The harp guitar is a stringed musical instrument that looks more like a device conjured up in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book than it resembles either of its conventional namesakes. Nevertheless, it shares qualities of both the harp and the guitar.
The harp guitar looks, essentially, like an elaborated-upon guitar. With a body resembling that of a rather large guitar, the harp guitar has a second neck adjacent to the primary neck. The primary neck is outfitted like a standard guitar’s, with six fretted strings that are strummed. The second neck on the harp guitar holds seven additional strings. These are unfretted bass strings, which are plucked as a harp’s are. In addition to these, there are typically a number of unfretted treble strings, which also are plucked.
Harp guitars may have up to twenty strings in different configurations. Also, the necks may vary in their structure and design. Some harp guitars feature two separate necks; others feature a U-shaped frame connected in a curve at the top. The design of a harp guitar may be very simple or very elaborate, depending on the individual luthier who designed it.
The word harp in “harp guitar” refers not to any specific similarity in tone, pitch, or physical resemblance to the classic floor-standing harp, but rather to the quality of possessing a certain number of unfretted strings, which are plucked in the same manner that a harp’s are.
The harp guitar is not a new instrument. It enjoyed a surge in popularity in Europe in the late nineteenth century. In the 1890s, the harp guitar made its way to the American shore, finding a particularly receptive audience in the region of the Pacific Northwest. Companies like W.J. Dyer and Brothers and the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company began to produce harp guitars with large bodies and dual necks. Harp guitars created by the Knutsen Family during that era are prized by modern collectors for their beautiful craftsmanship and superior design.
Harp guitars, with their fantastical shapes, may seem like futuristic instruments even today, but in actuality, forerunners date back centuries, to lute players and classical guitarists who innovated by affixing unfretted bass strings to expand the range of their instrument.
The harp guitar is currently experiencing a revival of sorts. Videos of musicians such as Andy McKee playing the harp guitar have surfaced on the Internet, increasing exposure to the music of the harp guitar and sparking new interest in this relatively obscure instrument.