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Saturday, March 9, 2013

More than SIX?

A Jeffrey Yong MonkeyPod Harp
Taken from:

Arguably the six-string guitar is the most popular musical instrument in the world. There are over 50 million guitar players worldwide. With this sheer number, we have witnesses limitless of styles in playing guitar. Invariably, the design of this instrument has evolved from one era to another. One should not be surprised by the increase in strings on guitar, isn’t it? After all, the popular 12-string guitar has found its way into many genre of music as an accompanying instrument. Have you played a 12-string guitar? Even you have not, chances are you have already seen one.

Mike Doolin's Harp Guitar
In fact, as early as 17th century, there were string instruments that have more than 12 strings. They are of various forms. As music evolves, so did string instruments. In this article, harp guitar is placed in the limelight. I have to emphasize that I am no harp guitar aficionado. Therefore my knowledge in harp guitars is at best infancy. I hope this article can arouse your interest in learning more about this wonderful instrument. For those who are keen to read a professional harp guitarist’s (Dan LaVoie) thoughts and attitude towards playing harp guitar, please scroll to the lower sections right away.

My first encounter with a harp guitar was in Oregon, Portland. I visited Mike Doolin in 2011, a luthier who resides there. Mike has just completed building a harp guitar and I was fortunate enough to sample this multi-string instrument. There are little words to describe the entire experiences. I guess the picture on the above-right said it all.

One may assume that harp guitar originated from two instruments and the successful combination of the two conceives the today harp guitar. Long before harp guitar is called harp guitar, there were already such string instruments being built. Cleary the evolution in string instruments’ design was closely related to builders’ drive to innovate and players desire to create new genre in music. Very often every birth of a new type of musical instrument, the builder has the most influence in coining a name for it. However builders were not specialized in creating names thus the past attempts were arbitrary or blatantly misleading. The picture below is a string instrument built in by Naderman (Jean-Henri), Paris, 1773. It is called bissex, which literally means twice-six.

Naderman (Jean-Henri), bissex, Paris, 1773

There is an existing classification system to name musical instruments, i.e. organology. However it isn’t perfect. It was too rigid to accommodate the evolution nature of musical instruments with regards to the evolution of harp guitars. The eventuality was harp guitars carry different names in the past and in different places.

So what is actually a harp guitar? To the regular string instrument enthusiasts the definition is probably straightforward, i.e. the best of harp and guitar combined into a single instrument.

Through my infant attempt to learn more about harp guitar, I found a wonderful website that is dedicated to harp guitars, the There is no need to search farther about harp guitars once you visit this cool website.

I found these definitions of harp guitars
  • A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional "floating" unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking
  • The modern harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard; these unfretted strings are played as an open string
  • The word "harp" is a specific reference to the unstopped open strings, and is not specifically a reference to the tone, pitch range, volume, silhouette similarity, construction, floor-standing ability, nor any other alleged "harp-like" properties.

The amount of literature on harp guitars in is abundance. To read all of them would take a considerable amount of time. I will make my best attempt to share the interesting perspectives and facts regarding harp guitars in this article.

So what do you play a harp guitar? The simplest answer is just pluck or strum to strings.

The modern harp guitars seen widely today have taken frame design of Chris Knutsen’s one-arm harp guitar, which was patented in 1898 (source: Subsequently, the Knutsen design harp guitar got manufactured under William James Dyer& Bro Company and that lead to the birth of Dyer Harp Guitars. The infamous Type 2 that has a cloud bass headstock is probably most liked by harp guitar aficionados. I guess one isn’t a harp guitarist if he or she doesn’t know the Dyer Type 2.

Larson made - Dyer Type 2 1904 to 1920

Most dyer harp guitars have 6 bass sub-bass strings. From my limited knowledge in harp guitars and the playing techniques, the sub-bass strings can take on any tuning as desired by the players. The string gauges are likewise. A certainty is the sustaining notes and overtones from these sub-bass strings. Once pluck, as lauded by Dan LaVoie who is a professional harp guitarists, is likened to stepping on a sustain pedal all the time. It is then necessary to be skillful in sub-bass muting.

Another popular harp guitar is the Sullivan/Elliot design. This design has included super treble strings thus 20 plus strings is common for this design. Below is a Milburn 20-string concert harp guitar, it is a faithful adaptation of the original Sullivan-Elliott harp guitar created with/for John Doan.

Milburn 20-string concert harp guitar

There is so much more about harp guitars can be shared. However I shall cease discussing about harp guitars at this point and switch to the introduction of Dan LaVoie.

I met Dan in Shanghai in 2011 during the International Finger Style Guitar Festival. He is absolutely cool and approachable. Being the only Harp Guitar player in the festival, he has certainly created an impression. There are many multi-string players but Dan is totally dedicated to harp guitars.

Dan and I
Taken from Dan’s website; “As one of the few musicians in the world actively composing and performing on the rare harp guitar, Dan LaVoie brings a unique sound and texture to fans of acoustic music… After playing the six-string guitar for several years, Dan picked up the harp guitar in 2001 and has since composed solely for this instrument. Bridge Guitar Reviews said Dan’s self-titled 2003 debut album contained “…soulful atmosphere and a skilled and progressive approach to music. The music Dan produces has deep basses and well-executed melody lines.” Click link to read more:

Enjoy a live performance of Dan in YouTube!

Regularly we converse over Facebook chat and I took the opportunity to interview this cool guy. Here it is…

Interview with Dan LaVoie, done over Facebook chat on 5 March 2013.

Me - If a layman asked;"Why are there so many strings on your guitar?" What is your response?
Dan - *laughs* I will explain that it is a harp guitar dating back to the early 19th century. Harp guitarists usually played with a mandolin player and it was called parlor music back then. It was in the 19th century that Harp Guitars fell out of fashion and people stopped playing them. Notably the ripple effects from the great depression has exacerbated the trend to minimize spending on lifestyle related items. The prolonged effects have literally killed the popularity of Harp Guitars because people simply struggled from daily related expenses let alone buying harp guitars. That is the past, at least… My love for this instrument has driven me to take on a personal mission, i.e. to bring it back from the dead and show people how much great music can be created from harp guitar. In contrast to remind string instruments lovers of what they are missing out from such an amazing instrument (Harp Guitar).

Me - So harp guitars fell out favor because they are expensive?
Dan - One of the main reasons I believed. Perhaps the size, and they are certainly harder to pick up if you compare harp to six-string guitars.

Me - Obviously with more strings, musicians will have more options. So what can you get out of Harp Guitars that a regular can't?
Dan - First the low sub basses, the rich complex overtones… almost sounds like a guitar with a sustain pedal on all the time. This brings me to the topic of sub bass muting, but we will get into that later at the workshop. I just fell in love with those tones and harp guitars instantly.

Me- In terms of genre of music, does the nature of Harp Guitar kinda restrict it?
Dan - Definitely not. I believe harp guitars have no boundary to the type of music. It is all up the player.

Me - What might a style of playing you considered not suitable to be executed on a Harp Guitar?
Dan - Well… how about "Heavy Metal?" *laughs*

Me - What about the use of guitar effects for Harp Guitar?
Dan - Well, it depends on the player. I strictly use Tc electronics... the Nova reverb, and the SCF chorus pedal (only for certain parts of a song). My first CD had a song called "On the drive home" which was recorded live in concert using a loop station.

Me - In terms of Harp Guitar players, how do you guys and gals differentiate one from another?
Dan - It boils down to personality. Everyone can play the same song on harp guitar, but each will play it differently due to personality and how one interprets the essence within the song.

Me - Who is your Harp Guitar hero(s)?
Dan - Harp Guitar heros… hmm… First on my mind is Michael Hedges, also Stephen Bennet and Andy Mckee who is like a brother to me. However most of my influences come from Michael Hedges and Richie Havens. Both will remain as my top 2. They have changed my life ever since I learned about their music and playing.

Andy McKee and Dan LaVoie

Me - So Michael Hedges and Richie Havens have inspired you to become a Harp Guitar player?
Dan - Michael Hedges inspired me to find and buy a Harp Guitar. Richie Havens' song writing and rhythm have been the vital influences and sources of inspiration in my development in harp guitar playing, which is something I try to bring into my music. And this year 2013 marks the 10th year of performing and touring with my career as a professional harp guitarists.

Me - Is family support essential to allow you to grow in Harp Guitar playing?
Dan - It was in the beginning, I believe any artist needs family support and a solid foundation in order to gain the strength to work at it.

-End of interview-

Most content written in this article with regards to harp guitar was aided by the literature from This amazing website is maintained by Gregg Miner. The abundance and detail provided by this website are simply unparalleled. It is already daunting to read all the articles, let alone writing them. I truly appreciate Gregg’s unrelenting attitude in emphasizing accuracy and completeness, which resulted in the many useful harp guitar articles. Thanks for reading!

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