Organology: Harp Guitar "Relatives"

Note to the casual reader or researcher: This Reference Gallery features historical instruments that are not harp guitars, but “relatives” or distant “cousins” – presented on for historical and organological comparison.

Fretted Harp Guitars
by Gregg Miner
Updated August, 2023

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 the practicalities of manufacture.  I.E: the musical intention and performance practice is one utilizing unstopped bass strings, as in a harp guitar.

See by comparison, Extended Range Guitars

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Bartolex (China) 10-string guitar

Can be played as - and in such case, be "classified" or called - either an extended range guitar or fretted harp guitar

Asturias 11-string alto-guitar (Bolin model) Heikki Rousu

Rousu originally left the decorative frets off of his instruments, as seen in the Form 1a Harp Guitar Gallery. More typically, he now copies the Bolin fretted form.

11-string alto-guitar (Rodolfo Cucculelli) 14-string alto-guitar (Rodolfo Cucculelli) Charles Vega "guitarra teorba"

Despite the name, this is neither a true harp guitar nor a "theorboed" instrument.

Alberto Bonafini, Italy, 2006

This 8-string cannot be classified as a harp guitar, yet that is how it is intended to be played, the last two strings intended to be played open.

In many cases, these instruments are visually indistinguishable from Extended Range Guitars, being also fully fretted across all strings or courses.  Overall, they tend to have more strings ( 10 to 14), and often some of the lowest strings (still fully fretted) are extended in length behind the primary nut, as in the now-common alto-guitar. Sometimes, an instrument with the exact same scale, stringing and tuning can be classified as a true harp guitar, simply by building it without the additional bass frets, as seen in two of Rousu's instruments:

Other than the wide and narrow fretboards (and by default, the extensions) these Rousu instruments are functionally identical.

I was helped with the main definition above by an astute reader of this site named Charles Wood, who accurately and succinctly pointed out that: "Though these (instruments like Göran Söllscher's Altoguitar) have frets under the strings, neither the customer nor the luthier imagine for a moment that they will ever be fretted: except possibly by aliens with 6 inch long fingers. The luthier wants the neck to be of full width for rigidity and to support the additional string tension and the simplest thing then is to have a fingerboard under those strings. It is almost impossible to cut slots for frets that stop halfway across the fingerboard and finish the ends of frets which end in the middle of the fingerboard so these instruments have frets which cross under all the strings but which are not intended for use by anyone (or I would say even capable of being used practically). A guitar which has frets under the bass strings simply as a side effect of the manufacturing process and possibly for simplicity of aesthetics is perhaps no less a harp guitar than one that has “flying” courses parallel to the fingerboard."

In practical performance use, Mr. Wood is correct - the instrument is indeed played “in the manner of a harp guitar.”  However, as I (and the majority of my readership, including even now Mr. Wood) must remain true to the clear definition of a "Harp Guitar" (i.e.: at least one floating string), we cannot let stand the idea that instruments described here are "no less a harp guitar..."  By definition, they cannot be harp guitars, even though played as such.  For the purist then, we shall classify these instruments as "fretted harp guitars."  Please note that this is not their only or even foremost classification!  It is used here only in the context of discussion related to harp guitars on a harp guitar web site.  "Extended range," "Altogitare," "ten-string guitar" - a multitude of generic and specific names can be used to classify or identify these various instruments; "fretted harp guitar" is just an additional technical name to be called into play as necessary.

To clarify Mr. Wood's "side effect of the practicalities of manufacture": The practicalities (of full frets) may be deemed necessary for structural, construction simplicity, cosmetic or aesthetic reasons.

I might suggest that an ideal compromise for the players (such as Stephen Bright) and manufacturers (such as Bartolex) of such instruments might be to adopt this more accurate term as something more appropriate to these modern instruments - the "classical fretted harp guitar."

NOTE: In some true harp guitars, what appear to be “frets” are really secondary “nuts” behind which a capotasto device – either built in or separate - can be employed for individual or multiple strings.  In other words, they are not functional frets in the sense of being pressed against by the fingers.

The Harpolyre is by this definition a form of Fretted Harp Guitar (only the center six strings and the outer treble strings are fretted, though the entire instrument is fretted for aesthetic reasons).  As its musicological intent and practice is now fully understood (thanks to Professor John Doan) it can be safely and best be classified under its own category and term - Harpolyres.

Harpolyre, c.1829


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