Well lets see, it all began back in 2003 with the advent of the first ever Harp Guitar Gathering, brainchild of Master Musician and Harp Guitar Pioneer Stephen Bennett. Players whom had been personally invited by Stephen to perform and host workshops – myself included, came from all over the states and abroad to Williamsburg, VA. that brisk fall weekend. The weekend long event was an historical one indeed – those first few gatherings were absolutely impressionable for every one involved, with some serious cross pollination of ideas forming the genesis of what has ultimately become a Harp Guitar movement!
It was here I first saw this most peculiar Harp Guitar. Even more cool though was the guy who owned it was the grandson of the builders, the same gentlemen who built my Style 7 Dyer Harp Guitar. Those builders of course, are the now infamous Larson Brothers, Carl and August Larson.
And so I was introduced to this legendary figure, Robert Carl Hartman, most just call him Bob. But wait – it was to be more than genetics at play here – he had skills, energy and passion. And fortunately for us, Bob has an undying commitment to document his grandfathers legacy of creating those extraordinary musical instruments! An interest he shares with his wonderful and most gracious wife, Carol. Their unlikely second career started through a very unfortunate act of violence toward Bob’s instruments. This act of aggression set the two of them on a second career path neither could have ever imagined – that of being a published author. The following chronological order memorializes their effort. Their first book was a black and white with 166 pages, the second had a 4 color cover and 8 pages of color photos. With Carol’s help they put them both together and Bob printed them both on his press at work. They wrote, did page layouts, printed, published and distributed them in 1984 and 1988 under the title of “Guitars and Mandolins in America”. Centerstream Publishing bought the rights for the 1996 and 2007 editions under the title “The Larsons’ Creations in 1996 and the centennial edition of same for the 2007 books! I am fortunate to own a copy of each publication, finding my first copy (of their second edition) at the Galax Fiddlers Convention in Virginia! I had never heard of a Harp Guitar until that book – and still had never heard one, but the pictures were facinating! My imagination ran WILD!
I digress- back to that odd looking Harp Guitar – well, it was attracting players like bees to honey, everyone enthralled with its uniqueness and superior tone- some were even attracted to its very subjective “ugliness” – having at one time been dubbed as the “goiter guitar” based on it’s odd shape, by Gregg Miner – the worlds most tenacious advocate of the Harp Guitar.
I am talking about the Larson Bros. built One-Of-A- Kind 1909 Stahl Harp Guitar. And so is Bob!
Here’s what he has to say with regards to his Grandfathers work, specifically the Harp Guitar he had been toting to the first few Gatherings:
Wm. C. Stahl label harp guitar, c. 1909
“Made by the Larson Brothers leading to or following their 1909 harp guitar patent. I believe this 18 ½” wide specimen to be a prototype to the patent because the brothers used the hollow bass-arm idea derived from the design of the Dyer line. The main variation from the patent is the 8-string peghead on the hollow bass neck extension rather than the patented 6-string solid neck as shown in the patent. This example has the patented internal sound chamber that forms a 3” deep, 12” guitar body inside the larger outer body, which is not found on other Stahl’s of the same design. The sound from the 12” internal body played with the regular neck is in timbre like a parlor guitar but with greater volume. Add to this the plucked bass on the harp side or the sympathetic tones from the bass side even when they are not played and you end up with an amazing big bright sound with endless variations depending on the input of the player. “
I deem this guitar to be an historic, highly collectable example of the Larson’s’ early work.” Robert Carl Hartman Hmmmm, historic indeed!
And it sounded great……… soon we all departed and the Stahl’s tone began to fade into a memory of musical bliss. Only until next year though, when we met again, but this time wasn’t as intimate – I kept my distance, having to stay true to my 1915 Style 7 Larson built Dyer Harp Guitar, my original purchase and introduction into the Harp Guitar world. For those of you who are not aware, the Larson brothers never built any of their 2,500 or so instruments under their own name – the two most common Harp Guitar brands were Dyer and Stahl, with Dyer being significantly more common !
Destiny arrives right on time! The fateful day came in 2005 in Portland Oregon at the 3rd annual Harp Guitar Gathering (HGG), hosted that year by Emmy nominated guitarist John Doan. Bob and I were in John’s living room after the Gathering’s Saturday night concert and he handed me the Stahl and asked me to pick something; I played my own “Sounds of Change” tune and Bob was quite impressed! Well, that was cool – so I threw it into open G minor tuning and played John Renbourn’s “Mist Covered Mts. of Home” much to everyone’s delight, and especially mine, as my infatuation with this instrument was turning to LOVE, really, really fast……….. whoa now, hold on. Before the night was out Bob had actually and unbelievably offered to sell me this exquisite instrument. Lions and tigers and bears, OH MY! What to do?! Where to turn – for financial aid, lol !! Fate certainly opened up some doors for me that year and by 2006, Bob had shipped that Stahl to me! Or did he?!!
Ahh, the excitement was building as the Fed-Ex truck rolled in the driveway- I had been so stoked at this prospect! The Fed Ex driver had me sign off on the delivery and I anxiously, albeit carefully, tore into the package! YIKES! What came next was a little surprising! Upon opening the handmade case, I was faced staring at a completely different, one of a kind Larson built Harp Guitar, this particular one Bob had recently acquired and was a Style 7 Special, made circa 1910. Turns out Bob had made two nearly identical, plush lined hardwood cases for both the Stahl and the Special and had set them in his hallway.
He grabbed what was surely the 1909 Stahl and packed it up in the oversized cardboard shipping box! And so now his nearly priceless (well not nearly priceless) Harp Guitar will travel from Chicago to Roanoke, VA back to Chicago from whence forth it came! Oh what a heartbreak for me; but such petty misery can only be temporary and Bob shipped the real Stahl straight away! Cest La Vie’ ! – and oh what a relief !
Stay tuned for Part Two!
As always, thank you for your interest – please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!