You see the harp guitar in the photo above; you can hear it in the video below. But what is it? We find the following definition on harpguitars.net:
- A guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional "floating" unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.
- The modern harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard; these unfretted strings are played as an open string.
- The word "harp" is a specific reference to the unstopped open strings, and is not specifically a reference to the tone, pitch range, volume, silhouette similarity, construction, floor-standing ability, nor any other alleged "harp-like" properties.
One issue with the guitar in terms of playing any sort of polyphony is the fact that in either standard tuning or even non-standard forms, you just simply run out of bass notes more quickly than you’d like. The harp guitar addresses this problem rather ingeniously by adding an unspecified number of unfretted bass strings on the second arm. These strings (usually referred to as “sub-basses”) can be tuned in a number of different ways, depending largely on what key the player is employing. The standard tuning for the guitar portion of the harp guitar is—surprise—standard guitar tuning of EADGBE, though altered tunings can be used for the guitar portion, just as they can be on your garden variety guitar.
Today’s video features a live performance of his original song “Because It’s There” by the late Michael Hedges, a phenomenal guitar player who was certainly one of the most notable fingerstyle players of recent memory. Hedges used an altered tuning for “Because It’s There”—the 6-string guitar is tuned EADEAD, while the sub-basses are tuned G, Bb, C, A, D. The composition makes extensive use of harmonics & tapping; the latter refers to a player producing notes with only his or her left hand, as Hedges does here allowing him to simultaneously play both the guitar & the harp portions. Hedges gives the background to the song during his introduction in the video. If you’d like to hear a second version of the song, there’s an excellent cover by another phenomenal guitarist, Kaki King (with a fun introduction) here on YouTube.
Next time around I’ll write about the harp guitar’s history & have more fun music—enjoy!
Photo is from Wiki Commons. A Dyer Style 8 harp guitar, circa 1915. The image is made available by Gregg Miner under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.