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28 Jun Harp Guitars: A Strange Breed

Harp guitars are extremely interesting and odd-looking instruments. Quite frankly, if a guitar and a harp were to have a baby, it would look like this instrument: hence the name, I suppose. It is difficult to describe a harp guitar, far better that one should actually look the instrument up. However, in essence, a harp guitar looks like a guitar with an additional, elongated neck coming out of the top. The strings of this second neck mimic the strings of a harp. This description hardly does the instrument justice, but it gives a general impression. Suffice it to say, harp guitars are not something you see every day.

The history of the harp guitar is not as long as either of the two instruments it is named for, both of which are thought to have been around for thousands of years. The harp guitar, on the other hand, has only existed for a few centuries. Its history is a bit muddled, and instrument historians believe that over the course of time, several different and unrelated stringed instruments have claimed the appellation of “harp guitar.” However, the definition of today is something along the lines of “A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.” Good, I’m glad someone was able to define it.

Because the definition of this instrument is so broad, the category can and does include an almost limitless variety of configurations. The number of strings, both on the “guitar” and the “harp” portions, can vary significantly. The instrument may be acoustical or electric, bass or treble. Even the number of necks can vary. While the average (and I use the term advisedly) harp guitar has two necks, some versions have as many as four. The Pikasso, for example has four necks, two sound holes and a grand total of 42 strings that when strung up to high tension, create approximately 1000 lbs of pressure. Wow. Needless to say, such variety makes for a similar about of confusion, which explains the haphazard and often incomplete nature of the information available on this instrument.

When being played, a harp guitar is held like a standard guitar. The “harp” strings are usually tuned to lower notes than the “guitar” strings, which allows for an added bass range. However, some harp guitars feature “harp” strings tuned higher than the “guitar” strings, yet another instance of the variety available in these instruments.

The harp guitar has never taken the world by storm. Its artists, like the instrument itself, are not household names. It has, however, created a strong enough following that it has managed to stay around for about two hundred years, and that’s more than some instruments can claim. The most easily identifiable harp guitars are the American versions, which have either hollow arms, double necks or harp-like frames that support the unstopped strings. There is also a European bass version, called a kontragitarre: these however, are even rarer than the average harp guitar.

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