Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Chris Knutsen: Harp Guitar “Triple Threat”

by Gregg Miner, April, 2006


As all Harpguitars.net readers undoubtedly know by now, Chris Knutsen is perhaps the most infamous name in American harp guitar history.  At the turn of the previous century, Knutsen established himself both as a key harp guitar designer and a harp guitar builder – details of which are painstakingly analyzed in The Knutsen Archives.  But what has yet to be addressed is that Knutsen was also a harp guitar player.

Readers are presumably well aware of the amount of material we have managed to collect on Knutsen’s instruments: almost three hundred, as of April, 2006!  With no two quite the same, they illustrate the length and breadth of Knutsen’s restless creativity and imaginative genius.

When it comes to Knutsen’s lutherie skills, we again use terms like “imaginative” and “creative” – but usually in a pejorative way! Whatever he initially learned from Otto Anderson, Knutsen clearly chose to cut corners wherever he could for the rest of his 35-year career.

Notably missing from the Knutsen Archives is significant biographical information; more specifically, personal and musical details on Knutsen’s life (despite key contributions from relatives Jean Findlay, Linda Cameron and Jeanette Detlor [Anderson’s granddaughter]).

Was Knutsen, in fact, a musician?  Did Chris play, or merely pose with, his own harp guitars?  Is there any record out there of the nature of Knutsen’s musical abilities (by “record” I don’t mean “musical recording,” though wouldn’t that be nice!)?

We can now safely answer these questions in the affirmative!

The only personal testimony handed down through relatives that concerns Knutsen’s musical life comes from Otto Anderson’s family – specifically, Jeanette Detlor’s mother’s written notes of her family history.  If Otto’s daughter Ellen’s memory is to be believed (and there is no reason to suspect otherwise) then Knutsen did not originally play the guitar, but the violin!  Her exact words: “Dad (Otto Anderson) made 200 instruments for a man named Knutson (sic), who played the violin.”

Interesting!  Why would Ellen Anderson recall Knutsen playing the violin, even as he and her father were presumably embroiled in their new joint harp guitar project?  One can only speculate.  There are no hints as to where Knutsen got the idea for his first one-armed 6-string guitar, nor the second, larger version with sub-bass strings – let alone how those super-treble strings came about!  Neither will we likely ever know if he played guitar already, or if he learned on the first Anderson-built harp guitars.  What we do know is that after just two or three years, not only were Knutsen’s harp guitar designs radically changing, but he and his wife were now playing them. 

Or at least they were posing with them.


The famous photograph of the Knutsen family at right is from Port Townsend, probably early 1900.  Chris would be 37, Anna, 43, Bertha (with violin), 11, and Evalda (with a strange Knutsen mandolin), age 10.  Chris is playing a left-handed version of his “mature” Symphony model, with 7 super-trebles.  Despite the wonderful quality of the photo, I am unable to resolve what kind of strings Knutsen is using for the treble bank, or whether the gauges suggest that it is tuned to a chord or a scale.  But regardless, the photo certainly suggests that the Knutsen family had become a musical one by 1900.

In fact, it was later discovered that the Knutsen family members were playing (or posing with) the same type of instruments a couple years previously.

(Photograph from the Collection of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Used by permission. Copyright JCHS)

(image copyright and courtesy Jeanette Detlor)

While the previous photo has been known for some time (as the only image of Knutsen and his family), the wonderful, important photograph at left was only discovered in 2002.  It was first seen as a label in Symphony Harp Guitar HGT17, which I painstakingly pieced together in Photoshop from several pictures taken through the instrument’s soundhole by Chris Wilhelm (see Labels).  Shortly after, an original photograph turned up in the collection of Jeanette Detlor (see Otto Anderson)!  The key question is: when was it taken?  The girls are noticeably younger, estimates from experts ranging from a year minimum to over three years younger.  This puts the introduction of the Symphony harp guitars not at 1900, but perhaps as early as 1897!  Note Chris' and Anna's different guitars, and the traditional bowl-back mandolin played by Evalda.

Finally, in 2003, my colleague Paul Ruppa provided the first proof that Knutsen (and also Anna) not only played the harp guitars he built, but played them in public.

And what a public performance it must have been!  Thirteen Knutsen harp guitar players in one ensemble!  The group presumably consists of amateurs, as it is referred to as Payne's Mandolin and Guitar School.

Chris is on the left of the top row, while his wife, Anna, is on the far right of the third row down.  I haven't spotted either of his daughters, but they could in there as well.

The Cadenza caption states that the group “furnished the musical program at the Spokane Theatre, June 17.  The reports by the local papers bring out the facts that the ‘entertainment was unique and excellent in character, scoring a decided hit.’  The Spokesman Review said: ‘The theatre was crowded to overflowing and the audience was not disappointed.  The overture was played by 75 mandolins, guitars and harps, seated in a forest scene on a special staging elevated in the form of a pyramid.  Men, women and children, alike, were dressed in pure white and when the curtain arose a dim green light thrown over the scene gave a hallowed effect.  The director gave the signal and every instrument was sounded simultaneously in one grand chord at the same instant, like a flash of lightning, all was under the glow of a brilliant white light.  And the lights continued to change through all the colors of the rainbow in sympathy with each movement of shading and harmony, thus illustrating the idea of harmonizing color and sound.’”

August, 1902 issue of The Cadenza magazine

Was Chris Knutsen a student in the school?  Or was he perhaps a teacher?  There is no way to know, unfortunately - especially as we have no idea how much weight to give Ellen Anderson’s comment about Chris only “playing violin.”  Regardless, Knutsen clearly played a major role in the Payne School group – the presence of his 13 Symphony harp guitars attest to that.  In fact, "Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar School " may have perhaps been America’s first harp guitar master class!  As there are no other brands of harp guitars present, Knutsen seems to have quite a good thing going.  Or he could have been simply being altruistic - offering his instruments to the group’s members on loan, perhaps with "option-to-buy" or other payment terms.  The unknown story behind this scene is certainly tantalizing!
Note that Knutsen now plays a new lefty that does not match either of those he holds in the two family photographs.  It appears to be a standard Symphony model with a solid headstock and his now-mandatory (on his personal instruments) treble bank.

Our story so far:  

- Pre-1900: Knutsen may or may not have played violin – either as his first instrument, or as his only instrument.

- 1897-1900: If he wasn’t already a guitarist, he soon posed with, and presumably played, his own harp guitars.

- 1902: Knutsen is definitely a guitar player at some level by now, as he is performing in public with an amateur group.

And that is all that was known….until the summer of 2005 – when my new “assistant Knutsenologist,” Darrell Urbien (originally from Knutsen’s own Echo Park stomping grounds) made a remarkable discovery:


Chris Knutsen performing on radio!

Over the next several months (with new evidence being discovered even as I was about to publish this article!), Darrell found multiple mentions of Knutsen performing on KHJ radio.  The station, originally owned by the Los Angeles Times newspaper, went on the air April 13, 1922, with a frequency of 930 kHz (this was at a time when several stations shared one frequency for short periods of time each day).  It broadcast its signal – with an “186,000-mile-per-minute carrier wave” – across the entire continent, all the way to Maine.  In fact, there are reports of the station being heard in the Pacific and even in England!   Knutsen appeared on the show soon after its debut, along with a host of other steel guitarists and harp guitarists (L. M. DeWitt on steel in a duo with W. J. Gardner, harp guitar, in November, 1922 as just one example). 

The first mention of Knutsen (that we have found to date) appeared in the Times Jan 1st, 1923 edition.  It describes a gala New Years Eve concert the night before with a huge lineup of musicians, including prominent soloists, monologists, and instrumental music including “saxophone, piano, harp, cornet, steel guitar, harp guitar and stringed quartet selections.”

Yes, the harp guitar soloist was our own Chris – exactly what form of harp guitar will be discussed shortly.  He even received a review - perhaps his first?

“C. Knutsen, who has spent many years of his life in the manufacture of harp-guitars, proved himself adept at interpreting solos on this instrument last night.”

Presumably, Knutsen was more than “adept,” as the very next day’s Times (1/2/1923) announced that he would again be performing that very evening, included his picture,  and even listed his 4-song program!  This remarkable piece of first-hand evidence of the material Knutsen performed was repeated in the next day’s review: 

“C. Knutsen, for many years manufacturer of harp guitars, favored an invisible audience last night with four selections, giving to them a touch of artistry which was refreshing.  Among his contributions were “Nearer My God to Thee,” Carrie Jacob Bond’s “A Perfect Day,” “Aloha Oe” by Lilioukalani, and “March,” his own composition.”

Incredible! – Knutsen was writing his own music, and performing it for a nationwide audience on the same radio station that would soon be featuring Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen, and other Hollywood stars.

Chris Knutsen, from The Los Angeles Times, Jan 2, 1923

The final mention of Knutsen at KHJ (found so far) is from an appearance a month later, on Feb 1, 1923.  This third-page KHJ write-up again includes the photo from the New Years Eve article, except that it has been reversed (a common newspaper practice).  The caption reads “C. Knutsen, Harp guitar,”  and we get a better look at that guitar! 

Curiously, it is not one of his old left-handed Symphony models, but a left-version of an “Upper Treble Point”-style convertible harp-Hawaiian guitar.

Hmmm….we have clues provided by Knutsen’s “set list.” And now this photo.  Our only remaining Times clue is the next day’s review:

"C. Knutson (sic), harp-guitar soloist, another frequent entertainer from KHJ, carried radio folk through several minutes of dreamy music, such as only the harp-guitar under capable fingers can produce.  He proves himself a master of this type of music and made radio folk demand encores through his creditable performance last night."

Next, Darrell and I started to correlate all these cryptic clues.  First of all, we don’t know whether the image of Knutsen was a stock “promo shot” or a new photo taken at the radio concert.  We tend toward the latter, largely just because we find it more romantic to picture Chris in a stuffy tux playing in the KHJ studio on New Year’s Eve.  By the size of the program, we imagine that lots of people were there, rotating through for their turn in front of the mic.

The Los Angeles Times, Feb 1, 1923, p.8, I have entered the instrument (HCP19) as a left-handed specimen (click to enlarge the image and see the photo as I propose it was taken).

For now, we will assume that – publicity photo or actual event photo – Knutsen was playing an “Upper Treble Point”-style convertible harp-Hawaiian guitar as his standard instrument.  It should be remembered that after 1914, Knutsen no longer made any traditional harp guitars.  Strange, but true!  My feeling is that if Knutsen was still playing them, he would still be making them.

But if we accept that Chris was indeed playing a left-handed harp-convertible, we still have a more curious question to ponder.  Was Knutsen playing the instrument upright in its fretted, “Spanish-style” position – or on his lap as a steel guitar?  Or both? 

Our analysis:  Each mention of Knutsen uses the term “harp guitar” and never “steel guitar.”  However, the instrument has fooled even modern scholars into thinking it is a standard harp guitar – when we know it was geared toward steel playing (see Another 1-of-a-Kind Knutsen Convertible).  It is likely that Knutsen made certain to describe it as a type of harp guitar, and never simply a “steel guitar” (especially with “normal” steel guitarists” on the same bill!).  So we feel that the use of “harp guitar” in this context does not relate to the playing style.

Knutsen’s program list is inconclusive.  Certainly “Aloha Oe” is a classic steel guitar piece.  We think “Nearer My God to Thee” could be a steel guitar piece also.  The others could be anything.  In Knutsen's final review, “dreamy music” also best describes a steel guitar instrumental solo; in fact, the paper used the term often, and always in reference to Hawaiian or steel guitar.

The picture (whether it represents either Knutsen’s specific KHJ performances or simply his “standard” instrument of the time) is our next biggest clue.  As discussed in Another 1-of-a-Kind Knutsen Convertible, this model could be played as a harp guitar, but only in a crude manner in first position (using just the lowest frets).  As Knutsen had built (and played) much better dedicated harp guitars previously, I firmly believe that he would be using one of those existing models if was going to continue to play fretted, “Spanish-style.”  Thus the presence of his new “convertible” (optimized for lap playing), plus the discontinuing of his standard harp guitar production, convinces me that Knutsen had moved on to Hawaiian-style playing himself.

Perhaps most importantly, the image seems to show a large, dark nut extending way out of the neck - this would be Knutsen's typical oversize, raised, slanted nut for slide playing.  While it doesn’t show whether his guitar had his trademark super-treble strings or not, it clearly had sub-bass strings.  I imagine that Chris would have just used one of his 6-string models if he wasn’t going to use the bass strings, so it makes sense to imagine him utilizing sub-basses in his technique – and probably super-trebles as well.

All things considered, Chris Knutsen was almost certainly playing harp Hawaiian guitar, perhaps exclusively…though there was still no absolute proof.

Amazingly, the Times’ scant clues about Knutsen’s playing were not our last.


Darrell was aggressively pursuing all leads connecting Knutsen to Angelus Temple (The Foursquare Church) in Echo Park – all stemming from the appearance of Angelus Temple bulletin pieces used as “seem tape” inside my Hawaiian guitar (HHW18)
NOTE: “Knutsen and Angelus Temple” will appear as a separate special feature in the future!
He had the full co-operation of the Heritage Department of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  Janet Simonsen and assistant Carmen de la Peña (director and researcher) were as fascinated as we were, and very helpful in digging up any possible clues.  A couple of tantalizing finds provided evidence that, not only was Chris indeed a member of the Temple, but that he was indeed playing Hawaiian guitar.

The first find, from the Foursquare Crusader bulletin of November 13, 1929 (a year before Knutsen's death), listed news from the Manchester branch of Angelus Temple - including this tidbit: “Brother Knutesen (sic) visited the branch and delighted the congregation with his steel guitar."  The coincidence was too great – surely this couldn’t have been an unrelated Knutsen playing in the church on a similar instrument.  It had to be our own Chris playing one of his Hawaiian models!  Note: Darrell Urbien discovered that the Manchester branch (at the time of Knutsen's visit) was at 8415 S. Hoover St., at the corner of 85th and Hoover - in what is now the South-Central area of L.A.  Darrell adds "It would have been an easy streetcar trip for Knutsen."

If we had any doubt, the next cryptic clue clinched it, and offers more wonderful historical speculation.  In November, 1924, another Foursquare paper mentioned "many special musical features...given nightly" at Angelus Temple - including a "Harp Steel Guitar Band" !!!

Angelus Temple in Knutsen's time.

(image used by Permission of the Heritage Department of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel)

The term threw us, as it had never been heard before (and that is my oversight).  Without doubt, this could only have been a group of Temple members, perhaps including Knutsen himself – all playing various “harp” versions of his Hawaiian guitars! 

Darrell subsequently found a couple more references to the harp steel guitar band in the Angelus Temple database, including a second appearance at the Manchester branch in 1930.  Occasionally, the words were switched to "steel harp guitar" (it was a new and confusing concept!) - as found in another 1924 mention of the "Steel Harp Guitar Band" and also (at right) a 1927 Angelus Temple ad for what is obviously a Knutsen instrument (value: approximately one portable phonograph).

It immediately struck me that "harp steel guitar" is actually a much better term for these instruments than the one we have long been using.  Whether the bulletin writers, in trying to describe Knutsen’s strange instruments, or (more likely) whether Knutsen himself coined the term, “harp steel guitar” is much cleaner and descriptive than the awkward “harp Hawaiian guitar” introduced by Noe and Most in the 1999 book (and continued by my own Knutsen Archives).  But this is a side note - I’m not going to now change my entire coding and naming system, though we should consider starting to refer to these instruments as “harp steels.”


The three basic forms of Knutsen "harp steel guitars."

See also Another 1-of-a-Kind Knutsen Convertible

Despite these rare discoveries, the story of Chris Knutsen’s musical career is woefully incomplete (read Jean Findlay's Mason to Manufacturer and see how incomplete) – even more so than the story behind all those instruments!  But, whatever the facts, we know he wasn’t just a full-time builder.  However and whenever Chris started playing the violin, guitar, harp guitar and harp steel guitar, he was clearly accomplished enough by 1923 to be playing at church and over the radio for the public.

And his radio performances must have been musical indeed.  Note how the KHJ clippings refer to Knutsen playing to an “invisible audience,” and yet “made radio folk demand encores.”  Other Times articles mention that KHJ knew when it was a “distinct hit with the radio listeners who were found in all parts of the United States…evident from their ready response through telegrams and long-distance telephone calls.”  Yes - people listening at home would request encores by quickly sending a telegram or actually calling the station!  For Knutsen to have received encores on live radio, someone (and probably many listeners) had to pick up the phone and call KHJ to say, “I can’t get enough of Knutsen!” 

They say that, in theory, all those radio waves never die; they just dissipate over time as they travel endlessly through space.  If so, somewhere out there a sound sample of Chris himself is bouncing around.

I’ll be keeping my ears open.



Thanks to

Darrell Urbien
Darrell’s mother Roberta Urbien
Jean Findlay
Jeanette Detlor
Janet Simonsen and Carmen de la Peña at the Heritage Department of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel

Theoretical and scientifically possible scenario of Earth transmissions reaching alien cultures.
Artist's re-creation by Darrell Urbien.

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