04 Jul Guitar Variations: The Harp Guitar
The Harp guitar is one of the most interesting variations on the standard guitar, it has a very beautiful sound and can be found in both electronic and acoustic versions.
I came across a word with an interesting sound the other day, one I hadn’t really heard before. The word was ‘retronym’.
A retronym is essentially a brand new name for something, usually required by the passage of time and/or new technology. The best example is World War I, which wasn’t World War I at all until World War II came along. Another famous example, and the reason I’m writing this, is ‘acoustic guitar’ a name which didn’t exist until the electric guitar came along and made it necessary to distinguish between the two. In case you’re wondering, the term ‘retronym’ was first used in 1980 by Frank Mankiewicz, an American journalist, former president of the USA’s NPR (National Public Radio) and, incidentally (for movie buffs) son of Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane.
One of the most interesting things about the acoustic guitar, as opposed to it’s electric cousin, is that it comes in many variations, which you might imagine would by now be consigned to history, but quite a few have made a come back in recent years.
One such is the harp guitar, an instrument with many configurations and sounds, which can be defined as a guitar with additional strings which can be plucked but which are un-fretted, in other words there are usually the standard six strings which are played as normal PLUS others; one or more, which are usually lower in pitch and which are always played open, just like the strings of a harp.
Some harp guitars have treble or mid range strings or even both. Many have one or more curved arms which gives the instrument a harp like appearance, others simply have two necks. In all cases the sound of the instrument can be amplified by pickups on both the harp and guitar strings, creating a completely unique sound which is very rich and has great depth.
Harp guitars include instruments which are truly unique, and many which would look at home in a science fiction film. What they are most definitely not, are harps. The definition of a harp requires the strings to be at right angles to the sounding board, putting harp guitars more in the zither class than harp itself.
While the harp was invented somewhere before recorded history began, (they are clearly shown in Egyptian tomb paintings) the harp guitar seems to have made it’s appearance around 150-200 years ago and was quite common around the turn of the century and up to the 1930’s. After that the instrument seemed to drift completely out of favor. The sound is not the same s that of the six stringed guitar, and the result of difference was disapproval from some quarters.
Famous guitarist Julian Bream began his career playing a harp guitar, and not just any guiar, this was a Selmer-Maccaferri. A picture exists showing your Julian, at around 13 years of age, playing his harp guitar. The picture was taken during a visit to Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar Magazine when Julian was just about to be ‘discovered’ and appeared on the magazine’s cover in June 1947. Julian’s first teacher, Dr Boris Perrot, had owned a Russian harp guitar and advocated the use of these extra strings, in fact Julian’s father enjoyed the sound so much he helped build the guitar into the logo of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists, so he was very willing to look for suitable instrument for his talented son. His choice was a nine stringed harp guitar said to have been played by Maccaferri himself. Despite this, when Julian Bream gave his first concerts, he used a conventional, six stringed guitar, so what happened?
Apparently it is all down to one man, Wilfred Appleby, a member of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists who was partially responsible for the launch of Breams career. Unlike Bream senior he was not enamoured of the harp guitar, in fact he described it as a ‘freak instrument’. Appleby wrote that ‘no music requiring extra strings is really representative guitar music’ and demanded that Julian use a conventional guitar for his debut.
The rest, as they say, is history. Without this narrow view, the world of guitar music might be very different today, but happily the harp guitar is now making a come back, in both acoustic and electronic form. There have now been seven harp guitar gatherings held at various locations in the USA, the next, HGG8 is to be held in in Indianapolis in November 12th – 14th 2010. If you’d like to participate, how about some acoustic guitar lessons?