Do you play with a flat-pick or fingernails? How and why?
I play with both my nails or with a flat pick. Sometimes my nails are strong enough but usually not, so I use the cheap plastic ones you can buy at Walgreen’s and superglue them on my middle and ring finger only. My index fingernail is strong enough on its own, and they tend to all be pretty short, maybe only 3-4 mm protruding, but long enough to hit the string, so it is a combination of flesh and nail most of the time. Nothing on my thumb, just flesh on the side that has now become entirely callus/translucent. I too am a Kottke fan so i used his “post CTS surgery” thumb technique when I was learning finger-style and have adapted it to harp guitar now.
Flat-picking harp guitars can be a bit more difficult than finger-style. Attacking the harp strings can be less forgiving unless you are very comfortable with them. However you will never pull the volume out of your instrument with your fingernails like you can with a flat pick, so it is nice when you accompany other instruments to be able to project the harp guitar more. That being said, playing a meat and potatoes – root & 5 bass line with a flat pick while strumming chords in between each harp note can be challenging, but not impossible.
What do you tune the harp strings to?
The tuning I use for the harp strings is the “dyer/knutsen” tuning, which I think is the same as John Doan’s. Starting with the first harp string: DCBAGE. and then i variate one or 2 strings sharp or flat a half step to get different notes for playing in other keys. So if I am play something in E major on guitar, I tune my G to and F#, and my C to a C#, so the harp is DC#BAF#E, and that gives me all relative notes to E major (or in A major). When I am in D major playing a fiddle tune, I’ll have the C#, but leave the G at a G naturally, but if its D modal, then C natural works, it all depends on what chords you have in the song. You don’t always have to play tonic notes on the bass either, 3rds and 5ths work great, like playing an A bass over an F chord, or even a G over a D chord sounds nice and suspended. Harp strings open up a whole new world for composing, you will not be a guitar player any more, but a harp guitarist!
Do you play in open tuning on the guitar?
I used to play in open tuning on guitar a lot before i had harp guitar like Open G, Open D, Open C, and DADGAD, but I have gotten away from that in the past years to only play in standard, or drop D, I have an 18 string harp guitar that has a 12 string neck tuned to open C with 6 harp subs, I have a couple tunes arranged for that tuning to mix things up.
As a guitar player, what is a way to start learning and incorporating harp notes into my playing?
As for a starting point, do what you are comfortable with on guitar, and don’t feel like you have to play the harp notes, just play them when it feels right. They will ring sympathetically along with anyhow and give your guitar some ethereal accompaniment.