Otherwise known as “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda” number 2.
Though I generally share everything harp guitar related in my orbit with you all, I do have the occasional “secret project” I’m working on (secret only until I’m ready for the reveal). This one might have been spectacular, I think…but alas, destiny decided otherwise. I’d actually put it completely out of my mind – but stumbled upon my old files the other day, and thought it might be time to tell the tale.
Through the years, I’ve naturally noodled on John Doan’s Sullivan-Elliott 20-string harp guitar and other sundry “super treble” harp guitars. I remember once (it must have been the 2nd Harp Guitar Gathering) attempting to ad-lib something on John’s instrument in front of a few Round Robin players. I recall Steve Bissell saying something like “Hey, this may be the first time a harp guitar is being played by an actual harpist!” He was alluding to the fact that, pre-Gathering, I played the harp (and once quite well, I might add). So it was then somewhat ironic that I so sucked at John’s super-treble guitar. It turns out – as discussed in “Zither-Guitars” and other blogs of mine – that super-trebles are really fretless zither strings. Compared to a harp, they’re backwards, on the wrong plane, and require a fairly different technique. And while they’re in the same orientation as FZs and Ukrainian banduras, which I also play(ed), again, the playing position is something different and specific.
Still, I pride myself on being a multi-instrumentalist, so when this fantastic Milburn harp guitar came through on consignment in 2007, I decided to give “the tinklies” one last, serious shot.
And still, I just didn’t dig it. And I figured out why.
It wasn’t just the limited melodic range (with just 8 supers, no matter what tune I seemed to try, I’d invariably run out of harp melody strings) – it was my visual struggle with these thin metal wires floating over a blonde piece of wood. I’m generally not an eyes-closed player of anything (other than, coincidentally, the bandura), and apparently need a decent visual reference system.
Cut to a couple months later (the Milburn now sold), when I was working on my Harp Guitar Dreams piece on the Knutsen “zither harp guitar” (at right). I was not only comfortable with it (difficulty aside), I was enjoying it. Why that, and not the Milburn?
You can see the answer yourself in these photos. I realized that it was simply because it had a black top. I could see all the treble strings in high contrast, which (to me) made all the difference in having playing security and confidence.
After having to Frankenstein-modify my precious instrument to get it to play in tune and survive the months of tension for this tricky project, I subsequently decided (kind of like John with his Knutsen 18-string > Sullivan-Elliott) that I should get a modern, professional version of my unique Knutsen.
Brainstorming through the list of my luthier friends, I realized that the person best suited to tackle it – it would hypothetically include many upgrades and clever additions (I remember much custom milling and even pneumatics entering into it at one point) – would be Mike Doolin.
Knowing nothing of my ideas and goals, beyond that “it will be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done,” Mike accepted the commission and I gave him a down payment in 2008. I was especially excited that, among other things, we would be creating the first contemporary black-top harp guitar.
True. At the time, only vintage Knutsen and Gibsons had been seen with this telltale feature – which I’ve always loved.
Maddeningly, as I impatiently waited for Mike’s waiting list to shorten, someone beat me to a black-top: Mike, himself! Not yet privy to my plans, he made this thinline electric-acoustic harp guitar for his wife Nancy late in 2008:
The cat was out of the bag. The next thing I knew, Duane Noble – inspired by Knutsen – had his own black-top in the works:
When I next saw John Doan show up at HGG8 in Indianapolis with his own “secret project” – a black top Brunner travel harp guitar – that was it; I knew I’d be looking like Joe Loser, late-to-the-party, if and when Mike ever got to my damn instrument!
Meanwhile… Mike had surprised us all with this little nugget:
“I’m retiring from building.”
He assured me that he was still going to finish a couple more instruments, and that mine would be his last commission.
As the many months wore on, I put it out of my mind, concentrating on other projects and pleasant distractions like the parade of vintage discoveries that inexorably wend their way to the Miner Museum.
By the morning of the final breakfast at last year’s Gathering in Hamden, CT, I guess I had subconsciously already come to the realization that the award-winning Doolin GM-model zither harp guitar was an idea whose time had come and gone. When Mike quietly sat down at my table, I immediately read his own mind – even before he privately slipped me my deposit refund. We felt a mutual combination of regret and relief. The project would have been time-consuming and difficult, a labor of love/hate that probably would have stretched the limits of our own friendship.
But it would have been awesome.
Some of my many mock-ups as I brainstormed the possible configurations of stringing possibilities.