instrumentalist, was still three years away from his first harp guitar (the small Gibson), Pat Metheny a year away from his one Gibson harp guitar solo on Watercolors, and other harp guitar owners were not playing them legitimately.  David Lindley (in the ‘sixties) and Robbie Robertson (from his well-known appearance in The Last Waltz film also in 1976) were perhaps the only “name” harp guitarists, but their use of the instrument was more of a novelty, with the sub-bass section used improperly, if at all. 

Christian, by contrast, could perhaps be considered to have been using the instrument as, at worst, a “prop,” and at best, an “historical novelty” - as some of his early folk song repertoire may have been played using such an instrument in the early part of the last century.  As he is not around to defend himself, I hope my comments will be received as historical journalism, and not an attack on the well-meaning gentleman.

 

Similarly, it may be prudent to separate fact from fiction as we inspect Mr. Christian’s comments as the era’s only apparent harp guitar “expert.”

Again, much can be forgiven when we realize that there just wasn’t much information available on harp guitars at the time.  One of Christian’s sources was undoubtedly the Gibson Company (whose records are by no means complete).  Judging from some of the other comments, it sounds like a lot of information came from a random vintage guitar dealer – someone who knew just enough to be dangerous.  He also talked to Mike Longworth at Martin, so he did make an earnest attempt at learning some history.  

There is only one really significant error, but it’s a big one.  He stated that not only were Dyer, Knuteson (sic) and Washburn harp guitars identical and made from the same jig (if anyone finds a hollow-arm Washburn, let me know), but they were all manufactured in London!  Apparently, they were then exported to the States, where Knutsen, the Dyer Company, and Lyon & Healy would put their own labels on.  Amazing!

Other errors are much less hilarious and pretty typical:

Harp guitars were introduced in America in the 1880’s (John Doan would say the same thing in his 1988 Frets article.  I must be missing some provenance, as I can find nothing but the one odd Martin prior to 1890.

The Dyer was introduced before 1900.  Close.  The common version came out in 1906, and the somewhat similar Knutsen was around pre-1900.

The Gibson was made between 1904 and 1920.  Not too far off.  They were introduced in  the unmarked catalog attributed to 1902/1903.  When the last one was produced is still an open question; they are known into the 1920s, but may have been special order only (they were offered into the late 1930s).  They could indeed have stopped normal production about 1920 or so.

Gibson prices: $337.50 in 1918, "jumped" to $443.25 in 1921 after their last appearance, then back to $300 in 1927.  This may or may not be accurate, and I would have to see the it to believe it.  I haven't seen all the price lists, and many catalog years are still missing.  I do know that in 1917, the wholesale price was raised from $140-$161.50 (including the best case) to $150-$172.77, while the "List price" was only $248.21 (and presumably raised accordingly).  From the mid-1920s until 1935, the price sat at $300 (with likely very few orders coming in).

The serial number indicated that his Style U was made between 1906 and 1908.  Extremely unlikely.  His model of Style U began production in 1908.

The Gibsons had a black finish before 1912, and sunburst or natural afterwards.  More or less true.  The earliest ones were always black (with the plain R model with an orange top).  Gruhn lists sunburst as starting in 1913; during the 'teens, colors changed somewhat, while the occasional black or natural specimen could still be ordered.

Specific instrument counts.  I’m leery of anyone who states an exact number, especially when it is clear that the number cannot be known.  Perhaps Christian got his numbers from a Gibson’s representative, but that excuse would make these claims even more inexcusable.

400 were made.  No “approximately,” no nothing.  Benoit and I believe that well over a thousand were produced.

“About 97” survive.  OK, he included “about” – but then specifically “97”?!

“23 have good tone and can be tuned properly” (his own is of course the finest).  He must have had supernatural powers to obtain this tidbit.

Tunings:  Note that when Christian describes particular strings as “above” others or at the “top,” he means those towards the player’s head while in horizontal playing position.  Thus, his Dyer sub-bass tuning was presented as (lowest to highest): A, B, C, D, F and G.  This is a pretty interesting tuning – it doesn’t match anything historical, but is reminiscent of Stephen Bennett’s later invented tuning (the high G)!  He gets the Gibson tuning correct (supplied from one of the reprint catalogs).

The article includes an interesting side note about Eddie Peabody (the famous  banjo player).  While known to be one of the last users of a harp guitar (into the 1930s), he apparently played his Gibson “by special request as late as 1962.”  This, according to Christian, who seems to have discussed it with Peabody in 1970 (the last year of Peabody’s life).  We are thus able to learn that Peabody would play his sub-basses, but only occasionally.  This makes sense, as Peabody was a plectrum player, and with his speed, likely found it difficult to throw in to many sub-bass notes!   I have yet to see it, but a friend has a rare video of Peabody playing the Gibson, and he reports that he is indeed throwing in those sub-basses in his vaudevillian style.

Conclusion

Yes, I’ve been pretty strict with Mr. Christian, and by necessity a little hard on him, and we’ll be humorously referring to that infamous quote for likely quite some time.  Despite his historical inaccuracies (most of which are fairly harmless) and the unfortunate omission of sub-basses from his harp guitar playing (perhaps “harmless” in 1976, though not a very good introduction to the new movement!), Christian seems to have made a successful short full-time career of presenting his collected folk songs to a varied audience across the country.  At the same time, these audiences at least got to see a spectacular, forgotten instrument.  If not the best ambassador for “the cause,” Christian at least made the effort to bring a harp guitar out of the hidden realm of the unplayed wall hanger. 

Interestingly, Neil G. Christian’s historical folk songs – and what can today be considered his own historical performances – were preserved in the form of two 7-inch tapes, now part of the Minnesota Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture (part of the Library of Congress).

AFS 18,802-18,803: Two 7-inch tapes of an interview and songs sung with harp-guitar by Neil G. Christian. Recorded at radio station KSJN, St. Paul, Minnesota, by Maury Bernstein and Richard K. Spottswood, January 1, 1975. (Ninety-five minutes; LWO 9119)

A Harp Guitar
Time Capsule


More Time Capsules!

Harp Guitar of the Month Luthier  of the Month After
Six
Harp Guitars: Hybrids with a Heritage (Frets, 1979) William Eaton
(Frets, 1983)
Playing the Harp Guitar
(Frets, 1988)
 

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