Knutsen Harp Bandurria   

by Gregg Miner, as part of

hba1angled.jpg (35411 bytes) This incredible instrument, hanging in a private home for the past thirty years, came to my attention in February, 2003. It appears to be all original (except for a top repair patch), but unfortunately is missing the nut and bridge. Luckily, it was well played, as the heavy fret wear from the strings provides the only clue as to the original stringing. However, I still can’t say with absolute certainty what instrument Knutsen intended it to be, nor how he originally tuned it.

At first glance, it appeared to be a 14-string harp mandolin with a shorter neck. While 12-string mandolins (three strings per course) were once a somewhat common variation, the two additional strings on this would seem superfluous. Neither did the scale length of 12" match up with Knutsen’s mandolins (normally 13-3/4" to 14"). Nor did I suspect Knutsen of attempting the rare piccolo mandolin with so many strings (and which have a 10" scale besides). My only hope (and thought) was "please let there be fret wear!" Alan Frazier, the owner, gamely threw himself into the investigation by photographing the frets through a 50 power microscope to look for any telltale grooves created by the strings. Unfortunately, it turned out that someone had filed down the frets toward the treble side, erasing much of the evidence. However, with a reference ruler included, I was able to assemble the entire third fret in Photoshop and, after some lengthy number-crunching, calculate with a high degree of probability the arrangement (and even gauges) of the original strings (presented below). Finally, after much careful consideration - including the unusual length of the neck, the number of strings, and now the string layout (6 courses) - I concluded that this instrument was most likely Knutsen’s version of the well-known Spanish bandurria.
As it differs from the traditional bandurria in a couple of ways (besides the obvious Knutsen harp-mandolin shape), let me explain my line of reasoning by discussing clues provided by historical context, and the features of bandurrias (and relatives) themselves.

Historical Context

The bandurria is the instrument played by the infamous "Spanish Students," a touring group who took our country by storm in 1880 and ultimately inspired the subsequent Mandolin Orchestra craze. As the bandurria was considered a musical counterpart to the mandolin, Americans chose to simply use the Neapolitan mandolin (and later flat- or arched-back mandolins) to recreate the sound in mandolin clubs and orchestras. Even so, the bandurria was well enough known that some American manufacturers made them on a custom or limited basis. Specifically (and Readers, please let me know of any others).

The Martin Company built three of them in 1904 for a San Francisco retailer.
Lyon & Healy built the Lakeside brand bandurria in my collection – the Lakeside name dating it from approximately 1900 to the mid ‘twenties.
And, perhaps most significant to our story, Knutsen's Los Angeles neighbors during the same time period, The Schireson Brothers, built bandurria and laud-type instruments ca. 1911-1920s. The Spanish laud is similar, but tuned an octave lower, and traditionally has f-holes surrounding a teardrop-shaped soundhole. The six courses are sometimes tripled (18 strings total).

bandurria.jpg (49010 bytes)

Lakeside bandurria. Scale length 10-1/4", nut width 2", 12 frets. Early 1900's.

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A Schireson Brothers "Lyric" laud with 18 strings on the left, and a traditional Spanish laud with 12 strings on the right. From the collection of Kerry Char.

(image copyright Kerry Char)

lyric_18string.jpg (18462 bytes)

A strange, 18-string (6 triple courses) Lyric brand bandurria-like instrument built by The Schireson Bros. ca. 1911-1920s. From the collection of Gary Schireson.

And now Knutsen.

It seems unlikely that Knutsen would have been completely unaware of these instruments – especially those of the Schireson Brothers, who were just a few blocks from Knutsen when this instrument may have been built (based on the label)! Whether a commissioned instrument or another of his wild experiments, the plethora of strings on yet another strange design must have been irresistible to Knutsen.

Instrument Features

The bandurria dates back to at least 1555, at which time it was a 3-string instrument. It evolved into it’s final state (6 courses and metal strings) by the late 1800’s, and is still being made today in Spain in the same style (and played – 600 ensembles in Valencia province alone). Incidentally, it seems to have evolved independently as a guitar-mandolin hybrid, and not as a descendant of the mandolin nor the cittern (as the superficially similar Portuguese guitarra did).

The traditional bandurria has six courses of double strings (totaling 12). It has a squat, deep, pear-shaped body with an extremely short neck accommodating from 12 to 14 frets. Scale length varies from 10" to 11." Unlike mandolins, citterns and Portuguese guitarras, the strings (originally gut, now metal) usually attach to a bridge glued to the top, not a tailpiece. Tunings can vary, the most common utilizing all fourths, from g’# to a’’ (enabled by the very short scale).

 Interestingly, 13 & 14-string variations also occur (certain courses are tripled) in the form from the Philippines. Here is a typical Philippine 14-string version, with 6 courses arranged in a 1-2-2-3-3-3 pattern.

14-strg_bandurria.jpg (38798 bytes)

In certain South American countries, the instrument has become the bandola, which traditionally has sixteen strings. These are also tuned in six courses, with the four highest courses tripled. The bandola in my collection (at right) has this stringing on a neck with 16 frets and a scale length of just over 13". Tunings vary, but fourths are again typical (a whole step below the bandurria now being "standard").

Not in any literature, but LaBella makes, in addition to a 16-string, 6-course bandola string set (gauged .043-.008", ), a 14-string, 5-course bandola set (simply dropping the 6th double course). In either case, the four highest courses are tripled. Could this instrument be the 14-string Philippine-form bandurria referred to above?

Colombian bandola. Scale length 13-1/16", nut width 2-1/16", 16 frets.

bandola.jpg (43708 bytes)

The Knutsen instrument has fourteen strings arranged in six courses. But what a strange arrangement! The tripled strings may have occurred on the fifth and sixth courses, or perhaps more likely, on the first and fifth courses. Regardless, the tripled fifth course is definite - but whereas in bandurrias and bandolas the strings within courses are tuned in unison, Knutsen’s fifth course consists of two low (normal) strings with a high octave string. Finally, where bandurrias’ 6th-1st courses are tuned low-to-high, Knutsen’s 6th course (whether double or triple) seems to have been strung and tuned an octave higher than normal (as in a ukulele re-entrant tuning). It’s as if he was asked (or chose) to build a combination of bandurria, tiple and mandolin. Nevertheless, I am sticking with "harp bandurria" as this remains the most similar instrument when all the evidence is weighed.
hba1fret3.jpg (31587 bytes)

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At top left is the 3rd fret composite image showing what's left of the 6 courses, evident in the wear.

In the right image, note that the wear on the fingerboard from the player’s fingernails occurs between the six courses – as expected from typical fretting technique/finger placement.

Finally, a mathematically accurate drawing, according to my calculations, of the proposed original nut – including spacing and approximate gauging of the strings. The missing, assumed strings are in red.

     Option 1: 1st and 5th courses tripled; more evenly and correctly spaced; fits the scenario of filing down towards the treble side, leaving the bass side alone.
     Option 2: 5th and 6th courses tripled; less evenly spaced; courses 5 & 6 are a little tight, course 1 has plenty of room to the edge; the 6th course doesn't appear as filed down as 1st course, so it's harder to imagine that there was a string here - however another fret shows some small marks that suggest someone may have added an extra string here.
Of course, filing may reduce the original string dimension, and excessive wear may increase the suspected string dimension - so the gauges listed only represent a rough approximation of the original string diameters. Current GHS brand bandurria strings range from .033 to .011".

Knutsen’s instrument has a 12" scale with 15 frets – somewhere between a traditional bandurria and bandola. He deviates from the traditional glued bridge and uses his mandolin tailpiece system instead. For this scale comparison with a typical Knutsen harp mandolin, I have used Photoshop to "restore" the missing nuts, frets and bridge to more easily evaluate the differences.  

hba1compare.jpg (44846 bytes)

Left: HBA1, Right: HM1.
Instruments to scale

Harp Bandurria Harp Mandolin
Courses: 6 4
Scale: 12" 13-7/8"
Frets: 15 18
Nut width: 2-1/8" 1-3/16"
Body width: 12" 11-1/4"
Soundhole diameter: 3-1/8" 2-7/16"
Total length: 25+" 24-1/2"

Sources: Martin Guitars: Washburn & Johnston, 1997; European & American Musical Instruments: Anthony Baines, 1966; The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments: A. Baines, 1992; Cataloque of Musical Instruments in the Victoria & Albert Museum: A. Baines, 1998, A Survey of Musical Instruments: Sybil Marcuse, 1975, Randy Osborne of Fine Fretted Instruments, pers. comm., Kerry Char, pers. comm.

hba1right.jpg (18475 bytes) hbatail.jpg (27571 bytes) hba1left.jpg (20568 bytes)

hba1back.jpg (21066 bytes)

hba1headback.jpg (22595 bytes)

Click on a picture to enlarge
(all images of HBA1 copyright Alan Frazier, all other images copyright Gregg Miner)

Knutsen Archives Inventory Number



Harp Bandurrias

                 Body Style

"Lower Treble Point"

                 Current or last known owner

Alan & Rachelle Frazier

                 Year (approx)



New Hawaiian Family half-label, white

                 Courses / Strings

6 courses: 14 strings

                 Scale length





Back & Sides

flame maple




dyed ?



Headstock veneer


Binding, trim










colored wood


fancy pearl fret markers


unknown with pearl inlaid butterfly


Missing nut, bridge and tailpiece. Patch repair in top.


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