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Gibson Harp Guitars
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" Medley
(V. Guaraldi & Lee Mendelson, 1965)
   
  (Left to right)

16-Course Harp Guitar - Gibson, ca. 1906

16-Course Harp Guitar
-
Gibson Style U, 1916

 

 

Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

The harp guitar is a fanciful creation hung on a wall so that people can point and say what is THAT? You will find them hanging in museums, guitar shops, and collectors' homes for this purpose, but will almost never see one being played. They apparently look so intimidating that even most guitarists can't imagine doing it. When I finally came face to face with one, I realized that, OK, there's a bunch of open bass strings suspended on the left - but on the right is a six-string, fretted neck exactly like a guitar! Further inspection revealed that it was indeed tuned and played in normal guitar fashion, ignoring those extra "drone" strings. Now, if you want to actually use those strings, you have a couple choices. With a pick, you can do a "boom-chick" rhythm, striking an open bass "harp" string, then a chord on the neck. Fingerstyle guitarists can do the same thing, alternating with the thumb and fingers, or playing both at once provided they can reach the distance. The "harp" strings, so called because they're reminiscent of a harp in appearance and tone (the harp's bass strings, that is), can be tuned to the root notes of the most common chords or in a descending scale (either diatonic or chromatic), beginning above or below the low E-string on the guitar neck.

The Gibson "Style U" (red model), made from 1913 through the late 1920s, is by far the most commonly encountered harp guitar today. I always thought it was the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy guitar in existence until I learned that Gibson's original "Orville-label" harp guitar was even larger. Measuring a whopping twenty-one inches across the lower bout (the guitar's "hips"), it is quite a lapful! The other main difference from the Style U is the attached "scroll" bridge instead of the later floating "trapeze" tailpiece. The standard "The Gibson" logo had not yet been added to the headstock - instead it has the rare "moon and star" inlay, a personal Orville Gibson trademark. Incidentally, Orville himself developed the first carved top and back, steel-string guitars (known as "archtops") at the turn of the century. Thus, these Gibsons stand out as the only archtop harp guitars ever built, renowned not for their sound (which is somewhat weak in a live setting), but for their tremendous craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty. The ultimate wall-hanger.

Note: In my booklets, I originally used a hyphen to spell "harp-guitars" - as this was Gibson's (and other's) original spelling. But since I seem to be the only guy around doing it, I've since started dropping the hyphen.

Copyright 2000
Miner Music