I did some work, so let’s learn about the harp guitar!

I hope you’re sitting down for this. If not, you probably should be – and you may want to add a shot of whiskey to your coffee.

You’re not going to believe this, but I both did some actual work and I haven’t even smoked anything today. Yet… I’ve got to talk to a local radio station later and I should probably not sound like I’m mentally handicapped.

I’m not kidding – I did some actual work!

What did I do? Well, it goes a bit like this…

This site’s articles get to just a few other sites. I probably should pick different sites to submit them to, but I enjoy submitting them where I do and I don’t see that changing in the near future.

On those sites, as regular readers know – but we sometimes get strange traffic from other sources, I kind of keep their guitar communities active. I tried doing so for math, but people are far more interested in music. I enjoy the increased amount of feedback and participation with regards to music instead of math, so music it is.

It was on one of those sites where a user named Timmy posted a picture of their guitar that they inherited. I believe they said it was 100 years old, but we’ll get to that – as it probably isn’t quite that old. You’ll see. It’s a grand adventure.

It’s pretty awesome and fairly unique guitar.

The guitar is something called a “harp guitar” and I know a little about them but, given that I mostly do covers for money, I’ve got zero good reasons to actually own one. Until now…

Alas, I am not a harp guitar expert. That’s okay, there are experts!

I didn’t just fine an expert. I found the expert. This guy literally wrote the dictionary definition.

I’m not kidding and I’m so grateful that they’ve given us their time.

Who is this expert? It’s none other than Gregg Miner.

Seriously, check out his credentials! (Really, check them out because they’re extensive.)

That’s right… Someone posted a picture of a harp guitar and I then went to find what appears to be the foremost figure for harp guitars, and bugged them! (I ain’t scared!)

From what I’ve seen on their site, they’re all seemingly nice people with professionalism and a careful study of the harp guitar. They’re building an encyclopedia and use phrases like this, “the first serious organological approach to these instruments.”

They’re scholarly. We giggle at innuendo. They write about the history of a luthier. We write about bitchin’ solos. They have gatherings. We have parties.

I even told ’em that it was for this site and they still helped! I don’t know what they were thinking. I even warned ’em that I’d be linking to their site!

No, in all seriousness, I want to extend a special thanks for the time they’ve invested and I’d absolutely love it if you became interested in a harp guitar. I’m really sure they’d love it even more than I do.

I will say that I’ve never really been interested in playing a harp guitar – until just the other day, when this mystery guitar appeared and I started digging into it.

I will also say that the person who originally posted a picture of their guitar probably didn’t expect this to be the result. But, it’s a bit of a mystery piece and many musicians love a mystery instrument. I count myself as one of them.

So, let’s get this started…

The Harp Guitar!

Like all good mysteries, this one has started with very little information. The picture was posted and the user added the title that it was ancient and a hand-me-down guitar.

They’ve given me permission to reuse their image, so here it is in all its glory:

Click for larger harp guitar image.
This, folks, is a harp guitar. They’re pretty awesome! (Click for larger image.)

Of all my readers, I’m pretty sure they’re the only one who has a harp guitar.

Note: Until about 24 hours after seeing that image, I’d never really considered learning to play a harp guitar. However, I’m sort of developing that childlike wonderment that makes me think I could probably play a pretty bitchin’ solo on one of those. (I’ve already checked harp guitar prices and they aren’t always dreadfully expensive.)

Anyhow… The average response to the picture could be summed up with, “What the hell is that thing and how do you play it?” Which are, strangely, actually legitimate questions!

Well, it just so happens that I bugged the person who wrote the definition!

Allow me to quote their layman’s definition…

  • 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.

That should answer a lot of questions and save me some time! (Time which I just spent trying to figure out how to format that!)

If we unpack that definition, it basically means that it’s any guitar that has at least one unstopped, unfretted, string that is not attached to the regular neck. Which is also the only time I’ve been less verbose than a second person.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and have any number of strings. My guess is that the extra strings would also provide resonance, but how much and to what effect I don’t actually know. I didn’t actually think to ask that question.

Warning: I’ve never played one – and I’ve played a concert-grand pedal harp! I’ve never even so much as touched one of these. I’ve known they existed but never considered learning to play one. Until just the other day, that is.

In other words, reading and watching videos about a harp guitar is possibly going to make you start checking out harp guitar prices and trying to figure out if you can fit one or two in your budget.

You have been warned.

Ignoring my warning completely, watch this:

That’s right… I chose that one ’cause it has a bitchin’ solo in it. (I wonder if Mr. Miner is yet regretting his choice to respond to my emails?)

Now that you know about the harp guitar, I can get on with this article!

When I saw this beautiful picture posted, my first thoughts were, “Who made it?”

The answer was a cryptic, “A. Puccinelli.” And, like a Poe poem, nothing more.

At that point, I figured I’d try to investigate and hit up the mighty Google. I entered that little bit of information and found nothing conclusive with regards to a guitar maker and nothing conclusive at all about a harp guitar maker.

Instead, I found a luthier that is known for mandolins who went by the name ‘Archilio Puccinelli.” It’d appear that Miner reached the same conclusion about the name of the luthier, but I can find zero evidence connecting him to guitars or harp guitars.

However, it’s important to keep in mind one of my favorite sayings, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” With the evidence at hand, such as it is, it seems to me that it is more probable than not that the luthier is Achillo Puccinelli.

From some reading, it looks like Puccinelli was an Italian immigrant living in Chicago and that he made instruments, seemingly mandolins, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Further evidence from the current owner suggests that this is the correct luthier because the original owners of the guitar were also in the correct place during those years. Which, by the way, seemingly puts the guitar at somewhere less than 100 years of age – probably/possibly/maybe. I can’t say that with any great confidence.

That’s actually about all we can add, at this time. I have hopes that this mystery will someday be solved – but it could take a while and I’m not going to estimate when we’ll be revisiting the subject of this guitar. I will say that, assuming things go as planned, the site will still be going and I’ll continue to write about this guitar. When I learn more, I’ll let you know.

Yay! We’ve got a mystery guitar! If you know anything about this mystery guitar, please do get in touch with me and I’ll forward the information to the correct parties. This is absolutely not my domain of expertise, as I don’t know the first thing about harp guitars.

However… We’re not done! Yup, it gets even better.

Not only did I go bug this nice person, I figured that I’d ask them some questions. I didn’t ask ’em the questions you might expect – or even fancy questions. Nope… Instead, I asked ’em questions as though I’m a giant five year old – ’cause I am.

And, seriously, I want you all to be grateful for Gregg Minor’s patience, time, and willingness to respond. If you’d like, you can even donate to their foundation. (Disclosure: They did not request I post the link to their donation page. That was my own choice.)

It’s at this point that I must ask you to at least put on a shirt and shoes.

We have a guest and they’re pretty awesome. They’re probably used to higher class digs. Seriously, go back and click the link to their credentials. I somehow suspect they’ve never even had shot glasses thrown at them while performing. Call it a hunch…

I’m going to snip out the unimportant parts and post their response largely as I received it.

… I’ve found very few writers (even experts) who correctly figure out what a “harp guitar” is (and isn’t). aspects.

Yes, I could write a thousand more answers to a hundred more unasked questions – simpler to send them to my web sites!

I’d also like to get in touch with the owner of the Puccinelli for more photos and info if you can arrange that.

Added: I’m working on that.

1. How long have you played the harp guitar?

I’ve dabbled with it since acquiring my first one (a c.1915 Gibson) in 1983.

2. Who, or what, inspired you to learn?

As a multi-instrumentalist and someone interested in ancient and antique instruments I was intrigued by the appearance, then later the musical possibilities. Eventually I became much more interested in the history. I quickly learned that it was never a “novelty” but a serious instrument for many different purposes, techniques and styles.

3. Do you ever play just a ‘regular’ six string guitar?

Not much anymore – they confuse me!

4. Who is your favorite harp guitar luthier?

Historical: Chris Knutsen (see my Knutsen Archives).

Modern: Too political, most of these guys (and a few women) are my friends. And new builders are diving into the field at least monthly it seems.

5. What is your favorite harp guitar – and can I have a picture to post?

Too many special ones to list, but the iconic W. J. Dyer & Bro. Style 8 (circa 1910) built by Chicago’s Larson brothers is always a fan favorite.

6. Do you know anything about this Puccinelli fella?

No, that’s a new name for my ever-expanding Harp Guitar Maker Encyclopedia. I’ll have to ask around. Looks like a very nice instrument.

7. Do you ever see the harp guitar increasing in popularity and making its way into popular music?

Compared to its obscure and random resurgence that began in the mid-80s, we’re living in a harp guitar paradise at the moment, with hundreds and likely thousands of players at different levels. It’s only a matter of time before the more visible “popular acts” get hip to it.

8. With regards to question #7, would you like it to increase in popularity?

Too late – from where I sit, it’s already there. Though the promotion of the instrument is part of the charter of our non-profit The Harp Guitar Foundation, part of me will miss its obscurity and uniqueness once it becomes more mainstream. But luckily, its comparatively greater expense and perceived difficulty to play will probably always keep it from becoming as popular as the ukulele, for example.

9. What’s your favorite composition made specifically for a harp guitar?

Any one of a hundred original pieces by Stephen Bennett would do. Try “November” for example.

Added: You can stream that here:

10. Will you play us a merry tune (or suggest a track of *your* work that you’d like me to link to)?

Well, I’m particularly proud that Steve Howe (of Yes) loved my interpretation of his “Mood For a Day” that I released last year on my all-Knutsen recording Norwegian Wood. I rarely do videos, but here’s a taste.

Added: You can stream them here and the Norwegian Wood album is available at a very reasonable price.

How awesome was that? The answer is, “Pretty damned awesome!!!”

And, there you have it! I’d really like to again thank Gregg Miner of the Harp Guitar Foundation for taking the time out of their busy schedule to respond to my questions, provide more resources, and – equally important – for being passionate enough to undertake the awesome obligation that is creating a whole foundation for the harp guitar.

Seriously, the amount of passion that they have is impressive. It’s not just impressive, it’s contagious. I’m not sure it’s possible to travel down this road without really, really want to play a harp guitar. Their passion is seemingly palpable and their responses clearly show that.

They’ve got a pretty nice community over there and I’m a little reluctant to tell you that you should visit – ’cause I’m afraid you’ll chew on the rug and spike their punch! They’re nice people and, when you do visit, do try to be on your best behavior! They probably do not want you to demonstrate your crowd-surfing skills.

I’ve got plenty of words, but I don’t have words enough to express my gratitude for their time. When I say they are too kind, I mean it. For the readers that don’t actually play guitar, I hope you find your passion and act on it – like Miner has. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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