Harp Guitar History  
Whaley Guitar's Home    
I. Before the 20th Century              II. 20th Century              III. Present              IV. References
I.   Before the 20th Century

Theorbo family

In 1480, the lira de braccio developed out of the medieval fiddle. This instrument usually had 5 strings on the neck and 2 drone strings running along side the neck. About 100 years later, Antonio Naldi applied the same design idea of open strings (harp strings) to the lute, this instrument was called the theorbo. Like most stringed instruments of the time, the theorbo was a family of instruments with many different sizes, number of strings, and designs. The arch lute was in this family, with double string courses and typically larger in size, about 5 ft. long rather than the typical 3 1/2 ft. theorbo. Handel wrote music for the arch lute in Athalia (1733) and music for the theorbo in Giulio Cesare (1724), Partenope (1730), Saul (1739) and Esther (1752). 

The cittern, a simplified lute, had a flat back and steel strings rather than gut strings which were difficult to keep in tune. The chitarrone was to the cittern what the theorbo was to the lute. In the mid 17th century Italian and French luthiers made an arch cittern with 5 to 7 melody strings and 6 or 7 bass harp strings. This instrument was over 6 feet long and said to be loud as a harpsichord. It grew to be quite popular in the 18th century, however the guitar surpassed both the lute and the cittern in popularity by the end of the century.

At the end of the Baroque Period (1600-1750), the guitar, which had been around for over 300 years, was finally being taken seriously. Musicians were writing and publishing many works and luthiers were developing new guitar designs. Between 1770 and 1800 the double courses changed to single strings and a sixth string was added. In 1773 a French instrument maker, Naderman, designed what he called the "bisex" guitar. This instrument had the six strings on the neck and six bass strings above the neck. This may be the first actual harp guitar.

Schenck harp guitar

Edward Light, an organist in London, contributed three harp guitar like designs between 1798 and 1820. Only the later two designs are technically harp guitars with open strings. They were smaller in size as was fashionable at the time. Barry and Harley of London, who were excellent craftsman, built these instruments for Light. Many of these table harp lutes, as they were called, are still around today.

The desire for extended range on a guitar was evident as composers, such as Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and Matteo Carcassi (1792-1853) wrote music on a three necked, 21 strung guitar, called a hypolyre.

The most popular harp guitar in America today is the hollow arm design. This originated in Vienna in 1839 by instrument builder Friedrich Schenck. Schenck was a student of Johann Stauffer, who also taught C.F. Martin lutherie. In 1850 Schenck stopped building, though many other luthiers such as Johann Lagler, Karl Müller and Luigi Mozzani were inspired by him to build the hollow arm design harp guitar.

II.  20th Century

Mozzani lyre-guitar

Luigi Mozzani (1869-1943) was born in Faenza, Italy to a poor family. A local baker, who played trumpet, introduced Mozzani to music. Mozzani learned the clarinet, oboe and later the guitar. His rise to fame was swift. While touring the world he took interest in guitar making. Mozzani returned to Italy in 1899 and set up his first luthier workshop. Continuing to perform concerts throughout Europe, he was introduced to the lyre-guitars or harp guitars of Friedrich Schenck in Germany and Austria. Working with local craftsman and eventually setting up a lutherie school, Mozzani, inspired by the lyre-guitar made many wonderfully innovative instruments. In 1911, an eleven year old boy named Mario Maccaferri came to apprentice under Mozzani. After many successful years at the lutherie school he went out on his own. Maccaferri became well known for his Selmer guitar, made popular by Django Reinhardt. Most of Maccaferri's concerts were performed on a Mozzani designed lyre-guitar. 

Hauser schrammel 

The mid-20th century was much kinder to the harp guitar in Europe than in America. The popular harp guitar style was found in German speaking countries. It was called a contra guitar and later a Schrammel guitar. Named after the popular Schrammel Brothers' Quartet. This instrument had a double neck with connecting heads and 4 to 12 harp strings. The reason this instrument continued being built in these countries in the 20th century (by such luthiers as Herman Hauser) may have been because of the wandervögel movement, a nationalistic return to simplicity and nature.

Gibson Style-R

Meanwhile, in America,  Orville Gibson built his first harp guitar at the very end of the 19th century. In 1903, his company, Gibson Mandolin - Guitar Co., offered four models of harp guitars in their catalogs. As with all Gibsons at the time, these instruments were arch tops. They had 6 to 12 harp strings. The style-U was the largest, at 48 inches long 21 inches wide and a neck scale of 27 1/4 inches. The Gibson harp guitar had a piano like frame internally which made it even heavier, but the sustain was amazing. The price range was $194.03 for the style-R to $354.60 for the U-1. This was a lot of money at the time, but with strong marketing and financing available, they were able to sell a total of over 400 harp guitars. In 1908, Orville had been pushed out of his own company. For ease in manufacturing, changes were made to the Gibson harp guitar and the line of harp guitars was dropped to only one model. Most people agree, the earlier models were superior in sound and playability. 

Knutsen harp guitar

Larson harp guitar

The other major harp guitar maker was W.J. Dyer and Brothers of St. Paul, MN. They had made a contract with Chris Knutsen, who may be the father of the American harp guitar. Knutsen was granted a patent in 1897 for a "one-arm harp-guitar". This style was similar to Schenck and Mozzani in that it had a hollow extension of the body holding the 5 to 7 harp strings. The Dyer-Knutsen contract started in 1899, with Chris Knutsen to supply Dyer with his harp guitars for sale in the Mid-west and the East. Knutsen made a lot of interesting instruments and no two were alike. This may be why Dyer contacted the Larson Brothers of Chicago to build their harp guitars. Carl and August Larson were very consistent with their high quality craftsmanship, which was in contrast to Knutsen. In 1906, the Larsons improved upon the Knutsen design and developed 5 different styles for the Dyer line. What is considered by many to be the finest of all harp guitars made in that era is the W.J. Dyer and Brothers' Symphony #8 with its mother of pearl, tree of life fret inlay and six sub-bass strings, it measures 41 1/2 inches long and 15 3/4 inches wide. The Larson brothers also made harp guitars for other companies besides Dyer. 

Many other guitar manufacturers such as Martin, Bohmann, Lyon and Healy (Washburn), and Harmony have tried their hand at building harp guitars, but never as many as Gibson and Dyer.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the harp guitar found a home in mandolin orchestras, a musical craze that began in the 1880's. In the 20's, jazz was so popular, it did away with the mandolin orchestra. With its fast rhythms, jazz was difficult to play on the harp guitar because of the sustaining strings. There was no place for the harp guitar in the new music scene, so it fell by the way side. Gibson and Dyer would keep the harp guitar in their catalogs into the 30's, but the last ones manufactured were in the early 20's. For years harp guitars hung on the walls of music stores and pawn shops. Then, in the 80's, popular music had diversified. Musicians such as Michael Hedges, John Doan, Stephen Bennett, and even Pat Metheny found the harp guitar as a tool for experimentation. 

In the 20th century, the most popular musical instrument was the guitar. It only makes sense that the harp guitar, an expansion of the guitar, would have appeal.

III. Present

From the lira de braccio to the theorbo to the harp guitar, the need for open harp strings has always been with stringed instruments. As musicians, such as Eric Loy, Muriel Anderson,  Dan Lavoie and Stacy Hobbs, continue to experiment and stretch the boundaries of music, the need for new instruments grows. Today harp guitars are solely made by individual luthiers such as Mike Doolin, Fred Carlson and William Eaton either by original design or reproductions of traditional styles.

IV. References

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