Continuing the last blog, I want to now discuss the “legend” of the Lance McCollum-Michael Hedges harp guitar.  In doing so, I hope at the same time to create an archive of Lance’s brief harp guitar output.  I’m hopeful that this blog will eventually bring the rest of the information and new photos out of the woodwork – I’ve had good luck so far.

It hit me while tracking down these instruments and owners that we all, and especially I (whose “job” it is) are letting too many simple “record-keeping” opportunities slip through our fingers.  Think about it – we struggle to do historical forensic work on Knutsens and Dyers (and hundreds of other forgotten makers) – how in the world is it that we’re not doing it with our modern builders when the information is right in front of us?!?!  These instruments and their makers (and players) are going to be the equivalent of Knutsen, Dyer, and endless other “forgotten makers” a hundred years from now…and will still be up, preserving these legacies.  And yet we find ourselves in the untenable position of having recently lost Lance, with his harp guitars (let alone the rest of his prolific output) undocumented.  What’s wrong with this picture?

I can’t do it alone, so I remind harp guitar builders and owners to please continue to share these projects with us.  (For example, I still have no idea how many harp guitars Ron Spillers built, and while I know how many Merrill has built, or most from my friend Duane Noble, I haven’t seen them all, nor know who they all went to.)

As for the late Lance McCollum, I count just five harp guitars so far, though there might be more.  I’m not positive about the order, but for now will refer to them as HG1, HG2, etc.

As Lance began building these several years before I started and long before I started paying attention to modern instruments, I naturally “came late to the party.”  Since began, I’ve seen photos of a couple of his over the years, but sadly hadn’t paid them much attention beyond adding a representative to the Galleries and Lance’s entry on the Luthier page.

And now, four years after his unexpected passing, I pick up where I left off.  For me, the McCollum timeline investigation begins with his “infamous” post on an old Google Group guitar forum.  This is still up (here), but I’ll paste it again below, so we don’t lose the record.  A second archival post by Lance here concerns some of his thoughts on improvements to the Dyer harp guitar (I’m sure Dyer players will get a kick out of it).  Though I only met him once, I can see how Lance might have gotten a reputation for being…how shall I put it?…well, not exactly burdened with humility.  The bottom line is, I have no reason to doubt the gist of his story, which appeared in October 2000 in response to someone mentioning him as building harp guitars:

“Thanks, Wade. I guess the major amount of money I spent advertising in Acoustic Guitar with pictures of my harp guitar hasn’t caught many people’s eye 😉  So let me set the record straight:  I BUILD HARP GUITARS.  I build really good ones 🙂

“And I’m going to toot my own horn shamelessly here…If Michael Hedges were still alive, he would be playing one of my harp guitars.  This was the plan…but unfortunately, it died with him.  I received the ultimate compliment from him after meeting him at a show where I had brought my first harp guitar, which at a previous show I had told him was in production, and he asked to see it when it was completed.  At that time Michael was getting approached by luthiers at every other show wanting to demo their guitars, so I was flattered that I would be meeting with him again.  I arrived before the show at soundcheck, waited until he was free, and met Michael . . . I handed Michael the guitar and it was in standard tuning.  And Michael strummed it once, smiled, and asked me if he could change the tunings.  I, of course, said ‘Have at it! – I’ve been wanting to find out what it could do.’  In the following 15 minutes, I was treated to the most outrageous private medley from Michael’s harp guitar song list.  He must have gone through about 15 tunings and after every one, his jaw was literally dropped.  And the comments were just as overwhelming. (Can you guess I was just about wetting my pants in delight???)  He inquired as to the price and said he had to go off to soundcheck, but asked me not to leave.  (Like I would want to leave!!!)  We talked at intermission and then met again after the show.  This is where I got the ultimate in compliments.  I asked him if he was interested in buying the harp guitar and his response was:  ‘I would love to buy this guitar right now, at full price, (I’d offered him a discount) but the guitar is so inspirational, that if I were to buy it now (at the beginning of his touring) I’d want to stop doing everything else and write harp guitar pieces.  So if it is still available when I get off tour, I will buy it.  If not, we’ll build another one together.’  What more could I say . . . Unfortunately, Michael died on his way home from his tour.  Not more than about 50 miles from his house.  Even writing about this makes me sad.

“I’m occasionally brought back to that pleasant meeting because while he was on tour, he had recommended my name to at least two people regarding harp guitars and both have since become owners.  One of them, Steve Rundell, who you will be hearing about soon, even named his guitar “Michael” in honor of his favorite player.  I have a picture of Michael playing my first harp guitar; it’s a reminder of a very special evening.  It’s on my website if anyone wants to see it.

“Michael was and continues to be my favorite fingerstyle guitarist.  No, I don’t try to play his songs, but I feel his influences in my playing, as I’m sure many of us do.

“Thanks for letting me ramble.  Oh, and by the way, Michael owned two Dyer harp guitars and one Gibson harp guitar, and a Klein electric harp guitar (he helped design the Klein).   I had the pleasure of owning one of the really old Gibson harp guitars that turned out to be historically very significant (but that’s another story for another day – you know – about the one that got away). – Lance McCollum, McCollum Guitars, Oct 2, 2000”

Fascinating story isn’t it?!  So a McCollum might have very well become Hedges’ first new professional harp guitar.  The exchange certainly sounds plausible, and I’ll add some corroboration (and confusion) below.   Frankly, with Hedges’ professional requirements, I’m surprised he was able to use the Dyer (and the black Knutsen) as long as he did.

And so our McCollum Harp Guitar Timeline “working model” can begin:

At long last, here is his HG#1!  It is serialized #47, as Lance must have serialized his output consecutively, regardless of instrument type.

It has had one owner, David Borbas, who bought it on the last day of the 1997 Healdsburg Guitar Festival (“our wives set the price”) “after Michael Hedges did his thing.”

It’s ~15-3/4” wide and just over 4-3/4” deep with spruce top, mahogany back & sides, and thick vine inlay on the fretboard.  He seems to have started with the Dyer form; note the Dyer’s modified “cloud” headstock, carved out of a solid (or laminated) block.

This has fancy banjo tuners (check out those knobs!), as does one side of the main headstock, as the two heads touch where the low E tuner would go.

Dave says he’s been able to deal with the banjo tuners (as most of us can), which Lance only used on this first instrument.

Note the five sub-basses and their position at the bridge, as well as the fact that the bridge is split on this first instrument (this would become a pet peeve with Lance; a harp guitar simply must have a split bridge!).  With my only familiarity being with Lance’s later harp guitar I had in my possession, I was interested in seeing the string spacing of his earlier instruments.

I was surprised to see that HG#1 has a similarly wide gap between string banks.  Despite Lance’s familiarity with Dyers (if partial contempt) and his insistence on splitting the bridge, he seems to have gone deliberately overboard on separating the neck strings from the subs, something most of us would find counter-intuitive, if not somewhat illogical from a player’s perspective.  Perhaps it had something to do with tonal pursuits?

But again, as I mentioned about the other in my Harp Guitar Music listing, I wonder if Lance was also already thinking of something that might appeal to his “favorite fingerstyle guitarist.”  Remember in his post that he mentions going to a Hedges concert, where he mentioned his harp guitar (which he “told him [Hedges] was in production”).  There is no hint that any details were discussed (I think we can rest assured that Lance would have mentioned it), so Hedges almost certainly did not suggest it – but perhaps Lance came away from watching him do his sub-bass melody version of harp guitar and thought that this was the way to go for players.

It would be interesting to know when Lance began building this first harp guitar (which some refer to as his “prototype”).  For now, we know that it was finished before the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in mid-August, 1997.  Again, Lance’s post describes him mentioning the build to Hedges at one concert, then going to a second concert where Hedges demoed the now-completed instrument prior to his soundcheck.  That concert must have occurred sometime before Healdsburg, because what I didn’t know before was that Hedges played it again at Healdsburg, immediately after which it sold.  This strikes me as very curious, since, as Lance described in his post, Hedges had previously turned down the offer at a concert just before he went out on tour, and that this was the tour he was killed on the way home from.  So was Healdsburg a part of that tour?  Two McCollum owners (Jost and Hartman) mentioned Hedges stopping by at Healdsburg and playing.

Update 12/18/13: And here, finally, is a photo of that occasion:

Michael Hedges, with McCollum harp guitar no. 1, August, 1997

Something seems off; perhaps it was not at a Hedges concert (Lance referred to it as a “show” with soundcheck and intermission), but at Healdsburg where a one-time Hedges try-out of the McCollum HG#1 took place?  Regardless of the specifics (which would still be nice to resolve), we can safely say that David Borbas remains the sole owner of not only the original “prototype” McCollum harp guitar, but the only one that Michael Hedges ever touched.

The Hedges/McCollum harp guitar story became a bit more confusing when I was informed by Dr. David Hartman that he owned “the last harp guitar that Michael Hedges ordered but died before he could take possession.”  This was “per McCollum before he died.”

Well, that would fit Lance’s posted story that Hedges planned to order one when he returned from tour if HG#1 sold (which, in fact, it had, immediately after Hedges walked away from his impromptu Healdsburg demo). But sadly, he never got a chance to order one, nor did Lance begin building an HG#2 intended for him.  When Dr. Hartman sent me this photo of the label, it clearly states “Custom made for Steve Jost” (this one has a serial number of 88, which I assume means that Lance had built 40 other guitars between HG#1 and HG#2…which seems a lot).

Steve recently added more clarity, telling me: “Lance originally built a prototype harp guitar for the 1997 Healdsburg Guitar Festival. Michael Hedges stopped by and played it (I have a picture). A doctor in San Francisco bought it (GM: he’s referring to Dave Hartman, who bought it in Dec 2007 via Steve’s eBay listing). Michael wanted to have a custom harp guitar built but was concerned that it would change the direction of his current music.  In the end, his passing ended that (potential) project.  I commissioned Lance in January 1998 to build the second harp guitar (which) was all custom to my specs. He built less than 5 (harp guitars) in his total guitar build of around 300 before his untimely passing (I have 4 other McCollum guitars). I sold the harp guitar to Dave Hartman per my wife’s insistence since I had booked an expensive fly fishing trip to Chile. I was going to have Lance build another, but his passing ended that project.” (Steve Jost)

Steve’s HG#2 (per his specs) also has 5 sub-basses and the same split bridge, but the two banks are significantly closer together – in fact, they seem close to Dyer spacing.  Steve must have expensive tastes, as Lance certainly upped the ante on the abalone decoration, along with the bear claw (Sitka?) top and koa back and sides.  Note that Lance did another solid carved bass headstock, but copied the Dyer “cloud” more closely this time.  He also managed to move the arm a bit out so that he could use all geared tuners.  He still had the “M,” rather than his whole name, in the headstock.

Second owner Dave says that it “sounds like a piano.”  From all that I’ve seen, this looks like the McCollum to hang on to (in fact, I’m sure I was one of the top underbidders on eBay, hoping for some prime Harp Guitar Music stock.  I’m still kicking myself, as this would clearly have been money in the bank…).

Referring back to Lance’s 2000 post, Steve Jost would likely be the first of the “two new McCollum harp guitar owners” he mentioned.  The other, whom he names, was Steve Rundell.  On his ReverbNation listing, we can see a glimpse of his instrument, which looks very much like #2.

Unfortunately, on his old CDBaby album listing, there was a cryptic reference that Steve “left us rather unexpectedly.”  If anyone knows more, please let us know.   For now, we know that his (HG#3) was built after HG#2 and before Lance’s post in Oct 2000.

There are two McCollum harp guitars left, and for the moment I’m going to guess that HG#4 is this one.  For no other real reason except that it still has a Dyer-shaped bass head.  Note that the headstock logo now says “McCollum.”  I’ve had this on the site awhile; some have mentioned a 12-string neck, but it’s actually a 14-string…or more accurately, a 7-course version of the 12-string guitar.  Six subs make it 20-strings total (and a 13-course instrument for sticklers like myself).  This must sound outrageous!  I don’t know who commissioned this one, so someone please help us find out (with the usual pics and specs, etc).  Note yet another different vine inlay, and that the subs are once again a bit away from the neck strings.

HG#5, then, might have been Lance’s last true harp guitar.  It is inscribed under the top “10/18/01” and is serial # H-178.  As far as this one’s provenance, we’re missing the original owner (if anyone knows, please let us know!).  It was eventually sold through Uncle Kit’s Pickin’ Parlor (Kit does not have records on the original owner) to Brian Mikiten (“I purchased it in 2009 and learned a few Michael Hedges tunes on it before realizing that I needed to focus more on mandolin and guitar.”), who traded it in 2011 to the current owner, Randall Sprinkle.

This is the one I mentioned last week that Kathy Wingert plans to “re-model” in order to add a 6th sub-bass while changing (what one might call “improving”) the spacing.  It has walnut back and sides, somewhat more sedate and classy trim, a new bass head design, and a unique sound port on the corner of the arm. The subs are again quite separated and a bit more clustered, while also further away from the neck strings.

UPDATE: Kathy’s conversion is complete! This is how HG#5 looks today (Randall still owns it, but is trying to sell):

Knowing so much more now just how unique and irreplaceable these five harp guitars are, I am frankly stunned that in two years this instrument has not sold (if Lance were alive and had just built this, I imagine its price would probably be almost double).  But it’s not my decision.  Again, if this story inspires you, and you have a bit of extra cash (“Is there a doctor in the house?!” comes to mind, looking at some of the owner demographic…), this is last call to acquire McCollum HG#5 in original configuration. Its many unique features (c’mon, that sound port!) can be seen on my Harp Guitar Music listing.

Are there more McCollum harp guitars out there?  I almost hate to close the book on this…it’d be nice to think that there’s an “undiscovered” instrument out there.  And it’s hard to believe that Lance built five in as many years, then none in his final eight years.  He did build at least two double-necks (12 & 6), like the one he’s holding here at the 1998 Acoustic Guitar Festival in San Rafael, CA.

And there is this interesting “fretted harp guitar” he built for Anthony Sandi, which seems to be part harp guitar, part double-neck!

To re-cap, our Work-in-process McCollum Harp Guitar Archive consists of:

HG#1 (ser.# 47, c.1997): The “prototype” he showed Hedges at 1997 Healdsburg – purchased and still owned by Dr. David Borbas of San Francisco. (Mahogany, 5+6, vine inlay, Dyer-ish headstock)

HG#2 (ser.# 88, 1998): Custom ordered in January 1998 by Steve Jost.  Sold on eBay in December 2007 to Dr. David Hartman. (Koa, 5+6, fancier vine inlay, more Dyer-like headstock)

HG#3 (ser.# ?, c.1999-2000): Built for Steve Rundell before Oct 2000. (5+6, like HG#2 w/o vine)

HG#4 (ser.# ?): Built for ?, Date? (6+7×2, sunburst, vine inlay)

HG#5 (ser.# H-178, 2001): Original owner unknown, sold through Uncle Kit’s Pickin’ Parlor to Brian Mikiten in 2009, then to Randall Sprinkle, listed at Harp Guitar Music in 2011, currently with Kathy Wingert for re-configure.

Before I close, a quick postscript regarding Michael Hedges’ Dyer.  I’m sure all interested players and builders remember that Hedges didn’t play a 5-bass Dyer, but a six-bass with the last hole plugged – as noted in my article and blog.  This actually results in a “custom” Dyer string spacing for the five sub-bass notes for “Because It’s There” and other tunes.  I also read on that old Google Group thread that someone saw him play all his tunes in concert on his Gibson one time (the Dyer being unavailable?).  It would be interesting to know how he strung that, let alone how he could play it like a Dyer (I assume he had pickups that got the thing to sound great).  Because that versatility makes me think of another eyewitness report (on the Nomad site?) about how in concert Hedges would play a 6-bass Dyer tune, then, while doing something on regular 6-string, his guitar tech would remove one of the sub-basses so that Hedges would not become confused when he next played “B.I.T” or some similar 5-bass tune.  Apparently, this string went back on and back off every night!  Was this his second reported Dyer?  Or the “original” Style 4?  I ask because while researching for this article, I stumbled upon an exhibit held just last year that included Hedges’ harp guitar (did any of you see it?).

You can clearly see that it is his old plugged-hole Style 4, but now it has the 6th bass installed!  Aren’t there major Hedges geeks out there that know about this stuff?  Where is his guitar tech or friends that know these details, and why do I (who am a fan, but not a fanatic) seem to be the only one asking?

Again, this is relatively recent and fresh history.  Why not actually finish the research and archive and tribute to both Michael Hedges and Lance McCollum?  Hey, I consider myself very marginally in the loop of either of their careers, and I just wrote 3500 words (and having finished, am now going to raise a glass and toast the memory of these gentlemen).

Your turn…

Thanks to the following for photos and/or information: David Borbas, David Hartman, Steve Jost, Brian Mikiten, Randall Sprinkle, Kathy Wingert