SANDPOINT — At first glance, the harp guitar appears to be an unwieldy way to make music. True to its name, the instrument looks as if a standard six-string guitar collided with the low end of a harp, with both somehow surviving the incident and coming out the better for it.
The first such creation came off a Seattle-area workbench in 1898. Over the next century, the harp guitar was rethought and reborn multiple times, with independent builders and large companies such as Gibson trying their hand at perfecting the hybridized guitar.
Initial excitement was followed by a steady decline in popularity, until the instrument was relegated to the dusty corners of musical relics. All that changed in 1986, when a ridiculously gifted artist by the name of Michael Hedges released a song titled, “Because it’s There,” which featured crystalline melodies, sparkling harmonics and authoritative bass notes compliments of two hands playing the daylights out of one harp guitar.
Suddenly, a legion of players who wouldn’t have known a harp guitar if they tripped over it were scouring pawn shops and used instrument dealers to scare one up. The lucky few were able to find originals made years earlier by Dyer or Knutsen, as well as the occasional Gibson. And as the scene grew, a handful of boutique builders began to create new harp guitars.
Today, a few hundred players now embrace this hybrid sound, opening the door wide to — if not a renaissance — at least a strong resurgence of the harp guitar in popular music. On the heels of that rekindled interest, two brothers who grew up in Sandpoint and moved to Nashville before coming full circle back home have gained national attention for the instruments coming out of their local shop.
“We’re the first production line company making harp guitars in America in the last 100 years,” said Dave Powell, who, along with his brother Tony, runs Tonedevil Guitars.
With Tony building and Dave specializing in computer design, the Sandpoint company this year began producing up to six instruments a month, with each one taking approximately 40 hours to complete.
As both builders and performers, the Powell brothers are fast becoming two of the best-known names in the harp guitar world. Then again, it’s a very small world.
“It’s a cult following,” Tony said. “Still, to this day, people will walk up and stop us in the middle of a song to ask, ‘What is that?’”
The relative obscurity has a definite plus side from a marketing perspective, according to the builder.
“We’re lucky to have no competition,” he said. “And our demographic is every guitar player out there.”
The Brothers Powell don’t count the tiny roll of artisan builders as competition, since those luthiers specialize in instruments that start at $9,000 and rocket upward from there. At Tonedevil Guitars, the base price for a harp guitar starts at $2,200.
Early on, some heavyweights in the music industry counseled the siblings to entertain their fascination with this unusual musical combination, thereby avoiding the glut of builders turning out traditional guitars.
“Everybody and their brother is building boutique guitars now,” Tony said.
“And they all want a piece of this small market,” added Dave.
Tony himself built guitars for more than a decade before shifting to harp guitars after experimenting with a harp mandolin. For the past seven years, he has worked with Coeur d’Alene violin maker Arvid Lundin, whose family has built, repaired and restored the bowed instruments since 1971.
“Working with Arvid has developed my intuition,” said Tony, who credits “the violin experience” with the ultimate selection of tone woods and interior bracing for his harp guitars. Unlike the violin, the 12 strings that traverse the connected soundboards of the Tonedevil instruments create nearly 350 pounds of tension. The trick is to build an instrument that can stand up to that pressure while still resonating freely across a wide harmonic spectrum.
“That’s the tightrope,” Dave said. “You’re looking for a balance between structure and sound — and I think we’ve achieved that balance.”
Although the majority of sales have been made sight-unseen through the company website, the brothers now look to build a network of instrument dealers who can show the harp guitars in person. The first such relationship took root here in Sandpoint when Flatpick Earl’s — a high-end musical instrument store on First Avenue — commissioned one of the harp guitars for its downtown shop. Elsewhere, Tonedevil Guitars has developed business connections with two of the biggest names in the music world — McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., and Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.
“It’s good for dealers, because the word gets out that they have this weird-looking thing in the store and people come in just to play it,” Tony said.
And while You Tube phenomenon Andy McKee, whose tunes rank among the highest-viewed videos in the world, recently has turned up with harp guitar in hand, it remains an oddity, for the most part. Those who have seen one are most likely to have made the discovery thanks to the legacy Hedges left behind.
“Michael Hedges was the guy who brought the coolness factor back to the harp guitar,” said Dave.
Still, the number of players familiar with the instrument is a mere fraction of that for the “normal” guitar. So much so that Tony Powell believes it’s time for the harp guitar to move off the sidelines and into the mainstream.
“We’d love to not be so geeky,” he laughed. “Everybody knows what an acoustic guitar is and what an electric guitar looks like — we’d love to see that for the harp guitar.”
Tonedevil has bridged the gap between classic elegance and modern proficiency by marrying the old and the new. Sides and backs come in either traditional mahogany or brighter-sounding walnut, with tops made from Sitka spruce joined to mahogany necks. Innovations on these historically popular tone woods include a proprietary bracing system and, for a price, the addition of a custom pickup for amplification.
Now in their mid- to late-30s, the brothers could well typify the kind of customer that might bring greater notoriety to the harp guitar. Both of them are proficient on a few instruments, but when they pull out the harp guitar at their own gigs, a buzz ripples through the audience.
“It’s exciting, because we’re playing contemporary music in an old sound setting,” Dave said. “Our goal is to get them into the hands of more people. To us, that’s the future.”
“We’ll just keep following this trail as long as people buy the instruments we make,” said Tony. “One instrument at a time, we just keep on keepin’ on.”
Those wanting to hear the harp guitar in performance can catch the Powell Brothers this Tuesday evening at Kelly’s Irish Pub in Coeur d’Alene, or play one for themselves at Flatpick Earl’s in downtown Sandpoint. For more information on the local company, visit their web site at: www.tonedevilharpguitars.com