Volume 10, Issue 2, August, 2010

Harp Guitar Instructional Resources, Part 2

by Gregg Miner

In the previous issue I suggested that, before seeking out harp guitar instruction materials, prospective harp guitarists should first be thinking about what type of instrument, music, or playing style they hope to pursue.

For the moment, we’ll continue on as if you (the prospective player) already have or are planning to purchase a “standard” 6-bass instrument – perhaps a Dyer-style instrument, perhaps a double-neck or other form.  Using this particular harp guitar as our sample, I’ll now address the Instructional Resources listed in the last issue: Instruction Books, DVDs, Videos, and Repertoire: Music and Tab.

Unfortunately, at this moment in “harp guitar time,” this will be more of a discussion of what’s not available (and why) than what is.

Instruction Books: There are none to speak of.  I did sell a reproduction of an early tutor that covered the “bass-guitar” and “lute. The former is simply a Viennese double-neck harp guitar, the latter the same thing with a lute body (the correct term being basslaute).  The nominal tuning for 6 basses happens to be F-G-A-B(Bb)-C-D –the same standard tuning I introduced last issue.  There are then options for 3 to 7 bass strings.  Some simple illustrations are included, along with exercises and many songs.  I sold several reprints (I have one left), but I have no idea how useful they were, as the book is clearly geared to the beginning guitarist/musician who has zero knowledge of the fingerboard or basic music theory.  I have copied the original early 1900’s version and recently made it available to Harpguitars.net members here.  If nothing else, it is an interesting historical document.

Assuming that most beginning harp guitarists are proficient, or at least educated, guitarists, these guitar rudiments are unnecessary (and Wobersin’s fretting with the thumb may give some players pause).  Players with no prior experience would be just as well off using any of the hundreds of great methods for standard 6-string guitar, and dealing with the floating basses a bit later on.

 I have a heard a couple of the top players mention this subject from time, so perhaps we might one day see a harp guitar instruction book of some kind.

The extent of Wobersin’s examples of sub-bass technique.

Wobersin notates sub-basses with an “8” – meaning, play the written note an octave lower on the appropriate bass string.
Here he shows two enharmonic scales, with the first sub-bass (D) tuned up to become D# / Eb. 

Instructional DVDs: There are none yet that I know of, but as we speak, TrueFire is preparing a harp guitar training DVD series with Stephen Bennett.  This may be the first such detailed teaching aid ever created and should prove highly valuable, if I know both Truefire and Stephen.  Of course, SB will be using his sub-bass tuning and demonstrating his own particular techniques and style, with musical compositions and arrangements from his own vast repertoire.  So if you’re a Bennett fan, this will be a godsend.  If you’re into other music, I expect you would still find much value in Stephen’s shared instruction and experience.
Videos: While waiting for Truefire’s first Bennett release, I would certainly recommend watching any of the performance DVDs available.  While the artists may not be giving specific instruction, or using a dedicated 2-camera (each hand) shoot, seeing and hearing a performance can be worth a thousand words.  There are good DVDs by Stephen Bennett, along with harp guitar performances in DVDs by Muriel Anderson and John Doan.

Showing an increase in quality, a growing number of videos of all manner of artists, from Michael Hedges to Andy Mckee to the stable of Holloway Harp Guitar artists, are showing up on YouTube.  Long ago, we even started a YouTube Harp Guitar Group so that people could easily find all the videos in one spot.  It soon grew beyond anyone’s ability to add every appropriate clip to it (let alone organize, or judge or control any quality), so I’m afraid you’ll have to mostly search on your own, and see what appeals to you.  The main thing to take away from all these video clips is how the different players are using the bass strings, including techniques of thumb position, striking, plucking, damping, harmonics, etc.  Take advantage of the free clips and absorb all you can.  Here again, I’ve found that most prospective harp guitarists have been introduced to the instrument by a particular favorite musician – either at a live show, or via YouTube.  But before trying to duplicate your favorite hero’s tunes, I’d recommend listening to as many players as you can; you never know when a new favorite might be discovered.  Always remember that some players may use significantly different tunings and techniques, if not instruments.

With videos, just like with audio recordings, we also start getting into other types of music and harp guitars besides the modern Dyer-style players.  Along with more complex modern harp guitars like John Doan’s 20-string instrument with super-trebles and many other modern configurations, including a variety with nylon strings, you can see and hear a growing number of performances of historical music on period or reproduction instruments.  For example, you can find Bach transcribed onto a variety of different harp guitars, and you can hear some of the typical 10-string music of mid-1800’s composers like Mertz (who used a common form of Viennese harp guitar with 4 floating basses).  For a look at the harp guitar’s accompaniment role, you might search “kontragitarre” or “Schrammelgitarre” to see how the instrument has been utilized in Austria and Germany non-stop for well over a century.

Finally, you might discover a truly rare “time capsule” video of an authentic historical harp guitarist, such as Eddie Peabody flat-picking his Gibson Style U, or the mighty Taraffo himself (on this site).

I mention all these seemingly unrelated musical options because all are examples of genuine “harp guitar music” and, in fact, all have been investigated and asked about by one person or another during the recent harp guitar resurgence.  So, just as I brought up in Part 1 - what kind of harp guitar and harp guitar music are you hoping to play?  The sky’s the limit!

Repertoire: Music:  A common question inevitably asked during any historical harp guitar presentation is “What kind of music was originally played?”  Or more specifically, “Is there any repertoire and/or published repertoire?”  As you can probably guess by now, the answer is different for each type of instrument, period, or culture that developed the particular harp guitar in question.
Starting (arbitrarily) with historical European repertoire, we’re fortunate to have access to preserved 78 recordings of Italian virtuosos like Pasquale Taraffo, Luigi Mozzani, and Mario Maccaferri.  None of these recordings have yet been transcribed, however, nor published in the form of the original harp guitar arrangement.  Similarly, while there was a plethora of 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-string “harp guitarists” performing and composing from the early to mid 1800’s, few of their arrangements were published as they played them.  Instead, the pieces were transcribed for the common 6-string guitar, the instrument played by the composer’s students and the public.  Amongst scholars, some of the original multi-bass music has been collected and shared (we’ll be seeing a fine example at the Gathering this November), while other original performances are extrapolated, by transposing the suitable bass notes.

What about all those endless 7, 9 or 11-bass kontragitarres?  As mentioned above, these were rarely used as solo instruments, but served the role of a “portable piano” in the original Schrammel Quartet and the “Schrammelmusik” that followed.  Nearly every small to large ensemble had (and still has) one playing an accompaniment to the Viennese waltzes and other traditional music popular to this day.  These historical players (and likely the modern ones as well) learned or developed their thumb techniques and bass line patterns locally, not from any written music.

Well then, surely in historical America, land of the ubiquitous harp guitar, there is much written and published harp guitar music?  Sorry – once again, it is virtually nonexistent.  The reason again is simply that the harp guitar was used as an accompaniment instrument for the most part. And even when many of these accompaniment parts were written out and published as part of the mandolin orchestra repertoire – often listed as “Guitar or Harp Guitar Accompaniment” – what the player would get would be simple standard 6-string music.  It was expected that the harp guitarists would simply drop the bass an octave as desired.  With the much rarer harp guitar soloists, the same concept applied.
In all my research of early American music periodicals, I have so far only found music by two harp guitar soloists.  The first, Walter Boehm, was the well known multi-instrumentalist/teacher who created the Gibson 10-sub-bass tuning system.  The other is an otherwise unknown and forgotten player named John Witter, who in 1918 advertised for some time the "Book of Solos" written for the harp guitar.  As the ad boasts, it was indeed the "only one of its kind published."  This complete folio, along with an example of Boehm’s harp guitar music, is available for study on the Members Section of this site.  I suspect that few modern players will find it all that exiting - it is representative of the light (but “serious”) parlor music popular in the early part of the 20th century.  Though both Boehm and Witter specifically played, and wrote for, the Gibson harp guitar with 10 chromatic basses, the music (as they state) can be played on most any harp guitar, as only a couple of sub-bass notes are used in any given piece.  One could play it today on almost any harp guitar.

Witter notates the sub-basses with an “8”- meaning, play the written note an octave lower on the appropriate bass string. 

And finally we reach contemporary harp guitar music, in all its many styles.  The “classical guitar” world has its repertoire, so how about the harp guitar?  Ah, but they are a multitude, and we are few.  They are also able to draw on composers and pieces from uninterrupted centuries of guitar music, including all manner of modern 20th century composers.  And we’re really just getting warmed up.  But we are establishing a repertoire.  From Michael Hedges and Stephen Bennett to more recent harp guitar converts like Jason Carter and Philippe Fouquet, we are seeing an ever-increasing body of harp guitar work.  Most of the recordings are easily obtainable, but what about written music?  Well, the news isn’t all bad.  True, the harp guitar world has been off to a slow start in this regard – understandably, as the students have only recently started to appear, and still in small numbers.  As written music for modern steel-string guitar has, of course, evolved, let’s start a new heading:

Repertoire: Tablature:

In most cases, both standard music notation and harp guitar tablature are included – though the systems may differ.  As discussed in Tablature on this site, there are several ways to notate the sub-bass strings, so individual performers may choose different methods.

Arguably the most famous modern harp guitar piece, “Because It’s There” by Michael Hedges was also the first to be written out accurately in tab form.  John Stropes (Stropes Editions) worked directly with Hedges to capture and notate the many unusual techniques.  Note that Hedges created his own custom, non-linear tuning for his 5 subs (see information on his original Dyer here), so care should be taken to string the instrument properly (a set of light strings for 5-bass Standard Tuning may work okay, though some players of Hedges’ harp guitar music keep a second Dyer specifically strung for his repertoire).   

Stropes shows tuning (low>high) at the top, and notates the sub-basses with a "0" on each separate bass string line. (The middle staves are reserved solely for left hand tapping-only notes)

He created an ingenious and valuable new technique specifically for the complex muting Hedges executes on the famous sub-bass melody (the gray bars denote exactly when the right-hand fingers and thumb are touching the strings).

It's an amazing accomplishment to have captured and archived this piece at all, let alone so accurately.

Additional Hedges tab may be downloaded from Rootwitch.com.  At the time of this writing, only Double Planet was available.

Sample from Michael Hedges’ “Double Planet.”

Site owner Jim Roosa created his own form of tab (no standard notation), with sub-bass notes written below the appropriate neck markings.  Tuning is provided at the top.

Players will presumably be familiar with the song and timing.

“Overnight sensation” Andy Mckee has produced tab for several of his harp guitar tunes, available by download from his web site.

Sample from Andy McKee’s “The Friend I Never Met.”

Tuning is given at start of tab.

Subs are notated on their own stave, and for the tab, given their own string.

While the “0”s may seem redundant, this system is useful for showing complicated sub-bass harmonics, and an easy visual system for players unaccustomed to the specific tuning.  

Note that unlike other harp guitar tab, there is no separation between string banks, so it might not be the easiest TAB to sight read.

Ever-popular Stephen Bennett has published tab for two of his most requested original pieces (Perestroika and Sea Rose Beach) and also his full traditional album Good Wood.  These are all available from Harp Guitar Music as individual or bulk PDFs.
Sample from Stephen Bennett’s arrangement of “Home on the Range.”

The neck tuning is standard, while the sub-bass tuning is provided at the start (in this case they are standard Bennett tuning).

Like McKee’s, the subs are denoted with “0” (open) on their individual lines.

In this piece, the Tab appears above the Notation (SB has done it both ways).

Most harp guitar players don’t tab out their music (I’m one of the few, as I’d otherwise forget my own tunes!) – they simply play it, so have no need notation, until enough fans request it.  Wouldn’t you love to see an Andy Wahlberg “Standards” folio?  Why not ask him?  Or Muriel Anderson, who has written several harp guitar pieces.  With enough demand, the task may become economically feasible, and some of these players will then be able to offer their arrangements.

Have faith – the world of harp guitar music and resources continues to grow by leaps and bounds!

Next Issue: The subject of Teachers and Classes…plus Super-Trebles and beyond.

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