Bohmann “Contra-Bass Guitar,” early1890s
A Reverberating Cannon – Must Hear!

This is one of those historically important (more than you can imagine), incredibly rare harp guitars (especially in this shape) that I would value at 10 grand plus - but for which there is so little appreciation and market that it simply can't demand half that.  And so it is a bargain.  This is one I had fully restored to play and keep for the Miner Museum.  I would still keep it, if only to use for demonstrating the true intent of the early American harp guitar:  loud and resonant.

Bohmann was one of the first American builders to begin using steel strings (or some sort of silk & steel composite) in the very early 1890s.  How they must have blown away the 99% gut-strung guitars!  This one is indeed a cannon – loud and full-bodied.  Not as pretty as a Dyer or Knutsen, but major tone nonetheless.  But the "secret sauce" is the inherent sympathetic vibration.  You've all heard about it - harp guitars have all this extra resonance from the open bass strings vibrating in sympathy.  In truth, some have a mild amount, and some have a nice healthy dose (like the Dyers), and this...well, I've got to find time to record a little sound clip, because you just cannot believe it.  Like playing a small bodied Martin steel-string through a Fender Twin Reverb. 

I don't know how Bohmann did it.  The top is fairly thick (roughly an 1/8"), with light X-bracing (triple-X, with offshoots below and to either side of the main X), only 14-1/2" wide, with laminated rosewood back and sides (Bohmann expert Bruce Hammond says likely 3-ply).  But: when you damp all the strings while playing the high E string, it is decent, dry and clean (as many guitars achieve as their limit).  When you let the lower neck strings resonate whilst playing the high E, you will hear quite a bit of ambient reverb (and I only have light silk and steels on at the moment).  When you let the subs resonate (currently strung with very light phosphor bronze), the reverb is tripled.  If you strum a loud chord and stop it, you will hear the aforementioned Fender Twin - it is a mind-blower! 

I have the 8 subs (a goodly amount) tuned to "Taraffo tuning" - D descending chromatically to G.  Thus with every bar chord you play moving chromatically up the neck, you get similar reverb.

More below >

Perhaps part of the secret is in the bridge.  This is ultra-cool.  It's Bohmann's first design (not the later patented one, but some similar ideas).  The bridge is screwed into the top and bridge plate by 28 tiny screws.  Each string gets a pair of these - one to hold the string down (under the lip of the head), the other to act as the saddle (over the slot in the head).  These are original and imperfect, but do the job extremely well.  You can set the action individually for each string by raising or lowering its "saddle screw"!  Currently the action is medium and a little uncomfortable, but there is almost an 1/8" of room to lower.  My next step would be to use new screws with the head slot filed at an angle so that a single half turn would intonate each string to an 1/8" longer or shorter.

Note the slots on the bottom - these could presumably fit tied knots or ball-end strings, but if one looks closely at a similar guitar with the exact same bridge played by Joseph Bohmann himself - circa 1895 - there are ball end strings on it!  One can also see a nearly identical, presumably steel-strung instrument in this mid-1890s photo.

The neck is narrower at the nut (1-13/16") and wider at the end (2-1/8" at the 12th fret) - much more so than a standard, more parallel neck, and the fingerboard has a substantial radius.  Combined with the (currently med) action, it is not as easy for me to play as others such as the Dyer.  It is also virtually impossible to see your left hand as you play, so if you "need to look," you may have trouble!  I have no idea why Bohmann did this - perhaps it was his first attempt to make a harp guitar - by slapping a second neck on one of his 6-strings.  But the join requires the bass neck to be pitched substantially forward (as seen in the 2 profile views).  He made at least three of this design (plus many others designs), so it was indeed deliberate.  In fact, this harp guitar is the only Bohmann with the main neck centered – the otherwise similar known specimens have both necks centered over the soundhole, so perhaps mine was a “first experiment” (the other two also have a more developed sub-bass nut, rather than the simple Knutsen-like screw posts on this one).

No one seems to knows this (or care), but Bohmann may have been the first instrument builder in America (or possibly the world?) to do sunburst finishes on guitars - perhaps 20 years before Gibson.  This one doesn't have sunburst, but has a finish unique to Bohmann that darkened with age.  It was quite cloudy and worn when found.  With the outer veneer layer filled with micro-cracks, we made the decision not to strip it, or re-blend it, but to clean and polish it as best as possible.  This shows the wood and color much better, though it also highlights the minute cracking.

Restoration was performed by Pat Quinn at Blue Guitar in San Diego, with guidance by expert Yuris Zeltins.  The guitar is surprisingly all-original, with an imperfect earlier repair on the back of the bass headstock.  Only one piece of rosewood veneer was missing off the scroll.  The couple of top cracks were repaired (splinted below the bridge) and the top finish re-blended.  Then re-fretted and new nut installed.  The "scooped-out" back of the bass headstock is original (two identical necks have been seen), and was carved to allow access to the tuners.  Another interesting accommodation is a lip carved out of the joining section to allow the low neck string to clear!

More information and full pre-restoration photos can be seen on the Bohmann page

All in all, a very interesting (and functional and musical) instrument.  Please don't buy it - I won't be able to stand to see it go... - Gregg Miner, the "harp guitar pope"


  • Original label remnant and catalog clues point to a date of 1892-1895
  • All original, except for repairs
  • Spruce top
  • Laminate rosewood back & sides
  • Main neck: Mahogany with Brazilian rosewood fingerboard
  • Bass neck: Maple with ebony or grenadillo veneer
  • Headstocks: rosewood veneer
  • 8 sub-bass strings (intended tuning unknown, currently descending chromatically from D-to-G)
  • ~25” scale
  • 1-13/16" nut width
  • Dimensions: 14-1/2" lower bout, 4-1/4" depth at tail block, >38" total length
  • No case
  • Price: $3,600 (Paypal)
    (cash or check discount price $3,500)


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