Harp Guitar Facts

by Joshua Liu
A harp guitar is similar to a guitar, but possesses additional unstopped strings

A harp guitar is similar to a guitar, but possesses additional unstopped strings

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Harp guitars are stringed instruments with a history spanning over two centuries; they different from standard guitars in that they have several unstopped strings in addition to the six strings found on a regular guitar. Although there are different families and varieties of harp guitars, they are all identifiable by this core characteristic.

Early History

In the 1500s, Antonio Naldi added open harp strings to a lute, creating an instrument known as the "theorbo." The theorbo became its own family of instruments with many different varieties, such as the archlute. In 1773, Naderman, a French instrument maker, applied this design to the guitar, perhaps creating the first harp guitar. Many different designs were created in the next century, such as the hypolyre, table harp lute and hollow-armed guitar.

20th Century History

During the mid-20th century the harp guitar became much more popular in Europe than in America, especially in German-speaking countries in which it was known as the "contraguitar" and, later, the "Schrammel guitar." The first harp guitars reached America in the early 1900s and became popular in mandolin orchestras; however, the advent of jazz reduced the spread of harp guitars, as the fast rhythms of jazz were unsuited to the instrument. Popularity remained minimal until the 1980s, when music diversified and many musicians experimented with new and unusual instruments.

Families and Varieties

There are countless varieties and families of harp guitars; for example, the archlute is a form of harp guitar similar to a lute with an extended neck to accommodate the open "harp" strings. Other forms of harp guitars include the harpolyre (essentially a fretted harp guitar), the archcittern (a theorbo version of a cittern, an historical stringed instrument) and the hollow-armed guitar (a guitar with arms extending from the main body that contain harp strings).

Modern Uses

Although harp guitars are still relatively unknown, many musicians use them; because a harp guitar is so similar to a standard guitar, it can be used to play almost everything a guitar can. As a result, harp guitars can play music ranging from blues and country to pop and rock. Notable harp guitarists include Don Alder, Muriel Anderson, John Doan, William Eaton and Brad Hoyt. Well-known guitarists like Pat Metheny have also experimented with harp guitars from time to time.


Photo Credits

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