In 2011, one of the participants at HGG9 (the 9th Harp Guitar Gathering) was Michael Lohr, who had come all the way from Germany. He had gotten the bug after seeing Stephen Bennett and soon bought one of the China Holloways, which he brought with him. He fit our group like a glove, had a great time, and we all appreciated him as well. I had hoped we’d see him again, but so far, no luck.
I subsequently learned that he was a writer for the German magazine Akustik Gitarre, and that he was anxious to spread the harp guitar gospel over there. My memory’s a bit foggy on all this, but apparently we talked quite a bit, and, after going home with some CDs, including that year’s HGM release Further Beyond Six Strings, Michael later “interviewed” me at length in follow-up emails. Soon after, Michael submitted a lengthy article (including a short CD review) to his editors…
…and eventually forgot all about it, as did I.
Cut to December 2016, when my friend and harp guitar builder Steve Sedgwick told me I was profiled in the German AG! (Issue Dec 16/Jan 17 below)
Yes, they apparently pulled it out of storage and finally published it. Hey, at least it’s within the same decade, so I considered it great PR. And still do so now another year later, as I expect few in the U.S. ever saw it. Michael gave/gives a good overview of the instrument’s history and resurgence, while providing a “Cliff Notes” version of my personal HG journey within and outside the Gathering. I’m especially relieved that all this didn’t turn out to be posthumous.
The alluded-to follow-up piece was supposed to then have gone into the pipeline but never appeared (yet!). Here is a PDF of the original article in German which I was asked to hold off on posting, and below is Michael’s English translation done specially for us (which I’ve cleaned up as best I could). Thanks, Michael, and thanks Akustik Gitarre!
Vielsaitig (a spelling pun to invent the word “multi-stringed” …I’m told Germans will get it…)
The first thing you notice is the case – the sheer size. Next a mumble through the room: Stephen Bennett has put his Dyer replica in his lap – such a perfectly shaped, hyper string instrument seen by only a few before, gigantic and still indescribably elegant. Then the man begins to play. A clear, round sound of steel strings fills the room with an almost tangible vibration of the soundboard, subtly beautiful yet all pervasive reaching every corner – gigantic, indescribable, elegant.
For centuries, experimenting luthiers have tried to increase the tonal range and harmonic potential of stringed instruments. The results have often been impressive – visually and acoustically. The fanciful and fantastic Renaissance and Baroque lutes reached legendary status; examples from the last 40 years or so alone are Lenny Breau’s seven string guitars, the eight and ten string guitars of Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Hunter’s eight string Novax with fanned frets in the electric guitar area. Yet, none emit such great fascination as that truly divine sub-genre of guitars: the harp guitar with freely vibrating (sub-bass) strings which do not run across a fretboard and thus cannot be fretted at all (“floating strings”).
Being the common denominator, this is how the “Pope of the Harp Guitar”, the American musician, producer and label-owner Gregg Miner defines them. The harp reference of the English description, going back to about 1920, refers not only to the tonal character that unites the guitar and the harp; it suggests a higher quality and thus appears much more attractive than those – inadvertent – verbal devaluations as “Schrammel guitar” (“Schrammel” has a trash/garbage connotation apart from referring to the brothers Schrammel) or the unwieldiness of the “Kontraguitar”.
Builders and Enthusiasts
Miner’s dedication to the harp guitar is really just a by-product of his life-long passion for unusual stringed instruments. But, when there occurs the festival called The Harp Guitar Gathering every year in the USA since 2003, it too comes back to him. Positively mad collectors like him have scoured every backwater in the USA – music shops, clubs, thrift shops and estate sale, as the objects of desire are usually found covered in dust under precarious circumstances in garages or attics, having not been played for decades.
Harp guitars have fallen out of fashion together with the music for which they were originally intended; their purpose being filled more cheaply and easily by other types of guitar. Gregg Miner is brilliantly prepared as he, by invitation of Stephen Bennett at the first Harp Guitar Gathering, lectures on the instruments of the legendary builder Chris Knutsen. As he reaches the mid-point of his presentation after two hours without having bored anyone, every participant knows: Here we have an eternal theme. We have to repeat this event and make Miner our historian – a role that perhaps the two harp guitar scholars Stephen Sedgwick (he himself a first-rate harp guitar builder) and John Doan (harp guitar virtuoso and expert advisor for harp guitar builders) might have filled. Gregg Miner takes on the task with an open question: What really constitutes a harp guitar? As he imagines this being the end of the story, a more practical problem arises: Where to put the results? Thus, the birth of www.harpguitars.net was signalled in 2004, from which an inexhaustible fountain of everything to do with the instrument seeded and grew exponentially; here an abundance of serious information combined with a unique feast for the eyes of every guitar fan. What was previously just for the few connoisseurs is now on its way to becoming a broader movement and an inspiration of musicians worldwide, who were previously playing with six strings and are now discovering the potential: Present and future of the harp guitar appears to be booming with new luthiers, guitar models and instrumentalists.
The Historical Development
Even from the past a lot of new things come to light fitting Miner’s present and broadest definition of the harp guitar. America has known the harp guitar for a 100 years but in other places and other times it developed differently. As far back as around 1650 there were obscure guitars like the lute which had its extra bass strings – for which there was even music written. To get a deeper tone with the string technology of the time they were limited to using long (gut) strings thus the lengthy construction. A century later some experimented with a completely different theorboed guitar concept until a much more enduring wave began around 1820 with romantic guitarists experimenting with one or more extra strings. In the 1850s the famous Makarov contest for guitarists and luthiers spawned a long row of harp guitar-like instruments but not much additional thought went into them. It was a guitar. Period.
As the possibility of simply drawing a string across the fingerboard was not used, floating strings became the preferred method of achieving deeper tones – just like the lutes centuries before. In the 1880s the German and Austrian luthiers came to the fore again as “Schrammel music” appeared, in order to play some Strauss waltzes. Their so-called kontraguitars were basically harp guitars with seven, nine or eleven sub bass strings that in practice covered the complete chromatic range, to make a piano-like backing possible. In Vienna, for instance, the instrument never disappeared but stayed a continuous part of traditional music for 120 years.
To Miner, America appears to have been relatively late with the first harp guitar wave. Like other contemporary guitar factories, C.F. Martin built one or two such instruments around 1860. To the famous founder who already knew the European guitar builders, the instrument wasn’t unusual; they just waited for customers for it. The demand wasn’t there until an immigration wave from Germany, Italy and other countries with a harp guitar tradition set in. At first Chicago was the center of harp guitars with a good dozen luthiers around 1890, familiar as well as obscure and with the now legendary: the Larsons and Knutsens.
From Orchestra Accompaniment to Solo Instrument
The Dyers built by the Larsons were particularly popular and remained so even when Gibson, who conquered every niche of the guitar market, also offered a harp guitar. These guitars were used in vaudeville as well as by amateurs at home or in mandolin clubs. Up until 1930 they were so prevalent that [specialist] magazines rarely ever mentioned them anymore. Their method of playing not at all: As a preferred accompanying instrument, from duos across larger ensembles up to actual orchestras, they were mostly played in a “boom-chick-boom-chick” style (“boom” here means one sub bass string and the “chick” the strumming of a chord on the guitar strings), which has also been recorded in the only existing film clip of a historic harp guitar player named Eddie Peabody. Thus, the wave of American harp guitars provided all sorts of groups with a guitar and bass for all the increase in volume they could muster to be heard within a band up to the beginning of the 20th century.
Then they disappeared. First the mandolin orchestras perished; then came amplified and louder guitars on the market: first the mechanically amplified resonator guitars, then the electric. The accompaniment function of the harp guitar had survived and music had hardly even been specifically written for it as they were never intended for virtuoso guitar playing. Only a handful of guitar players – no finger style players among them – had understood the tonal potential of the harp guitar. The best guitarists simply didn’t approve of steel strings.
This, however, was grotesquely underestimated at the time. A Dyer not only sounds louder than a six-string steel-strung guitar, the difference resembles that of an upright and a grand piano. Through the sub-basses the tonal register is extended by a complete octave downwards, which had quite an effect in tone, resonance and loudness. The tone is present, pervasive and permeating; the basses always resonate [with the rest of the strings]. Especially with the Dyer style construction, the resonance chamber enlarged by the arm beneath the sub-basses contributes with a fascinating depth and power. No accolade ever befell the luthiers for that; to even recognise their work at all bordered a miracle.
Of the ever increasing number of harp guitar players since then, 90% play – at least at the Harp Guitar Gatherings – Dyer-related hollow arm steel strung instruments, to which more instruments are added every year. And it resounds predominantly with well-composed virtuoso fingerstyle guitar in the tradition of the legendary Windham Hill label. However, every method and style are welcome. With great interest, Gregg Miner heard that a German named Antonio Koudele released a solo harp guitar CD with track titles such as “Take Five” and “Samba Pa Ti”. Harp guitar aficionados are, according to Gregg Miner, almost exclusively eminently creative, tolerant mates with a heartfelt humour, who participate first and foremost to celebrate and support everything to do with harp guitars: “It is fun, there is lots to laugh about and great music!”
Last, the now three fantastic harp guitar samplers entrench the scene that has developed around the Harp Guitar Gatherings. “Beyond Six Strings” with people like Stephen Bennett and Andy McKee – whose harp guitar clips on Youtube have gotten millions of hits – inspiring guys who then appeared on the aptly named “Harp Guitar Dreams” follow-up anthology. And for “Further Beyond Six Strings” the slogan was “Record your best, most virtuoso harp guitar piece from your repertoire!” The result? See below.
Expect the best: In the second instalment in the coming issue, we present some of the extraordinary and rare instruments of Gregg Miner’s collection in more detail.
(Page 38 sidebar) Current Production: Various Artists: Further Beyond Six Strings (2011, Harp Guitar Music)
Saying it up front: This can’t be done much better. More than a dozen harp guitar players on completely different and partly very innovative instruments can be heard here, including established artists like Muriel Anderson, Stephen Bennett and Don Alder, as well as more or less unknown artists who deliver nothing less. Mostly they each deliver their own well-seasoned, quiet impressionistic guitar so cleanly that you quickly become absorbed while staying high above the wellness-inducing but empty new age doodlings – through lovely melodies, natural timbres and stringently well composed themes. Technical/stylistic development of the harp guitar is evident in the breath-taking percussive groove of Don Alder’s “Blue Shift Principle”. But this title also, sounding like Don Ross playing to the power of three [cubed], fits well with this album of heavenly beauty, thanks to its melodiousness. Roughly so, must it sound like this in Guitar Paradise.