Don Alder on Exploring the Harp Guitar
What motivated you to explore the harp guitar during the pandemic ?
Don Alder : I am just really fascinated by the instrument . I have composed a number of songs on it , have had over one million YouTube views using the harp guitar , but have had very little time to get to know the instrument , its history , and what it ’ s capable of . The COVID lockdown was a great opportunity to gain a better understanding of what techniques / modern techniques adapt on the harp guitar , as well as create new compositions .
What other insight did you gain ?
Alder : The instrument has unique possibilities over a regular six-string guitar . It can do most things an acoustic guitar can do , but the addition of the six sub bass strings opens up a world of new possibilities . The sub bass strings can be used as root notes to chords played on the guitar side ; used to create basic bass line runs to simulate bass player accompaniment ; and my favourite is the bass strings can be used to extend various chords and in this scenario . The instrument can create more spacious sounding chords not possible on a standard guitar . It ’ s a step closer to what the piano can do ; however , you are limited to the single notes of the substrings , which have no frets . So , the challenge of the instrument is to compose around these limitations . Some harp guitars have half-step levers that open up more sonic possibilities . So , compositions have to have a strategic approach as to the notes you choose to tune the sub bass strings to .
And now what about your fingerstyle and percussive techniques ?
Alder : Using my percussive techniques on the harp guitar does have its limitations , but opens up new opportunities , like picking the harmonics on the substrings and using long sustaining open notes that carry forward into chords I ’ m playing .
When playing this instrument , one has to develop the coordination to play the bass strings and the guitar strings in specific ways to make it sound good . The right hand has to get used to traveling greater distances . When it comes to any type of techniques , I always try to use the technique for the sake of the composition and not use the technique for the sake of the technique .
What ’ s next on your agenda ?
Alder : I am currently busy working on a new album and eight to nine of the songs will have vocals . A harp-only album is also in the near future . I ’ m also working on a number of videos and with a little luck will be back touring in the E . U . this year and will have my trusty road warrior Timberline harp guitar with me .
Are there special tunings for a harp guitar ?
Alder : There are lots of tunings that can be used on the harp guitar , but yes , there are a number of specific tunings players can see at Harpguitar . net operated by Gregg Miner – it ’ s a great resource site . The site has a chart showing various tunings along with suggested substring gauges to be used with those tunings . A common tuning used is the Stephen Bennett tuning . I ’ m an artist for Ernie Ball strings , so was able to experiment with a variety of gauges , which led to a fun tuning and a handful of compositions . Hopefully this tuning will be added as an additional resource for people to explore and create with .
The tuning from lowest sub to the high E string is F-G-A-A # -C-D and D-A-D-F-C-E . String gauges are 80-76-72-68-64-60 and 56-46-36-24-17-13 . This combination of tuning and strings works very well . The 80 gives me a rich low bottom . My highest substring is tuned to D and the low E string is tuned to D , so I have a 60-gauge sitting next to the 56 . The 60 sounds much richer than the 56 when doing the alternate thumb-picking style . I haven ’ t seen any other harp guitarists use this tuning but hopefully more players hear about it . This tuning is also really great for new harp guitarists because the sub bass notes line up with the dots on the fretboard . For example , the low F substring matches up with the F note on the third dotted fret of the low E string . So , as I said , I call this my primary tuning and it allows me to create compositions and have a signature sound .
Don Alder is an internationally-acclaimed acoustic fingerstyle guitarist based in Vancouver , BC . He has won many of the top modern guitar competitions in the world , and has endorsement deals with Yamaha Guitars , Seymour Duncan Pickups , Ernie Ball Strings , Santo Angelo Cables , Riversong Guitars , Emerald Amicus , and ToneWoodAmp . www . donalder . com .
60 CANADIAN MUSICIAN