Michi's Version of a Harp Guitar
This year’s NAMM show had a special display near the entrance to Hall E, where most of the smaller acoustic instrument manufacturers have their booths (Collings, National Resophonic, Santa Cruz, etc.) This exhibit was called “Celebrate the Small Shop Luthier,” and featured displays of both current and older guitars by individual builders. Michihiro Matsuda was invited to participate, and he chose to display a harp guitar he built a few years ago for Gryphon expat Michael Simmons, who started The Fretboard Journal after over a dozen years with us.
Michi’s harp guitar was one of only four instruments to be housed in individual display cabinets, quite an honor considering the several dozen guitars in the exhibit and the well-known names included. The glass cabinet, however, made it impossible to get decent photos of the instrument, so we asked Michi to hold this large and unusual guitar so we could show you what it looks like.
Michi explained that Michael gave him a general description of what he wanted, a 6-string guitar neck with fan frets and 6 sub-bass strings. This meant that Michi had a lot of freedom to design something different, and he obviously went pretty far out there with the additional bass strings. If you look closely at the support framework for those bass strings, you’ll see that the scale length for each bass string can be altered, thus allowing an almost infinite combination of pitches and string gauges to be used. If the player wanted a certain unusual scale of bass notes for a particular song, for instance, that would be relatively easy to achieve between the tuners and adjustable scale for each string.
Because this harp guitar was so different from what he usually makes, Michi constructed it in separate sections that were then assembled, but these sections can also be taken apart again for maintenance and modification if needed. There is no typical neck block inside the body, for instance, instead there’s a structural frame inside the body that different components connect to, but that frame is not connected to the soundboard. The sub-bass rods, neck extension, and sub-bass tuner section all sit over the top without touching it, allowing the top to vibrate freely.
Although Michi’s harp guitar looks like an art project, it’s actually designed to be played. The wedge shape (when viewed from the side) and bass tuners located at the bottom of the body give it good balance. Even the offset multiple soundholes have a purpose, as they allow the honeycomb-braced soundboard to be stronger, as it needs to resist the extra tension from the bass strings. And by designing different elements as separate parts that could be modified, Michi was able to complete the whole instrument without starting over from scratch when one of his initial ideas didn’t work out as planned. Always a master of understatement, when describing this harp guitar project Michi shook his head and admitted “there was lots of trial and error.”