Big Red

A 38-string custom Harp-Sympitar

Summer, 2005

When I finished my second Harp-Sympitar, the 39-string Flying Dream, in the fall of 2003, I brought it to the very first Harp Guitar Gathering in Williamsburg , Virginia. There I showed it to a number of people, including my friend and past client, Erik Hinds (owner of the H'arpeggione). Erik immediately wanted something similar, and since he was already on my list to receive another instrument at some point, we talked about the possibility of him getting a Harp-Sympitar. He admitted up front that there was no way he could afford to pay what I felt I needed to get for an instrument of the complexity of the Flying Dream. I asked him what he could afford. When he told me, I thought about it for a minute and then asked him, "Well, would you let me make it out of papier-mache, like the 'Jomama (my bass banjo with back and sides cast as a shell out of papier-mache)?" Erik's eyes got wide and he said, "Would you?!!"

And so, the seeds of Big Red were sown. I got home from the Gathering and told (my partner) Suzy that I'd agreed to build Erik a papier-mache-backed Harp-Sympitar. Her response was, "Are you sure you want to do that? It'll be twice as much work as an all-wood instrument!" But I had been wanting to make something else using the papier-mache mask-making techniques I'd learned years ago, and used on the 'Jomama, so I decided to go for it. I knew that at the very least I would get to play with shape and color in ways rather far outside the bounds of traditional lutherie, while getting paid at least something for my time. I knew it wouldn't be the job that would pay for my posh retirement in the South Pacific (do luthiers actually get to retire?), but I also knew it was an experience I wanted to have.

I learned a lot, for sure, and I think I came up with a really cool, successful musical tool for my client, as well as a fun and intriguing sculpture. In the end it wasn't twice the work of the Flying Dream, but it sure was a big, messy, project and certainly not any less work than it would have been with wood back and sides.

Here's what I came up with, letting Erik's ideas and my own past experience feed some of the new things I wanted to try:

Big Red has a total of 38 strings, configured as follows: 6 nylon main playing strings on the neck; 5 nylon (bronze-wound on nylon fiber core) sub-bass harp (unfretted) strings on a "harp frame" on the bass side of the neck; 15 steel supertreble harp strings running parallel to the main strings on the treble side of the body; and 12 steel internal sympathetic resonating strings (as on my Sympitars) that run inside the neck and body of the instrument.

The scale length of the main strings is 27 and 3/8 inches (the same as the H'arpeggione, which is based on cello string length) and they are tuned (from 1st or highest pitched down to 6th or lowest): Eb; Ab; Db; Gb; B; Ab. The 1st string is pitched 1/2 step below a standard guitar 1st string, and the 6th an octave and a semi-tone below a standard guitar 5th string. This gives an interval of a minor third between Big Red's 6th string and 5th string; each of the next strings is an interval of a fifth higher than the string before it. The fingerboard is fretless up through the 7th semi-tone, with quarter-tone markings in the fretless section. The rest of the neck is standard fretting, up through the 24th fret. The H'arpeggione, upon which the function and playability of Big Red's neck is based, has 6 main strings tuned in fifths, with quarter- tone fretting through the 7th semi-tone of each string.

The 5 sub-bass strings are tuned in reverse order from what is typically found on harp guitars; that is, the lowest pitched string is nearest the neck, and the highest pitched is furthest from it. They are tuned chromatically as follows (from lowest/longest/nearest-to-neck up to the shortest/highest): Eb; E; F; F#; G. The low Eb is a semi-tone below the lowest string of a standard bass guitar.

The supertreble harp strings are tuned chromatically. The first, or lowest, of them (nearest the neck) is tuned to Bb a fifth above the 1st main string (on the neck; the Eb), and the highest is C, so they span a range of an octave and a whole step. The supertrebles are tuned up to basic pitch with zither tuning pins and each also has a violin fine tuner for ease of maintaining tune.

The tuning of the sympathetic strings is variable, usually based on the key being played in. The sympathetics go over an internal "jiwari" bridge(as on the Indian sitar, esraj and so on) that gives them life and a distinctive character.

With the exception of the sympathetic strings, the tunings were specified by the client, and we found available strings to match those lengths and pitches, rather than having custom strings made (much simpler and easier!)



Big Red's top is old-growth redwood, salvaged from a stump near our house. The back and sides are in the form of a one-piece, sculpted "shell" cast out of "Alirecel" (Aliphatic Resin Cellulose Laminate; think papier-mache!). Imagine the classic Ovation round-back on LSD, and you get an idea of Big Red's back. The neck, pegheads and harp-arm, as well as the harp "pillar" support, all appear to be flamed Big Leaf maple. The bass peghead and harp-arm are actually birch laminate (for strength and to prevent splitting) with a veneer of Big Leaf maple. An internal birch laminate frame connects the back/shell to the top, and supports the treble harp strings. Fingerboard and bridge are Big Leaf maple. The fretless section of the fingerboard is capped with a brass plate that is the same thickness (height above the fingerboard) as the frets are. The finish on the top is French Polish; the shell is painted with acrylic artist paints and sealed with shellac; the neck, harp-arm, pillar and pegheads are finished with a natural drying oil finish. Oh, yes, ultimate sacrilege: the purfling is painted on!

I've already mentioned the zither pins and violin fine tuners for the treble harp strings. The main strings are Sloan classical tuners with a leaf-pattern engraving in a bronze plate, with ebony buttons and black rollers. The sub-bass tuners are Gotoh mini bass guitar tuners, black. The sympathetics have two different tuner styles because of the configuration of the headstock: 6 Schaller mini-gold guitar tuners with ebony buttons, and 6 Steinberger gearless tuners, black. Main string nut and main and bass saddles are water buffalo horn, sympathetic string nuts are bone, other nuts/saddles are ebony. Treble harp bridges are maple.

Big Red has four custom piezo pick-ups for amplified playing. The main strings, sub-bass harp strings and supertreble harp strings each have a pick-up made from piezo cable material; the sympathetic strings have a piezo film material laminated into their bridge (thanks to Rick Turner for the design!). All the pick-ups have onboard Bartolini pre-amp/buffers, and each has it's own separate output jack at the butt of the instrument.


Erik wanted something that would have a basic tuning (of the main strings) similar to the H'arpeggione. He also wanted to hold it in the same position for playing. He plays the H'arpeggione upright, resting on a cello end-spike, so Big Red is also similarly set up, and the body shape and string positioning was designed with that playing position in mind. In my time spent playing the instrument, I found a modified classical position (instrument on left leg) worked best for me; resting the instrument on the right leg (folk-style) isn't very comfortable because of the point on that side of the body, but it is possible (just needs a little padding!).

The lowest sub-bass string (the one nearest the neck) has a little brass plate under it, at the nut end. This extends for a several inches, making about a step-and-a-half of fretless glissando possible on that string. Although I designed the instrument so that in an upright playing position I could fairly easily access that string with my left hand by reaching over the neck, it turns out Erik has a problem with his left wrist that prohibits his bending it that way, so he'll have to come up with his own creative way to use that little slide area.

The New Child Greets the World

I had the opportunity to bring Big Red with me to both the 2005 Healdsburg Guitar Festival, in Santa Rosa, CA, and the 3rd International Harp Guitar Gathering, this year held in Salem, Oregon. At Healdsburg, I had the pleasure of exhibiting next to my old teacher, friend and lutherie hero Charles Fox, at the front of a big hall filled with wonderful instruments. Big Red definitely stood out; as one attendee put it, "There was this sea of wooden guitars, and then there was Big Red!" I did a couple of instrument demo concerts, one for myself and one for my friend, Texas luthier Chris Jenkins. Those mini-concerts were the high point of the festival for me, though regrettably I wasn't able to demonstrate Big Red, as I hadn't had time to actually work out any performance material on it.

The Harp Guitar Gathering was also wonderful, and I got to show off Big Red to all my harp guitar buddies. Among the many highlights, I got to share the stage with visionary luthier William Eaton. On route to the Gathering (in Salem, Oregon) our merry caravan of harp guitar nuts (dubbed "The Fellowship of the Strings") paid a visit to my friend and long-time inspiration, Alex de Grassi, who thus got to be one of the very first people to play Big Red. Alex's feedback has played a big part in the development of the Sympitar, and I give him a chance to try out my new creations whenever possible.

On the first day of the Gathering (Saturday), we had a panel of luthiers talking about their latest harp guitar projects (and other related things). This was when I realized how truly exhausted I was (from all the preparation, exhibiting, and traveling); I was at the end of a line of seven stellar harp guitar-building luthiers, and by the time my turn came to make a little presentation, my mind was an absolute blank! I couldn't figure out why we were there, or what anybody was talking about, or who cared. I got up, with Big Red in hand, looked down at my feet (not knowing what else to do) and realized that I was wearing rainbow socks that were the same colors as the back of Big Red. This seemed like about as much inspiration as I could muster, so I pointed it out to the audience. Luckily, someone asked a question, and I attempted to wake up enough to answer coherently. Not my most glorious public speaking experience!

Finally, I got home from these travels, exhausted, and got to work making and installing the pickups and doing fine tuning on Big Red. Toward the end of October Erik Hinds and his wife, Delene, came out and spent a few days visiting and trying out the new instrument, with great excitement.

Shortly thereafter I boxed Big Red up and sent it off. As always I felt happy to get to a point of finally calling the project "finished", and of course I was delighted by how pleased Erik was. But, a day or two after shipping Big Red off, while wandering around the shop trying to figure out who I was in the aftermath of such a creative expenditure, and what I was supposed to be doing now, Suzy and I both allowed as how we really were missing having Big Red around. The big, colorful, unlikely-shaped thing had put a smile on my face for so many weeks when I walked into the shop and saw it sitting there on the workbench. There was so much unruly exuberance in the colorful sculpted back, such a dancing of the painted purfling, and it was such a lovely thing to sit and plunk on, even when I couldn't really make use of all the amazing possibilities the instrument presented. And even more than usual, there was the sense of a parent sending a child out into the world; the excitement of possibility, the worry and fear, the sense of loss when it's gone.

But, as always, the whole experience ultimately provided fuel for the next opening of creativity, and I soon began designing the Banjalarpe, and started thinking about finishing up the New Dream. It goes on!





My favorite website for a look at the contemporary and historical harp-guitar, its builders, players and music, is Gregg Miner's wonderful Check it out- it may be the greatest guitar-oriented site on the entire web!