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by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella
Harp Guitar -
W. J. Dyer & Bro. Symphony #8, ca. 1920
For those dedicated individuals who tirelessly search for the elusive harp guitar, this is the Holy Grail - the Dyer Symphony Harp Guitar with six sub-bass strings and full mother-of-pearl "Tree of Life" inlay. This is the top-of-the-line version of what is undoubtedly the best-sounding, best-playing harp guitar ever made - an instrument cherished by collectors and players alike.
It is known that Dyer and his siblings ran a hugely successful combination music school, performance hall and store in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the turn of the century. More unusual, and exceedingly eccentric, in my opinion, is their exclusive and very singular line of harp guitars and harp mandolins, along with what I believe is the world's only harp mandola and harp mandocello!
Though the label states "manufactured by W .J. Dyer & Bro.," don't believe it - these instruments were commissioned and entirely built by the highly regarded Larson brothers (August and Carl), the real stars of this story. During their forty-plus years of production in Chicago, this low-profile, virtually two-man shop built thousands of guitars and mandolins under a bewildering array of brand names, along with lines for other "manufacturers." Today their flat-top guitars (if you can find one) enjoy a sort of "underground" cult status as some of America's highest-quality instruments of their kind - perhaps second only to the Martin Company's.
Interestingly, Dyer's first harp guitars, though built by the Larsons, were patterned after various styles of Chris Knutsen's instruments, whose patent hadn't yet expired (Click here). Knutsen also signed the labels (even though two-thousand miles away) - so I assume there was some sort of legal agreement between them. I'm fairly certain that Dyer's harp mandolins were also copied from one of Knutsen's many examples. The present guitar is definitely a step up in construction and aesthetics from Knutsen's creations, and supported by the fact that he never built a model like this, I believe it Larson-designed.
I find this fanciful guitar an incredibly beautiful instrument to gaze at, to hold, to hear, to play - and I strived to make this arrangement equally so. In many of my guitar explorations a non-standard tuning evolves as the arrangement progresses (like the Knutsens in Vol.2, which are each in completely different tunings!). This one ended up as C,E,F,F#,G,G# / A,c,g,c',d',e' (all this requires total re-stringing with custom gauging - so kids, don't try this at home).
Addendum, April, 2002:
A harp mandola by Knutsen is now known. I don't know of a Dyer discovered yet, though there are two known Dyer harp mandocellos.
The interesting relationship between Dyer and Knutsen is explored in chapter 4 of From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen by George T. Noe & Daniel L. Most. Essential reading!
Also in the same chapter, the authors set the date of the Dyers as much earlier than previously estimated - but as mine hasn't the Knutsen-signed label, it is after 1912.
I have yet to see a Knutsen mandolin exactly like the Dyer to show that the latter was copied. Until I do, I'll have to say the Dyer was "inspired by."
The late Scott Chinery, who owned over 1000 vintage guitars of the very highest quality, said his Dyer harp guitar style #8 was the best sounding guitar in the entire collection. I believe him.