Volume 10, Issue 1, July, 2010

Harp Guitar Instructional Resources, Part 1

by Gregg Miner

“How do people learn to play the harp guitar?”

“Are there any instruction books that would teach someone how to begin playing a harp guitar?”

“Is there a beginner level repertoire to start with?”

“Is there any harp guitar music or tablature?”

As head of both Harpguitars.net and Harp Guitar Music, I am asked these questions with an ever-increasing frequency.  Unfortunately (and ironically), the harp guitar’s popularity continues to grow exponentially faster than any supporting educational groundwork, so there aren’t many good answers for these questions at the moment. But I will try to provide a few ideas.  That will come next month, however – first I must ask you some important questions.

  • Which harp guitar are you referring to?
  • Are you interested in a particular instrument or performer?
  • What kind of music do you play or hope to play?

I ask because, in most every case, this very basic information is left unstated, and without it, no one (myself included) will be able to adequately address your questions.  Let me explain why.

A first assumption I make about potential harp guitar players is that they are already guitarists.  Most state as much - though they may run the gamut from 6-string virtuosos (who are nevertheless mystified by the harp guitar’s techniques) to beginners with only limited guitar playing experience.  While 95% are probably well-prepared guitarists and musicians, I don’t think that learning to play the harp guitar “from scratch” should be all that more inherently difficult than learning 6-string guitar (or any instrument).  However, the fact that most beginners on other instruments have easy access to entry-level instruments, a variety of published methods and music, with a corresponding array of available teachers or courses, while the harp guitar does not (yet), will make learning from scratch more logistically difficult.

A second assumption (my guess) is that when potential players ask the questions above, saying simply “harp guitar,” they are actually referring specifically to one particular instrument, or player, or type of music.  And since this is rarely stated up front, it may be that (again, a guess) they are unaware that what they saw, heard and became enamored by is not “the” harp guitar, but more likely “a random” harp guitar.

So this is where we should begin.  In fact, let’s begin with something we all know about, the “standard” 6-string guitar.

Let’s imagine one is going about learning how to play the 6-string.  This student would ultimately choose both the type of guitar and the type of music they are hoping to play.  A beginner might not know and start with the very basics, and move into a distinct category (or several) later, while an adult or experienced listener might have their exact goal in mind.  Is it acoustic or electric?  Acoustic?  OK – is it classical nylon-string, or steel-string (“folk” guitar)?  Steel-string?  OK, do you want to learn just chords or accompaniment?  Solo?  OK, do you want to flat-pick Bluegrass, or play fingerstyle?  Fingerstyle?  Great – are you going to play more traditional “Travis style” with a thumbpick perhaps?  Or are you going to go straight for DADGAD to emulate one of your favorite players, say, Pierre Bensusan?  DADGAD it is!  OK, if you haven’t already (there’s no rush, believe me), you’ll eventually be trying out different guitars with different attributes: nut width, scale length, body style and proportions, and tone, just to name a few.  You’ll also experiment with, and finally settle on, your choice of playing with fingertips, nails, acrylics, or different types of picks.  By this time, you’ll likely have a collection of instructional DVDS, some tablature, hopefully a teacher or two, perhaps even a week at Pierre’s own workshop.

Now let’s talk about the harp guitar.  Right off the bat, we’ve got the same choices and options as the 6-string.  There are electric harp guitars, jazz harp guitars, nylon-string harp guitars (including a huge variety of historical configurations), and also endless steel-string acoustic instruments.  The fun part is that unlike the 6-string guitar, which has (obviously) six strings, harp guitars have any number of “harp strings.”  In fact, besides the most common “sub-bass” strings, there are plenty of options for “super-trebles” or mid-range melody or chord strings in any combination.  (Just so you know, I’ll address these in the coming months, but not in this column)

The point being that harp guitars have all the musical and physical variations of standard guitars, multiplied by an almost infinite choice of stringing configurations and tunings.  So you have to establish what harp guitar you’re considering learning.

Don’t panic.  As I mentioned in my “assumptions” at the start, you may already have in mind the harp guitar you are hoping to acquire and/or play.  And 9 times out of 10, it’s a Dyer-style instrument, am I right?  Meaning either a vintage Dyer, a Dyer “copy” or some hollow-armed variant by another historical maker or modern luthier.  These are popular today because most of us think they look really cool, but also, by a wonderful combination of coincidences, happen to be some of the best-sounding steel-string guitars ever made – a perfect fit with our modern “steel-string acoustic guitar” sensibility and “Golden Age” of guitar lutherie.  They’re also popular due to the artists that stumbled upon or adopted them in recent times: Michael Hedges, Stephen Bennett, and Andy McKee, to mention three of the most popular Dyer (or Dyer style) players.  And they keep coming!  Don Alder, Carter Lancaster, Antoine Dufour are among the more recent fingerstyle virtuosos who have added a Dyer or similar HG to their performances (and I must not omit the original Dyer instrumentalist, Andy Wahlberg, who’s 30+ years ahead of most of these guys…).

So, unless you have something different and specific in mind (which I commend – variety is a cornerstone of our Harp Guitar Gatherings), this could be considered the most “standard” harp guitar today.  If it hasn’t become so already, well then when the first-ever factory production Holloway harp guitars start shipping, it’ll be a done deal.

So can we finally begin discussing our “standardized harp guitar” instruction?  Well, not quite yet.  You see, while most of these instruments have 6 sub-basses, there are a bunch of Knutsen and Dyer harp guitars in circulation that have only 5 basses, and many players have based their tunings and repertoire on this configuration.  More recently, builders and some players – from Muriel Anderson to Pete Bradshaw – have settled on 7 subs (though Pete’s and Muriel’s tunings are completely different).

But 6 is still definitely more common, and the basic Holloway has 6, so let’s start with this as our entry-level instrument.  Now we have just one last decision to make – Standard Tuning or Stephen Bennett Tuning?  What the heck?!  Both are based on the original 5-bass Knutsen tuning of (low-to-high) G-A-B-C-D.  Standard adds an F to the bottom (yes, this can be easily be re-tuned to E), while SB adds an extra G at the top (the equivalent of the 3rd fret on the low neck string).  Both use (nominally) standard tuning on the neck.  Remember, I’m only discussing the two most common variants – some players (myself, for example) use custom neck and bass tunings of their own.

While standard tuning would seem to make the most sense (Wahlberg’s been using it for his entire career), a lot of players have adopted Bennett’s more unique, but easily-assimilated tuning – either to play his music and arrangements, their own, or both.  If it hasn’t occurred to you yet, notice that a 5-bass instrument could be used to play either of the 6-bass configurations, with one note unavailable in each case.  (Q: Are all 6 basses used for every song?  A: No, not always, and sometimes not commonly)

Q: Do I have to decide now?  Can I use both tunings?  Well, yes and no.  Normally, a Dyer or similar harp guitar is strung for one tuning or the other.  Sub bass strings do have quite a wide usable range of tuning/tension (though your plucking strength must change), but you don’t want to tune them much higher than they are intended for, and tuning down too far will cause buzzing or the “boing” effect.  Thus, the physical logistics would indicate that you could use a Bennett-tuned set of basses and tune down to try Standard Tuning (ignoring the temporary “flabbiness”), but must be careful about the reverse.  String shoppers on my commercial Harp Guitar Music site know that Bennett sub-bass sets are a bit cheaper and also more readily available.  There is as yet no satisfactory production string (in my opinion) for the lowest string of a standard set (I’ve been working on it for 4 years now).  Still, players get by with anything from an .080” to even a .070” for that string.  (Shaft holes are easily drilled out for thicker windings if it comes to that.  Do that instead of trying to unravel).  You’ll have plenty of time to experiment with these two main tunings – or some of your own – before “locking one in.”  Eventually, your brain and fingers may find the need to stick to one, to make it easier to get around intuitively.

Before I close this first issue, I want to add that this final 6-bass harp guitar configuration that we’ve established as today’s common option (in any of the discussed tunings) need not be a Dyer-style, nor even, a hollow arm, instrument.  Check the Form Galleries and the Luthier entries for other options.  For example, the new Brunner Outdoor Harp Guitar is a portable double-neck instrument, but has the same tuning configuration as the Dyer, and a tone nearly as wonderful.  There are many other modern and vintage doublenecks that can accommodate Standard and Bennett tuning as discussed above.

Even if you have some sort of instrument already, or even if you have something in mind, you should thoroughly explore Frank Doucette’s invaluable article Shopping For the Perfect Harp Guitar, as it relates directly to my ideas above.

I’ll stop here for now.  If I haven’t discussed the particular harp guitar you’re interested in, send me an email, and I’ll try to include it before I wrap up this series.  Next month, I’ll discuss some instruction resources for the basic Dyer instruments.

About the Author

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