Saturday, April 27, 2013

The H'arpeggione

  an 18-string fretted 'cello/guitar


Creative guitarist Erik Hinds combined the names of two unusual and relatively obscure instruments, the Hardanger Fiddle (a Norwegian folk fiddle with sympathetic strings) and the Arpeggione (a guitar-shaped, fretted, bowed, 'cello-like instrument invented by Viennese luthier Johann Georg Staufer in 1823) to get the name for the even more unusual instrument he commissioned me to build for him.

The H'arpeggione has six main strings tuned in fifths. We originally set up the instrument with the middle four strings being the same pitches as the four strings of a 'cello (using 'cello strings), with the additional two strings extending that tuning a fifth lower on the bottom (sixth string) and a fifth higher on the top (first string). Subsequently, we lowered the tuning by one-half step: E, B, F#, C#, Ab, Eb from lowest to highest. Erik knew he liked the sound of slightly lower-tuned strings on his guitars, and this instrument seems to respond well at the lower tension.

Since the H'arpeggione also has twelve sympathetic strings there is already somewhat more tension on the instrument than you'd have on a typical guitar or 'cello, so the lower tuning may prove to be beneficial to its long term health. The sympathetic strings on the H'arpeggione are configured somewhat like the Hardanger Fiddle, or the Baroque viola d'amore, in that they run inside the neck and outside the body, above the instrument's top (unlike my 18-string Sympitars, which usually have the sympathetics inside the neck and body both).


The path of the sympathetics runs beneath the main strings; they go over their own "jiwari" bridge (as on Indian instruments like the sitar, this special bridge give a little buzz to the strings, making them more pronounced) and between the legs of the main bridge. They continue beneath the tail piece and attach to a hitching block on the butt end of the instrument. When the H'arpeggione is plucked, the sympathetics respond much like they do on the Sympitar. When the main strings are played with a bow, the addition of the sympathetic ringing to the warm, 'cello-like tones opens the door to a different magical world. For more on sympathetic strings, check out the Sympitar page.

The H'arpeggione has a vibrating string length for the main strings of 27 and 3/8 inches, comparable to an average, full-size 'cello. The fingerboard is steeply arched (though not quite as much as on a 'cello) to allow for the arching of the bridge that makes bowing of individual strings possible. The fingerboard is also fitted with metal frets as on a guitar, but with a rather unusual configuration. Being a guitarist, Erik very much wanted a fretted neck for guitar-like use.

He also wanted to be able to get some notes in between the standard, equal-tempered semi-tone fretting of a guitar, and requested that I add an extra fret between each of the first seven semi-tones. These extra frets divide each semi-tone in half, essentially creating quarter-tone fretting for this lower portion of the fretboard.

The H'arpeggione has a body 24 inches long, somewhat larger than a typical steel string guitar. The carved top is beautiful, salvaged old-growth redwood; the back and sides are California black walnut. The neck and tail piece are flamed big-leaf maple and the fingerboard is ebony. The strings are tuned with Schaller mini-guitar tuners (with ebony buttons) on a guitar-type peghead.

Because of the wide range of sounds possible, the H'arpeggione can go to musical places that we might usually find occupied by a bass, a guitar or a 'cello. What really makes it magical is the places it goes that none of those instruments can take us.

In the words of Erik Hinds: "It has its own life, and I attempt to draw it out. I don't wrestle it at all. I can feel the ancientness of the Redwood, and the future possibilities. I have come to admire the quirks and strengths of the instrument. Other people have picked it up and admired its beauty, but honestly have only made tentative sounds. That's fine....the H'arpeggione is a clear channel to me"

The H'arpeggione
bowed/plucked/fretted 18-string 'cello-Sympitar; carved redwood top, flat back

Since the above was written, Erik has changed his name to "Killick", covered much of his body with amazing tatoos, and has made the H'arpeggione his main instrument.
He continues to perform and record frequently, doing a lot of solo work on the H'arp. The most recent solo H'arpeggione album of what he calls "Appalachian Trance Metal" music is called....well...maybe I won't print the name here, as this is a family website; but the music is intriguing and challenging to me. On a previous recording, he uses the solo H'arpeggione to recreate an entire album ("Reign In Blood") by the Heavy Metal band, "Slayer". This is not music for the faint-hearted, and is certainly unlike anything you'll hear anywhere else. Killick uses every part of the H'arpeggione, often employing unusual accessories to coax an amazing array of sounds out of an already unusual instrument.

You can find these recordings, and many others, at the Solponticello Records website.