Harp Guitars

Harp guitars are individual creations in their own right. To date I have made five - small bodied Concert sized ladder braced instrument with six sub-bass strings; a multi-scale Taropatch Harp Ukulele; a muti-scale Grand Concert sized instrument with six sub-bass strings based around my Samhain model, a Baritone with four sub-bass strings based around my Treebeard model and a Parlour in Terz tuning. If you are interested in having a harp guitar made then contact me to discuss it further.





This is my small bodied Concert sized ladder braced instrument with six sub-bass strings designed to be played in DADGAD and other open tunings. He is called Jacob (Jacob climbed the ladder to heaven where the angels play . . . harps) with a Lutz spruce top and English walnut back and sides. The main strings have a scale length of 624mm and the sub basses are around 710mm. Here is a recording of me playing a medley of "Voyage D'Irelande/Terry Teehans/Lucy's Reel" (Pierre Bensusan/trad/Mike McGoldrick) on "Jacob".


"Jacob" is now owned by talented young guitarist Dale Campbell and you can see them both in action here:







I've always been attracted to the unusual and people who plough their own furrows rather than following the mainstream. Since reading Gregg Miner's wonderfull article on Harp Ukuleles I wanted to build one of my own with "a tip of the hat" to Christopher Knutsen's creations, but not a copy - one in my own style. So I decided to make one using "bits and pieces" from around the workshop. The instrument is called Ferdinand as it's an arch-uke (that's a First World War European joke ). I decided on a multi-scale instrument based around a tenor ukulele scale and chose 424mm for the treble scale, 445mm for the bass scale with 13 frets clear of the body and based around my travel guitar body size. I wanted to make the bracing "interesting" so decided on a Taropatch with four sub-bass strings so that I could use mandolin tuners for the main neck and half a set for the hollow arm. The top is a European Spruce mandolin top covered in bearclaw that I had joined and "rosetted" and then forgotten about in the workshop. The back, sides, neck and hollow arm peghead are sapele offcuts from a door frame being thrown out by a local architectural woodworking firm a few years ago. and the peghead veneers are East Indian Rosewood off-cuts. The fingerboard is a scrap of nice Macassar ebony and the bridge is English Walnut. The hollow arm is "joined" to the body on the front using an EIR strip, and to make it look "planned" rather than make-do, I curved the edges and cut an elliptical sound hole there. The binding is curly koa, and curly narra on the fingerboard. The tuners are Gotoh mandolin. The main neck is strung with Aquila nylgut Low G Tenor ukulele strings, and the sub-basses are D'Addario Classical guitar strings - 6th, 5th, 5th and 4th. I have the instrument in G C E F GG CC DD GG tuning. Here is a recording of me playing "Waffen Waltz/Ferdinand" in this tuning. The first piece was written by Chris Wood and the second is my own composition.


Samhain Fada Lámh



"Samhain Fada Lámh" means Samhain Long Arm. He has a Lutz Spruce top and mahogany back and sides (reclaimed from an Edwardian Bureau). He has a multi-scale length of 630-660mm and is Grand Concert sized. Here's a recording of me playing my own composition "Winter Sun" on this guitar in FGABbCGDADGAD tuning.


Here's a video of me demonstrating "Samhain Fada Lámh":






Acoustic baritone guitars are mysterious beasts indeed, they are usually designed to be tuned five semitones down from a "normal" guitar and five of their six strings share the same range - E to B or the bottom five strings of an EADGBE instrument. The baritone low string is what it's all about and there are similar problems to acoustic bass guitars here. To go down to the low A you need a long scale length, around 29" or more, a big guitar body to help support the low frequency notes and the choice of back and side woods that support the low frequencies but give clarity and separation between the strings. A reverb rich Rosewood may well not be your friend here. You also hit the problem of string gauge - beyond 0.070" and you are into double wound strings which sound very different purely acoustically. Some builders believe that the physics of longer strings and heavier gauge mean that they need a much higher string tension than on say a 25.5" scale length instrument even in the same note range to function efficiently. I currently think that what is happening here is that these high tensions are giving a power to the more normal mid-bass notes that makes the ear think that it hears the really low notes more strongly - with these string tension the baritone will certainly "roar" but, you have to brace the top much more heavily for this and I personally don't think this to be a very good trade off overall. I brace mine as for a normal Jumbo sized guitar and aim for around 170lb string tension. Purely acoustically I have yet to hear a baritone that works really well on a low A or G note, plug it in and that's a different story, and purely acoustically I personally think that baritones work best in the C-C range.


Then I had a "eureka" moment about other ways to fool the ears for these low notes - on my hollow arm harp guitars and hollow necked acoustic lap-slide guitars the bass notes are really deep and resonant, more so than on normal guitars. The extra length and body volume of the hollow neck/arm adds resonance and reverberation. So I got to thinking - what would happen if you made a baritone with a hollow arm? I also started thinking about the long scale length of baritones and that this was really there for the lowest note so wouldn't a multi-scale make great sense here? This has been done on baritones by many makers. Having a hollow arm without any sub-bass strings seems a bit of a waste and I noticed on my other hollow arm harp guitars that the addition of sub bass strings helps the fretted bass notes even more via the sympathetic vibrations - another trick on the ear. The multi-scale approach now makes even more sense as the transition to lower sub-bass strings calls for longer scale length string by string and with a multi-scale this means that the bridge design and the way it drives the top is much more efficient as the slanted bridge stays more on the central active area of the lower bout.


OK - I was sold on the idea and it was time to see if it would work. First I needed a name - easy, my baritones are called "Treebeard" so this had to be "Fangorn", older and deeper! Next was scale lengths - I've found that a 30mm difference between scales with the ninth fret as the orthogonal one works well so 705-735mm it will be. Then it's the playability of such a large beast - the biggest influence on my harp guitar designs has been Stephen Sedgwick whose instruments are smaller and more compact than most, so applying this to my "Treebeard" model results in a guitar that is probably still more compact than a Dyer, and in addition using a Manzer/Cumpiano type wedge with the treble side deeper than the bass side helps. I thought about a cutaway but I wanted maximum body depth here (widdley notes above the 15th fret are probably not going to feature much in the repertoire of this instrument). So this just left the question of how may sub-bass strings and the wood choices. After considering tunings, playability and string load on the top I settled on four sub bass strings. The main strings are tuned BbFBbEbFBb tunings and this would give the option of something like EFGA or FGAEb for the sub-bass strings with 0.070" as the fattest string. For woods I chose a nice Lutz spruce Weissenborn top from Shane Neifer that was be made to work with some creative wood inlay on the hollow arm, and an African wood that was bought over 30 years ago by a local wood turner that I think will work - I think it might be Ovangkol - for the back and sides.Baritone harp guitars aren't that common and I haven't managed to find any with a hollow arm so this could be new territory.


I think that the experiment has been a success and you can listen to some recodings of me playing Fangorn and judge for yourselves. The first is my arrangement of "The Snows They Melt The Soonest" in Db F Ab Eb Bb F Bb Eb Ab Bb. Next is Lennon/McCartney's "She's Leaving Home" in C B Ab Eb Bb F Bb Eb Ab Bb tuning followed by "Strawberry Fields Forever" in the same tuning.


Here's a video of Mark Thomson playing one of his own compositions on "Fangorn":






This is my small bodied Parlour sized instrument with six sub-bass strings using a floating bridge designed to be played in Terz tuning three semitones higher than standard tuning. She is called Fimbrethil - the lost entwife of Fangorn that Tolkien loosely translated as "Slender Princess". She has a Lutz spruce top and Mahogany, probably Cuban, back and sides reclaimed from the same Edwardian bureau used to make Samhain Fada Lámh. The main strings have a scale length of 610mm and the sub basses are around 760mm. Here's a recording of me playing my own composition "Rainy Day Tune on "Fimbrethil".


Here's a a couple of videos of Keith Chesterton playing "Fimbrethil". Firstly his own composition "The Slender Princess":



Next his arrangement of the Christmas Carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel":



You can listen to the pronunciation of my harp guitar names here.