Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

America’s First True Harp Guitar

by Gregg Miner. July, 2007

This is an updated version of my Winter, 2006 Guitarmakers article entitled “The First True Harp Guitar.”  Missing from the printed article were the footnotes, without which some of the critical context, supporting evidence and reasoning (and humor - this is supposed to be fun, after all) was lacking.  Additionally, I was able to finally obtain two clues pertaining to the use of the “harp guitar” term abroad before the appearance of the American instrument featured below.  Thus I changed my title, which was, and is still, meant to read as a semantic riddle.  And what exactly then do I mean to imply by this statement?

First of all, it will help if readers are already familiar with my long-winded dissertation “What is a Harp Guitar?” published in the Historical section of Harpguitars.net.  In it, I attempt to define - for the first time, and hopefully once and for all - what delineates a harp guitar, as we use the term today.[1]  There are loads of factors in deciphering why certain instruments can be considered harp guitars and others not.  Likewise, there are reasons (some valid, many misguided) why most harp guitars were (and are still) called by other names, and why some well-known historical instruments labeled “harp-guitars” are something else entirely.  Confused? Understandable, and unfortunately we won’t be able to resolve it in this article.

The simplest, bottom-line modern definition of a “true” harp guitar (meaning my modern typology or classification term) that I can give you is this:

A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.

To elaborate; the word "harp" is now a specific reference to the unstopped open strings, and is not specifically a reference to the tone, pitch range, volume, silhouette similarity, construction, floor-standing ability, nor any other alleged "harp-like" properties.  A true harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard.[2]  Further, while these open strings may sympathetically resonate, they are meant to be played.  Beyond that, literally almost anything goes regarding construction, form, stringing and tuning.

The Hansen Harp-Guitar

So far so good?  Then let us move on to our featured instrument: Hans J. Hansen’s harp-guitar, made in Chicago and patented in 1891.[3]  It clearly qualifies according to the current definition, thus it is a “true” harp guitar (ergo its use in the title).  So what do I mean then by “first”?  Surely there were other harp guitars throughout the world before this instrument was built (yes, many thousands).  No, it is not the instrument, it is the name.  The noteworthy feature of this instrument is that – it was the first true harp guitar to actually be called a harp guitar.[4]

A problematic paradox of the whole study and discussion of harp guitars is that none of the earlier instruments ever actually used the term.[5]  Even now, they are only slowly being thought of as harp guitars, by those accepting of my proposal to retroactively apply the currently accepted definition of the last hundred years to instruments of the preceding centuries (when there was no need or concern for classification).  As this is still an uphill battle, I was glad to find that Hansen used the name both in his patent and on the labels in his instruments.  Why he chose to use the term, and whether it had been applied to these instruments prior to his patent is a remaining question, which future discoveries may answer.[6]

America did have some earlier true harp guitars, but these were known by other names.  For example, a circa 1860 instrument made by C. F. Martin was simply called a “ten-string guitar” – as it would have originally been called in Vienna.  The only American patent depicting a true harp guitar to precede Hansen’s (# 421,033 by Arling Shaeffer) contained no mention of the term.  It was what I categorize as a “Form 4” harp guitar, with harp strings attached at both ends to the body.  The closest it came to the proper name was in an ad, labeling it a “guitar…with harp attachment.”  Close, but no cigar.  The fact that it did not have any floating sub-bass strings has no bearing on our discussion (it is a common misconception that all harp guitars have extra bass strings. While by far the most common, there have long been other forms).

Just five short years after Hansen, another American (transplanted from Norway ), Chris Knutsen, would create his infamous “one-arm” guitars, which he shortly began advertising as “harp-guitars.”  While this is hugely important provenance – establishing for the first time, and for all time, the term “harp guitar” for hollow-arm instruments like the well-known Dyer – Hansen still had Knutsen beat in the nomenclature department by several years.  Equally important, Hansen had applied the term to an alternate type of harp guitar; a form of “theorboed guitar” with hints of a double neck (the supporting column) – not all that dramatically different in concept from Scherzer’s 1856 Viennese ten-string harp guitar (eventually known colloquially as a bassgitarre).  When we consider an 1893 patent for yet another “harp-guitar” (Abelspies, # 497,939) – this one with 11 mid-range strings in a sort of harp frame – we come to the realization that somehow all of these instruments (and ultimately many other forms) were able to appropriate the name “harp-guitar” for vernacular use - even though they were very different in visual, conceptual and structural design – let alone stringing and tuning!  In retrospect, the potential mass confusion created by these turn-of-the-last-century American harp guitar inventors actually simplified and generalized the term.  How?  Because inadvertently they caused a situation where now the open “harp” strings, whether floating sub-basses or other stringing arrangements, had become the common denominator defining a true harp guitar.[7]

I have to give Knutsen credit for working his magic seemingly in a vacuum in the Pacific Northwest.  In contrast, Chicago was Harp Guitar City.  After Hansen’s entry, other makers and firms soon jumped in – Bohmann, Lyon & Healy/Washburn, Regal (the original Wulschner Regal), and a host of others.  Many of these Chicago instruments are known or suspected to have been built by the famous Larson brothers (who built the aforementioned Dyers); obscure brands like Leland, May Flower and H.F.Meyers.  It is possible (in fact, I am hoping) that specific dates concerning these many other instruments and the nomenclature used for them will slowly be unearthed.  So far, of those known to have used the term “harp-guitar,” none seem to have been as early as Hansen (Bohmann used it by 1895, May Flower about 1901, and Gibson’s famous harp-guitars would be introduced about 1903).[8]

The Patent

Patent # 459,932 was filed on Feb 3, 1891 and granted on Sept 22.  As stated earlier, the Hansen patent contains the first documented American use of the term “harp-guitar” to actually refer to a true harp guitar.  Even the most unusual instrument patents invariably were simply titled “Musical Instrument,” “Guitar” or, if especially descriptive, “Stringed Instrument.”  It was left to delving through the often mind-numbing text for clues as to what the inventor was proposing to call his instrument.  Most often, the patents are insufficient, and the only option is to locate advertising material or a specimen with a label.  So I tip my hat to H. J. Hansen, who kindly provided both!  His patent clearly states “to be called a ‘harp-guitar’.”   In addition, the extant specimen has a very faded, but exquisite label which reads:

H. J. Hansen’s
Patented Sept 22 ‘91
Chicago , Ill. U.S.A.

And not only to we have proof positive about what a harp guitar was in 1891, Hansen even helped defined it for us!  His patent mentions the fact that the sub-bass strings are plucked (important only because there are still some today who think sub-bass strings were only added for sympathetic vibration), and also states: “….bass strings, from 1 to 6 in number.”  It had taken me many weeks of soul-searching and hitting-the-books before I came to this same conclusion - committing to the idea that just one floating bass string can (and must) qualify a guitar as a harp guitar.  I don’t think anyone had previously discovered or recognized that Hansen had attempted to establish the obvious all along!  If this doesn’t get the hesitant argumentative scholars and organologists off my back, I suppose nothing will.[9]

The patent has several features, but the two key features are the bass “harp strings” and a non-pin bridge to eliminate drilling holes through the guitar’s top.

The Specimen

Besides its historical importance, this is one rare guitar!  The only Hansen instrument I have ever seen or heard of, it was acquired by Intermountain Guitar & Banjo in Salt Lake City in the spring of 2005 (if anyone can find a harp guitar, they can).  It is wonderful and unique in many ways.  Right off the bat, it’s obvious that Hansen very accurately followed his patent – or perhaps the reverse, the patent being drawn from this actual instrument (it’s surprising how many patents were not only obviously created before-the-fact, but were even technically un-producible).

The instrument has four harp strings like the patent, suggesting that this was Hansen’s preferred number of sub-basses.  I tune them in descending order D, C, B & A, a standard tuning for “ten-string guitars” (harp- or otherwise).  The bass headstock design is unique and quite attractive, supported by a square wooden post reminiscent of those on fancier concert zithers.  

The main headstock is a fascinating three-dimensional affair, unlike anything I have seen before.  With Brazilian rosewood back and sides and exquisite soundhole inlay consisting of an intricate design of pearl, ebony and delicate purfling, this is quite a fancy instrument.  And all in all very classy, until Hansen gets to the fingerboard, with its rather ostentatious pearl inlays.  Looking at all the intricate and varied purflings and inlays, one can imagine Hansen ordering from one of those wonderful and exhaustive 1800’s German guitar materials catalogs like a kid in a candy store.  Other motifs on the instrument are rather nice, like the headstock inlay and celluloid Cupid with horn on the pillar.

It is not known if Hansen built instruments himself or contracted someone else to do so. Guitar expert Frank Ford (who photographed the instrument) opined that the craftsmanship, and especially symmetry, of the body suggests that Hansen likely commissioned one of the better Chicago guitar factories to produce his custom instrument.  Though tied-on (and therefore gut) strings are specifically mentioned in the patent, this instrument is extremely well-built, with offset X-bracing.  I have it strung with silk & bronze strings and it plays and sounds quite lovely.

The Provenance

In my thirty-plus years of research, I have found nomenclature and classification to be a very inexact science.  On the other hand, I suppose we’re lucky that it has never become an exact science – it would be pretty awkward if musical instrument organology was held to the same “first name” rule that ruined “Brontosaurus” for so many school children (and me).[10]   The sidebar below contains two good examples that illustrate how inventor’s names for their instruments can sometimes cause future confusion.

For us to stay apace, I believe we need to research, discuss and categorize these instruments that were built one, two or three hundred years ago not only from their historical perspective, but in context with the whole of history, up to the present day.  The historical inventors and builders couldn’t have predicted the duration of their creations’ musical lifetimes, nor imagined what might come centuries later.  Nor is it easy, or sometimes even possible, for modern researchers to obtain all the necessary analytical clues from the past.  Hansen’s 1891 instrument is a compelling piece of nomenclature provenance that should help tie the harp guitar’s past and present - and increasingly bright future - together.

When is a Harp Guitar Not a Harp Guitar?  

These two instruments illustrate the problem with classification when A) inventors create new musical instrument variants with their own somewhat arbitrary names, B) these “novelties” fail to sustain interest and then become obsolete, and C) the names are reused by future generations for completely different instruments.

In 1798, London organist Edward Light invented a “harp-guitar” that was the first phase of a group of decorative instruments now collectively known as harp-lutes.  His first instrument revisited the open C tuning of the English guitar (a type of parlor cittern) on an instrument with a unique new body shape (roughly triangular with a rounded bottom) and a round or staved back like a harp (in place of a flat back and sides).  However, the “harp” part of the name referred not so much to the construction as to the “harp-like tone,” which Light claimed to be superior to available guitars of the time.  It had eight strings, all of which were fretted.  Ironically, his next instruments added floating strings, and were actually played like small “true” harp guitars.  Though a similar French guitare-harpe surfaced in the 1820’s, Light’s own harp-guitar had been replaced by his successive instruments, culminating in the almost completely harp-like dital harp.  All these instruments disappeared fairly quickly after about 1830, though they are ubiquitous in museum collections.

This harp-guitar is unmarked, and likely not one of Edward Light’s own instruments (which were made by Barry).
Barry (and several others) made their own versions as well.

In Philadelphia, transplanted Dane Ernest Scherr patented his “harp-guitar” in 1831, and again, it bears no resemblance to anything before or since.  It had the normal six strings of a guitar on a fairly standard neck, but rather than having a guitar body one could hold in the lap, his body tapered into a single hollow leg that rested on the floor.  Though this floor-standing, upright aspect might appear to be apparent inspiration for the name, again, only the tone was given as explanation for the use of the word “harp.”  Undoubtedly, you’ve noticed the recurring theme here.  In past times, any instrument claiming to have superior tone was invariably compared to the harp.  There are several other examples of these “Harp Guitars in Name Only” on Harpguitars.net.

Photos by Frank Ford (Light harp-guitar by Gregg Miner)

[1]  To fully absorb my “thesis,” you’ll need at least an open 3-day weekend and a good strong pot of coffee.  Then, assuming you get through it, you’ll need to call me so we can further discuss the particulars and go through all those tedious but essential footnotes (for which I will need my own pot of coffee).

[2]  Notice that I didn't say "lying off the neck."  While the majority of harp guitars have their sub-bass harp strings lying well off the neck, some, such as those by Lacôte, are positioned directly over an unfretted portion of a single neck.

[3]  To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?  Both are acceptable spellings, and may be considered interchangeable.  In truth, “harp-guitar” (with a hyphen) is more traditional, having provenance in most cases by the inventors, manufacturers and distributors who described their instruments (admittedly with random and inconsistent exceptions).  At some point in the last couple decades, writers, players and aficionados started dropping the hyphen (perhaps an aesthetic choice?).   As I was just about the only guy on the planet adhering to the hyphen, I finally gave in – using “harp guitar” in all but certain specific instances.

[4]  At least in America, and as of this writing.

[5]  Original terms for instruments I now classify as harp guitars (translated into English) include: theorboed guitar, bass guitar, contra guitar, contrabass guitar, “bow” guitar, Schrammel guitar, and in many cases, simply 7-, 8-, or 10-string guitar.

[6]  Foreign language equivalents of the term “harp-guitar” (most often German, as in gitarrenharfe) have been used for certain true harp guitars built long before 1891, but to my knowledge, there is no provenance attached to any of them – only a later applied term by a museum curator or scholar.  Nor have I discovered any earlier non-American harp guitar patents or catalog references. 

The closest we come is a reference found by Russian guitar historian Oleg Timofeyev.  In an 1871 Russian ad for Mark Sokolovsky's concert this statement appears: "2. Duet na russkie motivy ("Chem tebia ia ogorchila" i final "Po ulitse mostovoi") soch. Sora, isp. na dvukh arf-gitarakh g. Sokolovsky and g. Shokhin."   Timofeyev translates this as: "a duet on two Russian songs ("How did I upset you" and the finale "Along the street"), comp[osition] by F. Sor, to be performed on two harp-guitars by Mr. Sokolovsky and Mr. Shokhin."  I would agree that this is indeed an earlier use of "harp-guitar" - the $1000 question is where did the term come from?  From one of the two performers?  The ad writer?  The builder of either of the instruments?  Were these doubleneck "bass guitars" – as typically used in Russia - or hollow arm instruments?  If the former, were they now known in Russia as harp guitars - or was this a one-time occurrence? 

Even more striking is the 1848 appearance in Europe of the term Harfengitarre – which appears in a review of a performance by Mertz in reference to a guitar with four extra bass strings.  This incredibly important clue comes from Alex Timmerman (Ivan Padovec, 1800-1873 and His Time, p.119).  The form of instrument is not known, and Timmerman speculates that it "could well have been a prototype of the ten-string 'Bogengitarre' ('Bow-guitar') later developed and built by Friedrich Schenk."  Timmerman brings up an excellent point.  As the “theorboed” Staufer and Scherzer style of harp guitar would later be colloquially referred to as “bass guitars” (a term Timmerman and others steadfastly adhere to), it is logical to look for another instrument candidate, and the hollow-arm bogengitarre is a good one.  “Bogen” (“bowed” or “arched”) refers to the hollow arm extension; coincidentally, Knutsen would refer to his very similar 1896 American invention as a “harp frame” or “harp shape.”  It is indeed tempting to postulate this scenario, even though it would make our naming conventions – and much of my organological premise – much more difficult to investigate and organize! (i.e.: implying a possible historical convention of vernacular naming separation between two main forms of harp guitars: the Schenk-type hollow-arms and the Scherzer-type theorboed/double-neck instruments).  Until we are able to resolve this key question – which may be never – we can only make readers and researchers aware of it.  The other important part of this provenance – whichever instrument it referred to – is where the term came from.  Did the reviewer invent it?  Or was it announced by Mertz or in the program as a harfengitarre?  Unless we can trace this provenance down, we can’t really consider this a “formal” historical term, and so far it appears to be the only reference in Western Europe throughout the entire 19th century.  This is fascinating and important history here, as we continue to search for the real "first true harp guitar"!

[7]  I know – it gets tricky because Knutsen also made hollow-arm guitars with no extra strings, which he would also call “harp-guitars” - just as Dyer would later call their hollow-arm mandolins “harp-mandolins.” While accepting the validity of this historical name, we must be careful to clarify these as pseudo harp guitars or hollow-arm guitars for purposes of more precise modern classification.

[8]  Even through the 1920s many Chicago makers chose to call their harp guitars by other names, such as Doubleneck guitar, 12-string guitar, and Bass or Contra Guitar (from the popular European term for the instruments).  I personally deem all these names inappropriate and detrimentally confusing, in light of the many later, more popular, instruments which utilized these specific names much more logically (e.g.: true double-necks with both necks fretted and played normally, common 6-course Stella-style 12-string guitars, 6-string contra guitars tuned an octave lower, and of course the now-standard bass guitar, as in the Fender-introduced instruments).

[9]  I’m teasing (and baiting) my fellow scholars here.  We “agree to disagree” and only argue because we care.  Actually, there might be one or two who may never even agree to disagree….such is life.

[10]  “Brontosaurus” was discovered decades later to be the same as a previously named dinosaur – the very un-Flintstones-like Apatosaurus - which the beast must now be called.

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