I am often asked the question “What kind of music was played on these instruments?”
. Specifically, the public is curious about music played on the hollow-arm or other American harp guitars of the 1900s through 1920s. These records are one example, and the answer, while historically interesting, isn’t all that exciting. While the music may be charming and an important part of America’s legacy, the harp guitar’s role is a somewhat token one. While the floating sub-bass strings were designed to be played, in practice they were not always utilized. Many professional guitarists from the turn of the century through the 1920s recording era were simply looking for the loudest stage instruments they could find – and harp guitars were a good choice (and it didn’t hurt that they were eye-catching as well). Discounting the extra bass strings, harp guitars were often larger and louder than typical 6-strings, and the extra sympathetic resonance of those vibrating bass strings was thought to help beef up the sound a little further. And so, while historians and the record label itself may accurately note the use of a “harp-guitar” on the recording, we only hear
6-strings being played. We just have to imagine those extra strings vibrating “behind the scenes.” Luckily, we have many historical photos
of these more visually arresting performers to impart a better sense of the harp guitar’s role and impact a century ago.