Fretting and Harping About Guitars

Written by Don Kaplan

When I was a teenager in New York during the 1960s, hundreds of people would gather around the fountain in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park to play their guitars and sing folk songs made famous by the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Some guitarists strummed their instruments using picks. Others used their fingers or fingernails to pluck the strings individually, a style known—appropriately—as fingerpicking. Whether strumming or plucking, everyone competed for attention: Whoever attracted the largest audience of locals and tourists won pride of place, at least until another performer caught the audience’s attention.

If a harp guitarist had been present that performer would certainly have caught the audience’s attention based on the instrument’s looks alone. Harp guitars have unusual designs and are built with two necks: one fretted (stopped), the other with “floating strings”— strings that aren’t fretted and look like those found on a harp.

One of National Public Radios’ Weekend Edition essayists saw something called a harp guitar at Gregg Miner’s Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments and described it as a “combination guitar and wooden shoulder-mounted grenade launcher.” [Tim Brookes, Weekend Edition, August 26, 2007]. Museum owner, musician and historian Miner clarified: “To qualify as a harp guitar…it has to have at least one floating string….The strings don’t just have to be basses; they can be treble strings or mid-range strings strung across the body, attached to the treble side. There’s a wide variety of harp guitars, and that’s what makes it both so difficult to describe and endlessly fascinating….” []

According to some accounts, the harp guitar (as it’s called today) dates back to the mid-1600s in Europe. Other researchers claim it evolved at the end of the 18th century when European luthiers (makers of stringed instruments) were looking for ways to replace the standard guitar because of changing tastes. The first true harp guitar was produced in Paris around 1773 by harp maker François-Joseph Naderman. “It had six standard fretted strings and six open bass strings. Each bass string had a thumb lever, located on the back of the peghead, which raised the pitch a semitone. Naderman called his instrument a ‘Bisex’ meaning double-six. Instruments of this sort were then termed bass guitars.” [Duncan Robertson, Frets Magazine, Nov. 1979]

By the turn of the 20th century harp guitars were becoming common in America as well. They had steel instead of gut strings, were loud and could be heard above smaller instruments, were visually interesting, favored in vaudeville acts, played at home, and used to perform a wide variety of musical genres. As fashionable as they had become harp guitars vanished quickly by the late 1920s because of new trends and technological advances in making instruments. The demise of vaudeville (replaced by movies and radio) and the Jazz Age preference for piano and drum accompaniments also contributed to the decline of these unusual guitars.

Harp guitars have recently been revived by musicians who use modern fingerstyle technique. Modern fingerstyle is based on fingerpicking but includes innovative effects and places a greater emphasis on the bass as the foundation for the music. Fingerstyle enables the player to produce a more expressive, richer sound that isn’t possible on traditional guitars.

Mark Vickness, a contemporary fingerstyle musician who performs on a variety of custom made guitars as well as harp guitars explains that “Modern fingerstyle guitar is a genre that traces its roots back to a few early proponents, most notably Michael Hedges. The idea was to expand the musical vocabulary for the steel string acoustic guitar by employing percussive techniques, broader use of harmonics, unique tunings and better ways of amplifying the acoustic guitar to produce a richer, more layered, orchestral sound. That initial idea continues to motivate players to come up with new ways to push the envelope including the use of various effects and looping.” (Looping occurs when a pedal enables the musician to record a musical passage and then play it back repeatedly on a loop. Once it is played back, most loop pedals allow for overdubbing new passages over the first one.)

Vickness’ recent album Places has been described by a reviewer at The Rocker magazine as “a master class in modern fingerstyle acoustic guitar.” [ 10/4, 2012; selection on YouTube] Another reviewer was impressed by Vickness’ ability to “make his guitar sound like chimes, an old clock, a dulcimer and even a sitar.” [Andrew Sammut, All About Jazz, 2/17/19] And a recent critique of a performance at Berkeley, CA’s historic Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse noted “There is a tremendous freedom in fingerstyle, as pretty much the whole guitar can be used. The musician can create harmonics by simultaneously picking or pulling the strings on both the body and the fret board, while using the body of the guitar in a percussive manner. Because of all the sounds being emitted from one guitar, there is a sense of depth and fullness in the music created. Being witness to this technique is an amazing thing, as watching a musician create such sounds is a somewhat magical as well as breathtaking experience.” [April 10, 2019]

Other popular modern fingerstyle artists include Michael Hedges, Michael Manring, and Muriel Anderson. Michael Hedges (1953-1997), like Vickness, was classically trained and especially influenced by 20th century composers including Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Anton Webern, Steve Reich, and Morton Feldman. Hedges, one of the most influential fingerstyle artists, applied unusual techniques to the steel string acoustic guitar like using right hand hammer-ons (a method of sounding two notes simultaneously while plucking a string only once), using the left hand for melodic or rhythmic hammer-ons and pull-offs (resulting in a ringing sound after using a hammer-on), slapping the guitar body percussively, and unusual strumming. [Examples of Hedges fingerstyle guitar playing can be found on YouTube.]

Michael Manring harp guitar (Source: Steve Hoffman Music Forums)

Michael Manring, who plays electric bass as well as guitar, used to tour with Hedges. And, like Hedges and Vickers, Manring also has a solid musical background. He is recognized as a technical virtuoso and uses the electric bass guitar as a solo instrument in unique ways. He usually plays a fretless bass which enables him to change tone and pitch just like on an acoustic bass. One of his techniques involves using mechanical devices to change the tuning of one or more strings while playing a piece.

Manring is said to do “things on the electric bass that haven’t been done before, are nearly impossible, and (are) illegal in most states.” [Contemporary American folksinger/songwriter John Gorka as quoted on CD-Baby] When he performed with Vickness at the recent Freight and Salvage concert he was described as “a legend, playing fingerstyle with a bass instead of a guitar. Using loops, pedal effects, and his bass, he created wave after wave of sound that lingered and floated into space….He is a true magician of sound….” [Carolyn McCoy, The Bay Bridged, April 15, 2019]

Muriel Anderson is one of the world’s foremost fingerstyle and harp guitarists, and the first female to win the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship. She usually plays a nylon string guitar and a custom 21-string guitar which has both nylon and steel strings.

Her CD Nightlight Daylight was chosen as one of the top 10 CDs of the decade by Guitar Player Magazine. According to her biography, “Muriel’s unique approach to the instrument virtually transforms the guitar into a lyrical choir, then a marching band, then a Japanese koto, then a Bluegrass band, one minute launching into a Beatles’ tune and the next, a Spanish classic.” And according to the Chicago Tribune, “Acoustic guitarist Muriel Anderson… has justifiably gained a reputation as one of the world’s best, and most versatile, guitar instrumentalists.” [July 29, 1997. Musical selections can be found on YouTube and her website.]

Notes for a 2017-2018 exhibition of harp guitars at the Museum of Making Music state that harp guitars “traveled through time, crossed continents and oceans, fell in and out of popularity, and defied standardization. Ironically, in today’s world of advanced technology and endless multi-string guitar options, harp guitars are technically no longer necessary; however, their popularity is on the rise.” Fingerstyle guitarists have been innovating, playing and recording “under the radar” for over 50 years. Some of the foremost players from the late 20th century continue to perform while new artists use harp guitars because they are attracted to the rich sound. Thousands of harp guitars already exist in this country, and dozens of luthiers still make them.

For additional leads and music samples check out the websites provided above as well as on YouTube. You may be surprised at how much information is available. Those folks who gathered around the fountain in Greenwich Village every Sunday certainly would be.

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