Museum Blog

Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day

Group of men and one woman with stringed instruments (listed names include Charles He….k, Ott Davis, Garlinghouse boys, Professor Housedorf, Everett Bancroft, Benny Gray, Frank Bunten, Eddie Bales, Wilmer (Frosty) Hoc), 1905. Object ID: 2015.009.483; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

This musical group is made up primarily of mandolin players, common for the early 1900s. A few other instruments can be seen as well, such as a banjo and a few guitars. However, one of those guitars is rather unique after closer inspection.

Object ID: 2015.009.483; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

This instrument is a harp guitar, known for having both fretted strings and floating strings. These guitars come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and forms but the one pictured above is likely a Gibson. In the catalog for the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company in 1902, the price of a harp guitar ranged between $195.03 up to $354.60.

According to the Museum of Making Music, a guitar with floating strings appeared as early as 1659 but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the instrument we classify as a harp guitar emerged. In the 1900s, the harp guitar was popular as an accompaniment, from duos to large mandolin orchestras. Harp guitars were loud and could be heard above other instruments and were featured in vaudeville and in popular tunes. However, by 1930, the harp guitar was virtually gone.

A few things contributed to this demise. Vaudeville was replaced by cinema and radio and new guitars were on the market with different sound. No harp guitar soloist ever broke into the music industry as a big name. The harp guitar was never standardized with the number of strings and tuning varying from maker to maker. Other than a few holdouts in the 1930s, the harp guitar was banished to attics and basements.  Then, a small resurgence of the harp guitar took place in the 1960s which continues today. Of course, players today tend to do so without a mandolin orchestra, allowing the unique instrument to shine.

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

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