Volume 6, Issue 1, April, 2007


by Tim Donahue


Editor's Note:  After watching Tim perform at his workshop for the 4th Annual International Harp Guitar Gathering in Naples, Florida, I asked him if he would pen an article about his remarkable approach to music and his fascinating self-invented harp guitar techniques.  He has generously obliged with an entire series!  I had originally imagined this presentation more as a "How I" than a "How To" article - thinking that Tim is the only one that has this instrument and the only one who can perform the techniques.  But Tim has written a true player's article, and explains below which instruments these techniques can be applied to.  I also believe that the article will be equally interesting to those who may never play a similar instrument.  And who knows - it may even inspire someone to adapt a Dyer-style or other acoustic harp guitar to this configuration (I, for one, am very curious to hear how these techniques would translate to an acoustic instrument!).  Regardless, Tim's creative efforts have once again reminded me that there are indeed no limits.  The "world is your oyster" and the harp guitar its future!  - Gregg Miner

I’d like to thank Gregg for this opportunity to pass along some of my ideas relating to electric harp guitar composition & performance.  It seems that while some of the concepts I utilize are common to harp guitarists, some others are quite unusual.  Because my overall approach to the harp guitar is slightly left-of-center, let’s start with an overview of my instruments and my approach in playing them.

Even though my instruments are one-of-a-kind, the workshop is for players who have treble harp courses on their instrument like John Doan's or many of the other varieties that exist.  So the exercises and playing approach I outline in the article are specifically geared toward those instruments, rather than the bass-oriented harp guitars.  At the same time, I'm in the middle of having my guitars produced on a custom-order basis, with the hope they will eventually become available to more players.  In that respect, the workshop will be even more directly applicable.


In 1984, I designed and built the two varieties of harp guitar I play today - fretless and fretted.

The desire to perform solo was the impetus behind making these instruments, but with their wide tonal range and built in synth/MIDI capability they’ve been workhorses in a wide variety of musical situations over the years.

Both guitars were originally fretless, but one is now fretted and has taken over as my main instrument.

So we’ll focus on fretted harp guitar in this workshop.


My fretless harp guitar compositions feature different tunings for each piece.  This is fine in the studio, but live performances have always been tricky because song order is dependent on choosing songs back-to-back whose tunings vary in a gradual, step-wise way.  Drastic tuning departures take more time to nail between songs.  Over the years I’ve gotten quick at navigating multitudes of tunings in concert, but I must admit it can be a nightmare.

Now, I rarely if ever, touch the tuners during a concert and life is great!  What happened?

After fretting the maple harp guitar a couple of years ago, I ran across a tuning that has given me more compositional freedom than others I’ve used before.  Since then, I estimate writing over a hundred pieces in this new tuning alone.  Here it is:

GUITAR (low to high): E-A-D-G-B-D


HARP (low to high): A-B-C#-D-E-F# 

You’ll notice the guitar is basically in standard tuning, with the exception of the high E tuned down to D. This immediately gives G major triad inversions DGB & GBD on open strings and chromatically across any barre. These triads sound great when played with the harmonics technique I employ, which I’ll discuss later.

One advantage of this tuning is that being so close to standard guitar, improvising solos is easy (but of course, the player must watch out for the lowered D).  It’s amazing how altering even one string from standard tuning gives the fingerboard a different harmonic “feel”. 

At first glance, the harp section is tuned straight up an A major scale.  Interestingly enough though, I have yet to write anything in A major!  Since these 6 notes are also diatonic to D major, B minor, F# minor, and modes of E Dorian, E Mixolydian , G Lydian, C# Phrygian, etc., I don’t really think of the harp as being “tuned” to any one key, not even the obvious A major.

Besides A, B, C#, D, E, F# being diatonic to the keys above, many other keys are possible in this tuning.

Some of them include G major (avoiding the C#) and D minor (avoiding C# and F#).  In a key like F major, only three harp notes are diatonically available (A, D & E), and Bb major has even less (A & D).  Even though fewer harp notes are available in these keys, my composition approach integrates the harp and guitar sections, and I rarely feel the need for more notes on the harp (or changing tuning).  I’ll be explaining this approach more in detail in future articles, but for now let’s remember that one’s approach to composing is the key to being able to utilize the harp notes available at any given moment, in the key of the moment.  This is certainly true for all harp guitarists, as no single tuning gives equal freedom to play in all keys (outside of using sharpening levers on the harp).


The next discussion is not specifically related to harp guitar, but relates very much to how I approach music and in turn, harp guitar.  From a very early age, I can remember seeing red and white colors in my mind as I listened to my mother play Debussy’s Claire De Lune on our living room piano.  I was just a few years old, but the memory is vivid today.  Since then, I’ve always visualized musical pitches & notes in color and have never given this much thought- seeing music in color was as natural to me as breathing.

But a few years ago I happened to watch a TV documentary about this phenomenon.  It turns out I experience “synesthesia”, a condition where the senses are cross-wired, so to speak.  People with synesthesia “see” music, “hear” shapes, “smell” colors, etc.  More on this topic can be found here.

Without getting too much into the issue of synesthesia, I must say that my approach to the harp guitar is heavily based on seeing colors of each note on the instrument.  In my mind, each harp note has a specific color, as does every note of the fingerboard, including harmonics up and down each string.  Every G is red, every B is yellow, every C is orange, A & D are both blue (but A is lighter than D).  F#, G# and C# are all shades of brown, but each is distinct in my mind.  I’ve never sat down and memorized these relationships - they are a part of me naturally. 

I’ve come to realize how this music/color visualization enabled me to play in a multitude of tunings during my fretless harp guitar days.  Music color/visualization also enables me to “zone out” and play without the need to look at the fingerboard.  Most of all, I remember how to play songs by the way colors come to me in my mind, during a performance.  If the colors aren’t coming to me on a given night, then I’m playing the music less naturally, with more thought involved.

As a practical matter, music theory to me not only concerns note names like A, B, C, E, F#, Bb, but concerns the relationships between reds, blues, browns, whites, yellows, etc.

Here’s an example: 

When I play a Bmin9 (voiced B-F#-C#-D low to high) on the fingerboard, I not only think “root, 5th, 9th, minor 3rd”, but I also see “yellow, medium brown, dark brown, dark blue” in my mind.  At the same time, since the harp is tuned A-B-C#-D-E-F#, I not only think of their theoretical relationship to B minor (namely b7th, root, 9th, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th), I also see their corresponding colors (light blue, yellow, dark brown, dark blue, white, medium brown) in my mind.  The colors tell me these notes are diatonic to the key of B minor, and thus confirm that any harp string can be played against the Bmin9 chord I’m fingering on the fingerboard.

Given this approach, it’s easy to see how synesthesia has helped to integrate notes on the fingerboard and harp in my mind.  Synesthesia also reinforces the relationship between melody and harmony.  This is especially useful on the harp guitar, as harp guitarists often play a melody and chordal accompaniment at the same time.

How does all this relate to the player who doesn’t “see” music in color?

If anything, I think it’s important to realize that we all have vastly different ways to perceive music.

I’ve never thought that my musical color perception was anything out of the ordinary.  It’s like breathing to me (and no one goes around discussing how one breathes, right?).  But on further examination, it’s clear that this way of perceiving music has directly shaped my approach to the harp guitar.  And for the player who wishes to know how I create music on the harp guitar, I hope this discussion sheds some light on part of the process.


Although I mostly play solidbody electric harp guitar, many of the techniques I employ work on acoustic harp guitar as well.  Let’s dissect my basic technique:

  • The right hand plays the harp notes only.  Rarely do I ever pluck a note on the fingerboard with the right hand, unless I want that note to stand out.

  •  The left hand plays notes on the fingerboard only, by tapping, plucking, “flicking” notes, as well as doing hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc.

  • The techniques above are used in conjunction with “ornamentational” techniques such as harp harmonics, fingerboard harmonics, “brushing” the harp strings, muting, banging the harp head, plucking  behind the bridge, etc.  I can’t wait to describe each one of these in detail!  But let’s get my basic technique under our fingers first.


This simple exercise will foster coordination between the right & left hands.  The idea is to alternate tapped fingerboard notes with harp notes.  Taken further, this technique can create beautifully cascading melodies, which I use extensively in my compositions.  Try to get this cascading effect by letting the fingerboard notes ring slightly over the attack of the harp notes.  No muting on the harp is necessary, so let all notes ring!

  • Black = fingerboard note

  • Red = harp note

  • Blue = 8va harp harmonic (right hand index finger touches the harmonic, ring finger plucks the note)

A) Going up an A major scale:  A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A  and down:  A-G#-F#-E-D-C#-B-A

B) Going up an A Dorian scale:  A-B-C-D-E-F#-G-A  and down:  A-G#-F#-E-D-C-B-A

     (The harp A harmonic is played on the lowest harp string, at the midway octave point)



This exercise starts on the open G string on the fingerboard and ends at the 12th fret harmonic on the same string.. Pluck the open G with the left hand middle finger, and play the 12th string harmonic by laying the left hand pinky across the 12th fret and plucking the note with the left hand first finger. These techniques themselves will require some practice.  Practice until they feel natural and sound smooth in the following exercises:

  • Black = fingerboard note

  • Red = harp note

  • Purple = fingerboard G string, 12th fret (8va) harmonic.

C) Going up a G Lydian scale:  G-A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G  and down:  G-F#-E-D-C#-B-A-G

Alternating notes between the fingerboard and harp can be done with all kinds of melodies, in many keys.

Next installment:  

  • Alternating note exercises in different keys

  • Creating cascading arpeggios

  • Doubled/unison melodies

Tim Donahue is a pioneer in the development of the rare fretless electric guitar and the rarer fretless electric harp guitar.  He designed and built his own instruments in the 1980s and used some of those when studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Since then, projects have included jazz, rock, progressive metal, and music for various film and television productions.  Inspired by the Fourth Annual Harp Guitar Gathering, Tim has recently focused attention again on solo work with his fretted harp guitar.  He has developed an unusual method of playing his electric harp guitars using his right hand to pluck the harp strings while his left hand taps notes on the neck.  Tim is a well known recording and performing artist in his adopted homeland, Japan. - FD

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