Knutsen Harp Guitar Family
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
(Irving Berlin, 1942)
Nylon-String Harp Guitar - Knutsen, ca.
If I have one legitimate claim to fame, it's that I'm one of the nation's leading Knutsenologists -- a scholarly term, if I've ever heard one, which I made up. Knutsenology (the "K" is pronounced) is the study of the extremely rare and unusual, undocumented and uncatalogued instruments dreamed up and built by Norwegian-born Chris J. Knutsen (1864-1930).
His story begins in Port Townsend, Washington, where in 1898, he was granted a patent for his "certain new Design for a Harp-Guitar Frame" (later dubbed the "One-Armed Guitar"). This photo contains an instrument (far left) that is nearly identical to the patent drawing, which shows the original features of his design: a fairly typical "flat-top"-style guitar with a hollow arm extending directly out of the body to support five additional bass strings. Most other harp guitars had either a second neck or simple extension rod for support, so Knutsen's were unique in America (additional examples and information can be found in my Vol. 1 CD).
While he kept to this basic concept, Knutsen apparently wasn't satisfied with the exact design, because his guitars went through endless variations of body / arm styles, with no two exactly alike. Even his fairly "standard" model (second from left) never duplicated the same woods, inlay, or trim.
Some models are really bizarre -- like this all-koa-wood instrument (far right) with seven bass strings, seven harp-like treble strings and nine strings on the neck (the three high courses are doubled).
The only consistent feature of Knutsen's instruments seems to be their lack of consistency. Every instrument shows examples of excellent woodworking skills combined with, what appears to be, extreme impatience -- as if each one was just a prototype he was anxious to try out. For instance, the pictured "standard" specimen features beautiful padouk sides delicately inlaid with a border of double stripes in green and yellow wood. But by the time he was nearly finished with the body he must have said heck with it! and gouged out the headstock with a pen-knife.
Unlike his workmanship, Knutsen's imagination knew no bounds, and he also designed a harp mandolin and harp ukulele -- so called because they have the harp guitar's long, hollow arm (for "deepest tone") though they have no extra strings.
While all of these relics are historically important and interesting, Knutsen's Hawaiian guitars, built after he moved to Los Angeles in 1914, are even more so because of the tremendous current resurgence of interest in wooden-body Hawaiian guitars of this style. Umpteen different Los Angeles makers built these guitars during the 1920s, the most famous and sought after today being "Weissenborns" (only certain Knutsens have the extra bass and treble strings). This design -- the striking body shape, along with the square, and often hollow, neck -- is generally assumed to have been Herman C. Weissenborn's idea, but my theory is that Knutsen, as in everything he did, originated it. One day I hope to prove it. That's my job.
10/19/99 Update! I didn't get to prove it, but my friends did! Check it out! www.noeenterprises.com4/18/02: Finally - we figured out the "patent" guitar!
06/22/02 UPDATE: Announcing . . . The Knutsen Archives!
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