A busy weekend, this last – meeting and making two new friends.   Friday evening we spent several hours with Verlene Schermer of San Jose, who was passing through on the way to a weekend concert/workshop.   Verlene is a full-time musician who sings and plays Celtic harp, piano, 5-string violin, guitar, Swedish nyckelharpa…and now, harp guitar!

Yes, she’s the one who bought Benoît Meulle-Stef’s Mozzani-inspired HG (which has 21 strings to Mozzani’s 9).  She picked it up at Mike Doolin’s during the weekend she was attending John Doan’s last harp guitar retreat – her introduction to the instrument.  Interestingly, other than myself (and maybe Tom Shinness who plays a bit), I think Verlene may be the only other harpist to take up the instrument.  So, of course, she had to have trebles!  She’s already started to wrap her head (and arms) around it pretty well.  I was most taken with its potential for Swedish folk music, and can’t wait to hear it incorporated into her new Swedish music trio (see her website for that and her many other ensembles).

We both agreed that, while what she was doing on it was much simpler than what she would otherwise be playing on the harp, ironically, it looks much more impressive, and we think that audiences will go nuts over this incredible instrument, even over the exotic nyckelharpa and 2 harps in the trio.

Nice to add another woman to our harp guitar community – something I anticipate escalating.  I expect we’ll see Verlene at a future Gathering (not this one), and look forward to news and recordings of her BMS harp guitar.

I spent much of the next day, with Graham McDonald, from Australia.  Graham is an excellent builder of mandolins and Irish bouzoukis, but more importantly, creator/author of The Mandolin Project, which includes plans for building several instruments.  He is a popular writer and excellent disseminator of his lutherie skills.  He is also quite the scholar, although he writes for the public, not academia (rather like me, I suppose…except he talks more good).  His book includes a wonderful and valuable overview of mandolin history and type/maker examples (a couple of mine are in it).

Realizing that there is no mandolin equivalent of all the ubiquitous books on guitars, he now plans to do a new edition with a hugely expanded section on the history of mandolins around the world, from the very beginnings to the present (including many cousins, such as the bouzoukis).  So he’s gradually traveling the globe (on his own dime) to meet with collectors and musicians, gather information, and take photos of everything he can.

He shot 2 dozen mandolins and vague mando-relatives here, including of course, all the harp mandolins.   One instrument he wanted to see and shoot surprised me – the Pollman mandoline-banjo (what I categorize as a “banjo-lute” – this one a 5-string banjo neck on a mandola-like body, seen at left).

The reason being that it relates to the story of the modern Irish Bouzouki.  Graham knows both Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, who he explained were the original instigators (or inventors) of the instrument (Lunny [Planxty, Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, etc.] being a musical hero for both of us, by coincidence).  In the ‘70s, the two took up playing various Greek bouzoukis, which they inevitably destroyed stringing them for their new uses.   One day Donal was in a builder’s shop (Ireland or ?) and one of these Pollman instruments was hanging on the wall.  Donal then asked the fellow (sorry, I forget his name) to build him a new instrument with a “Greek bouzouki neck on that body” – and the now ubiquitous Irish bouzouki/cittern was officially born.   Never would have guessed the 1890’s Pollman for the “prototype”!

I hope Graham tells that story correctly in his book (and better than I, with more gooder words).

I’m sure the book will be a long time in the works – I’ll keep you posted, and hope everyone picks up a copy.  On top of everything else (it’ll have a ton of new and gathered information, for the first time all in one place – Graham’s very well-connected in the mandolin world), it’ll have some cool harp mandolins in it!

For Further Reading: Illustrious visitors to the Miner Museum

Please note: The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic & Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments is open by appointment only to fellow scholars, researchers, collectors, musicians, reporters, and highly motivated stalkers.