Following is an interview published after my visit and concert in Rigomagno – a thousand year old hilltop village in Tuscany, Italy. Used with permission.
We are curious to know how it all began: it’s such a peculiar instrument, how did you get interested in the harp-guitar?
In a world increasingly filled with machine made things that are all made the same I have found it refreshing to celebrate the unusual. I grew up in Venice, California in the United States – a place inspired by Venezia in Italy. I guess beauty and the unusual seemed to go together in my youth and while in my teens I played the 12 string guitar and a double neck electric in a rock band. Later, while studying music at a university I was introduced to classical guitar. I really enjoyed the music for the lute and was amazed at the sound of its many strings. When I later found a century old harp guitar on the back wall of a music store it called to me with its beautiful shape and unusual collection of extra strings. I was achingly curious and wanted to transform its silence and neglect into something alive and vibrant. It was and continues to be an adventure to play music on the harp guitar.
What’s the origin of the harp-guitar? And what about your instrument? Did you have it built especially for you? In this case, where did you find the model? Is it an original model you designed?
The harp guitar in America was first popular from the 1890’s through the 1920’s. People played them in mandolin orchestras, vaudeville shows, and in their parlors. In Europe the harp guitar was becoming popular as early as the 1840’s and grew in popularity up through the early 1900’s especially in Germany and in Italy. Pasquale Taraffo is one of the great Italian masters of the instrument in the early 20th century. To learn more about this amazing player from your own history check out the information on Taraffo on the Harp Guitars site.
Regarding my instrument, I commissioned it in 1986 from John Sullivan with oversight and design by Jeffrey Elliott of Portland, Oregon. Jeffrey had made guitars for Julian Bream, Ralph Towner, etc. and I was excited to see how he would approach the challenges of so many strings and meet my requirements of evenness of tone using steel strings. Although based on the Knutsen, Dyer, and Gibson harp guitars from a century earlier it was completely redesigned to be a master instrument that would sound evenly across all its range (like the piano). It is considered the “first modern harp guitar” of our times. Scores of copies have been made and it was recently on the cover of the magazine “American Lutherie.” Continue reading →
“The Inevitable Harp Guitar- Recurring Cycles in Guitar Evolution” was published in Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine No.66, and is used here with permission. For more information on harp guitar history go to harpguitars.net.
Back in the early 1970’s in my college studies on guitar I was very taken by the music from the renaissance and baroque eras and was intrigued that much of the material was originally intended for instruments beyond six strings. Having played twelve-string guitar and a double neck electric guitar in bands multi-stringed instruments seemed familiar to me. Just out of school I got an eight-course renaissance lute as well as a fourteen-course theorbo to play original lute music and included them in my guitar concerts.
Over time I began to recognize all sorts of multi-stringed instruments in some music shops, museums, and in books on instruments and was curious that hardly anyone played them or even seemed to know much about them. There were various lute-guitars (a.k.a. “lutars”) from late 19th/early 20th century Germany (those who think poorly of them call them “gututes”), Basse-guitares or Schrammel guitars from Europe (especially from Sweden, France, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe), and harp guitars from early 20th century America.
These guitars all had an extended bass range with up to twelve additional strings. I even found a harp guitar made by Chris Knutsen in Port Townsend, Washington from the late 1890’s with seven additional super-trebles attached to the right of the ordinary six strings of the guitar. In time I acquired a Gibson harp guitar (literally hundreds were made in Gibson’s first twenty years), a Dyer harp guitar (made by the Larson brothers and still popular today especially since adopted by such great players like Michael Hedges and Stephen Bennett, among others), and various lesser known makes. I finally commissioned a twenty-string harp guitar (perhaps the first modern constructed harp guitar design in our times) from John Sullivan and Jeffrey Elliott of Portland, Oregon in 1985 and haven’t looked back since. *(note: William Eaton was building amazing multi-stringed creations of his own even before this). Continue reading →
In the November/December 2006 issue of Home & Lifestyle magazine for the Willamette Valley, my wife and I were featured on the cover. Our home was decorated from top to bottom for Christmas in the middle of August. My wife, Deirdra, worked overtime to make our home warm, wonderful, and inviting for the holiday season.