All photos copyright Woodley White, except where noted

Meet the (Harp Guitar) Maker: Woodley White

by Gregg Miner


It was early June, 2012, when a Los Angeles guitarist neighbor of mine brought over his first harp guitar - a major project instigated after his visit here a year ago, after which he struggled to find the appropriate luthier to realize his dream.  It seemed that the best person to pull it off was Portland's Mike Doolin - but he had recently retired.  At the last minute, as my friend was leaving, I remembered a new harp guitar builder, who was not yet up on the site, as he had just finished his first instrument, a Sullivan-Elliott copy (at right).  The fellow's name was Woodley White, and he happened to be a well-established luthier, and as it turned out, also a good friend of Mike's!

After a few inspiring phone calls were made, a year of happy mayhem then ensued, with plenty of "wish lists" and dreams and dialog between the customer and Woodley and Mike (and every combination thereof).

After seeing this outrageous, Sullivan/Elliott-meets-Mike Doolin instrument (shown in all photos in this article, save the one at right) I wrote Woodley and the following dialog transpired over the next several days.


Gregg Miner: So how many harp guitars does this make?

Woodley White: This is my second HG.  The first was for a student of John Doan's named Gerry Camp.  Before I started that first one (above, right) I consulted with Jeff Elliott, one of my best friends, who was then drawing the plan for John's guitar.  He spent a good part of a day going over all the details and shared a draft copy with me, now it’s available through the GAL.  The beauty of the HG design by Jeff Elliott and John Sullivan is the combination of fan bracing along with the x-brace and the open harmonic bars on the bass side.  This allows the top resonate fully.  I built the instrument out of African Blackwood and Italian Spruce and after talking with Mike Doolin, another great friend, I decided to add string sharpers and make the neck adjustable and removable, but basically I braced Gerry's guitar like John's only a bit lighter.  I bought strings from you and I'm happy with the instrument.

GM: I definitely like allowing for neck adjustability, and noticed your simple and effective joint “hidden” between the heads (top of page and right).  I understand that Mike consulted even further on the new one.

WW: Yes, this new guitar was probably the result of Mike retiring from building.  In fact, I've got three commissions so far from his retirement.  The customer talked to Mike and decided he wanted the fretless bass neck.  Mike suggested I move the bass and super treble bridges, use zither pins, and violin tuners.  He even gave me a copy of his plan for the 22-string HG.   When I took Mike's plan to the customer’s house, it was obvious that Mike's guitar seemed too big to him.  So, I adapted the Doan guitar once again and added my own cut-away.  It was a challenge to get all those strings onto the smaller body size but I think it basically worked out.  At Mike's suggestion, I bought strings from Newtone, and they figured the gauges.  I was surprised that two of the super trebles were wound.

GM: Ah, so that’s why Mike never buys strings from me (winking emoticon).  Alas, I didn’t notice the wound trebles; I just remember that all the gauges seemed too light for my taste / technique, and there were some buzzes here and there.

WW: I'm sure there will be some fine tuning required to get all the buzzes out.  I had them all working fine and then when I brought the instrument back from doing the photographs, the low E buzzed.  I think I got it out but I told the customer he'd probably need a local luthier to help with refining the set-up with humidity changes and other factors and shipping (back) to Hawaii being expensive.   I keep my shop at 42%, but there are still always issues.  It took Gerry a little while to get his instrument working perfectly.

GM: So what other opportunities has Mike’s annoyingly premature retirement created for you?  What’s next?

WW:  I've just started the next HG, a 14-string for Adam Carney in Austin.  He plays a Dyer and wants a seven-string guitar with seven bass strings with sharpers.  We're using Mike's plan without super trebles and not using his rosette pattern or bridge design.  Those are proprietary with Mike.  This will be my first HG where the neck is separate from the bass arm - two separate headstocks.   I'd love to get the strings from you and have your suggestions about them.

GM: That’s exciting!  I’m an Adam Carney fan, but a frustrated one.  He actually plays a Lark in the Morning, and did a superb job on his first CD with it, considering the circumstances.  I’ve been hoping for him to step it up by way of finding a better instrument, coming to a Gathering, producing better quality recordings he’s got a lot of potential.  Perhaps this will be the just the impetus he needs!  Happy to help with strings steel, nylon or a combo?  I know I’ve been pushing him to use beefier subs – don’t know if that fits in with your construction plans.

WW: I love Adam’s music as well.  I listen to his CD quite a bit.  We haven’t discussed string gauges for the instrument.  We’ll follow your guidance here.  On my first HG I followed the gauges suggested for the Doan Guitar on your site.  Although Adam’s is a steel string instrument, he wants classical spacing on the seven-string neck.

GM: I appreciate your trust, Woodley, but for the public’s benefit I should point out that my string suggestions are just that – a place to start.  For the record, while the nylon John Doan set seems to work for a lot of people, I think the gauges are somewhat off, but haven’t had the time or means to fine tune them for a more balanced tension (note that it is “his” set, not a “Harp Guitar Music” set).  That’s why I have LaBella make up the extra .070, .075 and .080 options.  For that matter, John and I have very different tonal preferences regarding his mixing of nylon and steel strings (it works with his arranging style, but goes against what I and many of my customers are looking for in a harp guitar).  But back to your queue – the instrument after Adam’s?

WW: The instrument after that will be a 21 string with a classical guitar.  We're using Mike's requinto plan that was developed for Muriel Anderson only enlarged to a full-sized instrument.  I'm also going to add string sharpers on the supers.  The extra bridge on #2’s super trebles was an idea Mike and I brainstormed after dinner one night as a way to have an under saddle pickup and also string sharpers on the super trebles.

GM: And would the supers be nylon as well (unlike Muriel’s 2nd Doolin, which are steel)?

WW: The supers will be steel and the subs will be wound nylon.

GM: Well, I wasn’t at all sure how well steel supers might work with a nylon-strung neck, but then, just listen to Muriel’s new arrangements on my last two HGM compilations.  Again, I think it’s largely how she uses each bank in her particular arrangements (btw, each of those new arrangements was at my suggestion; I’m really honored that she agreed to my challenging “Wish List commissions”!).  But speaking of Doolin, when I asked Mike about you and your getting into harp guitars, I didn’t know that you were friends, and that you had married him and Nancy!  So are you a minister, a luthier, both, or what?

WW: I am a full-time luthier.  You can see my work at www.whiteguitars.com.   I've been building for 20 years.  I started building at the same time as Mike and we became close friends.  I lived in Portland back then.  I officiated at Mike and Nancy's wedding 5/24/08 - Memorial Day weekend.  Actually, we had a service up the Columbia Gorge where John Doan and a bunch of great musicians played and then we drove up to Idaho and had a service for Mike's family.  I worked as a Presbyterian pastor for 25 years and now have retired so I can build instruments full-time.


5/24/2008: Courtesy of Mike Doolin and Nancy Conescu

We moved to Hawaii January, 2007 and love it totally.  There's a great sense of community and I'm sure I don't have to say anything about the beauty or the weather.   I've started building ukes, which pretty much are the polar opposite to HGs.  In fact, I'm president of the Big Island Ukulele Guild.  I'm not sure how that happened but it's a lot of fun.  I also play ukulele in a musical group called the Merry Mongooses.  We mostly play in a local restaurant lots of covers of upbeat rock and roll songs and music created by Marion Geruschat, a terrific singer, songwriter and guitarist.

GM: Cool, I want to see a CD by the Merry Mongooses (shouldn’t that be Mongeese?) and with a Woodley White harp-uke on the cover!  Yes, ukes and HGs are polar opposites – until you combine them.

WW: I’ll have to try that sometime,  I saw one built on Pete Howlett’s plan at the last GAL convention.   I still build classicals, electrics, and acoustics as well but I'm enjoying ukes and HGs most and it seems like there is a good market for both.  I think I'll be building my 100th instrument in month or two. 

Jeff Elliott, Cyndy Burton, Mike Doolin, John Greven, Charles Fox and others in the Portland area have not only been great friends but have shaped my life and helped me become a better builder.  I'm totally passionate about music and musical instruments and grateful to live this magical life.  HG's are a wondrous part of the musical scene.  They are especially challenging because each one is unique and requires such a huge investment of time and creativity to get something that sounds great and yet will be sturdy enough to last and not fold up on itself.  I've been fortunate with my first two to get the sound and still have a sturdy structure as well.  I was nervous to put those strings on and bring them up to pitch.   I sure didn't want to see any waves on the top and I still wanted it to sing.  Thankfully it worked out.  It's pretty exciting.

GM: It is exciting, Woodley, but be careful once you go down that harp guitar path, there’s no turning back.  I hope to see you at a The Harp Guitar Gathering some day, with HG in tow, naturally!

WW: I’m hoping to be there next year.  I hear the Gatherings are fantastic.  So far, though I play uke, classical guitar, slack key, and electric, when I see 20+ strings on an instrument I want to start singing the song from the Wizard of Oz, “If I only had a brain.”  I do love them, though and I thank you for the opportunity to share some of my perspectives.  

Aloha and best wishes,

Woodley


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