What is a Harp Guitar?

The Definitive Organology of Historical and Modern Harp Guitars and Related Instruments

by Gregg Miner

Updated December 2020

News flash!  “Harp-guitar” is officially a new organological term.  In December 2014 The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Second Edition) was published.  It contains the first valid sanctioned entry for the instrument we now know as the harp guitar (authored by myself).  At 500 words, it provides a simple but effective snapshot of this instrument.  For those more serious about this topic, the detail below should keep you busy for some time!

I was also asked to proof, edit, or in some cases completely re-write other related Grove entries (“Bissex,” “Guitarpa,” “Harp-lute,” “Harpolyre,” “Edward Light,” "Lyre Guitar," and “Angelo Ventura”).

For the layperson looking for the short answer of "What is a Harp Guitar?," here it is in a nutshell (from Definition 14 below):

  • A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional "floating" unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking
  • The modern harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard; these unfretted strings are played as an open string
  • The word "harp" is 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.

This, of course, is an oversimplification, and only one of a dozen historical definitions of the term, but describes the family of instruments that is the main focus and purpose of Harpguitars.net

For the layperson or general musical instrument researcher who is new to this topic, I highly recommend reading my short (4000 word), illustrated presentation “Harp Guitar”: What’s In a Name? (this is a password-protected document, requiring membership in Harpguitars.net)

Scholars interested in this complex topic should additionally read my full thesis below, including the essential footnotes. 

Note that I introduce and use countless times herein the phrase “true harp guitar,” meaning any instrument(s) fitting the above definition – not to signify anything “better” or “correct,” but simply to establish a means for the reader to understand which “harp guitar” type I am talking about.

What was the first harp guitar? Read my 2020 article to weigh the evidence for yourself. And don't forget the "psaltery" forms, as investigated in my 2013 Super-Trebles article.

Public Service Announcement
Wikipedia vs. Harpguitars.net - which do I believe?

If you found this page from a link in the "harp guitar" entry in Wikipedia, I applaud you.  Regardless of how you found this page, if you are a Wiki-believer, then there is probably little I can do change your habits.  I'm just one man (albeit with a worldwide reputation in this particular niche).  Wikipedia entries are constantly updated by multiple authors and "peer-reviewed."  Good luck with that.  If you're remotely suspicious of Wikipedia, read on, and thanks for visiting!


This is not a history of the “harp guitar” – something no one has yet attempted (including me) – but the first serious organological approach to these instruments.  Though it includes many historical elements, it is specifically intended to be an organization of the instruments into clearer and more logical groups.  Note that this system is just one way to address the classification of harp guitars.  So far, and since the creation of Harpguitars.net, it remains the only way that anyone has attempted to address the subject.  There are undoubtedly many ways, and no one way is necessarily best or “right.”  For example, alternate systems might be to organize these instruments either regionally or historically – this would keep German and Viennese instruments together, Knutsens with Dyers, etc.  However, I have chosen to organize by form – specifically, the conceptual methods for attaching extra "harp strings."  This proved to be the only way to answer accurately, and in fully encompassing detail for both the layperson and the scholar, “What is a harp guitar?"  

Since the publication of the first draft of my web thesis in April, 2004, my organization by “Form” with corresponding Photo Reference Galleries has proven not only fascinating, but useful to instrument owners, builders and researchers across the globe – from amateurs to museum professionals.  And that is exactly how I intended it.  However, the sheer number of historical (and now, modern) instruments took me by surpriseand since it continues to exponentially grow, I would like eventually like to clean up and better separate certain Galleries.  I fully realize that instruments are poorly organized in the Galleries, with many discrepancies (some of the material is from admittedly questionable sources).  But the basic system seems to be working enough for instruments to be located, studied and compared as a beginning to further research.  Of more importance is the fact that my definition for the now-largely-understood “harp guitar” and the vernacular use of the new organological term has come to be accepted worldwide, at all levels of interest and scholarship.  And this view has become independent of my site, our Harp Guitar Gatherings, or any musical trends or fashions.  In May, 2012, I successfully presented these points in a paper at the joint meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society and CIMCIM (the European equivalent).  And in December, 2014, The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Second Edition) was published, containing my own new sanctioned entry for the instrument we now know as the harp guitar“Harp-guitar” is officially a new organological term!

An important point as one reads through my following dissertation:
Harp guitars are never consistent in features, and are found under a wide variety of historical and contemporary names. Conversely, many unrelated historical instruments called "harp-guitars" were and are not what we now define as a harp guitar.  Organology (the classification of musical instruments) is rife with problems in addressing the often arbitrary or blatantly misleading names given to new instruments by their original makers and “inventors.”  Additionally, I long ago discovered that organology has not been remotely conducive to the changing world of new musical instrument development.  Luckily however, we are not locked in like natural scientists who must religiously adhere to a first "type" name.  In fact, with harp guitars and other still-evolving musical instruments, we must be open to both re-classification and re-naming. NOTE 1  Again, you may find these basic conundrums best explained in my new article “Harp Guitar”: What’s In a Name?

This dissertation consists of the following sections. They are best read and understood in sequence.
ETYMOLOGY, terminology and interpretation.
DEFINITIONS of the term "harp guitar."
A new organization of harp guitars and related instruments into FAMILIES & FORMS.
A FAMILY TREE including a PHOTO REFERENCE library.
A DISCUSSION of the topics
– throughout the presentation and in extensive Footnotes (click on "Note" to read, then use your browser "Back" key to return to main text).

Note to hardcore scholars: I readily acknowledge that I have not provided a detailed list of all specific sources.  Where not noted directly within the text, sources can be requested, though, as you can understand, many sources are the culmination of the careful analysis of the thousands of previously unpublished photos and research material collected and presented on this site.  See Bibliography for an incomplete list of a variety of print sources that may or may not be beneficial.


It immediately becomes clear that musical instrument reference material might be interpreted differently depending on what language the source material is in.  It is therefore important to note that this thesis is being presented as an English-language American study.  I'm sure we would see different conclusions from our German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, and even British counterparts.  So in researching the history of harp guitars and the various uses and combinations of the words "harp" and "guitar," we must also account for original terms first presented in other languages, and how best to accurately translate them.

Thus, the first phase of our study must necessarily begin with the very words "harp" and guitar." Not too difficult:

English old German modern German French Italian Spanish
harp Harfe Harfe harpe (arpe [indicative mode: arpi] in use in 1800s per Benoît Meulle-Stef) arpa arpa
guitar Guitarre Gitarre guitare chitarra guitarra

Additionally, we understand the basic instruments these two words refer to.  Things get a bit tricky, however, when we try to translate "harp-guitar."  Now, translation is not always literal, as individual specific or regional names for the instrument, along with all its relatives, come into play.  There is little precedent of anyone attempting to address this complex problem. The closest I've found so far is Curt Sachs' Real-Lexikon der Musikinstrumente, published in 1913. NOTE 2  Unfortunately, I found Sachs confusing, inaccurate and contradictory.  The following table lists all of his applicable entries: NOTE 2b

Sachs' nominal term (old German) Sachs' (old German) synonym Modern German Sachs' French Sachs' English
Guitarrenharfe Harfenguitarre Gitarrenharfe harpe-guitare, guitare-harpe harp-guitar
Bassguitarre Kontrabassguitarre Bassgitarre guitarre theorbee none given
Guitharfe (for a single specific instrument) none given n/a none given none given

Note Sachs' 1913 inclusion of "harp-guitar."  He provides many related entries, with Guitarrenharfe as the nominal term.  He lists Harfenguitarre as a synonym and harp-guitar (rather than "guitar-harp") as the English term.  What is especially noteworthy are the three definitions Sachs gives for the term.  He uses it to describe two strange early forms of true harp guitars – one of which he admits "has the best claim to the name" (see Definition 3 & 4 below).  But then he qualifies it by stating that the name is usually understood as referring to two of the Edward Light harp-lute instruments – but not Light's Harp-guitar! (see Definition 2 below) This is an outright error.  Sachs goes on to list Bassguitarre and Kontrabassguitarre (but not the more common (today) kontragitarre as separate entries without comparing them to either Guitarrenharfe or the Guitharfe.  They are explained simply as a Guitarre mit Bordunsaiten (guitar with bourdon ["low, drone"] strings).  At the end of this entry he gives the French equivalent as Guitarre theorbee, which seems sloppy, and also refers to the Bissex entry. NOTE 3   Yet another separate entry, Guitharfe, is the most confusing of all, and is discussed in the Definition Appendix below.  Thus, with Sachs providing separate entries and names for several historical variations (and yet only a tiny fraction of known instruments) on what I now classify as "true harp guitars," he helped establish the segregation, misleading names and confusion that remained unresolved until the present day.

Another important question (which comes up on several other instruments as well) is who assigned the "Guitarrenharfe" or "harp-guitar," name to the two true harp guitars Sachs lists.  The original makers?  Sachs?  The respective Museum collection curators? NOTE 4  Though I strongly suspect it is the latter, I still cannot say for certain who introduced the term, nor when.  Therefore, until someone comes forward with additional and better information, these entries must remain labeled as “No Provenance.”

More recent uses:

The 1966 5th Edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians includes no entry for harp guitar.  More unforgivably, the last Grove Music Online edition had only the entry, "see Harp-lutes".  There were brief mentions of Gibson and Dyer harp guitars, but that's all.  By 1992, Baines' The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments finally included three definitions for "harp-guitar": the Light instrument, the Scherr instrument, and Gibson's harp guitar. That's all.  But on the plus side, Baines now clarifies the Light instrument (supporting my own conclusions below) by listing it under the entry: 'Guitars' only in name. (It is equally important to point out that Baines, like I, does not consider the Edward Light harp-guitar a true “guitar”).  And of course, as of Dec, 2014, my new, sanctioned entry in The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Second Edition) finally sets things right.

Clearly, many American makers and musicians were commonly (but not unilaterally) referring to true harp guitars by that name by the 1900s. The earliest reference I have yet found is an 1890 ad for a Bohmann harp guitar, but the 1891 Hansen patent is of the greater significance; in his text he specifically labels his instrument a "harp-guitar." NOTE 5   After learning of this key provenance, I was lucky enough to obtain the sole known Hansen specimen (labeled), and subsequently did further research into the topic (see The First True Harp Guitar).  So far, Hansen's is the first proven use of the term that is accompanied by a corresponding image, description or specimen (and in this case, all three). NOTE 5b

Despite the cold and nebulous trail, we still have over a century of the vernacular use of the “harp guitar” to refer to the currently described instrument, the true harp guitar.

But is "harp guitar" the best and most proper term to now use?

For American instruments, certainly.  In fact, besides all the specific provenance shown in Note 5, we now have access to an almost complete run of the two most popular BMG (Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar) magazines, The Cadenza and Crescendo.  These demonstrate in issue after issue, for a couple of decades, that “harp guitar” was adopted as the common term, once key makers settled on the term (Dyer, then Gibson, along with smaller firms).

In Europe, the situation is more complicated, with very few historical makers ever using the term harp guitar, even though the instruments are little different than those in the States.  Their traditions started much earlier, and in general, the builders simply didn’t seem to have the need for marketing “gimmicks” that Americans were obsessed with.  The problems with considering any of these terms for an organological term are several fold, but important factors include the fact that many of the terms are poor, musically inaccurate, choices  (chosen by manufacturers or inventors, not by organologists), and also that they were more form-, music- or region-specific.  To address a key “elephant in the room,” the Viennese “bassgitarre” (today, often “kontragitarre”), let me refer the instrument’s proponents and the reader first to Note 6.  I would also like to make clear that I certainly agree that it is perfectly acceptable to use these terms as regional vernacular, in context of their history and continued regional use and popularity (and, of course, German language).  I do so myself.  As regards organological purposes, it should be easily understandable that while “harp guitar” can generically cover any guitar with floating plucked strings (high, low, mid, a combination), “bass guitar” cannot.  I.E: All kontragitarres are harp guitars, but not all harp guitars are kontragitarres.

Besides the hundred-plus years of provenance and established vernacular in America, there was already much concurrence (in the States, but also abroad) that “harp guitar” was an easily understood and logical name for a guitar with open, unfretted strings.  To modern aficionados, the strings (whether bass, treble or both) are visually similar to a harp’s strings, and, when plucked, utilize a more harp-like technique and produce a more “harp-like” tone.  However, it is not clear whether this was the original or predominant intention of the word as a descriptor.  In most of the evidence that I have seen, the makers and advertisers are comparing the tone of the harp guitar to the harp (which harp is another question!).  Occasionally they refer to a "deep tone," but very rarely the extended range.  Very little specific reference to the bass (or other) strings alone is made (as rationalization for the harp connotation), therefore the intended implication might have been that the instrument as a whole has a more "harp-like" "deep" and "resonant" tone. Whether this "tone" results from sympathetic vibration of the unstopped bass strings or from plucking them is usually unstated.  I have only found a very few specific references to plucking the bass strings, though I’m certain that that was the intentNevertheless, these references to "harp-like tone" do nothing but add further rationale for using the term "harp guitar" as the common name for this family of instruments. NOTE 6 

So far, so good?
Now...what about those extra strings?  Again, there are no consistent terms.  How shall we refer to them?

I looked at all the options: diapason (historically refers to the open, diatonically-descending bass strings of the lutes), bourdon (similar historical use, referring to a low, "buzzing" drone string – as in hurdy-gurdy, but also lutes and guitars), open, unstopped and unfretted.  Some of these terms simply don’t roll off the tongue.  Others do not cover all the options required for harp guitars – the sub-bass, super-trebles, and banks of diatonic, chromatic or chordal strings whose range may overlap that of the main neck.  Though I was hoping for a nice, one-word term (like "diapason"), I ultimately chose the obvious, so-simple-I-forgot-it, perfectly logical term: “harp strings." If we can agree on "harp guitar," why not the appropriate "harp strings" (understanding that these are specific strings for a harp guitar, not an actual harp)?  I thus use this term from here on in.

Another problematic term: I’ve been almost single-handedly pushing this for decades, but if we are to have a clear, accurate discussion of the scores of instruments on the present topic, we should use the term "course" in place of, or at least in addition to, "string." NOTE 6b  While I’m at it, let me make things even more difficult by suggesting that we must also now stop being complacent about misleading established names for other non-harp guitars. For instance, the common and popular “12-string guitar,” and the less common, but well-established in classical or “romantic” guitar circles, “10-string guitar” (and similar 7- or 8-string, all fully-fretted). We should be careful when discussing guitars such as these and consider adding additional descriptors – such as (respectively) “a 12-string guitar of the common steel-string 6-course, double-strung variety,” and “the 10-string guitar of ten single courses in (x) tuning.”  No matter how common some of these instruments may become in their own particular musical communities, there will always be new and future readers (recipients) of these terms who, without full context, may not understand when (for example) “twelve-string guitar” refers to a double-strung 6-course instrument or (more logically) a single-strung 12-course instrument.

DEFINITIONS of Harp Guitar (also spelled harp-guitar)

I have listed all that I am currently aware of in what I believe is the order of their introduction (Update, 2011: I have moved some of my original Definitions to a new Definition Appendix list for clarity).

Definition 1. Arpi-guitare (French)(No Provenance) an instrument built by Paquet (Pacquet) c.1784 in Marseilles.  The 7 strings pass over a fingerboard suspended in space on a harp-like extension, allowing the strings to attach to a guitar-like bridge in a harp-like fashion.  A true oddity, I haven't even tried to classify this one, but placed it in the "Harp Guitars" in Name Only Gallery.

Definition 2. Harp-Guitar, an instrument invented in London c.1798 by Edward Light.  Intended as a new "improved" decorative parlor instrument, with a simplified learning and playing technique facilitated by an "open C" tuning copied from the earlier English guitar (a type of cittern).  It was neither cittern, nor guitar, nor harp, but a new form of fretted instrument.  The original instrument had no unstopped strings.  It came in many roughly similar forms (such as the Apollo Lyre), and quickly evolved into the Harp-Lute-Guitar, then the Harp-Lute, and finally the British Lute-Harp, aka Dital Harp – and was produced and re-imagined by several different makers.  In 1814, an altered, and later, “improved” harp-guitar (again, fully fretted) was produced by England’s Mordaunt Levien, who ultimately patented his final version (now back to 7 strings, and called the Guitare-Harpe) in Paris in 1825.  The final form(s), collectively known as "dital harps," had very few frets and a full, 19-string diatonic harp tuning – thus it would be logical to assume that the "harp" portion of the name refers to either the tuning or the incorporation of unstopped strings.  However, this is not where the word in Light’s hybrid name harp-guitar originated – as the original instrument had no unstopped strings.  All indications are that the term simply referred to the tone of the instrument, though it is believed (and I would agree) that it was also inspired by the construction of the body – a one-piece, staved or rounded soundbox, in the manner of parlor and orchestral harps. This body design (and "harp" connotation) was retained throughout the entire series. NOTE 7  This oft-discussed "Harp-Guitar" is in a very different family of instruments (the Harp-Lutes) than the true harp guitars below.

Definition 3. Guitarrenharfe (German term, applied to an English instrument)(Kinsky, Sachs. Brussels #1550. No Provenance), ca. 18001825. An ingenious combination of guitar and harp, maker unknown, attributed to England. Sachs states that this "instrument type has the best claim to the name," and I would agree. It is a true harp guitar in every sense of the word, yet its like has never been seen since. A chromatic 31-string harp-like frame and body (rotated 90 degrees to join the guitar face) extend out of the fairly standard guitar body with the guitar's neck forming the harp "column," complete with crown.  I have examined this instrument and it does not seem to be fully playable in practicality.  Though appearances are that either this or the next entry could represent the first use of the term applied to a "true" harp guitar, I believe they are later applied terms. NOTE 4 (See also Harp Guitar of the Month, July, 2004)

Definition 4. Guitarrenharfe (German term, applied to an English instrument)(Sachs. Heyer #603. No Provenance), ca. 18001825. An instrument of unknown origin attributed to the same time period as the previous entry, which represents a second form of true harp guitar. Its basic form was repeated fairly closely (but likely coincidentally) by Gibson for their harp guitars.  Again, we don't know what it was originally called. NOTE 4 

Definition 5. Harp guitar (English name, applied to a French instrument) Joseph Mast, 1827 (No Provenance). A small instrument with an outline reminiscent of a harp and a 6-string guitar neck.  The name and date come from The Steve Howe Collection, with the information being repeated in Dangerous Curves by the Boston MFA.  Like #3 and 4 above, this is another case where collectors, authors or curators simply apply their own logical-sounding name to what would otherwise remain without even a simple caption.  Like the Pacquet instrument, I haven't tried to classify it, but place it in my "Harp Guitars" in Name Only Gallery

Definition 6. Scherr’s Patent Harp Guitar, a guitar with a long body extension reaching to the floor, invented and sold in the USA by E. N. Scherr of Philadelphia and patented Oct. 6, 1831. It had no extra strings, but was so named due to being "approximate in power and superiority of tone" to the harp.  

Definition 7. Arpa-Guitarra (country of origin unknown, name given in Spanish by Domingo Prat in his Diccionario de Guitarristas).  According to Prat, "In 1836, Carlos Muller, blind from birth, devised a type of guitar that is played by a keyboard, and which produced harp-like sounds."  I have not been able to locate any other information on it, nor what Prat mentions about a maker "Engel" in 1872. UPDATE, 2022: La musique à l'Exposition universelle de 1867 (Louis-Adolphe le Doulcet Pontécoulant, 1868 Paris) also lists: "1836. Carl Muller, aveugle de naissance, imagine une Harpe-Guitare qui se jouait à l'aide d'un clavier." (Carl Muller, blind from birth, imagines a Harp-Guitar which was played using a keyboard.)

Definition 8. Double harp-guitar, by London harp maker J. F. Grosjean, c.1840 (No Provenance). Very similar instrument to the Mast instrument above, but having two necks/fingerboards, the second neck being half length for tuning an octave higher.  Baines lists this V&A Museum instrument as having no label, so, again, this name is just a descriptive one, without any nomenclature provenance.  These five “No Provenance” instruments have been given individual definition placement here because each is unique, and specifically because each has already been referred to in previous literature.

Definition 9. Harp Guitar (American) Stratton, New York, c. 1888–1891.  This was a trademark name of John F. Stratton of New York for a small, standard 6-string guitar.  Again, the name has obviously been chosen only as a “marketing gimmick.”

Definition 10. Harp guitar. (America, for the most part) Various makers; 1890–1920s. We finally come to some true harp guitars, referring to the specific name used by many different American makers for their diverse inventions.  A list of makers (companies or brands) known to have advertised their instruments as “harp guitars” includes Almcrantz, Bohmann, Dyer, Gibson, Hansen, Harmony, Harwood (Jenkins), Knutsen, Lyon & Healy, H. F. Meyers, Regal (1930), Shutt, Truax and Weymann.

Definition 11. Harp guitar (American) Knutsen, 1895–1900’s.  A "psuedo harp guitar," with a hollow "harp" arm, an extension of the upper bass-side bout, but utilizing no extra unstopped strings. Examples by several makers have been found, with Knutsen’s being the best known. Within the guitar family, these are a separate category, which I classify as "hollow-arm guitars. NOTE 12

Definition 12. Harp-Guitar (American) Various makers, 1896–1900’s.  Originally, a pear-shaped standard 6-course guitar with the four low courses doubled for a total of 10, patented by Carl Brown, which soon morphed into the Grunewald 12-string (6-course) harp-guitar.

Definition 13. Harp-Guitar (American) Early 1900’s. Not a guitar at all, but a type of fretless zither.  Like the above, simply a new name used for an existing instrument as a marketing device.

Note: More “Harp-Guitars” kept popping up even through the 20th century – for example, this “Lyric Behee Harp Guitar” produced in limited numbers in the 1950’s.  As you can see, it is actually just another form of American lyre guitar.

Definition 14. Harp Guitar (Global).  Similar to Definition 10, which gave us many specific historical examples, this is our modern organological "type term" – a newly-created retronym to cover the entire family of “true harp guitars.”  Defined as: A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking. These instruments, a separate and distinct category within the guitar family, are those most commonly and popularly referred to today as harp guitars. In this case (whatever the original intent of the use in the hybrid name), 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. To qualify in this category, an instrument must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard. NOTE 9  Further, the unfretted strings – whether they were intended for playing or only sympathetic vibration – can be, and typically are, played as an open string. Beyond that, literally almost anything goes. Undoubtedly, the most common configuration is a series of from 1 to 12 sub-bass strings adjacent to the main neck’s low string (ex: Gibson, Knutsen/Dyer, Schrammel guitars). Less common varieties feature super-treble strings on the opposite side of the sub-bass strings (Knutsen, Sullivan/Elliott-style), sub-bass strings on both sides of the neck (Altpeter), or chord-group, melodic, or other non-bass strings only (Knutsen "zither harp guitar," Meulle-Stef tzouraharp). NOTE 10  Additional styles of true harp guitars include Manzer’s "Picasso" guitar and new creations by luthiers Fred Carlson and William Eaton. The earliest surviving specimen of what I would consider a true harp guitar that I am aware of is a 10-course French instrument built by Deleplanque in 1782 (rather than the earlier Naderman bissex; see Hybrids below) – though possible "theorboed guitars" made a brief appearance over a hundred years earlier. NOTE 11  This is the definition now included in The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments Second Edition.

Definition Appendix: Portmanteau Terms. Similarly problematic for Organology are instruments which were named by the inventors with a shortened “compound name” combining “guitar” and “harp.” As the last syllable of “guitar” forms or approximates the first syllable of “harp,” many obviously thought it a catchy new name for their specific new inventions.  The confusion here is that, again, some are true harp guitars, some are not.  Additionally, the terms are not exact literal translations – so while clearly meant to be equivalent to “harp-guitar” in connotation, they are not precisely “true definitions” or nomenclature examples, though they are undoubtedly part of the history of the instruments and the terminology.  Specific examples include:

·         Guitarpa (Gallegos, Andalusia, Spain, 1850). This is the famous instrument by Don Jose Gallegos displayed at the Great Exposition in London in 1851 (which some have speculated might have influenced the designs of the mandolins and harp guitars of Orville Gibson). It also makes a tempting speculative source for inspiration for Knutsen's "super-treble" strings of 1900 - but this is presuming that he was aware of it, or had access to an illustration (which I tend to doubt). It had 35 strings, 26 of which were "harp" strings on the body; a six string guitar neck; and extending from that, a 3-string, fretted "violoncello" neck (the "tone" and range of the cello, rather than actual playing technique, being the attribute). As fanciful as it is, it still conforms to the current harp guitar classification criteria (Form 4, though the combined elements cause it to be shown in the Composite Forms Gallery).

·         Guitharfe (Vienna, 1862. Petzval: inventor; Scherzer: maker).  I have as yet found no evidence that this was the instrument’s original name, or if so, its precise (portmanteau) spelling. I have finally obtained an image of the actual instrument (presumably only one was ever built).  It is definitely not a harp guitar, but an experimental double-neck guitar (with each neck fully fretted).  One neck is approximately normal scale and equipped with 31 frets to the octave (per mathematician Petzval); the other is a normal 12-fret neck, but in the bass register, with a scale of approximately 36”.

·         Guitarpa (Luis Soria, Cuba, c.1895).  Spaniard Luis Soria, a friend of fellow guitarist Tarraga, designed and built two distinctive guitarpas while in Cuba, between 1891 and 1896.  One was an 8-string, one an 11-string.  The 8-string is unknown, and may have been a non-harp-guitar version of Soria’s unusual “harp silhouette” instrument. (See Encyclopedia of Historical Players)

·         Chitarpa (Noceti: “inventor”; Candi: maker, Genoa, Italy, c.1900). This similarly stunning instrument is actually a standard 6-string guitar with an extended body and soundboard incorporated into a floor-standing, harp-shaped frame.  It was likely invented (imagined) by guitarist Gian Battista Noceti and commissioned of Cesare (and possibly also Oreste) Candi. Additional examples were subsequently built (by one or both Candi brothers) that had 6 floating sub-bass strings, thus becoming “true” harp guitars. (See Encyclopedia of Historical Players and The Chitarpa of Gian Battista Noceti)

·         Chitarpa (Meschi: performer; various makers, Lucca, Italy, 1920’s). Once forgotten professional singer and harp guitarist Italo Meschi created this name (and claimed invention of the instrument) for his hollow arm harp guitars with 3 sub-bass strings (or 4). He had two by the local maker Bruno Mattei, then a Mozzani Aquila (eagle wing) model (which he claimed Mozzani created specifically for him, which may be untrue). (See Italo Meschi: The Last Italian Troubadour)

·         Guitarp (deGruy: inventor/performer; Novak: maker, USA, 1983). A special “fan fret” electric guitar built by Ralph Novak (who patented his fan fret system in 1989) for creative jazz guitarist Phil deGruy of New Orleans, this has a bank of 10 specially tuned harp strings. These were originally configured by deGruy (who coined the name “Guitarp”) to provide all the required chromatic notes of Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and subsequently left in that tuning for all his arrangements. (See Phil deGruy: Harp Guitar Player of the Month)

So - what do we make of all the above definitions?  Clearly, there are several instruments listed above that are “harp-guitars” in name only - we can accept and use these historical names as long as we understand the context and strive to impart this same context to the public.  Similarly, we can't just disallow previous names given to "true" harp guitars (such as bass-guitar, kontragitarre, etc.).  Again, these names can still be used for their original purpose, if they are understood and if they are, in fact, known For example, the common European use of "bassgitarre" is simply vernacular for a vast array of European harp guitars, the majority of which had no specific name ("bass-guitar" or other).  If unclear, or without backing evidence, then "harp guitar" should probably be used - today, it has far overtaken "bass guitar" as the accepted vernacular (and classification) for all of these instruments, no matter what the country of origin may be.  Even if the evidence is clear, it may be best to begin preferentially using "harp guitar."

Perhaps if Edward Light’s Harp-Guitar had not evolved into the harp-lutes, and remained an accepted instrument, we’d be hunting for a new name.  Likewise, if Scherr’s Patent Harp Guitar had not disappeared immediately as a curiosity.  More recently (though still over 100 years ago), Knutsen’s simple 6-string One-arm Guitar was synonymous with "harp guitar."  Today, we can look back on well over two centuries of strange inventions and indiscriminate semantics, and make informed, well-researched and weighed, common sense new organological choices.

FAMILIES and FORMS of harp guitars and related instruments

Harp Guitars. This category within the guitar family includes the modern instruments being played today, along with their ancestors; and includes a seemingly limitless variety of historical instruments.

In addition to the features outlined in Definition 14 above, this category can be broken down into several main forms.  Besides the following discussion, the "Family Tree" on the next page will provide a clearer snapshot of the forms, while the accompanying Photo Reference Library will literally be "worth a thousand words."  While this study cannot hope to cover every unique, one-of-a-kind harp guitar ever created (though the Galleries and Articles on the site strive to), I can broadly sub-divide into categories as follows.  I have listed them in approximate order of historical relevance and perceived importance, though the order may unavoidably appear somewhat arbitrary.  These 13 categories can be seen in the PHOTO REFERENCE LIBRARY GALLERIES.  I must strongly point out that instruments are organized into these forms and matching galleries only insofar as to illustrate and compare their harp guitar attributes within the context of this specific harp guitar web site.  In many cases, my applicable term, form or category is not that under which an instrument would foremost be classified or named in the context of other guitar studies.

Form 1. Theorboed Headstock harp string attachment. 
Extension has no support.
Extension is pronounced, and emanates upward, to the side, or in a compound bend in true theorbo fashion.
1b. Extension is supported with a rod of metal or pillar of wood.
Similar extension shapes.
1c. Extension is a contiguous, slightly extended, enlarged, or "fanned" component of the main headstock.
Sub-bass string(s) can be held by a simple extension nut, extension of wood, or on an enlarged fan-shaped headstock.

Form 2. Additional Neck harp string attachment. Double-neck configuration is the most common; occasionally three are seen. There may be rare occurrences of frets on the harp string (bass) neck. These may be intended for use with a capo, not for fingering - but sometimes, their presence is a mystery.
2a. Headstocks are unattached. A simple screwed-on metal connecting bracket may be present.
2b. Headstocks are connected.
A permanent piece of wood or metal joins two otherwise separate headstocks.
2c. Headstocks are a single-formed piece.
The appearance is not one of "joined" headstocks - instead, a single custom shape or structure connects the two necks.

Form 3. Hollow Body Extension harp string attachment. 
3a. Bass arm extension.
Harp guitars with a hollow "harp" arm, which is an uninterrupted extension of the upper bass-side bout of the body.
3b. Dual arm extension. A case where hollow arms extend from both upper bouts, as in lyre guitars.
3c. Continuous arm extension.
A full, hollow "arm" loop connects both upper bouts (at least in outward appearance; arm may be plugged).

Form 4. Body harp string attachment. The harp strings are attached at both ends to the body of the guitar. Most often occurs in conjunction with other forms.

Form 5. Open Frame harp string attachment. The harp strings connect to a solid, generally continuous open framework. This "harp-like" frame typically (but not necessarily) connects the body and headstock.

Composite, Intermediate & Other Forms.
Composite: Includes or combines two or more harp guitar forms on one instrument, or can combine harp guitar forms with non-harp guitar families (such as sympathetic strings, or a second, mandolin neck).
Lies somewhere between other forms. Even with the 11 total sub-forms above, there are many instruments that are difficult to place precisely. One example is the gray area between some “supported-theorboed headstocks” of Form 1b and the “harp frames” of Form 5 – the ubiquitous Gibsons conceivably fall into this area
(I placed them in Form 1b). Additionally, there are obvious gray areas within forms – such as gradual non-black & white transitions between double-neck Forms 2b and 2c.  I have not created an extra Gallery in the Photo Reference Library for “intermediate” forms, but placed instruments where I thought best, and discuss them there.
Other: New or unique configurations that do not fit any of the 11 sub-forms. The Wulschner Regal harp guitar, with harp strings attached to a slab extension attached to a portion of the neck, is an example.

Note: We now continue with Non- Harp Guitars.

Fretted Harp Guitars. A fretted harp guitar is one designed and constructed in a fully-fretted configuration for “manufacturability,” not for “use.”  It is in effect a harp guitar which happens to have frets under the bass strings as a side effect of aesthetics or practicalities of manufacture.  I.E: the musical intention and performance practice is one utilizing unstopped bass strings, as in a harp guitar.  More typically, the instrument is a standard multi-course guitar (see below) that a player has decided to play "in the manner of a harp guitar" (by simply avoiding fretting the lower courses). To determine these instruments, the intent of the maker and/or player must be known.  Examples in this Gallery.

Harpolyre.  Salomon’s harpolyre, is about 99% equivalent to a Fretted Harp Guitar, and as close to a harp guitar as one could get.  However, because its specific history, features, music and performance practice are now well known (courtesy of John Doan), I believe it warrants its own unique category.  See the full Gallery page for details.

Hollow-armed Guitars. This group may be also considered "pseudo harp guitars." There are three forms, and they essentially duplicate the three types of Form 3 harp guitars - without the additional sub-bass or harp strings. The first form, often referred to by Knutsen as the "One-arm guitar," is analogous to the "bass arm extension" harp guitar form 3a above. "Dual-arms," such as Washburn's lyre guitar, have lyre-like arms emanating from a standard guitar body, and thus are separate from traditional lyre guitars, which stand upright on their incorporated base. "Continuous-arm" models include the recently-discovered Anderson/Knutsen guitar. NOTE 12  Examples in this Gallery.

Harp-Lutes. While this term refers to a specific form of Edward Light instrument, I have also long believed that it is the best term that can be used in the broader sense as a family name to include all the Light inventions and the many copies and variations by other makers (scholar Stephen Bonner, in his Grove Dictionary entry, concurs). All are based on the “open C chord” tuning of the English guitar (transposed to the key of Eb in many instruments). All appear to have been made in the 1798-1830 period, generally in London (the final Levien in Paris). The group includes Harp-Guitars (Guitare-Harpe - Levien), Harp-Lute-Guitars, Harp-Lutes, British-Lute-Harps (Dital Harps), Harp Venturas, Harp-Lyres, Apollo Lyres (only superficially similar to lyre guitars), “Bass-Lyres” (additional open bass strings) and "Harp-Theorbos" (configured and tuned like the harp-lute-guitar, but resembling an arch-cittern). NOTE 13   See the Harp-Lute Gallery for forms. It is the unfortunate fact that Light decided to call his original fully-fretted invention a “Harp-Guitar” – and then later added floating bass strings while changing the instrument names – that has so confused otherwise savvy scholars and aficionados.  

Not included in the above definitions, but applicable to this discussion and study are:

Lyre Guitars. Well-known decorative "parlor" instruments of the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Most examples are French, and include various forms.  The most common – what I classify as “true” or “original” lyre guitars - stand upright on a flat base which is incorporated directly into the shape of the guitar's body (the Apollo Lyres, in the harp-lute family, appear superficially similar to this form of "true" lyre guitar). A much less common type, which has so far always been lumped in with true lyre guitars has a rounded bottom, a suspended, "floating" fingerboard, and a larger number of metal strings (7–9). These I have determined to be completely different instruments, and likely, not even guitars at all (more likely citterns).  They are usually referred to as "French lyres" - though obvious confusion exists with the equally-French lyre guitars. A few other oddball forms are also considered lyre guitars (see Lyre Guitar Gallery). Confusion also comes from harp guitar maker Mozzani naming his dual (and even single) arm harp guitars chitarra lyras, along with many other American “standard guitar in lyre form” examples like the Washburn instrument.

Multi-course Guitars. Also known as multi-string guitars or extended range guitars.  Not to be confused with harp guitars, these are guitars with extra bass strings beyond the standard guitar's low E string (and occasionally above the high E). They are fully fretted across all courses (7, 8 and 10 are common). NOTE 9  Again, when some players choose not to utilize the frets on the lower strings, they are still playing a multi-course guitar, though may be considered to be "playing in the manner of a harp guitar." If specifically created to be played in this manner, certain instruments can be considered “Fretted Harp Guitars.” Examples in this Gallery

Multi-neck Guitars.   Again, not to be confused with harp guitars, as there are no unstopped strings. Includes double or multi-neck guitars, where each neck is fully fretted and individually capable of standard playing. NOTE 14  Examples in this Gallery.

Sympathetic String Guitars.   Guitars with extra strings inside or outside the body that are specifically intended only to resonate, and not be plucked, though they may be occasionally strummed. Gray areas undoubtedly occur, so the original or preferred intent of the extra strings should be weighed, along with the amount (and “musicality”) of the “strumming" of these strings. Examples in this Gallery.

Arch-Lutes. I use this term as a no-longer-used broader reference term for all the various lutes with extended necks accommodating open diapason strings (These days, experts reserve the name for just one of the instruments, which has a specific size, configuration and tuning). The lutes have a much older, and better researched history than harp guitars (though fraught with similar inconsistencies and exceptions). It is pretty well accepted that "arch-lutes" served as the inspiration for harp guitars (and all similar "theorboed" instruments). It is worth having some knowledge of them to recognize when someone has created a hybridization between harp guitar and lute. Examples in this Gallery.

Arch-Citterns. This family could also use some new organology. The differences are somewhat known, though there are lots of gray areas, and they have not been clearly named. I separate the groups into what I call "true" arch-citterns and "false" arch-citterns. The instruments of the first group are theorboed versions of true, historically traditional citterns (a nebulous group in itself I understand).  The second (and most common) group consists of superficially similar instruments, descended from or inspired by English guitars (ergo "false" citterns). There is also a third version of "arch-cittern," extremely similar to the "false" variety. The specific name is not verified - I use "harp-theorbo" (used sporadically by others) to refer to this instrument which is essentially a "false arch-cittern" version of Light's Harp-Lute-Guitar. Again, I include them in this study because of their similar "harp guitar" aspects, as interesting, related history. Examples in this Gallery.

Mixed Family Hybrids and Other Related Forms. Some obvious ones that should be included in a discussion of harp guitars are: 
The Swedish Lute. For all intents and purposes, a hybrid of equal parts of theorbo, arch-cittern and harp guitar. Authentic examples are extremely rare. The specific traditional form evolved from the cittern-like English guitar, and was developed by Mathias Petter Kraft (was it coincidence that both the "false" arch-citterns above and the Swedish lute were developed at the exact same time, and both from the English guitar?). It enjoyed four decades (1780-1820) as a "popular" instrument in its namesake country. A 15-course instrument strung in gut, it had 8 courses on the neck (sometimes 3 were doubled) and 4, 5 or 7 open bass strings. The tuning, developed from the English guitar, was an "open" chord on top (A, in this case), with descending basses, much like the Light harp-lutes (coincidentally also inspired by the English guitar).  Like the Light instruments, fingerboard capos and bass string sharpening levers were common. A thorough English-language dissertation on the instrument can be found on this web page by Kenneth Sparr.

Often confused with the above is a much more common, very similar instrument that is also called the "Swedish lute."  I classify and refer to them as "false Swedish lutes" to distinguish them from the "true Swedish lute" above.  They were - and still are - made in several countries and known by many names (Nordic bass-lute, Swedish lute or Scholander-lute.  The latter name comes from its "inventor" and most  famous player, Sven Scholander (see Iconography: Harp Guitar Relatives).  This simpler hybrid instrument became hugely popular from 1890-1920 and beyond, largely due to Scholander's success.  The verifiable story, in a nutshell, is that Scholander inherited a decades-old true Swedish lute and made all the modern changes - 6 neck strings, tuned like a standard guitar, and 6 diatonic basses (like some European harp guitars), plus modern geared tuners and silk & steel (instead of gut) strings.  He soon had a new instrument built from scratch that incorporated all these features, but he retained the essential shape of the old Swedish lute - and the name – ergo, the confusion of the two different instruments, one hundred years apart.

A nearly identical form is the so-called bass-laute, which I refer to as a "theorboed lute-guitar."15  Undoubtedly, it was inspired by Scholander's instrument, but features a typical lute-shaped body rather than the Swedish lute-shaped body. It is essentially a "harp guitar" version of the ubiquitous "lute-guitar" or German wanderlaute.  Not just a wandering minstrel's "folk" instrument, many were built by the finest guitar makers and played by well-known guitarists.

Both the above forms are extremely common and still in use today, perhaps because of their commonness and similarity to a guitar. In fact, with 6 single strings on the neck, tuned like a guitar, and generally 4 or 6 sub-bass strings, these nylon-strung (sometimes silk & steel) instruments are as close to a true harp guitar as one can get - therefore, they can be said to be played as harp guitars.  Some might argue (not unreasonably) that they are guitars.

Another fascinating analog to harp guitars is the Russian torban. The history of this instrument is so rich and unusual, it could take up a web site by itself. And fortunately for us, it has! A wonderful English study can be found on Roman Turovsky's POLYHYMNION web-site.

There are many (perhaps endless) other historical and contemporary instruments that combine elements from different fretted instrument families. The difficulty is agreement in analyzing, categorizing and describing the features - and placing within (or between) harp guitar and related families. For example, I consider the Naderman Bissex a combination of lute and guitar, with "harp-guitar"-like results (coincidentally, Naderman was a famed harp builder). Ergo, I consider it a harp guitar relative, not the "first harp guitar."  All these, and other, hybrids are shown in this Gallery.



NOTE 1. For example, while Light’s Harp-Guitar and Scherr’s Patent Harp Guitar are indisputably “harp guitars” in name and by definition, they are not harp guitars by classification.  Conversely, a plethora of names have been given to the instruments we now classify as harp guitars (I have Anglicized the following): bass-guitars, contra-guitars, arch-guitars, theorbo-guitars, compound guitars, one-arm guitars, chitarra-lyras – and on and on.
One thing that often seems to be overlooked or ignored in classification is the intent of the inventor or marketers of an instrument. Gleaned or inferred from advertisements or other clues, this aspect can greatly help piece together history and perhaps prove useful for Organology.

NOTE 2. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Curt Sachs (June 29, 1881 - February 5, 1959) was a German musicologist. He was one of the founders of modern organology (the study of musical instruments), and is probably best remembered today for co-authoring the Sachs-Hornbostel scheme of musical instrument classification with Erich von Hornbostel. Sachs was born in Berlin. In his youth, he studied piano, music theory and composition. However, his doctorate from Berlin University (where he was later professor of musicology) in 1904 was on the history of art, with his thesis on the sculpture of Verrocchio. He began a career as an art historian, but gradually became more and more devoted to music, eventually being appointed director of the Staatliche Instrumentensammlung, a large collection of musical instruments. He reorganised and restored much of the collection, and his career as an organologist began. In 1913, Sachs saw the publication of his book Real-Lexicon der Musikinstrumente, probably the most comprehensive survey of musical instruments in 200 years. In 1914 he and Erich Moritz von Hornbostel published the work for which they are probably now best known in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, a new system of musical instrument classification. It is today known as the Sachs-Hornbostel system. It has been much revised over the years, and has been the subject of some criticism, but it remains the most widely used system of classification by ethnomusicologists and organologists. In 1933, Sachs was dismissed from his posts in Germany by the Nazi Party because he was a Jew. Sachs consequently moved to Paris, and later to the United States, where he settled in New York City. He taught at New York University from 1937 to 1953, and also worked at the New York Public Library. He wrote books on rhythm, dance and musical instruments, with his The History of Musical Instruments (1942), a comprehensive survey of musical instruments worldwide throughout history, seen as one of the most important. Although much of it has been superseded by more recent research, it is still seen as an essential text in the field. Sachs died in 1959 in New York City. The American Musical Instrument Society has a "Curt Sachs Award", which it gives each year to individuals for their contributions to organology.

NOTE 2b. To further confound my efforts, I was reminded by my translators (see end credits) of the change in German spelling of Guitarre to Gitarre since Sachs' day!

NOTE 3. In addition to Sachs' above-mentioned "guitarre theorbee" and "Bissex," more recent scholars have found intriguing references to four different earlier harp-guitar-like instruments. The two most important are the chitarra atiorbata (Italy, c.1659) and the guitare theorbée (France, c. 1660–70), discussed in more detail in NOTE 11 below. Both can be translated as "theorboed guitar."  It is currently theorized that one of these was built in guitar form (chitarra atiorbata) and the other (guitare theorbée) like a lute or mandore. The third is the chitarrone francese, for which there was music written in 1773. It apparently had 5 open basses and 5 neck courses like the guitar. A fourth instrument is the chitarra-salterio, which researcher Stephen Sedgwick describes as "a hybrid Italian guitar crossed over with the Eastern zither." Translated as "guitar-psaltery," and described as having internal (and later, external) sympathetic strings, this may not represent a true harp guitar form.  Regardless, none of these examples provide precedent for the eventual specific name for the harp guitar.

NOTE 4. Unfortunately, any original names or terms used for Brussels catalog # 1550 and Heyer # 603 by the respective makers appear to be unknown (as neither has a label, or any other provenance).  Regardless, by 1913, Sachs has assigned the "harp-guitar" name to both instruments.  More specifically, in 1912, Georg Kinsky, conservator at the Musikhistorisches Museum von Wilhelm Heyer in Coln (where # 603 resides/resided), has labeled the instrument a "Guitarren-Harfe" (spelling it both with a hyphen and as one word).  The following year, Sachs publishes it also as "Guitarrenharfe."  Note in Etymology above that Sachs gives the English translation of Guitarrenharfe as "Harp-guitar" (not "guitar-harp").  Strangely, he further explains: "As a rule, when referring to a harp guitar, (the Heyer instrument) is not this one that is being described. Actually one of the two instruments made by Edward Light is intended, neither of which closely resembles the term harp guitar. They are his 'harp lute' or the 'harp lute guitar'."  As stated earlier, Sachs ignores the fact that Light actually created something named the “Harp-Guitar,” perhaps because he, like us, was acknowledging its conundrum of not having floating strings, while the Light “harp-lutes” and “harp-lute-guitar” had?

NOTE 5. There is still much detail to explore and undercover regarding the provenance of the term "harp guitar."  Here are all of the important dates and clues that I am currently aware of:

Provenance in America:

  • 1890 (The Omaha Daily Bee, March 30): Bohmann “harp-guitar” is mentioned. Though the instrument was not pictured, I am certain it was a true harp guitar, judging from surviving catalogs.
  • 1891 (Patent applied for Feb 3): Hansen patent (labels his instrument a "harp-guitar").
  • 1892 (Patent applied for Oct 24): Abelspies patent (specifically states that his instrument "... may be termed a harp-guitar, as it combines along with a guitar of ordinary or special construction, a number of strings strung after the manner of a harp and plucked by the fingers as in that instrument.")
  • 1896: Music Trades article announcing Bohmann's new (1895) "harp-guitar" (with 12 chromatic sub-bass strings).  
  • 18951899: Jenkins catalog lists Harwood brand “harp-guitars.” 
  • 1897 (Patent applied for May 17): Knutsen's second U.S. patent labels his design a "harp-guitar frame" - the English patent filed 3 months later labels it a "harp-guitar."
  • 1898: Knutsen advertisement. It took a little while for Knutsen to start referring to his instruments as “harp guitars” in ads. In a February, 1898 newspaper ad, he finally mentions the “harp shape.”  Important for the discussion of the term and discussion of hollow-arm "pseudo" harp guitars are these specific details:
    Feb.1898 ad:
    " For a short time only C. Knutsen offers his One-Arm Guitars for sale at the following prices: 
                            Short Arm Guitar, - - - - - - - - - - -  $15.00
                            Harp Shape, 6-string Guitar, - - - - - $18.00
                            Harp Shape, 9 or 11-string Guitar, -  $20.00"
  • ca. 1898-1899 Dyer flyer (showing Knutsen instruments with and without sub-bass strings): “The Celebrated One-Arm Harp Guitar”
  • ca. 1898-1899: Knutsen also uses “The One-Arm Harp Guitar” on labels in instruments.
  • ca.1900: “Symphony Harp Guitar” first appears. The name could have been coined by Knutsen or the Dyer company.
    These are intriguing clues that help us infer how Knutsen (and/or Dyer) intended the connotation of the word "harp." The 1898 "Harp shape” undeniably refers to the hollow arm. However, by Knutsen’s next ad, neither the arm shape nor the appearance of the extra strings were the justification of the name. Again, it was simply back to the tone: “…increased (the guitar’s) volume four-fold, at the same time deepening and softening the tone until the music closely approaches that grandest of all stringed instruments, the harp.”
  • First verified Gibson use: April, 1903 catalog.
  • First verified Lyon & Healy use: 1913 (prior to that, they used “bass guitar”)
  • First Maurer/Stahl use: the early ‘teens.

Provenance outside the United States:  Very few specifics are known, but new clues have started to appear.

  • 1848, Europe: Harfengitarre 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 type 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 adheres 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).  In any event, 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 – whatever instrument it referred to – is where the term came from.  Was it announced by Mertz or the program as a harfengitarre?  Did the reviewer invent it?  To play devil's advocate, if the term was penned by a reviewer of the performance, there is nothing to say that they weren't struck by Mertz' 10-string Scherzer's floating strings and decided on their own to call it 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.
  • 1871, Russia:  Ad for Mark Sokolovsky's concert includes the statement: "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."  Russian guitar expert Oleg 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." (source: Timofeyev)Again the question remains: where did the term come from?  From one of the two performers?  The ad writer?  The builder of either of the instruments?  Were these double-neck "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?  Another tantalizing clue as we piece together the difficult nomenclature history.
  • Oct 29, 1892:  Abelspies' German patent is titled "Harfen-Guitarre." (see Patents page)
  • 1923, Italy: Finally, in 1923, an Italian book author captions the hollow-arm Monzino as a Chitarra-Arpa (harp-guitar).

To re-cap: It is critical to note that we don't yet know whether the two references above were actually supplied by the performers or makers, or whether they were "coined" by a reviewer, copy-writer, or other secondary source.  Either way, these are important, fascinating clues.  I.E: We still don't know if a specific European maker used the name "harp guitar" for any of these instruments.  Regardless, if American makers didn't invent the term (and/or were even aware of it), they certainly popularized it.  Even so, “harp guitar” was never universally accepted.  Even in 1921, Oscar Schmidt was still calling their Stella version a “Double Neck or Contra Bass Guitar.”  There is undoubtedly missing provenance of cases where inventors and manufacturers called their instruments harp guitars, and I imagine we'll find much new information over time.

NOTE 6. Update, 2011: Since the publication of this paper, and the subsequent (overwhelmingly positive) response, I still retain a couple of key detractors whose main points should perhaps be briefly addressed. First is the view that no instrument can be “re-named,” nor can a new term be applied “backwards in time” – only the original name or term (via inventor, maker, performer, etc.) can be used, period.  But those who adhere to this are missing a couple of key points: First, we are not “re-naming” – we are using “harp guitar” as the new organological (and/or vernacular) term, and only within a new, specific context (the study of harp guitars).  We (or I) have, in fact, created an additional new definition.   In this context, “Harp Guitar” is – like my other recent linguistic invention, “Fretless Zither” a retronym, which is a newly coined word or term that becomes necessary due to the advances of time, or new inventions, or – specifically for our needs – new awareness and study of forgotten musical instruments.

Second point: No one is suggesting that a 7-string Lacote Heptacorde is first and foremost a harp guitar, or was ever called or considered such.  It is only within the context of this site and the study of harp guitars that the instrument (with its single floating string) happens to also fit within the classification of harp guitars. 

Third point: In many cases, the original names and terms of surviving instruments (more of which are discovered every day) are unknown.  We have no name or term to refer to them.  If “not allowed” to apply new, logical vernacular names or newly-created terms to them for the purposes of discussion, we can only point and say, “that thing.”  So, to the contrary, I (and virtually all of the scholarly community) maintain that we not only can, but often must develop new terms – or more to the point, new interpretations, for the study and discussion of new (or in this case, largely ignored) instruments.  Organology can, does, and must continue to advance.

Other detractors would “have their cake and eat it too,” by insisting that “harp guitar” cannot be used as stated above (we cannot apply backwards in time to instruments not referred to as such), but then casually using their own preferred vernacular term (“bass guitar” for example) to apply to any and all European harp guitars – a large portion of which were no more called “bass guitars” than they were called "harp guitars" (the term “bass-guitarre” would not see common use until decades after many various examples were introduced).

Back to my originally written footnote:

Where known, specific specimens should still reference the original name of the inventor, marketer, cultural practice, etc. However (and, yes, I know I'm going to affront several entire European countries), I would strongly recommend that we begin moving away from the terms "bass guitar," "kontraguitarre" ("contra-guitar"), and especially the redundant kontrabassguitarre – historically accurate or not (and most often, these are only being used vernacularly, and not even historically).  Other than the necessary inclusion as an historical or specific regional term, they are inadequate and misleading for two reasons: 1. Since the Fender bass guitar was introduced in 1951, that lap-held, bass version of a standard guitar has become such a standard instrument that it (and an endless variety of descendents) has necessarily commandeered the name, now and for all time.  2. It has always been an inaccurate term.  According to The Grove Dictionary: Contra: a prefix of which the musical meaning is "an octave below".  So, whereas contrabassoon or bass clarinet correctly signify an instrument with a lowered pitch range of the same general spread, contra- or bass-guitar does not.  The bass strings are in addition to the standard range, not in place of.  To further complicate matters, the Havant Area Guitar Orchestra in the U.K. (and one or two others) is now utilizing a true “contra guitar” – a 6-string classical guitar tuned down a full octave.  Even Anthony Baines finally began moving away from the term in his 1992 Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments by listing the discussed "bass guitar" with the caveat heading "Older meaning," while finally adding a small entry for "Harp-guitar" (he prefers the hyphen like I do – these days, a lost cause). 

NOTE 6b. "Course" refers to a set of one, two or three strings tuned and played as a unit representing one note on an instrument. Strings in a course can be tuned in unison or octaves. Example: the mandolin has eight strings arranged in four courses – meaning four pairs of strings, the two strings of each pair being tuned the same and played together as a single “note.”

NOTE 7. I wonder if it may be that Light switched the order of the "harp" and lute" terms when naming his new dital harp the “British Lute-Harp” because he realized it was now more harp than lute. While it is not a 100% practice, in hybrid instruments the last word should refer to the "base form," with the first word as the "descriptor" (ex: harp-guitar). Many original inventors and even some modern scholars insist on doing this backwards, a practice I detest.  Remember that in certain languages, such as German, the order is swapped from their grammatical/linguistic rules.

NOTE 8. Deleted

NOTE 9. Notice that I didn't say "lying off the 'neck'." While the majority of harp guitars have their harp strings lying well off the neck, some, such as the Lacote Decacorde, are positioned directly over an unfretted portion of a single neck. By contrast, while some guitarists may play their 10-course (10-string) fully fretted classical guitars and similar as a harp guitar (utilizing the last few strings only as open strings), these cannot be considered a true harp guitar (since the frets are provided to be played).  However, there may be instruments that include frets that are not intended for left hand fingering. These I consider "fretted harp guitars."  Other "gray areas" will be seen in "Families and Forms."

NOTE 10. The term "sub-bass" is used to refer to strings adjacent to the low E string on the guitar – because they are pitched below (sub) the E string. However, sometimes some of the sub-bass strings are tuned higher than the guitar’s low E string (as in the common Gibson harp-guitars, who used, but did not invent, the term “sub-bass”). The term "super-trebles" was coined by John Doan for the Knutsen-devised bank of treble strings which lie adjacent to the guitar’s high E string – which are normally tuned higher than that string.  For the complete history of super-trebles (from the latter 1700's up to October, 2013), see my article "Super-Trebles: To Infinity and Beyond" (Members Only access).

NOTE 11. UPDATE, 2011: There is a similar, undated instrument (to the Deleplanque) in the Paris music museum, Cite de la Musique, which is attributed to the 1760s, and at least one other, undated specimen known. There has not been any advertising material or music associated with these late 1700’s theorboed guitars yet discovered. More important and of interest to harp guitar (and Baroque guitar) scholars are two early "theorboed guitars": specifically, a chitarra atiorbata (Italian) and a guitare theorbée (French). According to early music scholar Richard Pinnell (EMM Jul 1979 # 7.3), the instruments are referenced in rare tablature music of Granata (Italy) in 1659 and Gallot (France) in the 1660–1684 period (or 1660–1670, according to others). He (and others) believe these both to be theorboed versions of early 5-course guitars, with 7 basses lying off the neck or at least "unstopped" (as described). The tuning of the guitar neck, deduced from the music, was then-standard tuning (A, D, G, B, E) for the chitarra atiorbata, but chordal (C, E, G, C, E – similar to the drawing room English guitars a century later) for the guitarre theorbee – both with descending basses. Besides the specific clues within the music and text, a corroborating reference, with matching name and stringing, was found in a document of Antonio Stradivari confirming the existence of such instruments. Though no specimens survive, a couple of obscure illustrations provide clues about their appearance. It is now hypothesized that, while the Granta instrument had a body like the guitars of the time, the open-tuning Gallot instrument may have actually utilized a lute body. Combining the non-standard tuning with a possible lute body – or as scholar Monica Hall recently suggested, a mandore body – it is now more likely (to me) that the French guitarre theorbee was really not a guitar at hall, but a completely new hybrid invention.  On the other hand, I think it safe to say that the 12-course (7+5) chitarra atiorbata from Italy must surely be the earliest known form of today's true harp guitar – occurring about a hundred years before the next true harp guitars would turn up. Additional musical examples presumably written for similar instruments are reported by Tyler & Sparks (The Guitar and Its Music).  Finally, there is also music written in 1773 for a chitarrone francese, which apparently had 5 open basses and 5 neck courses like the guitar. (UPDATE, 2011: Monica Hall has written an excellent study on the specific stringing and pitch options of these two rare instruments).

Note also the distinction I make about the guitar versus lute construction. The fascinating and much-vaunted 1773 Naderman Bissex, while essential to the history of the harp guitar is, in my analysis, an experimental (though revolutionary) hybrid of lute and guitar construction. Its key influence may have been the distinctive "fanned" headstock on a wide neck, which was utilized on the later Lacote decacordes and other similar harp guitars. Though Baines placed the Bissex and another hybrid by Caron under “Guitars,” and specifically "Bass and other Guitars," he seems to agree with me as he calls them “precursive forms, each a Parisian free-lance design.” Baines and others struggle with these and many other hybrids because they are locked into the original over-simplistic instrument categories (Lutes, Guitars, Citterns, etc.). I maintain that we cannot be locked in. Today, a key characteristic to bear in mind when deducing whether an instrument is a true harp guitar or not is the very guitar aspect. This criterion should be applied to all candidates. Though guitar bodies now vary more widely than perhaps any other fretted instrument in the world, it is normally accepted that they should generally have a relatively flat back with separate sides, with, traditionally, an hourglass outline. By contrast, virtually all lutes have a relatively round back without distinct sides and an almond-shaped body outline. Citterns generally have a round or teardrop body with a flat or curved back, while the harp-lute family has a round or staved back on a triangular body. So, for example, we have to be careful with instruments like the Swedish Lute and theorboed German wanderlautes. Both are well-established “popular” hybrids that lie somewhere between lutes and guitars.

NOTE 12. There is plenty of provenance for using "harp guitar" for an instrument with a hollow "harp" arm, but no extra strings. Knutsen eventually switched to calling all his 'One-arm' guitars "harp-guitars" – whether they had extra strings or not. Dyer followed suit with their line of Symphony Harp Mandolins, Mandolas and Mando-cellos. Remember, they probably intended for the word "harp" to denote a "harp-like" volume and tone provided by the extra body cavity, with the arm further creating the visual appearance of a true harp guitar – justification for their name that we cannot simply discard. By the end of the 20th century, there was a long-established vernacular for "harp guitar" (and similar "harp mando," harp uke," etc) to label these distinctive instruments. However, note that they are now placed into a different category within guitars.
To clarify more strongly: Using "harp guitar" for Knutsen's 6-string "pseudo harp guitars" is as valid as using it for Light's Harp-Guitar. One I now classify as a member of the Hollow-arm Guitar family and the other as a member of the Harp-Lute family. Neither is a "true" harp guitar as I have defined the family, but both are still harp guitars in name, as covered under Definitions.

NOTE 13. Note that the original instrument, which Light named the "Harp-guitar," is a very distant “relative” of the modern harp guitar. In fact, it is all but proven that the "guitar" portion of the hybrid name comes not from the true guitar, but from the English guitar (guittar), an instrument closer to the cittern (and to which the Light instrument was tuned and specifically advertised to replace - see Poulopoulos, 2011: The Guittar in the British Isles, 1750-1810). As stated above, the "harp" portion of the name is only known to have been a reference to the tone, though most believe it to also reference the shape of the soundbox.

NOTE 14. As in the example of footnote 9, there are times when a multi-neck guitar can be played in the manner of a harp guitar. According to Fred Carlson, his customer Todd Green uses one if his instruments this way, as an "either/or" option. For that matter, theoretically, any multi-neck instrument could be played “as a harp guitar,” if the frets are ignored. And again, there are many examples of "fretted harp guitars.”  

NOTE 15. Originally, I referred to these instruments throughout the site as (theorboed) "guitar-lutes," the term I had seen used predominately by English-speaking authors. Some time ago, I realized this was sloppy terminology which went against the proper classification semantics I have been methodically trying to re-write (for many different musical instrument forms).  Thus I scoured my entire site, changing each entry to the more proper "lute-guitar" (the first term being the "descriptor," the second being the prominent basal instrument).

Additional Notes: I’ve assigned the words "Family," "Category" and "Form" somewhat arbitrarily for now. Sources to support specific information and many of my above claims are available but not necessarily included on this page. Scholars are welcome to refer to the bibliography below, or contact me for, and with, further information.
Key information specific to this paper was graciously provided by Tony Bingham, with translations courtesy of Chris Wilhelm and Benoit Meulle-Stef.

Copyright © 2004-2020 Gregg Miner. All rights reserved.
Initial Web Publication: April 25, 2004
Update: Dec 22, 2004. Added information about c.1650 theorboed guitars to footnotes 3 & 11, gleaned from Tyler & Sparks' The Guitar and Its Music: From the Renaissance to the Classical Era, and Richard Pinnell's The Theorboed Guitar from Early Music, Jul 1979 #7.3. 
Added Bohmann's 1895/1896 "harp-guitar" to footnote #5 about provenance of the term in America.
Update: June, 2006.  Updated the Swedish lute section with (hopefully) clearer discussion of the forms and names.
Update: May, 2007.  Added Bibliography link, added a note about the new Hansen discovery and write-up, added and corrected a few details to the Definitions, separated the Harpolye from Fretted Harp Guitars in the Families and Forms section, added new references to the provenance of "harp guitar" outside the United States under Note 5 (June, 2007: rewrote these last notes).
Update: November, 2008. Added simple definition at top for the layperson.
Update: February, 2009.  Revised the section on the Swedish Lute after receiving extension new information on Scholander.
Update: June, 2011. Moved original “Harp-Guitar” Definitions 8 & 9 to the end of Definitions, with several additional “Abbreviated Terms” definitions.  The remaining Definitions thus moved up 2 places, and I then added "Harp-Guitar" Definition 10, 11 & 12.  Slightly reworded and cleaned up various sections.
Update: August, 2012. Added a short overview at the top of the current status of the “harp guitar” term and my work, and also commentary for the few remaining holdouts in Footnote 6. 
Moved some of my original “Harp-Guitar” Definitions to the end of Definitions as an Appendix, with several additional “Portmanteau Terms” definitions.  The remaining Definition numbers thus changed, and I also added additional Definitions.
Added additional provenance examples in Footnote 5. 
Added new information to Footnotes 3 & 11 about early “theorboed guitars.” 
I again slightly reworded and cleaned up various sections.
I also added a link to my recent article “Harp Guitar”: What’s In a Name?, a more streamlined and accessible presentation of my organology.
Update: October, 2013: Added a link in Footnote 10 to my recent article
"Super-Trebles: To Infinity and Beyond" (Members Only access).
Update, April, 2014: Revised my terminology of "theorboed guitar-lute" to the more organologically correct "theorboed lute-guitar."
Update, March, 2015: Included the news of the new "Harp-guitar" entry in the recently-published Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Second Edition). Added Definition #7 (Muller's keyboard harp-guitar). All subsequent definitions were moved down one place.
Update, December, 2020: I included links at top to my articles on the earliest harp guitars, both theorboed and psaltery forms.


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