Expert Author Andrew Wahlberg

As a full time performing Harp-guitarist for the past forty years, I have had the opportunity to explore the many potentialities of creating music on this wonderful, diverse and under-appreciated instrument. In just the past few years, there has been an enormous resurgence in interest in the harp-guitar, and there are now many new players performing on the instrument, offering a cornucopia of diverse styles and approaches. It is with this heightened awareness of the harp-guitar in mind that I feel impelled to share much of what I have learned over the span of my career, particularly in the area of string activation technique.

So what is a harp-guitar? The simplified version of the generally accepted definition of a harp-guitar is a guitar shaped instrument with both fretted and unfretted (sometimes referred to as floating) strings, that can be plucked, strummed or otherwise activated by the player. The number of unfretted strings can be as high as the physical limitations of the instrument allow, however to be called a harp-guitar there must be at the very least one floating string somewhere on the instrument, that is to say a string that cannot be pressed down on a fretboard of any kind during performance in order to produce a note different from the note it is tuned to. That is not to say that other methods cannot be employed to cause the floating strings pitch or timbre to be altered: only that there is no fretboard available to press the string against to shorten the string, thereby raising it's pitch.

Harp-guitars have been around for centuries, with most experts agreeing that they originated in Europe starting around the seventeenth century, created for players seeking extended dynamic range beyond what a standard six string guitar would be capable of producing. Most of the known examples of instruments from that early period in the development of the harp-guitar were custom built by an individual luthier for a particular artist, and the appearance and capabilities of these instruments varied widely. Although there were many prolific luthiers during this period, it was around 1900 in the United States that mass produced harp-guitars began to appear. Builders such as Chris Knutsen, Carl and August Larson, Orville Gibson and others helped popularize the instrument in the first third of the twentieth century. Many hundreds of harp-guitars were manufactured during this period. However, due to the onset of the Great Depression during the 1930's, interest seemed to wane and production of harp-guitars came to a virtual halt. It was not for almost another 50 years that the harp-guitar finally began to find a new audience. I myself found my first harp-guitar, a 1912 Larson Style 7, moldering unplayed in the corner of a pawn shop in Los Angeles, California in 1971. It was then that my lifelong affair with the harp-guitar began.

During my career as a performer on the harp-guitar, I have developed my own bass string technique, as well as methods of combination standard and sub bass playing. Although harp-guitars usually can have both strings tuned lower than the standard six strings of a guitar, called sub bass, and strings tuned higher, called super trebles, my focus lies with the sub basses. Although the sub basses can be tuned in any way deemed necessary by the player, there is the general acceptance in the harp-guitar community that it is preferable to tune the lowest of the six bass strings down as close to an octave below the low E on the standard neck as possible. One of the limitations of the Larson twelve string harp-guitar is that there are only six bass strings available to span a full twelve notes to create a complete octave of bass available below the low E string of the fretted strings. Many harp-guitarists, myself included, tune the strings starting from lowest to highest as follows: FGABCD. This leaves out the sharps and flats, which presents a special challenge. How does one strike a string in order to get an Ab, when there is no fretboard on the bass section? There are a number of designs devices placed near the string tuner, known as sharping levers, that make it possible to quickly alter the pitch of a string by a half step, therefore making it possible to raise the pitch of the G string to Ab fairly quickly. But during a performance, it is often not quickly enough, especially if you need that same string to produce a G on the very next eighth note. One must reach up to the headstock area in order to activate this lever, requiring a player to take a hand away from the playing plane.

It is here that my technique, which just for fun I call the sharping bump, comes into play. In the wrist, just below the pinkie finger, where the palm meets the wrist joint, is a bone called the Triquetrum. When that hard lump made by this bone is pressed against any of the bass strings just ahead of the bridge saddle and the string is then plucked, a muted note one half step above the note the string is tuned to will sound. In other words, if an Ab is desired, simply press the "bump" about one half inch in front of where the G bass string crosses the bridge saddle, and voila, you get an Ab. The technique takes practice, but it helps fill in the missing notes in the bass section of the Larson style harp-guitar.

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