The New Dream
2006

A 39-string acoustic Harp-Sympitar with MIDI capability

 

When I initially strung up and tried out The Flying Dream, my first 39-string Harp-Sympitar, in 2003, I immediately saw/felt/heard what changes I wanted to make in the next one. So, I knew there would be a next one, even though I had thought of The Flying Dream as a one-of-a-kind artwork. In retrospect I can see that some part of me knew I was/am actually evolving something, following some sort of trail toward somewhere, rather than just flailing around in the artistic dark of the lutherie world. Experiencing the finished Flying Dream showed me the clear direction that the next stretch of that trail led, and I almost immediately designed The New Dream. I brought along a preliminary sketch (of The New Dream) when I took The Flying Dream to the first International Harp Guitar Gathering in November of 2003, and it was remarkably similar to what the final New Dream became. I got sidetracked by a couple of commissions, including a 38-string Harp-Sympitar, Big Red, but after considerable refinements in the design I managed to finally get The New Dream strung up in early summer of 2006.

The major thrust of the changes I made between The Flying Dream and The New Dream was functional, but I really let the visual aesthetic evolve from these changes and the resulting instrument/sculpture is very different in character from the earlier version, though there is a general similarity in musical function and potential.

Probably the most obvious functional ways that The New Dream differs from The Flying Dream are in the physical relationship of the treble harp strings to the main strings (parallel to them rather than angled diagonally across the top as on The Flying Dream), and the fretted fingerboard running under the sub-bass strings ( I guess I can't call them sub-bass "harp" strings with those frets there!).

Here's a general overview of the physical set-up of The New Dream as musical tool (if you'd like a much more detailed description you can check out an abridged version of the "Owner's Manual" I wrote for it):

The New Dream has 4 distinct banks or sets of strings:

  • 1)The six main strings are on a 24-fret neck; the heel-less neck joins the body at the 24th fret on the treble/cutaway side.
  • 2)The six sub-bass strings run over a bass-side body extension which features a full chromatic octave of frets beneath each string. A system of individual-string capos has been developed to enable each sub-bass string to be capoed independently of the other strings on each of it's first five frets. This allows for relatively quick and extensive sub-bass tuning changes without having to alter the tension on the strings/instrument. It also allows the potential for the sub-bass strings to be fretted by reaching over the main fingerboard, creating new musical possibilities.
  • 3)The fifteen super-treble harp strings run parallel to the main strings, on the treble side of the top. These are fitted with geared tuning pegs for gross tuning, violin fine tuners for general tuning and harp sharping levers for quick half-step changes of individual strings.
  • 4)The twelve internal sympathetic strings go inside the neck and over a jiwari bridge on the underside of the instrument's top (see my Sympitar page for more on this) They have an access hole in the back of the neck, where they can be plucked by the thumb of the left hand for tuning purposes or musical effects. A trap door in the back of the body allows access to the guts of the instrument, aiding in things like sympathetic string replacement or adjustment, pickup adjustment and battery replacement, and internal repairs. There is a lever for muting the sympathetic strings located in the area where the neck-heel would ordinarily be.

 

Although designed to be fully functional as an acoustic instrument, each set of strings has it's own dedicated electronic pickup system: MIDI-capable RMC hexaphonic systems for the main and sub-bass strings; and custom piezo pickups for the treble-harp and sympathetic strings, with onboard Bartolini pre-amps. (For more details on electronics see the "Owner's Manual")


The construction of The New Dream included the following materials:

Sitka spruce top; spalted, quilted, western bigleaf maple back and sides; ebony fingerboard and bridge; walnut bass-fretboard, treble-harp tuner block, and neck.
Finish is French-polished shellac on the top, with a natural oil finish on the back, sides and neck.
Tuners are a combination of Schaller guitar and Waverly banjo tuners for the main, sub-bass and sympathetic strings; treble-harp strings use Waverly banjo 5th-string tuners, with Truitt sharping levers.

Click here for more detailed technical information on The New Dream.

 

As of this writing (early October, 2007), I've only a week or so ago shipped off The New Dream to it's patient owner. In the year-plus between the instrument's completion and the owner finally getting his hands on it, The New Dream has been a lot of places and done a lot of things.

In June of 2006, I brought the New Dream with me to the 18th Convention/Exhibition of the Guild of American Luthiers, where I played it in a short concert with my friend Gregg Miner (the "Harp Guitar Pope", pictured here with a delightful old Knutsen harp mandolin), and exhibited it alongside a host of beautiful, (and mostly) antique harp guitars in a special Convention exhibit hosted by Gregg.

Then, in July, Gregg and I got to hang together again, this time at an Alex de Grassi guitar workshop in the Santa Cruz mountains. Friend, client and harp guitarist Jeff Titus (owner of the Oracle) joined us there for an impromptu afternoon of harp guitar show-and-tell. Gregg had an especially good time, which you can read about here.

Here Alex, Jeff and a student jam on a trio of my creations that traces the evolution of the Harp-Sympitar:

Alex's 18-string Sympitar from 1991, Jeff's Oracle Harp-Sympitar from around 2000, and The New Dream.

 

Not too long after the GAL Convention, I got a call from fellow Santa Cruz luthier Rick Turner (designer of a custom pickup I've used for sympathetic strings on a number of my instruments), concerning the possibility of loaning The New Dream to The Museum of Making Music, in Carlsbad, California. They were in the process of preparing for an exhibit of harp guitars, of which Rick was a guest curator (along with Gregg Miner, who seems to be everywhere there are harp guitars, and who supplied many of the historical instruments for the exhibit).

My client for The New Dream, Bob Gore, was very receptive to the idea and generously agreed to allow me to loan the instrument to the museum, for what we then thought would be a 3-month show. Little did he know that it would be nearly another year before he would actually get to see the instrument in person!

The owner of The Flying Dream loaned that instrument to the museum also, so the two Dreams got to hang together (so to speak). I wonder what they talked about after hours?

The possibility of making a recording of some of the harp guitars in the Museum exhibit was being explored, and I suggested that Alex de Grassi might be interested in recording something on The New Dream. To make a long story short, Alex agreed to compose and record a piece on the instrument. Alex and I both logged a lot of miles on our cars during the fall in an effort to give him enough time with the instrument to learn to play it, compose a piece for it and get it recorded.As it turned out, there simply wasn't enough time for that to happen before the opening of the exhibit.

It happened that show got extended in length an extra 3 months, and ran through most of July. This meant that I was able to arrange to have the instrument for the Healdsburg Guitar Festival coming up in August. Since Alex needed some extra time with the instrument to get his piece recorded, I suggested that if he worked on the piece between the end of the Museum exhibit and the start of the Festival, perhaps he could demonstrate The New Dream in concert at the Festival. It seemed like it might be a good opportunity for him to try out the new piece and I wanted something new and exciting to happen for my demo-concert. Alex agreed, and I was thrilled that I'd get to both exhibit The New Dream at the Festival, and get a chance to have Alex play it there. Then the owner of The Flying Dream allowed as how that instrument needed some loving care from Dad, and since it was already on the West Coast, could I work on it after the museum exhibit? I got to exhibit the two Dreams together at Healdsburg, which was really a treat for me, since one had been so directly inspired and informed by the other. Alex's performance on The New Dream was stunning, and he even agreed to do a command performance for a film crew from New Zealand working on a piece (supposedly) for The Discovery Channel. Acoustic Guitar Magazine, one of the Festival's sponsors, has posted this video of Alex demonstrating The New Dream (let me know if the link no longer works).

Finally, with the Festival over, I had to get down to taking care of any last minute issues before sending the thing off to dear, patient Bob Gore.

It turned out there were a lot of last minute issues; the finish had kind of taken a beating over the year, and it didn't seem right to reward Bob's patience by sending him a scratched-up instrument. Then, there were some pick-up problems to iron out, and so on... quite a little list of stuff, really. Plus, I had this hope of getting to try out the instrument using it to drive two separate guitar synthesizers, an idea which had been an important one to me since the designing of Oracle, the first Harp-Sympitar, but had never really been tested to see if it was viable. The MIDI-capable RMC pickups recreate the sound of the acoustic instrument beautifully, but the two-synthesizer idea had been hanging there, tantalizingly, for some years. I had finally purchased a second guitar synth for this purpose: the Axon 100 mkII was purported to be the best synth for tracking the frequencies of the sub-bass strings. But setting up the Axon to work with the sub-basses proved complicated, involving a firmware update to the unit, and a bunch of other gnarly technical stuff nearly beyond a mere dust-covered luthier. But, not quite beyond me, it turned out! I did manage to get everything ready to try it out; unfortunately that moment coincided with one of several trips to deliver the instrument to Alex, and I never had a chance to follow through, until after Healdsburg.

But after Healdsburg, instead of taking the instrument home I had to send it off with Alex again, so he could finish up his project, which finally culminated in a recording session at sound engineer Cookie Marenco's OTR Studios (check out Cookie's audiophile record label/production company, Blue Coast Records). I wasn't able to attend the session, but Alex also arranged to have a videographer film it, and apparently got good audio as well as video footage of The New Dream in action. Whether the Museum of Making Music will make use of the audio is still unknown, but Gregg Miner's Harp Guitar Music label (and online source for everything to do with harp guitars) will be including a cut from the session on "Harp Guitar Dreams", an upcoming compilation album due to be completed this summer, so keep your ears peeled for that!

Finally, I got the instrument back in my hands, called up Bob Gore, begged a few more days from him, and set about configuring the Axon for the instrument's sub-bass strings. It took a bit of tweaking, but I finally started to get it...very cool! The tracking (of the sub-bass strings) is still a bit slow, making some of the sounds/patches work better than others, notably more spacey, ambient-type sounds where rhythmic accuracy isn't crucial. Once I got the Axon working with the sub-basses, I fired up my old Roland GR-30 synth for the main strings, plugged in the new, improved sympathetic string pickup and the treble harp pickup, and took off into spaceland for a few hours. Eventually I had to wrench myself out of that reverie (it was really fun, but the instrument still sounds much more wonderful to me acoustically, which to an acoustic luthier is kind of reassuring), got the thing boxed up, and shipped off to Bob Gore. I did it...WHEW!!...what a saga!

I talked to Bob after he had had only a short time to try his new friend out, but he sounded very happy. Unfortunately, he was headed off to Germany to record an album, so it would be some time before he actually got down to the nitty gritty of learning how to play a Harp-Sympitar. I expect I'll hear from him soon, hopefully with more exclamations of joy and wonderment, but I'm sure there will also be questions, like: "Fred, Help!, I broke a sympathetic string, what do I do?" That sort of thing happens.

Hey, that's my job, to know that stuff! At least I have answers for a few things in life!

News Flash Summer 2008:

A piece Alex de Grassi recorded (on The New Dream) at the above-mentioned session at OTR Studios, "Reverie For Greensleeves", has been included on the latest CD release from Gregg Miner's Harp Guitar Music, called "Harp Guitar Dreams". The CD, available from the HGM website, has a lot of great harp guitar playing on it (my work is also represented through a piece by Jeff Titus played on "The Oracle") and is highly recommended listening.

And there's more! The film made of Alex recording "Reverie For Greensleeves" has been finished. Matt at Matthew Chapman Pictures has done a great job; click here to see it on youtube.

GO TO:

NEW DREAM PHOTOS - FLYING DREAM TEXT and PHOTOS

BIG RED TEXT and PHOTOS - ORACLE TEXT and PHOTOS

SYMPITAR - GALLERY - HOME

Check out video footage of Alex DeGrassi demonstrating The New Dream at the 2007 Healdsburg Guitar Festival

And click here to go to the Web's greatest harp guitar site