John Sullivan 20-string Concert Harp Guitar
I knew this would be a special consignment when I was first offered it. But it didn’t really sink in until the instrument arrived. It was only then that I:
Quite simply, I recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some deserving musician out there.
I first gave it a thorough going over with my assistant Frank (Doucette), including: aesthetics (almost exactly like John Doan’s, with some added sparkle), fit and finish (a solid 9.5 or better), condition (at first glance, “like new”), and tone (distinctive, incredibly responsive and loud).
The Sullivan-Elliott harp guitar created for Doan (I’m switching to last names; they’re too many “Johns” in this story!) has long since become both an iconic instrument and also a historically important harp guitar milestone. See my Harpguitars.net Members article on Super-Trebles and you’ll clearly see how and why. Add to that Sullivan’s reputation as a skilled luthier and his extremely limited harp guitar output (listed below), and I think you'll agree that this is an irreplaceable dream instrument. The seller, Bob Gore, who has quite an arsenal of modern guitars and harp guitars (including Fred Carlson’s “New Dream”) recently had shoulder surgery and is now unable to play this particular model.
It was built to emulate Doan’s instrument specifically, so it has the exact same design and most woods, including African blackwood back, sides and headplate and spruce top (species unknown). The bridge has that distinctive “tail,” and the rosette is the same artistic flourish originally designed by Doan’s artist wife, Deirdra. Sullivan added his own little tweak by replacing the center dot with a delicate pearl flower. This flower is then repeated for the fret markers. Nice!
One external difference I noted was the unusual spacing of the sub-bass nut posts. The strings are “paired” like that due to the way they come off the tuning posts. I can only assume this matched the direction Sullivan thought the tuners should turn in (as every other one is at 90 degrees, I’m confused regardless...but you’ll figure it out soon enough). Of course, the spacing is even at the bridge.
Internally, this thing is a wonder. Anyone serious about it should by now already have the 2009 American Lutherie issue #99, with Doan’s instrument (and hands) on the cover. In it, author Jeffrey Elliott shows the bracing and discusses in some detail HG#4, owned by Mike Bellinger. That and Doan’s instrument were the only two Elliott was ever involved with.
From what I can see from a quick check inside, #5 appears to follow #4’s internal features, including the complex X bracing (with through-openings in the bass bars) above 7 fan braces. I don’t really know if Sullivan was altering bracing and other construction details specifically in order to handle the customers’ requests for steel (phosphor bronze) sub-basses or to improve tone overall.
Whatever his goals, he definitely got results! When I tuned this up, I couldn’t believe how loud it was, and also how responsive the top was. I subsequently discovered that it is strung extremely lightly all the way across (in comparison to Doan’s and also other steel string HGs). Yet the strings don’t feel or sound too light (other than the lowest subs, which should be beefed up) and they manage to drive the top like crazy, across all twenty strings.
The neck strings remind me somewhat of a National steel or a Gypsy guitar, not in tone, but in that they seem to get louder and clearer the higher you play. As in Doan’s instrument (per his request) the high E fretted on the 12th fret of the first string sounds almost identical to the adjacent E super-treble. All the supers ring like bells; again, they are currently lighter: .009’s compared to Doan’s .012’s.
The tonal characteristics of the main neck are rather hard to describe. I heard perfect overtones, Frank commented about each string’s great clarity and separation, all notes bright but never overly so. We both hear some subtle and complex dry, woody character that reminded me of lutes or Renaissance instruments. It sounds great, and not quite like anything else (not Dyer-like). Actually, I just put on Beyond Six Strings, and Iwan Hasan’s track (“Heavenly Earth Dance”) gives a good taste of this distinctive neck tone (his subs sound different, being nylon).
Now we come to the subs, again, very lightly strung (they could all be increased in gauge from my experience, but only if the next owner desires it). Strung as they are in phosphor bronze, the subs are all perfectly homogenous with the neck strings; the instrument even has the coveted (and difficult to achieve – trust me) perfect transition between the low neck E and the first sub D. In fact, the entire 20-string instrument sounds like a single, continuous instrument from lowest sub to highest treble. If true piano-like consistency is your goal then this may be your holy grail. If one wanted the distinctive John Doan sound, this instrument could easily be switched over to nylon basses, and it would probably sound powerful and similarly great.
You can play this instrument delicately and sweetly and you can also pound it pretty hard. It’d be fun to see this in the hands of a Hedges-style player and see what new sounds can be brought out of a 20-string! There’s some fret buzzing up high on the lower strings; again, due to the X-light gauges. The low profile bridge saddle could also be raised if desired. The neck straightness and profile are otherwise fine.
Back to condition: Opening the Sullivan-built wood case (possibly airline worthy, but no guarantees), I couldn’t believe the quality and condition at first glance – but then, it’s only eight years old. There are a handful of tiny dings in the finish scattered about the top. The finish of the blackwood looks less than pristine, but Frank and I think it just needs a good polish (I’d prefer to leave that to someone else). Some random areas of “cloudiness” might perhaps be just too much wax buildup (?). There is a series of small faint cracks in the back of the arm that may be in the finish or may be in the grain of the wood. One is definitely in the wood but very tight. It/they could be glued or left alone in my opinion. The tuners all work great (once you get used to that crazy Sullivan-Elliott system). You’ll need to glue down the neck nut, which slips to the left due to the splayed string array. There is no endpin, nor electronics.
Just think! You could be the “first on your block” and perhaps the last in the world to purchase a barely-used John Sullivan harp guitar for the foreseeable future. What an exciting and amazing opportunity for our harp guitar community.
-Gregg "Sir Gregory" Miner
Strings: Currently strung very lightly in all steel and phosphor bronze in standard tuning (other tunings and string options available here).
Consignment listing, on premises.
DVDs by Stephen Bennett, John Doan, Muriel Anderson, Andy McKee,
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