This Gibson Style U harp guitar, made in 1906 or ’07, represents the top level of the Gibson lineup in the company’s first quarter-century, as well as the highest level of expectations for a new and innovative instrument.
Although the design of the harp guitar seems unique among popular stringed instruments today, it was not a new concept in Orville Gibson’s day, at the turn of the 20th century. The concept of extra bass strings is rooted as far back as the theorbo and other archlutes of the 1500s – preceding the six-string guitar by well over two centuries. In the 1800s, German guitarmakers produced harp guitars, and in America, the Martin company made a handful.
Orville Gibson made at least one harp guitar – a highly ornate model that’s pictured on the cover of the Gibson Guitars: 100 Years Of An American Icon – but it wasn’t until the Gibson company was formed in 1902 that Gibson “ran with” the idea. The first Gibson catalog featured four different harp models: the R and R-1 with 177/8″ body width and six sub-bass strings, and the U and U-1, with 21″ body and 12 sub-bass strings.
The harp guitars shared a number of features with other Gibson models, starting with carved spruce tops and walnut back and sides, even though catalogs always specified maple back and sides. The scroll-shaped upper bass-side body bout, although it wasn’t invented by Orville Gibson, was a familiar feature of Orville’s F-style mandolins. (The Style U pictured in the first Gibson catalog had a scroll peghead as well.) The oval soundhole was Orville’s preference; it is found on F-style and A-style mandolins, as well as the early O-series guitars. The half-herringbone soundhole purfling is also shared by other Gibson models, including the F-2, F-4, and L-4.
The Style U listed for $265.96 in 1902, compared to $221.63 for the F-4 mandolin. The Style U would remain Gibson’s most expensive model – even through the introduction of the F-5 Master Model mandolin and L-5 guitar – until 1934, when it was surpassed in price by the Super 400.
After the introduction of the four harp guitar models, the line was immediately whittled down to just one – the Style U. Like Gibson mandolins and guitars, harp guitar designs evolved quickly through the company’s first decade. The most visible changes on the Style U by circa 1906, as exemplified by this instrument, are the 10 sub-bass strings, the standard peghead shape and the addition of “The Gibson” on the peghead in mother of pearl.
More changes were immediately ahead for the Style U. In 1907, the S-shaped, glued-down bridge and metal-strap tailpiece were replaced by a one-piece, moveable maple bridge and a double-trapeze tailpiece featuring string-termination pins mounted in crosspieces of tortoiseshell-grain celluloid. At the same time, the body size was reduced from 21″ to 181/4″, and the back and sides were changed from walnut to birch (though still cataloged as maple).
Although expensive and large to the point of being unwieldy, the harp guitar promised to open up a new world of music to guitarists. Keep in mind, this was a time when the guitar was not the dominant fretted instrument but rather (from Gibson’s perspective) an accompanying instrument for mandolin ensembles. The typical repertoire of these groups was semi-classical or light classical, and as such could not be counted on to be in guitar-friendly keys such as E, A or G. Bass notes were critical for full accompaniment, and as every guitar player today knows, the guitar does not have a rich, low Eb or C#. That’s what the harp guitar offered – a much-needed, extended range of bass notes.
Gibson offered a free 12-page harp guitar “treatise” that illustrated the concept by showing the harp guitar’s “chords of completeness and fingering versus the incomplete chords generally used on the six string guitar.” But that was just the beginning of Gibson’s pitch for the instrument. It also predicted that the harp guitar was about to do to the conventional six-string guitar what the piano had done to the harpsichord 200 years earlier – send it into obscurity.
In Gibson catalogs, Lewis Williams, the company’s evangelistic sales manager and founding partner, expressed Gibson’s high hopes for the harp guitar in flowery prose under the headline, “When Gray Hairs Applaid, Progress May Well Ask: What Have I Done Amiss.” He drew the historic parallel: “Then it was harpsichord versus piano; now it is Guitar versus Harp-guitar.” He then cited J.S. Bach as an example of an old-school musician who failed to see the light of innovation. “The mighty Bach and his contemporaries could not be persuaded to leave the harpsichord with its inferior capacity and power of expression for the piano,” Williams wrote. “Yet where is the harpsichord today? Death alone saved Bach from the ridicule of the then rising generation…”
Interspersed among the gray-haired characterizations of the six-string guitar, Williams went into detail on the construction advantages – specifically the carved top – of all Gibson guitars. “This is why the ‘Gibson’ Guitar (Harp or six string) is so rapidly supplanting every other make,” he wrote.
The Style U commanded the centerfold of Gibson catalogs for over two decades, but never fulfilled its potential. In the ’20s, the guitar began to rise in popularity, but the Style U was not carried along on the wave. Gibson cataloged it through 1937, by which time it was relegated to the end, sharing a page with the equally archaic Style J mando-bass. Demand for the instrument was even less than the catalog treatment would suggest, judging by the fact that we have never seen a Gibson harp guitar with a serial number later than 1925.
Although Gibson sold a fair number of harp guitars prior to the 1920s, most musicians who play harp guitars today prefer the flat-top style of the Dyer instruments to the carved-top Gibsons. Still, the Gibson Style U is a wonderful conversation piece for its design and the high expectations that it carried, and it is a must-have for a complete collection of early Gibson instruments.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.