J. Hopkins Flinn: America’s First Harp Guitarist?

Never heard of him?  Neither had I.  No one has.

He’s not only the earliest named harp guitarist in America we’ve unearthed to date, but may have actually “invented” the first fully American harp guitar in 1885.

I recently discovered Flinn’s short and cryptic story in the August, 1917 issue of The Crescendo (along with The Cadenza, one of the two leading BMG [Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar] journals of the early 1900’s).

His photo, with a short article (that I’ve herein transcribed) appeared under the “Professional Teachers & Players” column:

J. HOPKINS FLINN
Redlands, Cal.

While on a business trip in Kansas in 1885, Mr. Flinn, having purchased a very good home-made guitar to play accompaniments for the harmonica, thought that a low C was very necessary for good harmony in that key, so he nailed a wooden block on the neck of his instrument, about midway between the body and the head, and used a violin peg and an extra bridge to add the desired tone (string-GM). The result was so satisfactory and the dimensions of the block being so generous, a low D and a low G were added.

Being quite proud of such a novelty and being able to demonstrate the value of the tones, he went to the J. W. Jenkins Sons store, in Kansas City, and showed his new idea to the “boys,” who were at that time “Dan” Polk and “Dunk” Collins (the original Polk and Collins Banjo Team), Ed. Guckert, Lew Geisch, Prof. Best, and later showed it to Wm. C. Stahl, then at St. Joseph, MO.  The first demonstrations were quite amusing, but the extra string attachment did not meet with a very cordial reception.

After a time the Jenkins Co. made one of their grand concert-size instruments and added six bass strings, after a design which Mr. Flinn furnished them.  Mr. Flinn has used this instrument for years all over the country.  It is still in his possession and in fair condition.  He now uses a 19 string harp-guitar, 7 strings on the fingerboard and 12 sub-basses.

He has also used low E or octave string below the little E string, and he believes that a great deal of good work can be done with the guitar and concert harmonica by one person, not meaning on the simple idea of blow and make a tone but with the careful consideration of the artistic and musical.

Mr. Flinn is undoubtedly one of the first players in our fraternity to handle a harp-guitar, and, as will be noticed by the above, the first being the one which he made himself.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Is it true?  Let’s break it down:

One curious aspect is how the article reads like a “time capsule” – as if written much earlier (about even earlier events), and in fact, his photo seems to show a youngish man (for example, if he was 20 years old in 1885, he would have been 52 at the time of the Crescendo article).  I can think of a couple scenarios that might explain why this piece appeared when it did, but of course we can never know.

Regardless, other than the age/lapse of time question, everything else rings true or at least sounds entirely plausible.  Harp guitar history buffs undoubtedly remember that J. W. Jenkins’ Sons Music Co. is the company that built the Harwood harp guitars, of which we have a full archive.  And of course, the name of Wm. C. Stahl is well known to all Larson brothers aficionados.

Let’s move on to Flinn’s invention – his crude, but sufficiently effective, harp string attachment.  It’s described as “a wooden block” nailed to “the neck of his instrument, about midway between the body and the head,” with a “violin peg” and “an extra bridge.”  Here is my “artist’s rendering” of Flinn’s finished instrument (with its single, then three, sub-basses):

Silly?  Perhaps (clearly, Flinn played only in first position and/or wasn’t a thumb-wrapper!) – but we then have the “smoking gun” testimony that he showed it to the Jenkins Co., who then later built him a better, 6-bass version of Flinn’s own design.  This is provenance handed to us on a silver platter!  It doesn’t take much imagination to propose that Flinn’s crude creation was the prototype of the “neck slab harp string attachment” style of Harwood harp guitar.

The pre-1895 neck-slab Harwoods that may very well have been designed or suggested by J. Hopkins Flinn.

And what of Flinn’s “name dropping”?

Interestingly, while none of the names of “the boys” at the “Jenkins store” showed up in a quick search, four of the five are listed as Harwood endorsers in the c.1895 Jenkins catalog (courtesy of Bob Jenkins).

“Dunk” Collins = A. D. Collins
Ed. Guckert = E. N. Guckert
Lew Geisch = L. J. Gesch
Prof. Best = W. T. Best

Nice corroboration there!

Even more interestingly, Flinn “later showed it to Wm. C. Stahl, then at St. Joseph, MO.”  (St. Joseph was some 50 miles north of Kansas City, where Jenkins Co. was located).  As most harp guitar fans know, music publisher Stahl would soon become a prominent “maker” (distributor & marketer) of fretted stringed instruments, which were built by the Larson brothers of Chicago.  Flinn could have met up with Stahl anytime between the early1890’s (when Stahl arrived in St. Joseph, according to researcher Paul Ruppa) and the very end of 1897, before Stahl relocated his music publishing business to Milwaukee, Wisconsin (per Stahl’s advertisements and an announcement in The Cadenza).

It seems too obvious and coincidental to ignore: while Flinn may have showed Stahl his crude prototype, he may instead (or also) have shown Stahl his better, Jenkins-built instrument.  Either way, it’s likely that Stahl was ultimately aware of the latter.  It’s thus easy to imagine Stahl, having seen “his first harp guitar,” possibly being the person who then suggested to the Regal Company in Indianapolis to give this invention a try (my Harwood and Regal sections demonstrate that the Regal was clearly inspired by – or copied from – the earlier Harwood).  Note that Bob Hartman believes that the Regal harp guitars could have been built by the Larsons (a Stahl referral?).  This purely hypothetical event would have transpired about the time Stahl relocated to Milwaukee (Hmmm…with some research trips to Chicago and Indianapolis first?  Seems likely – and there were certainly easy train routes connecting all these cities.).

At left, a c.1900 Regal harp guitar.  Below, another early BMG group with a Regal.  (These are two new specimens just added to the growing Regal archive, by the way)

Meanwhile, Flinn kept playing (“all over the country “) and eventually upgraded to a 19-string harp guitar, with twelve (presumably chromatic) subs going all the way down to a low E.  This could have been made by a number of builders, but I’d like to think that he stuck with the Jenkins firm (hopefully by then he had graduated to full-length subs and not the silly mid-neck set up!).  Perhaps it was one of the familiar 12-bass models, like the one at right? (albeit with seven strings on the neck)

All this speculating above begs the question: To what extent did Flinn’s harp guitar idea (and subsequent Jenkins Sons “Harwood” models) pre-date or influence other Midwest builders like Joseph Bohmann and so many others?  True, Bohmann may have been aware of “bass guitars” in his native Prussia (though he emigrated at about age 16); on the other hand, for all we know, he may have been happily cranking out his award-winning mandolins and 6-string guitars when he got wind of “the new guitar invention from Missouri.”  Sadly, we may never know the precise timeline of either Bohmann’s earliest harp guitars (at least by 1890) or the first Jenkins/Flinn instrument (anywhere between 1885 and 1894).  Tantalizing and valid questions for harp guitar historians!

Before I end by awarding Mr. Flinn the “Earliest American Harp Guitarist” and “American Harp Guitar Invention” prizes, alert readers may well point out that these honors technically go to C. F. Martin’s earlier (c.1859-1860) ten-string harp guitars and their players (customers).  True, those appeared well before Mr. Flinn; but I look at those more as Martin’s “early American” versions of his homeland’s common Markneukirchen and Viennese instruments (even though Martin’s instruments were by 1860 well on their way to becoming the quintessential “American guitars” [in fact, Flinn’s own original 6-string might have been a “Martin copy”!] and Martin’s surviving10-string harp guitar shows his own unique design).  According to Inventing the Guitar, they were custom ordered by one Olaf Ericson of Richmond, VA, who received “at least 4” “10-string” or “2-neck” guitars in (or about) 1860.  Nothing seems to be known about Ericson; perhaps he was either a small local dealer or teacher and requested instruments that were reminiscent of those in his own homeland.  Without additional information, we can’t say that he was a “harp guitarist” himself (though he certainly could have been).  Concerning these rare early Martin harp guitars, whatever their instigation, I suspect they were re-creations of a familiar European idea.  And there doesn’t seem to be any connecting thread from Martin’s c. 1860 harp guitars to other American makers (his next models, usually given as “circa 1900,” seem to have followed the 1890’s harp guitar vogue, not led it).

Flinn’s “invention,” on the other hand, appears to have been a wholly original idea to him and the musicians and manufacturers he shared it with.  In my speculative scenario above, it was soon adopted and adapted into several different Harwood models by the Jenkins’ Sons Music Co., copied by Regal and likely inspiring others, and – just possibly could have been responsible for jump-starting the 1890-1900’s harp guitar craze in at least part of the United States (all just before the hollow arm instruments of Knutsen and the Larsons started popping up).

The Cadenza article ends by saying “Mr. Flinn is undoubtedly one of the first players in our fraternity to handle a harp-guitar”…and in the Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar world of early American music, he certainly was!

  1. Darrell Urbien Says:

    Gregg, Lester Payne is also in Redlands in the 1890s.

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