A Harp guitar for Lyndon

Lyndon and I have talked about this project for quite some years.

Many years ago, I restored a harp guitar that had been made sometime in the nineteen-thirties and I recall talking to Lyndon about the instrument.

This old harp guitar was very uncomplicated- standard bracing and was really just a guitar with four additional strings…

But perhaps that was the seed that germinated into this project…

Anyway, having decided at last do something with the harp guitar idea, we both did some research.

I came across a YouTube clip of an instrument built in the US by Keith Medley and when I showed the clip to Lyndon, he thought that the Medley instrument was very close to what he had in mind.

A clip of this instrument being played by it’s creator is here:-

“Hall Of The Mountain King” Keith Medley and his 27-string Medley …

Now, we didn’t set out to replicate the Medley harp guitar, but it had to at least sound as good as Keith’s somewhat startling instrument.

The first step seemed to be to make a full size laminated photocopy so that I could stare at it for a bit, just to try to work out how this exotic instrument could be made.

And then the obvious next step seemed to be to mount the picture onto a piece of cupboard backing ply, so that Lyndon could actually sit the thing on his knee and see if it would be workable.

After he had pondered for a while, Lyndon rearranged the shape somewhat to reposition the normal guitar fretboard further into the body and included a cutaway on the bass side to improve access, as well as a less complex bridge arrangement from the original.

The mockup needed a back measuring 90 or 100mm, so Lyndon made one from a cardboard box, so he could feel how the instrument would sit in the playing position.

And he also felt that he needed to have strings under his fingers, just to determine how it felt…

Now we had a starting point…

I needed to make another, more substantial 6mm MDF mockup of the harp guitar, and I bought in the required five sets of machine heads to make the next permutation as realistic as possible. It took quite some time to replicate the required string spacings and to accurately place the machine heads to allow sufficient clearances for tuning each string.

And one other thing- Lyndon felt that one more string was needed…So- 28 strings instead of the original concept of 27.

With the second mockup completed, Lyndon announced that we almost had the finished design, and he again took the second mockup away to study it for any other necessary changes.

After a couple of weeks, Lyndon came back with a couple of small modifications, including better access on the bass side of the guitar neck that necessitated moving the strings on the lower course slightly to the left…

So- another mdf mockup seemed appropriate.

Again- nearly there. Neck access still isn’t sufficient and Lyndon draws what needs to be done…

Now the access seems right and we had a bit of discussion on the decoration of the harp guitar before Lyndon again took away the mockup to make sure that everything really is right before I start making moulds for the project…

2014.

…It’s now well into the new year and after having been interrupted by holidays and another archtop- #11114- it’s time to revisit the harp-guitar.

We had another bit of a chat about the design and tidied up details like scale length and neck dimensions and this morning I bought some chip board to draft out the final design.

The headstock for the upper strings is drawn as is the headblock that the guitar neck will be set into.

While I think a bit more about the lower string headstock and its attachment to the guitar headstock, I’ll machine up the mahogany that will be used for the back and the sides.

Ok. The guitar headstock and lower string headstock will look like this…

The vertical line is the guitar centreline, the horizontal one is the guitar scale length and the short vertical is where the harp and guitar headstocks will be joined.

The creator of the harp guitar that this instrument is broadly based on thoughtfully provided photos of the build process and after studying Keith’s photos, it seemed appropriate to use a similar mould to build the harp guitar in and I set about building something similar.

I’ve decided to make the sides 90mm deep and that allows me to use a length of 90×90 pine to cut the mould sides from.

After carefully matching the sections to the drawn shape, the sections are screwed to the chipboard.

Of course, each segment can be removed to allow me to bend the four side sections individually if need be.

Now for the headblock- the solid mahogany section into which the neck will be set and the support for the upper strings’ headstock.

And also the support section for the lower strings’ headstock…

Time to start bending the mahogany sides. When we moved to our current address, it seemed appropriate to cull some of the jigs and fixtures that I had made over the years, but amongst the stuff I threw out was my old bending iron that I’d made some twenty years ago, thinking that I was never really going to be making anything out of the ordinary…

So I’ve had to make another one for this project.

Anyway, bending the sides…

I’ll let the still-damp bent sides dry in the mould for a while, and when dry, I can start assembly.

The neck for the harp guitar is straight forward.

The headstock is shaped as it is because the headstock- if that’s the word for it- for the lower string course joins to the guitar headstock on the left hand side.

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Now after a bit of a break in proceedings ( Luke’s Redwood guitar…) it’s back to the Harp Guitar Project.

While I continue to ponder the headstock arrangement, I’ll make the top and back. The back is straight forward- the mahogany that I machined up several weeks ago is glued together and sanded.

The shape of the harp guitar is marked out and the back braces are cut and shaped.

…and glued down.

The pieces of Englemann spruce for the top are selected, cut appropriately and glued up and sanded…

The bracing for the top of the harp guitar is going to be a bit different from any other acoustic instrument that I’ve previously made. Hardly an understatement…

Instead of 6 strings or even 12 to consider, this has to withstand the incredible pressure of 28 strings of varying dimensions! Fortunately, Mr Medley has provided an insight into what he put in his harp guitar.

So with the sound holes and string locations marked in, and a picture of the Medley harp guitar’s bracing, I can start drawing out bracing positions…

Because we had changed the layout from the original design, it wasn’t just going to be a matter of copying the bracing pattern of the Medley instrument.

I had to look at where the bridges – all three of them- were going to be and determine where the braces could be placed.

Nothing like the original…but the brace sizes should be similar and the bracing certainly has to be quite substantial.

On a conventional acoustic, there’s one halving joint in the centre of the x-brace. For the harp guitar there will be five and they need to be tight fitting…

The headstock for the upper strings is next and the machine head holes are marked out from the mockup…

…and the spacing checked against the ruler.

With the holes drilled, the rebate for the headstock is routed…

…and then the headstock can be glued in.

Next, I’ll be cutting the pocket for the neck and temporarily fitting the neck into position.

Keeping the neck true to the centreline is essential so that the string spacings aren’t changed and the neck depth allows for the thickness of the spruce top.

With the neck fitted appropriately, I need to be able to fix the neck into position but I’m not ready to glue it in just yet…

Not really a standard method of fixing in a neck…

…but a 100mm screw certainly holds the neck where it should be for what I have to do next.

And with the neck in place, I can address an aspect of this project that I’ve been pondering on for a couple of weeks. In fact, it only dawned on me yesterday while I was showing this project to James who’s going to build an acoustic with me- how I can do it…with the neck firmly in place, I can copy the angle of the guitar neck onto the lower string headlock this way…

I’ve glued half a pencil into a piece of wood and when dry, I’ve sanded it all flat.

I can then mark  the exact line to which I have to taper the upper plane of the headstock support block.

Yep. Perfect…

Now I can set about making the lower string headstock.

One thing I want to avoid is the guitar headstock and the lower string headstock becoming mis-aligned and I am inclined to think that a screw through the headstocks will help and it will also allow me to disassemble the two headstocks during the construction.

Later in the building process, I’ll tap a dowel into the screw hole.

Now, after a considerable wait for the inlay materials, I can continue on…

Lyndon was keen to have some paua shell inlaying done around the sound holes- all three of them- and on the striped ebony fret board. But as is so often the case, everything is connected to everything else!

The final shape of the fret board at the body end -and the extent of the fret board inlays- is going to be determined by the two sound hole inlays. Therefore, the sound hole inlays needed to be done before I could make a start on the fret board inlays. The sound hole inlays had to be done before I can glue in the top bracing. I could rout for the paua sound hole inlays, but I then discovered that I hadn’t bought in sufficient inlays to complete the sound hole inlays and the supplier didn’t have any more of the correct size to allow completion. So I had to purchase paua blanks and make the missing segments myself…

Anyway, today, at long last,  I can now get on with it.

To make three rosettes and to inlay two of them took all day and that’s why inlaying tends to add considerably to the cost of an instrument…

Anyway, with the sound hole inlays done and the sound holes cut, now I can get on again…

I had designed and made the top bracing well over six weeks ago and today it’s glued in…

I’ve also shaped and glued in the lower strings’ headstock support…

After carefully studying the Medley instrument construction, I’ve decided that the bridge plates don’t need to be as robust as Keith has made them and I’ve machined some maple down to 5mm rather than the 10mm or so that he used…

…and the bridge plates are glued in.

The harp guitar is almost ready for the top to be glued to the sides…

Where the top and the upper strings’ headstock meet, the join needs to be pretty neat…

…and also at the top of the hollow “arm” at the lower strings’ headstock.

And with everything as it should be, I can glue down the top.

When dry, the top excess is routed and the final braces and the sound hole reinforcements are glued in.

And now- the back can be glued on…

And with the glue appropriately dried, the back is trimmed, the neck refitted and at long last I can now see how it’s actually going to look and feel!

Now I can shape the fretboard end around the sound holes and lay out the inlays that Lyndon has requested.

Normally, I’d design and make the inlays myself but we came across this design on the net from a supplier in Viet Nam and that’s what we’ve decided to use. The design will have to be slightly modified at the sound hole end but it should work well.

After moving the design up and down to allow for fret positioning, this is what I’ve decided on…

Should look good. The next step is to trace around all 27 sections of the design and start on the inlay process.

And after nearly two days’ routing, the inlays are ready to be glued in place.

I also made a brilliant discovery! Because there are so many pieces in this really nice design, I had spent a lot of time working out exactly which piece went where…

And because I also worked out long ago that an inlay that has to be forced into place makes for a nerve-wracking gluing in process, these days I make sure that the inlay is a “drop-in” fit.

And here it is. Packaging tape!

I applied packaging tape over the individual pieces and they all just lifted out of their recesses and after applying the appropriate glue, I could simply roll them back into their correct spot.

Anyway, with the design glued into place, the filler is applied, then levelled and the fret slots can be re-cut…

…and the fret board is ready for the frets to be installed.

Today, however, after a couple of big days in the workshop, the frets have been installed, the rosewood binding is completed, the neck has been shaped, the neck glued in place, and the fret board glued down. NOT LONG NOW!

Now for something that we had hoped to avoid- the clearance between the classical dimensioned neck and the upper strings’ headstock isn’t quite right and NOW is the time to address this issue.

There proved to be insufficient space between the inner tip of the headstock so that access was hindered somewhat and after removing some of the rosewood binding, the headstock was given a reshape and the binding channel recut and the binding replaced.

And now the clearance is good, and perhaps the shape has even been improved…

Both Lyndon and I had worked independently on the bridge design and somewhat remarkably, we both arrived at very similar concepts that suggested that the three bridges should be combined into a single piece of rosewood.

I have to say that we both really liked this design, complete with inlaid gold harp.

But as is not uncommon for me, I woke in the middle of the night thinking “it’s not going to work!” and at 3 o’clock on the following morning, I found myself out in the workshop trying to solve the problem of the upper strings bridge section being incorrectly  located in relation to the upper strings’ bridge plate. Another consideration was that after showing David (Churchill) what I was proposing, he felt that this bridge needed to be bolted, not just glued, and I had to agree.

So- bridge design #2, which places all strings into the centre of both bridge plates as well as the five 3mm bolts that will add to the substantiality of the bridge. The inlay is also now placed centrally and the lower strings’ saddle is also extended. I preferred the look of the #1 bridge, but the #2 version will work exactly as it needs to…

After a final inspection from Lyndon, the harp guitar is now ready for painting, and I’m allowing a week for that…

…or perhaps a couple of days more. Because of the size of the harp guitar, I can’t use the normal means of polishing and therefore the process is going to be a bit more complicated.

But an almost unexpected benefit for Lyndon, his harp guitar happily sits on a conventional guitar stand.

After a days’ polishing, the paint is finished…

…and I can now glue and bolt the bridge into position.

Tomorrow, I’ll install the machine heads and make a start on the individual “string nuts”…

And with the 28 Gotoh machine heads in place, it seemed logical to then install the three sets of pickups- all K and Ks of course- and their corresponding outputs.

The first sets of strings could now be installed and Lyndon was on hand to tentatively tune up and play the first notes…

…and all is looking promising.

With the bass strings installed, the harp guitar is given its first serious play…

…and “right out of the box”, the harp guitar is everything that both Lyndon and I had hoped for!!!

I couldn’t help myself and rang David Churchill to come and witness the harp guitar’s first outing…and he approved.

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Some months later and after a nice double page spread in our local paper, The Courier, Lyndon has introduced his harp guitar to Ballarat at the  Art Gallery of Ballarat at the “Last Sunday in June” concert and surrounded by some of Ballarat Gallery’s magnificent collection, we were treated to the spectacular sounds of Lyndon performing on his harp guitar.

It had to be one of, if not THE, highlight of my instrument building career…