Portland’s Premier Harp Guitar Builder

No, not Mike Doolin (with apologies to Kerry Char) – I’m talking about Portland’s original harp guitar maker: Frank Evans Coulter.

One of the most obscure local makers you’re likely to hear about, I learned of Coulter years ago from John Doan, and also Kerry.  John owns an unusual mando-cello by Coulter, while Kerry owns various guitars and mandolins.  An example of Coulter’s unusual “homemade” designs is the 1922 mandolin shown at left, a recent eBay offering.  The distinctively shaped symetrical soundholes with excessive pearl trappings seem to be one of the common defining Coulter characteristics.

Years ago, the owner of an unusual Coulter harp guitar – Gordon Anderson (shown 11 years ago at age 48 with the harp guitar, above) – shared the family’s treasure with John.  It was custom ordered from Coulter by Gordon’s grandfather, Leroy – shown below at around age 20 with his brand new harp guitar and then (next photo) late in life with the well-preserved instrument.

Gordon once did some research on Coulter at the Historical Society and discovered that Coulter “was a pastor, made an unsuccessful bid for the Oregon State Senate, and stumbled into luthiery repairing church violins and such.”  Coulter was clearly interested in gaudier decoration, and the instruments are said to be a bit crude, but are nevertheless fascinating designs.  This harp guitar has 6 subs with zither pin tuners.  It’s currently in the possession of Gordon’s uncle.

Old newspaper listing courtesy of Gordon Anderson

The reason I finally contacted Gordon myself (for information and permission to share his photos) was that I recently received photos of this second Coulter harp guitar, built in 1922.  Unfortunately in poor condition, it appears virtually identical to the Anderson’s, except for its black top (Knutsen influence?) and the 12-string neck (Knutsen influence again, or just 12-string guitars in general?).  Rather a creative tuner array, don’t you think? (a set of mandolin tuners plus 4 friction banjo tuners)  This one has 7 subs, similarly tuned with zither pins.  The owner is looking into restoration (with the goal of selling).

It would be nice to see and hear one or the other of these two rare instruments in person one day.

Meanwhile, here’s a rare and strangely fascinating interview with Coulter from 1939 – for now, the only information that appears to be published about him (seen at left).

So now you know that Portland has had a proud harp guitar building tradition for nearly 100 years!

More Coulter appeared in July, 2011!

  1. david powell Says:

    AWESOME!! guess we are not the first to build the 12 string guitar on a harp guitar.

  2. Gregg Says:

    Sorry, Dave – not by a long shot. Knutsen built at least 3, plus Bruno of course, and that Favilla Bros I recently blogged about, and many other unlabeled instruments. And now this – cool, huh? I’d grab it if condition was better.

  3. Chris_Bucklen Says:

    Whoa!

  4. Darrell Says:

    Man, Portland is WEIRD.

  5. david powell Says:

    I sorta knew that already, but mine goes down to a low C, so that has to count for something… Ill check out that favilla bros one, i missed it.

  6. Sharon Standley Says:

    I purchased a Coulter banjo at a garage sale that needs a little work done, but everything is intact. It has all of the correct labeling and mother of pearl. Would you know of anyone in the Oregon area that might be able to restore it? I have a grandson that would love to play it.

  7. Gregg Says:

    Yes, Kerry Char of Char Lutherie. Good luck, and please send me photos! Best, Gregg Miner

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