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The Harp Guitar's Floating Strings

A modern harp guitar made by luthier Fred Carlson.
A modern harp guitar made by luthier Fred Carlson.

Upon discovering Gregg Miner's Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments in Tarzana, Calif., a couple years ago, Weekend Edition essayist Tim Brookes saw something called a harp guitar. Brookes humorously described it as a "combination guitar and wooden shoulder-mounted grenade launcher."

Well, it turns out not to be such an obscure instrument after all. There are thousands of harp guitars around in this country. Some 50 builders — called luthiers — still make them.

Miner is a harp guitar enthusiast who catalogs the history and multiple innovations of the strange, yet beautiful instrument on harpguitars.net. He is also co-producer of the CD Beyond Six Strings: A Collection of New Music for Harp Guitar.

Evidence presumably dates the harp guitar to 1650. A piece of music or two describes a five-stringed instrument on the neck with seven floating bass strings, yet a picture of the instrument from that time has not surfaced.

It was not until around 1770 that the real history of the harp guitar begins, when a six-stringed instrument with four floating bass strings appeared. Over time, the floating strings increased in number with the popularity of the instrument, often providing a full, descending bass scale.

The harp guitar really developed in America in 1890, with many builders particularly in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. A Norwegian immigrant, Chris Knutsen, improved on the instrument by creating a hollow arm extending out of the upper part of the guitar to hold the bass strings. It gave the instrument a great look and superior tone.

"To qualify as a harp guitar, as we define it today, it has to have at least one floating string," Miner says. "The strings don't just have to be basses; they can be treble strings or mid-range strings strung across the body, attached to the treble side. There's a wide variety of harp guitars, and that's what makes it both so difficult to describe and endlessly fascinating, because there is no one iconic harp guitar. There is an infinite variety."

Thirteen players contribute to Beyond Six Strings: A Collection of New Music for Harp Guitar, a compilation featuring the world's finest harp guitarists. Co-produced by Gregg Miner, the CD really focuses on the musicality and the melodic qualities of the instrument.

Interest in the instrument has grown considerably in the last few years. What began as an experiment just to see how many harp guitarists existed, the International Harp Guitar Gathering, will have its fifth annual convention in Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 27-28.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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