The Harp Guitar's Floating Strings The strange, yet beautiful harp guitar is typically a six-stringed instrument with any number of bass strings "floating" on its side. Exotic instrument collector Gregg Miner catalogs the history of the harp guitar on his Web site and it is gaining curious interest.

The Harp Guitar's Floating Strings

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

And on the subject of guitars, a couple of years ago on this program, essayist Tim Brookes introduced us to something called the harp guitar. He found it at Gregg Miner's Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments in Tarzana, California.

The harp guitar looks kind of like a standard guitar. But in addition to the guitar's neck, there's another arm that contains five harp-like strings. Brookes describe the instrument as a combination guitar and wooden shoulder-mounted grenade launcher.

Gregg Miner has co-produced a compilation CD called "Beyond Six Strings: A Collection of New Music for Harp Guitar." On one track, Miner plays his own harp guitar - an 1899 beauty designed by Chris Knutsen.

Miner made sure to have it with him when we invited him to the studios of NPR West this past week. And he told us that playing any harp guitar is like playing two instruments at once.

Mr. GREGG MINER (Co-producer, "Beyond Six Strings: A Collection of New Music for Harp Guitar"; Multi-instrumentalist): You're sort of supporting your own chords on the neck by doing a bass accompaniment, sort of like a piano player. And it's - you could consider a portable piano.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And now, I described it in the introduction, in Tim Brookes' words, a combination guitar and wooden shoulder-mounted grenade launcher, which I don't think is fair because they're beautiful instruments. And you have one with you too. How many do you have?

Mr. MINER: I have two. And they're - I think Tim was describing one of the more wacky instruments in the Miner Museum, of which there are many, of course. But I would agree, these are beautiful instruments. The arm is not ungainly at all. It's sort of natural appearance that the thing is sprouting out. And it makes a wonderful headrest as we play.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MINER: I brought with me a 1899 Chris Knutsen original instrument -restored, so we can play it, stringed it up and, you know, full-tension phosphor bronze strings and play it like this gorgeous modern instrument, even though it's well over a hundred years old. And I also have a new instrument by a maker Duan Noble, who has basically taken that design, as many of the modern builders have done their own take on it or sort of redone the aesthetic and made a modern version that's, you know, road-worthy of that same basic instrument.

HANSEN: Maybe it's best described by listening. Can you just, perhaps, demonstrate a little bit on the guitar - the harp guitar you have?

Mr. MINER: I'll pick up the Knutsen, which I've had - I have strung normally. In other words...

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MINER: So a typical guitar string.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MINER: On the neck. And then we descend in the basses from that low E on the guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MINER: We simply descend diatonically to D.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MINER: To a low G. And that's the typical five-string - five sub-bass version. American, later they added the six-string to an F. And what we would do...

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MINER: Just play the neck normally and play the open-bass strings along with that.

HANSEN: You're one of the players on the CD. You do a tune with your Knutsen guitar.

Mr. MINER: I did.

HANSEN: Yeah?

Mr. MINER: I played this very guitar (unintelligible). I can't do that because I'm not in the tuning. And yes, I made sure I was co-producer so that I could choose my own song. It's a way that I can get myself on the album.

HANSEN: So how did - but there are so - I mean, there's 13 cuts, I believe.

Mr. MINER: Thirteen of us. And yes, when we did that, it was co-produced by Stephen Bennett and John Doan, who we - you could consider us the sort of triumvirate of the harp guitar world.

At the time, Steven had just done the first harp guitar gathering in Virginia in 2003. On the other coast in Oregon, John Done was an equally popular - a well-known harp guitar player but of a different sort. He plays the (unintelligible) bass, also as the super-treble strings.

HANSEN: So how did you choose how is going to play and what they were going to play?

Mr. MINER: We literally gathered the state-of-the-art of players around the world. And what you're hearing is the - not only the best performers who are legitimate harp guitar players, but the focus was on music. And we really made sure that the entire album was extremely a musical to listen to.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. Which cut do you think represents the most unusual harp guitar on the CD?

Mr. MINER: Well, I would think either John Doan's own instrument or this very similar one played by Iwan Hasan, who plays a John Doan's style instrument with trebles. So what you have is a 20 or 21-string instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Yet he does - Iwan Hasan does a heavenly earth dance.

Mr. MINER: Mm-hmm.

HANSEN: And he uses that 21-string. But the cut you mentioned using the John Doan - it's just curious, the title of the cut is "In John Fahey There is no East or West."

Mr. MINER: Right. John was, of course, a friend of Fahey's. And he wanted to pay homage to him and so he did his, kind of - his trademark song. But he did this in a whole new way by adding his super trebles. Now, what you hear there is a different form of harp guitar. You're hearing, sort of, steel-string harp or like a Zither accompanied by a guitar. It's quite challenging and difficult to play like that. But as you hear, he manages this quite wonderfully.

(Soundbite of song, "In John Fahey There is no East or West")

HANSEN: What is the state of interest in the harp guitar today?

Mr. MINER: Well, it's growing by leaps and bounds. In 2003, when Stephen held the first gathering, he would just did it to see who would show up, thinking maybe he'd get a dozen people, show their guitars and play for each other. And instead, it turned in this big event with 40 attendees from all over the States and Europe. And it was so successful and so much fun that we decided to do it the second year and have been doing it yearly ever since. This October, back in Virginia, is our fifth anniversary already.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. You're going to play something for us. Describe, first of all, the guitar that you'll be playing because it is not the Knutsen. You're going to play another one.

Mr. MINER: No. I'll be play the other - the Noble, right.

HANSEN: Just describe what it is and...

Mr. MINER: If you could see it, it's basically like a Knutsen instrument. It looks certainly more modern. It's built to last and it's beautifully finished, but it's also road-worthy and it sounds like very similar to the Knutsen, actually.

HANSEN: And what song will you be playing for us?

Mr. MINER: If you'd like, I'll play a little bit of "What the Soul Wants," something I wrote last year.

HANSEN: And before you do, let us just say, goodbye to you. Gregg Miner is editor of harpguitars.net and co-producer of "Beyond Six Strings: A Collection of New Music for Harp Guitar."

Thank very much, Gregg.

Mr. MINER: Thank you for the opportunity, Liane.

(Soundbite of song, "What the Soul Wants")

HANSEN: You can watch a demonstration of the harp guitar and see vintage pictures of the instrument on our Web site. That's npr.org/music. And our thanks to recording engineer at NPR West, Sherene Strausberg.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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