The Museum of Making Music's next special exhibition entitled “FLOATING STRINGS: The Remarkable Story of the Harp Guitar in America” opens on Saturday, October 14th. The exhibition is developed and designed by museum staff along with guest curator, Mr. Gregg Miner—one of the world’s foremost harp guitar scholars, and will include over 40 beautiful examples of this unique instrument. In addition to the stunning display of instrumental craftsmanship, the exhibition also looks at the history of the harp guitar, from its beginnings in Europe to its current status and use in the United States today.
The term “Harp Guitar” today refers to guitars with a number of floating strings in addition to fretted strings on the neck. Most commonly these are additional bass strings (anywhere from 1 to 12); occasionally, mid-range or treble “harp” string banks are included. Extremely diverse in form and stringing arrangement, their shared defining element is that the extra strings are plucked with the thumb or fingers, but not fretted (stopped) as the fingerboard strings are.
The harp guitar had been around Europe since the late-1700’s, with sporadic experiments dating as far back as 1659. Continually sprouting up in one form or another, some types were so common that they didn’t even warrant a special term; they were simply guitars, described by their number of strings. Other instruments had fantastical forms with strange new shapes. Some of the distinctive designs and inventions launched new, if temporary, traditions while others died a quick and ignoble death.
It’s unknown how much awareness of these instruments there was in America. Beyond a couple rare occurrences, 19th century American musicians remained seemingly oblivious to the long and varied European history of guitars with floating strings. Thus, while there were many precursors to our American harp guitars, there may have been few direct influences—nothing that can be proven. Incredibly, Americans may have created many of this country’s harp guitars independently.
At the same time, it was Americans who came up with the romantic name of “harp guitar.” And it would prove a surprisingly durable romance indeed. For over three decades—predominantly between 1890 and 1920—harp guitars in all their fresh variety would remain popular with American fretted instrument builders and players, from amateurs to professionals.
Though they subsequently disappeared for several decades, a rekindled love affair with the American harp guitar began to blossom in the 1980’s and continues today in a worldwide renaissance. And this new exhibition here at the Museum of Making Music.