John Westling 20-string Harp Guitar


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Own a true piece of harp guitar history!  

Someone should someday do a study on all the 20-string (“super-treble”) instruments built after John Doan’s historic Sullivan-Elliott concert harp guitar was completed in 1986. The list and timeline of luthiers who did so is important and still undocumented. The best clues can be found throughout my blog and pages, and also commercial “used listing” sites like the very one you are on.

There have been dozens of luthiers in the last couple decades who were either inspired by John Doan’s instrument or built a copy of his instrument from the GAL plans, but I’m talking about in the beginning. There was of course John Sullivan himself, then the Milburns and a fellow named Charles Shifflett. But there was also a guy named John Westling, who would go on to found Sandpiper Instruments, where he would eventually concentrate on small harps. I’ve already sold one of his custom instruments here. This offering is now only the second. Apparently, these instruments are undated, and I was surprised to see how early he had started his distinctive “rounded take” on the Sullivan-Elliott harp guitar; apparently by the mid-1990s!

The current owner (who some of you may know – Ande Flavelle) bought this fascinating harp guitar secondhand from John Westling himself back in 2001. It had come back to John at some time who installed a new back and later added electronics for the current owner. The pickup system is quite unique, so be sure to read the detailed write-up below. Me, I’m an acoustic guy, and was more interested in the tone. I actually owned the other Westling Sandpiper instrument, and (looking back) see that I described it as sounding as good or better than the Milburn that passed through my hands (which is saying something). But Ande’s instrument was built with the strings passing over the bridge to be held at the instrument's rim. Great for string tension and top bellying, but what about tone? As this instrument is not in my hands but in North Carolina with Ande (an old HG friend I trust implicitly), I’m now going to turn things over to him, editing and jumping in when and if necessary. My customers trust my non-hyped, blunt and honest evaluations, and I’ve asked Andy to do the same (which he did, wonderfully!). I also asked him to shoot a playing position photo, just to get an idea of the size and shape of the bulbous body in one's lap. He declined, but had a 6' friend pose for us: 

Introduction (from here on, text by Ande, unless otherwise stated)

“John built this harp guitar to accommodate either steel strings or silk & steel on the guitar neck. (The super-trebles are steel strings, mostly in the .010 to .012 gauge range as memory serves.) I have always used steel strings on the guitar neck because I like the tone, plain and simple. String spacing at the bridge is 5/16" between all strings. Gregg asked me to try to describe the sound. Compared to my Milburn, the Westling seems more warm but subdued, more reminiscent to me of a mahogany soundboard but still lovely and unique. And amplified its truly a knockout; just beautiful.

“I have experimented with different tunings and gauges on this instrument over the years, but have recently put it back in standard tuning with new strings. The sub-basses are F-G-A-B-C-D, low-to-high. As for sub-bass strings, both John Westling and Gregg Miner specifically advise not to use steel core strings or phosphor-bronze-wrapped strings because this particular HG was not designed to withstand those considerably higher pounds of stress. Nylon core strings are more of a hassle to string up due to their inherent stretchiness but that’s the nature of the beast.

“Frankly I prefer the tone of nylon sub-bass strings. On the plus side, I find them smoother – less harsh to my ears. On his web page Gregg describes the similar Westling Sandpiper HG he sold where the nylon-core sub-bass strings had ‘a nicer, deeper "oomph," but little else (like sustain).’ I agree with Gregg’s description. But for me, the lack of long sustain (that steel-core strings can often deliver) works quite well. In fact I prefer the nylon core strings in part for exactly this reason. I find it annoying to have that darn bass string going on and on while I’ve just gone through the next 3 chords of the song on the guitar neck. For tone and volume, I find the nylon core strings work beautifully, especially when using an amplifier. [Totally get it, Ande. If predominately plugging in and gigging, harp guitarists should strongly consider the type of subs they may actually want for those particular conditions. I’m a pretty proficient sub-damper, but had to pay much more attention to it when playing my (steel-subs) SB Merrill plugged in and cranked up at the restaurant. – GM]

“A negative to nylon sub-bass strings is that – due to their stretchiness – you can wind up with a lot of string on the tuner post end that can build up and slip off the top of the tuner post if you’re not careful. I recently told Gregg that – were I to keep this instrument – I would take off those six sub-bass tuners and have a machinist drill a small threaded hole on the top of each one. Step 2 would be to have the machinist create a small post that threaded into the hole just made in the tuner post, (kinda like a dentist does – minus the threading – if you’ve ever had a cap put onto a tooth.) And, on that post (that is to be screwed into the tuner post) will be secured a flat circular top – perhaps 2/3’s the size of a dime – that blocks the string wrappings from wanting to jump off. This is exactly what I had asked to be done on a couple of the sub-bass tuners on the Millburn HG I have and it worked like a charm. [Very clever, Ande! I had the same problem with that otherwise fantastic Milburn I sold. – GM]

String details (GM)

You might spot that most of Ande's photos show slender sub-basses. These were for an old experimental tuning of his. The neck and sub strings were since changed and the instrument is now tuned to standard tuning (neck and bass). You'll see these strings just in the main head-on shot and the one of his friend with the instrument. Note that the new subs had been sitting around a while and show tarnishing (from the coiled wrap), but sound "as new." My remaining stock of LaBellas are just long enough to thread onto Ande's instrument, but stock is now limited, and La Bella informs me they will no longer make harp guitar strings. (Others - Pyramid, etc. - continue to make nylon harp guitar strings, and I plan to investigate new string sources in Europe for the future.)

Materials (back to Ande)

“The top of mine is koa, the back and sides are cocobolo, the back having been replaced by John before I bought it. The fretboard is rosewood, binding is black plastic. I would assume the tuners are the same as in your other Sandpiper listing, based on visual inspection vs. your photos there.


“As mentioned, my harp guitar was later modified by John. In addition to replacing the back of the instrument before I bought it (and then installing my design for the unique pick-up configuration described below), John did some work on the headstock, after rethinking his design. Specifically, he removed a seventh sub-bass tuning peg for a string that is no longer there (leaving six subs). At any rate, John apparently didn’t want to go to the trouble of putting on an entirely new bridge so he left the original one as is. In the photos of the beveled string attachment at the tail, you can see that there’s an extra bridge pin hole visible that is unused where John decided to remove this 7th string (red arrow), but there is nothing visible on the headstock to indicate its absence. [Though we can’t specifically recommend it, I would not discount the possibility of one-day re-extending the headstock and adding a 7th sub back on. If the top is as flat as Ande says, then it’s not yet being over-taxed. - GM]


The top has two old filled top cracks which John had repaired before I got it (see photos). They have been perfectly stable now for over 20 years. There are two very minor cracks in the back of the guitar that I’ve shown in the photos (red arrows). They're really small but for sake of honest presentation I point this out. They barely show, but you can feel them if you run your fingernail over them. A straight-edge laid across the top lengthwise reveals barely a mm of deformation in all this time; along the width is similarly flat. Action on the neck is about 2.5mm (5/64") at the 12th fret on all strings. Though I’ve never had to the need, John said that there is a truss rod that can be accessed from inside, explaining ‘If the truss rod socket head is turned clockwise from inside the guitar, the rod will cause the peghead and neck to bow downward. The result will be a flattening of the fingerboard, or in the extreme case, the fingerboard will arch up in the middle.’


"Back in the mid-90’s I looked long and hard to find a pick-up that would most uniformly capture all three string banks of this harp guitar and with a decent sound representation. To that end I tested several pick-ups of different manufacturing origins before selecting one as the answer to that challenge. The one that worked the best for me was the LR Baggs “I-Beam”, an active “microphonic” pick that did everything I wanted it to do. (Actually, LR Baggs techs would not describe the I-Beam as a pick-up per se, and the term “microphonic” they came up with (and still use) gives a better label – if not a much better description – for it.)  All I know is that it does the job I was seeking. To my ears, the sound quality of the guitar signal coming from the amp is far closer to the way one would actually hear it coming out of the guitar, acoustically; meaning the sound coming from the guitar soundboard straight through the air directly to your ears.  No 'quack' or other cringe-worthy sounds one often hears with generic piezo pick-ups. (Note: the word “active” that’s used here means the I-Beam is battery driven; no phantom power is needed but you will have to change 9-volt batteries from time to time.)


"The above being said there is a potential for even more, for I also designed and arranged for 3 other pick-ups to be installed in this harp guitar: one for each of the 3 banks of strings, with each pick-up's signal to go out to a different amp, should that be desired. Unfortunately, the pick-up for the super-treble bank of strings is on the fritz. I’m not sure why; it could an age-related issue. Frankly I didn’t use that option very often, and I suspect most readers won’t much care much about fixing it either, but still, those more exotic harp guitar and multiple amp combinations are potentially available.


"The instrument comes with an Ameritage custom hard shell case (like new condition) and a Colorado custom soft case (like new condition), both included in the price."

Conclusion (Ande)

“In summary, this is a used instrument. It has also been repaired and modified by the builder, John Westling. He repaired two top cracks, replaced the back and removed a sub-bass tuner (although you’d never know were it not for the unoccupied bridge pin hole). Two hairline back cracks remain. That said, quite frankly none of this discouraged me when I bought it nor would discourage me now. It’s a wonderful instrument. I have meticulously maintained it and it also comes with added benefits like the fantastic-sounding LR Baggs pick-up. I consider it a classic harp guitar built by a renowned luthier and harp maker, a true player’s instrument.”

And GM: As I said at the top, this is a super rare (and somewhat unusual) now-historical instrument…and still going strong! John hasn’t built one in decades. Go check other luthiers for what something like this might run, then come (crawling) back! Ande and I are ready for this to go to its next home.

- Gregg "Sir Gregory" Miner

Price: $4250



  • No label or inscription, believed to have been built in early/mid 1990s, modified in 2001
  • Koa top
  • Cocobolo back & sides
  • Mahogany neck and head
  • Rosewood fingerboard with pearl and wire inlays
  • Black plastic front and back binding
  • Gotoh Keystone-style 10:1 tuners (neck & subs) 
  • 5-Star 5th-string Banjo tuners (trebles)
  • Custom pickups (see description)
  • 20 strings: 6 sub-bass strings, 6 neck strings, 8 super-trebles
  • 25-1/2" scale
  • 1-3/4" nut width
  • Sub-bass string vibrating length: 33-5/8" for the lowest to 31" for the highest
  • Sub-bass string overall length (post to bridge pin): 39.5" for the lowest to 39" for the highest
  • Dimensions: 15-1/2" wide at bridge, 4-1/16" depth at tail block, ~42-1/2" total length
  • Includes Ameritage custom hard shell case and Colorado custom soft case

Price: $4250
Shipping: Request quote
On consignment, not on premises

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