The Paul Gardie/Harmony Orchestral Harp Guitar

By Gregg Miner
November, 2019

The strangest harp guitar – or perhaps guitar of any type, of any period – most people have ever seen...

Were they serious?!

Actually...yes, very.

This is the story.

I remember seeing a small photo of it decades ago in a guitar book, then again in 2000 in the book Dangerous Curves (the catalog of the well-known BMFA exhibit put on by my friend Darcy Kuronen, forever afterward to be known as "a guitar guy."). But the instrument was still so obscure that Darcy never knew at the time that the instrument was patented.

That was the first of the two specimens to come to light; the other was rumored to exist (a few had seen it), but was secreted away in storage until the family decided to finally part with it, giving me the incredible opportunity to acquire it. A third specimen was seen by my friend Michael Schreiner "in a Wurlitzer music store window in Chicago about 1982. I was in town for the NAMM show and the store was located next to the 'L' (elevated train)." Another – possibly the same one ("in pieces") – was spotted by a different person a long time ago in a Chicago music store.

Eight were allegedly built, in Harmony's high end custom shop, by their master craftsmen with the finest materials. None were believed to have been ever marketed or sold. Instead, they may have remained in the possession of William Schultz, founder and president of the Harmony Company of Chicago. Schultz presumably gave them to special friends and relatives, and one certainly to the inventor, blind virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Paul Gardie.

I can tell you this. They sound fantastic. And yes, there is an incredible stereo effect, both for the listener and player.

At right is the entry I wrote for the 2017 catalog of our harp guitar exhibit at Carlsbad's Museum of Making Music: Floating Strings: The Remarkable Story of the Harp Guitar in America.

On this page are newly published photos we took for the book. (Copyright and courtesy of The Museum of Making Music)

Below - until I have the time to do a proper rewrite - are copies of the blogs I wrote about it that tell the sequence of events (with current updates) – a remarkable story in itself!

Written for my blog, October 24th, 2010

Three-part Harmony

Here’s a story I want to do before it gets too old (it’s almost 2 months already). It’s taken me awhile to finish the research, and I’m still missing one critical piece of information on the instrument’s label (or label of the other specimens) – but I’ll eventually get that and add it later (sloppy, I know, but that’s how this blog thing seems to work).

These pictures were recently sent to me by a couple different friends. I’m not sure if that’s the owner himself, but apparently he sent the photos to a couple guitar stores (including Gryphon) looking for information. 8/1/14: As I discovered (and suspected), this was Stewart Hart in Maine, then acting custodian of the instrument for owner Jeff Hart, his cousin. 11/1/19: This is the instrument I now own.

I confirmed that this is indeed a new (third, I believe?) specimen of the hilariously over-the-top “pushmi-pullyu” harp guitar. We think that these were all made by the Harmony company (this would have been early, in their high-end custom shop).  As I said above, I’ve never seen the proof (label image), though it is more than likely.

This unmistakable instrument is familiar to most of us.  I’m still trying to remember/track down my previous awareness of it (feel free to help!). I vaguely recall some old book or article showing one of these.  I don’t remember if that writer knew, or only speculated that it was made by Harmony.  More recently, when I saw the Dangerous Curves book, I also remember thinking that theirs was a new specimen.  Perhaps I, or someone, had compared images of the 2 specimens and noted differences – ornamentation, or something else.  The specimen loaned for the Dangerous Curves exhibit in Boston, which appears in the book, was a very nice one.

The owners (Alex and Dave Usher) later brought it to the Winfield festival in 2006, where a newsman snapped Stephen Bennett playing it for the local paper, and roving HG.net reporter Joe Morgan captured these images. That’s the owner, Dave, at left. The new one above looks like an exact duplicate of the Usher’s instrument, with the very fancy and intricate pearl binding. As I said, I can’t seem to locate an image or notes on any other specimen(s). Can anyone help me out here? I’d like to contact the Ushers for label info, and of course, the owner of the recent new specimen. And if anyone can track down the older published image/specimen that I’m thinking of, please let me know. (11/1/19: As soon as this blog appeared, the Usher family got in touch and were immensely helpful. Ultimately the Harts contacted me as well. As for the "old book image," that now appears below.)

It’s amazing, frankly, that more than one of these was ever made. I mean, seriously! It’s equally mind-boggling that it was ever dreamt up, designed and patented. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the inventor was blind. True! The patentee, one Paul Gardie, is somewhat infamous from an appearance in The Cadenza magazine. But this photo has been floating around for ages with no one really knowing the circumstances. With the help of the new BMG Bibliography by the heroic Jeff Noonan, and (somewhat) complete digital images and PDFs of the Cadenzas & Crescendos (thanks to Arian Sheets and myself, Paul Ruppa, and later, Paul Fox), I was able to find several entries for Gardie in the journals.

The first appearance was in the June, 1915 Cadenza journal, in their coverage about the Guild Convention held the previous month. This is where the infamous photo (first) appeared. The multi-page minutes and activities of the convention first mention him being admitted as a new Professional Member, and include a short speech he made to the group about a Chicago mandolin club he had recently taken over leadership of. He is later pictured with his HG, a specimen seemingly identical to the Usher instrument. Nothing is said about the exceedingly strange “new instrument.”

A month later (July), the competing Crescendo journal does their report of the convention, where, interestingly, they list the Harmony Mfg Co and Paul Gardie separately as exhibitors (coincidence? I think not). They highlight Gardie as “one of the especially interesting features,” describing him as “the blind guitarist from Chicago” and the “inventor of the Gardie Orchestral Harp-Guitar.” They praise his instrument very highly, now noting the unusual shape, but without being disparaging. No mention is made as to the manufacturer. They describe him as an excellent player (“one of the finest we have heard”), despite the fact that he was unable to see the fingerboard. He played both the “better class” of music but also several ragtime pieces (“unusual on the guitar”). What a sight (and sound) that must have been! I can’t tell from the photo what his strings were – the top strings seem to be very thin, indicating steel, but these old images are always misleading. Guild members played their “better class” of music almost exclusively on gut strings, and I would suspect Gardie did the same – even with the ragtime repertoire.

One month later, in the August Crescendo, a presumably different reviewer gives an even better review of Gardie’s performance at the Convention banquet. Clearly, he was the hit of the convention.

Several months later (Jan, 1916), Crescendo ran the same Cadenza photo, now calling Gardie “the phenomenal harp-guitarist” (spelling his name wrong; Gardy).

Later that year (Sept, 1916), Cadenza mentions an upcoming November recital-concert with Gardie as one of two soloists, “with orchestra assisting.” He seems to have kept himself busy after this, as there is next a 1922 patent for a new banjo head he invented, and in 1928, the Music Trade Review had an announcement of Harmony’s new line of Roy Smeck instruments (hmmm, there’s Harmony again), with the demonstrations – on all instruments – being done by Gardie. So clearly, Gardie was still player enough to pinch-hit for the great vaudeville star.

Getting back to the matter at hand, it seems to me that this instrument is really the “Gardie Orchestral Harp Guitar,” not the Harmony harp guitar (even though they may have built more than one). Presumably, Gardie commissioned or partnered with Harmony to build him the first. Beyond the Cadenza and Crescendo entries, our smoking gun is the patent – applied for on May 24, 1915 (before its first appearance at the Guild Convention) and issued to Gardie on May 16, 1916. Besides the infamous body outline with its full, second guitar-shaped bass sound chamber, the patent features an intriguing hollow neck (not the only time this feature appears in patents). This was to provide even more resonant air chamber volume. A second page of drawings shows the 2 body chambers with full open airways through the neck, but I can’t imagine how the headstock could’ve been hollowed out anywhere. Perhaps one of John Thomas’ famous guitar X-rays is in order!

Again, hearkening back to my very first blog article on patents, I find it inexplicable that the patent was unknown to me until exactly one year ago (2009), submitted by my colleague Paul Fox). 11/1/19: As I mentioned above, it seems that no one – including curator/scholar Darcy Kuronen of the BMFA during his Dangerous Curves exhibit – had uncovered the patent, other than of course the late Michael Holmes, who listed it in his 2011 patent index (though, with no image and only the entry "guitar," no one would have located it easily). Witnesses on the patent include a C (?) Gaylord, Irwin Bowman, E. D. Steele, A. C. Fischer, and D. C. Thorsen – were any of these Harmony employees? The detailed patent drawing must surely be patterned on the actual finished instrument. Assuming that Harmony built Gardie’s own instrument, did they put their standard label in it? And could one of the surviving instruments be Gardie's own? 

I still wonder whose specific design it was. If Gardie, what was his reasoning?! As a scholar and historian, I’m of course fascinated and seriously interested in this aspect. But the devil in me can’t resist the obvious jokes about whether it turned out like this because Gardie couldn’t see what his collaborators were drawing...

 

Written for my blog, January 8th, 2011

More Harp Guitar Harmony

I’ve lately received more information on these unique instruments from owner Dave Usher and his mother, Alex, along with Darcy Kuronen (who featured their instrument in the BMFA’s Dangerous Curves exhibition and book.

The first topic at hand here is the “Harmony” provenance – what do we actually know?

Remember that nothing on the 1916 Gardie patent points to the Harmony company. Yet vintage guitar lore points to Harmony as the maker, and there are many clues that back this up.

One clue that we finally got to the bottom of is the “stamp.” Darcy’s notes for the exhibit specifically state that the neck block is stamped Harmony, yet the current owner Dave Usher originally couldn’t find any such stamp. And then shortly after I first posted this, he did! It turned out to be on the tail block of the bass side. So Darcy was correct. Dave cannot get an image of it, but describes it as “a faint stamp in black ink and small text as follows: The Harmony Co. Chicago, Il.”

For more on the Harmony story, we turn to Stew Hart, who has long owned another of these, handed down through the family. Darcy recently spoke to him again on our behalf, learning that the instrument is in storage with a sister, so it may be some time before someone is able to poke around in it. 11/1/19: I acquired this instrument in 2014, and still need to find time to explore its innards.

Stew, it turns out, has the “inside information” about the Harmony connection. Darcy note’s state that “the instrument came down through his family, and was supposedly made (along with “7 others!”) by a relative named Schultz, who was a stepfather to this fellow’s aunt. Schultz was reportedly the foreman at the Harmony guitar shop.”

Darcy also pointed me to an entry in the Sept, 1986 Guitar Player, which included this image of Stew and his guitar. (11/1/19: The same Stew that appears in the photo at the start of this article.) Plucking the bass strings is luthier Dana Bourgeois, who snapped the picture after doing some work on the instrument (25 years later, Dana says that he kept no photos or notes on the project).

The photo caption explains that it was “made by William J. F. Schultz, founder of the Harmony company.” That information undoubtedly came from Stew’s family lore.

So what of Schultz? True – according to many sources, including Tom Wheeler’s book American Guitars: an Illustrated History, Schultz founded Harmony in1892. Though Sears bought the company in 1916, Schultz remained its president until 1926. The GP blurb (via Stew) guesses “the ’20s” for the date of the guitar – not too far off, as they were undoubtedly made during 1915-1916, around the patent period. My guess is that Harmony founder/president Schultz could have remained “foreman” of the Harmony custom shop area, and had a direct hand in the creation, even if leaving the actual building to others.

How many were made? Surviving specimens remain rumored at 3-4 at best. The number “7 others” (meaning 8 total) – a verbal hand-me-down count through the family is not provable, but certainly plausible.

A last, interesting comment in the GP caption is that the harp guitar “can be played by one or two people” as demonstrated by Stew and Dana (!). My bet is that they weren’t joking, as the thing does indeed look like a giant “courting dulcimer” – as if the boy played the neck while his date played the subs (or vice versa). Of course, we know that this wasn’t the plan, and that inventor Paul Gardie imagined it as a serious solo instrument. 11/1/19: Indeed, in its most basic form, it is simply another style of hollow arm harp guitar, like Knutsen, Dyer and so many others. It was specifically shaping that "arm" into a second full "guitar body" that makes it so visually unusual.

The bottom line on provenance? We can finally say that these instruments were indeed made in the Harmony factory, probably in the custom shop, either built by founder Schultz, or overseen by him.

Meanwhile, another mystery remained, and that was the hidden hollow neck of the invention.  Apparently, none of the owners nor Darcy had ever spotted it, and wouldn’t have even thought to look, as the patent was unknown to all until recently. Though the patent shows a second continuous airway between the bodies via the neck (!), it does not seem to go all the way through.

Dave Usher kindly offered to investigate, with dental mirror, and camera – and initially thought, there it was!  He explains:

I looked around in there and see the following.  Its definitely a weird guitar (of course, we already knew that)!  I used to do a lot of musical instrument repair back in the 70’s and know one or two things about this stuff.

1.       It appears that the neck and neck end block might be one piece, the rest of the body built onto the neck block/neck.  However, since I don’t see end grain facing me at the end block that is probably not the case.  It could be that the neck block has a nose that is inserted into the neck. There is a hole in the neck block that looks like a traditional cartoon floorboard mouse hole, perhaps 1” wide and nearly as tall.  There is a little 1/8” dia pin just inside the hole, and perhaps a couple of shims.  The pin comes into the hole from the back side of the instrument and does not extend all the way thru the hole.  This suggests that the neck block inserts into the neck and is pinned from the back?  I can’t say how far the hole goes up the neck, but I can’t see very far into it with my little inspection mirror.

2.       The neck block extends (in one piece) downwards and ends shortly after the beginning of the lower body curve (which would be the lower part of the instrument if you were holding it).

3.       The neck block extends upwards and ends shortly after the curve heading into the upper body extension.  So, there is a large attachment area bonding the neck block to the body.

4.       I did not see any markings or stamps indicating “Harmony” or any other manufacturer (I cannot see much of anything between the top bracing though).

5.       On the inside of the back there are several small thin wood pieces like one would use to repair a crack.  They are distributed at uneven intervals and orientations around the perimeter of the back and perhaps 2” in from the sides of the instrument.  They are numbered.  But they are not oriented perpendicular to the grain, so I don’t think they were put there as a repair.  The numbers appear to have been written in blue ball point pen so I don’t think they were original.

6.       I did look at the soundboard bracing.  I’m not an expert at guitar bracing, but it sure looks pretty wild to me.

7.       The perimeter of the body is bonded to the top and back with serrated wood blocks.  It is a very light eggshell construction.  I do not see any heavy duty bracing in there.

8.       The top is one-piece spruce construction.  This blows people away.   The back is also one piece – it appears to be mahogany?

9.       The sides are two pieces joined at each tail block.  At one time the curved area at the top of the instrument near the bass end was damaged and a 4” x 3” portion of the side replaced.  Looks like she got dropped once – not bad for an instrument of this age.

I wish I had one of those inspection video cams.  It would need about 4’ of extension and be steerable to get into the other end of the instrument. It would be a trip to take a tour of the inside of this thing.  If you can borrow one and send it to me I’ll be happy to shoot it.

Great analysis, Dave – especially the “traditional cartoon floorboard mouse hole”!

Unfortunately, after poking around in there some more, Dave does not think the hole goes through the neck at all.  He explains:

I took another look at the mouse hole, and did some jockeying to get a better view.  I need to revise the description.  What I thought was a pin is actually glue.

It does not appear that the hole goes back into the neck.  It appears to be a domed cut-out.  There is a fair amount of glue in there complicating things (the glue appears to be original – I do not see signs of rework).  Since I can’t get a good shot of it given my equipment, here is a drawing of what it appears to be.  The flat side towards the bottom of the drawing is facing the fingerboard.  It could be that the quarter-round extends into the neck, but I cannot tell.

So, if the neck is hollow, it is internal and cannot be seen short of removing the finger board.  It is not a thick neck, so my guess is that it could not be hollowed-out without significantly weakening the neck.

Additionally, Dave has started to use the instrument, sending this live recording of No Place Like Home, accompanying his mother Alex (playing Autoharp) on it – with subs down to a low C!

Alex kindly pointed me to a couple of old family photos of her with the instrument, which she describes with obvious love as the “Straddlevarious” or “Goitar.” These are in her Mel Bay songbooks, Children’s Song Favorites and Side Splitters.


Alex (right) and family (sans Dave, who was away at college)


Alex with her husband

Alex also described another specimen she once ran across:

"When I was in Chicago a number of years ago I dropped into a music store that was in a high rise building there. When I showed the owner a picture of the “goitar”  he said he had one in the back storeroom that was in pieces. Mine was originally owned by a man named Campbell who worked for the “Great Northern Railroad” promoting trips to the West." 11/1/19: Dave Usher says that his mother acquired the Gardie/Harmony harp guitar about 1970. It's thus entirely likely that the one she heard about in the Chicago high rise building music store was the same one that Michael Schreiner saw (rebuilt, in the Wurlitzer window) in 1982.

Alex later replied to my blog (above) telling me: "Many years ago (in the 1960’s perhaps) I got a telephone call from a lady at our church who knew I was a folk singer. She said that she and her husband were leaving town to retire in Wisconsin and she had a guitar that had been given to her by a Chicago man named Campbell who had worked earlier in the century for the railroads encouraging people to tour the great Northwest by rail. He would give programs singing with the guitar. He used it to sing to groups of children in summer camps in Michigan too. She started to describe the guitar on the telephone and I thought maybe she had downed one drink too many. She said she would like me to have it if I was interested. I went over and took a look and, gee whiz, it was just as she described. It was in its custom case which has just as many outrageous curves as the guitar itself. Of course I took it off her hands. I told her I couldn’t afford to pay her what it was worth …. that I could only pay $300 for it, which, thank heavens, she accepted. Soon after we had an unveiling at a folksingers’ party at our house and various people offered monikers for her; The Goitar, the Push-me-pull you, and the Two-Seater. When Darcy Kuronen borrowed her for the Boston Museum show he was kind enough to have bass strings custom-made, and Steve Howe of Yes had a good time trying it out. There was also a track of someone playing it on the exhibit recording."

11/1/19: Dave Usher also reacted to my blogs by creating a new video montage of his family and the instrument over a soundtrack of “No Place Like Home” that he and his mother recorded at the Folk School in Maplewood, Missouri on Aug 7, 2010. Dave plays the Gardie/Harmony, while his mother Alex plays one of the first Zimmerman autoharps sold in the U.S. in the early 1880s.

So that now brings us up to date with the infamous Gardie/Harmony harp guitars…

Oh, and I found that great newspaper photo of SB at Winfield playing Dave Usher’s instrument.  I love this photo! – the madcap wizard-of-harp-guitar with the impossible instrument.

 

Written for my blog, August 1st, 2014

Harp Guitar Special Delivery

No, it’s not the infamous leg lamp from A Christmas Story (although I do feel like I’ve won a “major award”)…

It’s just the largest – or longest – harp guitar I’ve yet to receive.

Or so I hope.

So let’s take it inside and open this sucker!

(Careful with that crowbar – you’ll poke your eye out)  

Hmmm…I seem to have opened it from the bottom; I wanted to open at the top.

(turning around…)

Wait a minute…this is the bottom too!

(fully unwrapping…)

What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks….!?!?

Yes, it can only be…

…the “push-me-pull-yu”…Paul Gardie Harmony Orchestral Harp Guitar!

Seeing this beast in the flesh is a whole new experience (it’s over 50 inches long)!

With its unique history (told above) and outrageous, seemingly nonsensical appearance, this acquisition is obviously a major coup for The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic & Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments. It could even be the new poster child.

It’s one of extremely few surviving instruments (three or four, of just eight produced), this being the Hart family specimen (seen with previous owner Jeff Hart’s cousin Stew above), which has been in the family since originally receiving it as a gift from their relative, the very same Schultz who founded the Harmony company.

More to come after I fully examine it, including looking for signs of a “Harmony” stamp and the patented hollow neck. It’s gorgeously appointed and in surprisingly good condition (in original case!). It’ll need a fair amount of work (mainly on the guitar section’s top), so after restoration I’ll re-string it and do a new feature on it. 11/1/19: Restoration was soon completed by Bill Fiorella and I ordered new strings (as they are long, they were made by a hammered dulcimer string supplier!), but I have yet to re-string it and get inside with a snake camera. Keep after me!

I am indebted to Jeff Hart for deeming my collection the ideal home for this delightfully ungainly treasure. The instrument itself was pulled out of storage in Maine, and the sale and crating was kindly handled by Jeff’s old Caribbean sailing buddy Dennis Mortimer, director of the Alberts-Langdon Asian Arts Gallery in Boston.

Needless to say, I feel like Ralphie on Christmas morning!

 

11/1/19: And so, here we are towards the end of 2019. I was thrilled to be able to feature the instrument in our incredible 7-month public exhibit at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California in 2017/2018. Here's a shot before the acrylic safety panels went up:

While earlier it had been on the floor in my museum room  for three years, ready to be played by numerous visitors, when all the instruments came back from the exhibit it appeared as if they had multiplied. So the Gardie/Harmony went safely up in the Larson/Gibson/American Harp Guitars case:

If anyone is looking to make a killer vintage harp guitar stereo recording in the studio here, let's talk...

Gregg (Sir Gregory) Miner

 

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