one-of-a-kind Harp Guitar
This distinctive instrument has changed hands a few times over the last several years (I myself bid on it - and lost - on EBay on two separate occasions). And now I finally find myself in possession of it (while on consignment)....yay!
Despite numerous repairs and alterations, it is one impressive instrument. Strangely, none of the past owners appears to have been curious about the sound. It (still) had super old strings on it (the subs were very heavy steel strings, but not necessarily original - at any rate, they had to have been taken on and off for restoration). Could I be the first person to re-string the subs since its repair by New York's Raffaele Tieri?
The maker of this remarkable instrument ha so far escaped identification. It was originally assumed to have been Tieri himself, as his label appears inside the instrument. Tieri is a little-known contemporary (and neighbor, about 2 blocks around the corner) of master archtop builder John D’Angelico. Both were Italian immigrants who settled in New York, along with Puntolillo, Ciani and others to create innovative and ultimately, distinctly American guitars and other stringed instruments. Tieri arrived sometime in the 1920's and worked into the 1940's.
The affixed label reads:
My original theory was that "Repairing" denoted "repaired" or "repairer" - Tieri either writing it on the original label of his existing instrument, now back in the shop, or adding a new label to someone else's instrument and denoting that he is the repairer, not the builder. After this instrument was listed, I received correspondence and information from the surviving Tierri family - 90-year old son X and grandson Ralph (referred to me by his cousin, Dimi). Ralph and the family seem confident that Tieri himself built no harp guitars - only guitars, banjos and mandolins. They also point out that nearly every Tieri instrument they know of (3 are in their possession, others are at Players Vintage Instruments) has his name inlaid in the headstock and/or had "Tieri" pressed into the wood inside. Ralph adds additional information on Raffaele:
"My grandfather's shop originally was on 35 Spring Street, between Mott & Mulberry. He then moved to 2 Spring Street - corner of Spring & Bowery. He was probably the only repairer that John D'Angelico used. When my grandfather died the family gave all of his molds to John, whose shop was on Mulberry."
Because of this close association with D'Angelico, Ralph wonders if this harp guitar was built by the famous maker - but I would doubt that. Still, everything about this instrument jibes with the extravagant and innovative style of the New York Italian immigrant harp guitars, so I think we're on the right track!
NOTE: After consideration of this new information - the fact that Tieri being the builder is less likely, and the luthier unknown - we have reduced the price of this unique instrument. Please note that the quality and aesthetics remain unchanged - the possible provenance has simply become less likely than it already was.
Another thing we don't know about this intriguing beast is exactly what it looked like to begin with. From examining the current version along with the previous incarnation via EBay photos, we can make some guesses. Assuming the bridge is original, it probably always had ten sub-basses. They (and the nut posts) were undoubtedly in a different configuration, as can be seen in the photos of the head plate (page bottom) which shows plugged holes (now all but hidden beneath black paint). They may have been standard friction tuners rather than the Gibson-style (Gibson-supplied?) tuners currently in place. The back of the headstock, however, shows no evidence of former location so must be a new maple layer, added before the first EBayer ever offered it. Shown here is the aluminum reinforcement plate removed. What is original and repaired of this assembly is hard to determine.
There were previously two additional non-original aluminum plates which were left off by the previous restorer (shown at page bottom). I would say he made the right decision, painting black the area on the back of the main neck previously covered with metal (ouch!). He also removed two of three added decorations (all shown below) - a medallion on the headstock and a sticker under the bridge. The lion head - which may or may not be original to the instrument (but looks so great) - was left on. Strangely, the restorer also seems to have painted the binding white.
At some point, someone tried to address a fingerboard problem by filing the higher frets down quite a bit. It didn't work - many of the frets around the 12th bottom out on various strings. Yet first position plays beautifully. It even sounds good!
Very solid all around - a couple minor cracks on the side (but surprisingly, those near-90 degree side bends held up great!), and a separation crack on the bass heel (where joined). Top may be fully or partially refinished. Original form-fitting case which is coming apart slightly at corner (shown).
Bottom line: It's time for this very cool HG to find a permanent home, get one last restoration and get played! T'wer me, I'd do this: 1. Fix the fingerboard. In reality, the shim piece between fingerboard and top needs to come out and/or get thinned down, to get rid of the raised bump for this portion. Then profile the fingerboard one last time and re-fret. (new bone saddle of course) 2. Replace the neck friction tuners (a total pain and cracking) with 4:1 tuners. 3. Cosmetics. I'd remove the white paint from the binding, or just re-bind that portion with some nice faux tortoiseshell celluloid. That's it! 4. If I had more money, I'd have someone create a new face for the head plate with some nice maple and also re-veneer the back of both necks/head plates with rosewood. This might get it back to what it originally looked like (and would be stunning). One could then relocate the ten basses anywhere they liked (a third location even) at this time, swapping out with 4:1's also if desired. 5. Original or not, I'd definitely keep the lion!
There you have it. A fantastic wall-hanger on the verge of becoming a museum piece and a great player - complete with the pope's 5-point plan for improvement. Or you can do whatever you like with it. Regardless, buy it before I come up with the money myself.
-Gregg Miner, the "harp guitar pope"
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