Unusual 'harp guitar' featured in Alaska jazz tour

Mike Dunham

The harp guitar looks like something from the Museum of Odd Medieval Instruments as envisioned by Dr. Seuss. But Portland, Ore., musician Mike Doolin, who makes and plays it, says the device from an alternate universe is a fairly modern invention.

"It's totally a Northwest thing," he said before a rehearsal in Anchorage on Wednesday.

Doolin credited the unusual design -- a basic six-string guitar with a separate hollow body arm overstrung by at least one open string -- to a luthier named Chris Knutson who came up with the thing in Port Townsend, Wash., in the 1880s.

Doolin, who composes and performs a style often described as smooth jazz, is touring Alaska this month with Anchorage keyboardist Dan McElrath and Homer vocalist/bass player Milo Matthews.

"I thought the mix of different styles would make an interesting collaboration," said McElrath. "And the tour gives us a chance to promote our new albums."

McElrath's "Ajazzka" came out last year. Matthews' "Miles of Eva" was recently released by Matthews' own audio production company, LoveLifeMusic.

(Originally from Massachusetts, Matthews played in the subways of Boston for 20 years before relocating to what he called "the quietness" of Homer. His dad played bass for R&B groups like Martha and the Vandellas, and his own style reflects some of that funk background. Miles and Eva are the names of his children.)

Doolin's new CD is titled "Reflection" and, yes, it includes him playing his harp guitar.

"Make sure the readers know that I'll be playing it at the concerts too," he said.

Some traditional folk instruments had combined guitars and an open string for centuries before Knutson's innovation, Doolin said. But the support for the open string was solid, "like a baseball bat stuck on the guitar. The hollow arm body extension was Knutson's idea. But initially he only did it to make a bigger, more resonant guitar. He didn't add the strings until later."

By the early 1900s, the harp guitar was all the rage, featured in mandolin bands that were popular at the time. Major guitar makers like Martin and Gibson made them. But they fell out of fashion in the 1920s and languished until the mid-1980s.

Today there are several hundred harp guitar players in America, Doolin said, enough to hold a gathering every year (early November in Grand Prairie, Texas, this year), and dozens of builders, including himself.

Doolin fell into luthiery as a starving musician on the road. "I couldn't afford to pay anyone to re-fret my guitar, so I went to the hardware store and bought the supplies to do it myself."

By the 1990s he was working as a software engineer and developing tendonitis from long hours at a computer. "I blew my hand out. My wife suggested that I try making guitars for a living."

He developed a trademark "double cutout" shape with a crescent indent where the neck joins the body. "It lets you move your thumb down the neck lower than you otherwise could and play with your hand in the same position," he said.

Noted Northwest musicians who play Doolins now include Justin King and Muriel Anderson.

Doolin's harp guitar features a Peruvian walnut back and sides, California redwood top and mahogany neck. It features seven open strings, more than doubling the normal pressure put on a typical guitar. Those "harp" strings are typically lower notes, letting the performer add additional oomph to the bass line.

"It really doesn't sound anything like a harp," he said. The word is used because the added strings are not fretted, as is the case with a double-neck guitar, which he also makes along with more conventional guitars (which cost about $6,000.)

The trio, and drummer Cameron Cartland, began what McElrath calls the "907 Central Tour" on Friday. When they wrap up, they'll hit the recording studio to make yet another CD.

What does all that performing mean for Doolin's tendonitis? Nothing, he said, with a smile.

"Playing has never bothered my hands. I've been pressing strings down since I was 8. Playing guitar makes my hands feel good."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News