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DVD Review: In Search of the Harp Guitar, It’s History, Players, and Makers, hosted by John Doan

DVD Review: In Search of the Harp Guitar, It's History, Players, and Makers, hosted by John Doan

Reviewed by Cyndy Burton

Originally published in American Lutherie #85, 2006



In Search of the Harp Guitar
Its History, Players, and Makers
hosted by John Doan
90 minute DVD, 2005
Available for $30 from www.johndoan.com

The harp guitar is back. Whether its reappearance stems from the amazing, innovative work of Michael Hedges in the 1980s and ’90s or that of the lesser known but no less interesting guitarists John Doan, Stephen Bennett, Muriel Anderson, James Kline, William Eaton, and many others, this peculiar multistringed instrument — part guitar and part harp — has returned in a big way. (See in-depth coverage of harp guitars in Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, pp. 178 and 334, originally published in AL#29 and #34.)

In Search of the Harp Guitar premiered at the 3rd International Harp Guitar Gathering in Salem, Oregon in September 2005. The film’s maker John Doan also hosted the gathering, perhaps the largest group of harp guitar enthusiasts ever assembled in one place. Many of the film’s “stars,” both musicians and makers, were in the audience. It was a lot of fun to be there and see these folks — many are no strangers to the GAL.

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DVD Review: In Search of the Harp Guitar, It's History, Players, and Makers, hosted by John Doan

Reviewed by Cyndy Burton

Originally published in American Lutherie #85, 2006



In Search of the Harp Guitar
Its History, Players, and Makers
hosted by John Doan
90 minute DVD, 2005
Available for $30 from www.johndoan.com

The harp guitar is back. Whether its reappearance stems from the amazing, innovative work of Michael Hedges in the 1980s and ’90s or that of the lesser known but no less interesting guitarists John Doan, Stephen Bennett, Muriel Anderson, James Kline, William Eaton, and many others, this peculiar multistringed instrument — part guitar and part harp — has returned in a big way. (See in-depth coverage of harp guitars in Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, pp. 178 and 334, originally published in AL#29 and #34.)

In Search of the Harp Guitar premiered at the 3rd International Harp Guitar Gathering in Salem, Oregon in September 2005. The film’s maker John Doan also hosted the gathering, perhaps the largest group of harp guitar enthusiasts ever assembled in one place. Many of the film’s “stars,” both musicians and makers, were in the audience. It was a lot of fun to be there and see these folks — many are no strangers to the GAL.

John Doan has been playing, teaching, recording, researching, and generally advocating for the harp guitar since the early 1980s. He’s the perfect person to put together a DVD that champions the instruments, both past and present, the players, the music, and last (and perhaps most for AL readers), the makers. He has teamed up with his wife Dierdra, Karla Fisher, and Michael King (the latter three behind the camera) to produce a 90 minute DVD plus another several minutes of hilarious outtakes. It’s an ambitious project covering a lot of territory, and it’s held together with the tack of John’s sense of humor and obvious affection for the instruments and his cast of characters as he:

▶ presents a historical overview of the harp guitar, (he’s in lecture mode here, a role he’s obviously comfortable with from his many years of teaching privately and at Willamette University in Salem, OR);
▶ attends the 2nd International Harp Guitar Gathering in Williamsburg, Virginia in November of 2004 interviewing and recording highlights of performances of many including Stephen Bennett, who organized the first and second international gatherings, and other players including Muriel Anderson, Stacy Hobbs, Andy Wahlberg, and many, many others.
▶ visits luthiers in this country and abroad, namely: Fred Carlson, Kerry Char, Mike Doolin, Jeff Elliott and John Sullivan (two for one), Bob and Orville Milburn, Benoît Meulle-Stef in Brussels, Stephen Sedgwick in England, and Michael Sandén, in Sweden; and lastly,
▶ braves LA traffic with water bottle, laptop, and cell phone in hand to visit the extraordinary resource, Gregg Miner’s collection of “Vintage, Exotic, & Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments” (www.minermusic.com/minermuseum.htm).

Guitar makers don’t get too many starring roles, so this is the part I was really looking forward to (plus I know some of these guys pretty well). Generally not comedians (Harry Fleishman excepted), luthiers tend to take themselves fairly seriously. John wrote the script, and the builders conformed to varying degrees. It’s corny; it’s goofy; but it’s fun. John has made it so. The luthiers are all in their native habitats with the exception of Jeff Elliott, who is with John Sullivan at his shop, the location where John Doan’s contemporary harp guitar was made in 1986. Builders viewing the DVD can glean a lot about these shops — about tool and work space organization, workbenches, and most interesting, something of the people and thought processes behind the chisels. Of most interest to other builders might be the Mike Doolin sequence. Mike builds a harp guitar in a minute or two while John Doan “watches,” thanks to the marvels of very fast, edited time-lapse photography.

Other high points for me were Michael Sandén’s model-perfect shop in a lovely old building that’s been in use as a woodworking teaching facility since 1880; Kerry Char’s workshop, where every square inch of wall and hanging space appears to be given over to various guitar and harp guitar relics; and Fred Carlson and John Doan in matching hats with ear flaps seriously discussing Fred’s philosophy of building and life. (Is there a difference?)

Aside from the visits to shops and to the 2004 Harp Guitar Gathering, the visit to Gregg Miner’s collection stands out. Gregg is a player with a deep knowledge of the history of harp guitars. If you are interested in the arcane, weird, convoluted, idiosyncratic, and bizarre in the service of music making, this collection will definitely scratch that itch. By the way, Gregg will be on hand the 2006 GAL Convention in Tacoma June 21–25 with part of his collection. He’ll also be sharing historical information and participating in a harp guitar concert, as will John Doan and others. And there will be a panel presentation on harp guitars as well. (See p. 5 for the latest convention information.)

I enjoyed this DVD immensely and recommend it if for no other reason than to have a good laugh. The soundtrack is not always consistent, the pacing sometimes feels “off,” the humor is sometimes a little forced, and, of course, not everyone important to the harp guitar’s resurgence could be included, for example Steve Klein, Del Langejans, or Alan Perlman, to name a few luthiers. However, it’s certainly worth seeing and perhaps purchasing. John’s own words sum it up best: “Overall, this film documents guitar history in the making presented in the spirit of fun and discovery reaching back centuries, across continents, and beyond six strings.”

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Meet the Maker: Kevin La Due

Meet the Maker: Kevin La Due

by Cyndy Burton

Originally published in American Lutherie #81, 2005 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



The fall colors of upstate New York were in full regalia as my sister and I drove towards Binghamton, New York, to meet my niece for lunch. She had just started a new job at nearby Vestal High School, where she’d met a teacher named Kevin La Due, who is teaching high-school kids to make guitars. It sounded like a story asking to be told.


Please tell me about your program.

I teach two sections of lutherie per year, one each semester, which distills down to about sixty class hours each semester, not really enough time to make a guitar. Most students work extra time before and after school and during their free class periods. Although about fifty students apply, we only have room for fifteen seniors at a time because of facility, prep time, and budget limitations.

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Meet the Maker: Donald Warnock

Meet the Maker: Donald Warnock

by Cyndy Burton

Originally published in American Lutherie #26, 1991 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



Are you working entirely by yourself now?

Yes. I have had many people in my shop over the years, one fellow for three years. My main teaching efforts consisted of my sojourn at Boston University where I taught the general concepts required to design and make plucked and bowed instruments for early music performance. That was two days a week for upwards of ten years. (See p. 16 for a description of that program.)

What kinds of projects are you working on right now?

To a large extent my workaday occupation is in filling orders that were placed a year and a half to two years ago. I try to finish instruments in almost the exact same order in which they are accepted. At the moment I am working on two undersized 7-string French bass viols I’ve designed to meet the size and proportion requirements of two customers. They are specifically for French music for two bass viols, but will also be used in conjunction with other instruments. These are a matched pair, and are intended for use in halls of restricted size. The fact that they are small is more for the convenience of the players. Ordinarily the French viol was a little larger than the later English concert bass, although it seems probable that the French Baroque players preferred English instruments renecked to suit their basically lute-style technique. Such instruments set the standard for tonal characteristics. And it’s interesting that the French, in the case of viols, repeated what they’d done with the harpsichord, namely took the Flemish harpsichords and adapted them to their own musical usage.

I have another standard bass I’m working on that will be patterned on the Smithsonian Barak Norman. And I have four tenor viols: two will have back, sides, and neck of maple and two will be figured pear. I just finished a treble and a tenor shortly before I left for this convention and also received an order for a treble.

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Side Soundports

There’s a Hole in the Bucket

by Cyndy Burton

A Discussion of Sideports, with Contributions from Kenny Hill, Alan Carruth, Roger Thurman, John Monteleone, Mike Doolin, and Robert Ruck

previously published in American Lutherie #91, 2007

See also,
Sidewaysby John Monteleone
“Herr Helmholtz’ Tube” by Mike Doolin
“Three Holes are Better than One” Robert Ruck



Just in case we become too self-satisfied with our “discovery” of ports, Alain Bieber, in his article on lyra guitars (AL#88, p. 16), points us to the Neapolitan Gennaro Fabricatore’s ported lyras from the early 1800s. (Alain ported his own contemporary lyra guitar, too.) So we know prominent makers were putting holes in the sides of their instruments in the late 1700s, early 1800s. Many of us are also aware of Carleen Hutchins’ groundwork in the early 1980s. Her “Le Greyère” violin, with sixty-five sideports, has provided a wealth of data about violin resonances since it was made in 1982. She donated the violin to the National Music Museum in 2002. See some great photos of Le Greyère and a list of publications reporting on that research at collections.nmmusd.org/Archives/NewViolinFamily/Hutchinscheeseviolin.html.

People are sensitive about putting holes in things. Many guitarists — perhaps more classical guitarists than others — find the ports some sort of denigration, a violation of the sanctity of the guitar’s perfect form. In all fairness, we’ve met with very strong feelings on both sides of the port issue. Luckily, our customer was very open to the idea. He’s not a concertizing musician, but he’s a serious player, and occasionally he plays publicly for special events. We wanted to try ports for him because he has a hearing loss, and we thought ports would be a great way for him to hear himself better. At that time, Robert Ruck had made about a hundred ported guitars, so we figured he had worked out the kinks. He kindly advised us on size, location, and so on. We followed his lead. The result is a wonderful instrument that the owner truly appreciates. We love the feedback — the monitor effect for the player — and when we tested it in a small auditorium with an overflowing audience, we could not discern any loss of projection or quality of sound. But was it louder? Our evidence was very meager and inconclusive. Many makers are adamant that it’s louder with the ports open for both the player and the audience.

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In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

March 14, 1953 – February 15, 2022

by GAL Staff, Jeffrey R. Elliott, Cyndy Burton, and Woodley White

Originally published in American Lutherie #145, 2021

 

We were very sad when we learned that former longtime GAL Staffer Jonathon Peterson had passed away suddenly. If you’ve been a member a while, or if you have attended any GAL Conventions in the last few decades, you’ll remember Jon as the guy behind the camera and the author of many articles in American Lutherie. Jon worked for the Guild from 1987 until 2011. He started out doing clerical tasks and darkroom work, and through years of on-the-job training and experience, became a prolific writer and photographer for the Guild. He made many personal connections with the luthiers he interviewed for our “Meet the Maker” articles, and was one of the regulars at the NW Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland. Probably Jon’s most notable accomplishment during his more than two decades with the Guild was photographing and documenting Robert Lundberg’s lute-building process over the course of several years. The articles produced through the collaboration of Bob and Jon eventually resulted in the Guild’s book, Historical Lute Construction, the premier book on the subject. Rest in peace, Jon.

— GAL Staff

At the 2006 Convention. Photo by Robert Desmond.
At the 2008 Convention. Photo by Hap Newsom.

Jon Peterson excelled as a husband, a father, a friend, a luthier, a 6´4˝ dancer, a photographer, a writer, a story teller, a collector of vinyl records and bicycles, and a cyclist extraordinaire among other talents. What stands out for me is that Jon always seemed to have a certain calm about him. It has been there the entire forty-five years I have known him, ever since the 1977 GAL Convention, where we camped out in a teepee pitched in the backyard of Jon’s in-laws. I came to know and love this kind, gentle, and compassionate man, who seemed to easily roll with whatever life threw at him. He had a kind of knowing way about him, as if his understanding of the bigger picture was in tune with the universe, and he was at peace with it. I’ll miss him dearly.

— Jeffrey R. Elliott

 

Ever since he died, I’ve been thinking about Jon and all the years that have seemingly slipped by since the 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco. For reasons I don’t know, I hear him saying, “Don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” I know Jon’s life was not without troubles, and yet he inspired people to be better partly by his example and more than anything, his warmth and empathy. He had the ability to convey acceptance and encouragement. Our paths crossed at Conventions, in our work for the GAL, and in our living room and at the kitchen table. His GAL work included luthier interviews and many other articles that provided and continue to provide a bounty of useful information to share with the readers of American Lutherie along with many of the books the GAL has published, particularly Jon’s direct work with Robert Lundberg on the Historical Lute Construction book.

I’d like to think that Jon is somewhere admiring the enormity of the great unknown and has, of course, already made friends with other sentient beings.

— Cyndy Burton

Jon Peterson at the 1980 GAL Convention. Photo by Dale Korsmo.

We who work with wood, almost automatically sense that we are engulfed in a thick orchestration of life and death. Fresh green things sprout beside the decay of fallen giants. The mulch of generations of leaves and branches fertilizes every manner of plant, fungus, tree, flower, or spider. Life emerges from death, and death from life, at every turn in the trail. It feels as if the earth is absolutely incapable of not producing life at every opportunity. The constancy of it, the relentless expansion and contraction of life and death is so insistently miraculous that we only become more and more quiet in the presence of this endless cycle.

Such is our life. We are born, we live a while, and then we die. It’s true of every living thing. Taken at face value, it makes us seem so small, or insignificant. In the midst of such impermanence, how can our meager, individual lives possibly achieve any real meaning? All beings live and die; billions of lives on earth arise and pass away. Whole worlds are born and then destroyed. Entire galaxies come into being and then dissolve. What possible value can a single, modest human life have in this breathtaking cacophony of life and death?

When I think of my friend, Jon Peterson, I want to say, “the value of a single life shines brightly.” A single rose, a single star, a single note of sweet music played at the right moment — these are things of great beauty and wonder. All that we do becomes embedded in the whole; because of this, our every day — our every word, every act of kindness, love, or beauty — is an invaluable opportunity to contribute to the growth and beauty of all things. With our single life, we change the shape of the universe. With his single life, Jonathon has changed the shape of our world.

I really loved my friend and I will miss him. I loved his dry sense of humor, the crinkle in the corner of his mouth when he smiled; his pony tail; the sparkle in his eyes. I loved his thoughtfulness. I was surprised when he rode his bicycle down from Tacoma to Portland with his son and then all over Portland. I loved his appreciation for life and for love and for guitar making and his place in this universe, his generosity, his commitment. I remember asking if he thought I could handle a guitar repair one day and he said, ”That all depends on how skilled you are with a scraper.” That comment sticks with me twenty-five years later.

One time we were at Jeff and Cyndy’s house with Jim Kline evaluating two sister guitars I had made and we were talking about what we thought of them and Jon interrupted and said, “I disagree with you. The guitar with the stronger trebles will become the better instrument over time as the midrange and bass open up.” He wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion.

In the shadow of his death, we ask ourselves, how will we live? How will we let the gentle, loving strength of his life color ours? A clear perception of death invites us to consider our life as something worth living; an active, creative, passionate event. Life is impermanent. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we should value it dearly. I am thankful for his life and for all the friends I have made in the GAL universe.

— Woodley White