Milburn 20-string Concert Harp Guitar
A faithful adaptation of the original Sullivan-Elliott harp guitar created with/for John Doan, this stunning instrument represents an incredibly rare purchase opportunity for anyone interested in the world of super-trebles. Trust me, you do not want to let this one go by too easily.
Where to start . . .? How about When. This is Milburn harp guitar #2 (of only four), designed and built in 2003 for Steve Bissell (at the time a student of John's) by classical guitar luthiers Robert and Orville Milburn in consultation with John Doan and Jeffrey Elliott.
It is in virtually “like-new” condition, with only a bit of wear on the binding where it would rest on the lap or legs, and less than the expected amount of finish wear or scratches. You could almost call it “better than new” as it is somewhat “played in” and any hypothetical construction or tension reliability questions have long since been safely passed.
Quality: Workmanship, wood and trim choices are superb. I particularly like the bronze and pearl vine and the amboyna burl used for the headstock and treble shelf. Maple is one of my favorite (and underused) woods for harp guitars, and the dark snakewood binding sets it off beautifully.
Playability: Perfect; there is just the right amount of space between each string bank for delineation, and all 20 strings are on the same plane. The only trouble would be for “thumb-wrappers” – if you can’t play “properly” with the thumb on the back of the neck, you might find yourself rubbing against the first bass string. The treble tuning shelf does not get in the way in any of the normal guitar-playing positions.
Sound: Very nice. The steel-string neck portion is balanced and clear. The eight steel super-trebles are like John Doan’s – tight, clear and bell-like without any hint of “boing.” The 10-12th frets on the high E-string mesh beautifully into the lowest treble strings, the ultimate challenge with these instruments. The six sub-basses - silver-plated wire over nylon core, like Doan’s – are fuzzy and warm, with the expected medium-duration sustain. We will include a free set of new La Bella John Doan Signature Series Sub-bass strings. For a more gradually tonal change from basses to the neck, silk and steel strings could be used on the neck.
Technical: All tuners are Waverly 4:1 banjo tuners (the trebles using 5th-string tuners), with custom snakewood knobs. I expect it will take a bit of familiarity before one can tune all those strings without looking, and the neck tuners are of course more sensitive than good standard tuners would be (but not any big deal). The six inner super-trebles have brass harp sharping levers for quick key changes (something John Doan undoubtedly wished he had!). Electronics consist of 11 transducers glued to the bridge plate and summed through K & K electronics, split slightly into a lovely stereo (the rear jack needs adjustment for plug in contact).
Bottom line: I priced this unique instrument not only on its own merits, but also after much discussion with Robert Milburn about what went into building it and how difficult and expensive it would be to re-create it today. In fact, he wouldn’t quote it, other than to say "about twice as much as the current $8000 Milburn classical," and that’s if they could be talked into tackling a fifth harp guitar (they assured me they loved building this, it was just a lot of work – for that reason, they are not “soliciting” harp guitar orders). So another like this simply might not be forthcoming, and certainly not without a substantial wait and final price tag. This one is available now! If no one grabs it at this very fair and realistic price, I’ll have to figure out how to talk my wife into letting me buy it for myself – it’s that nice, and that rare of a chance. So go ahead…you can ruin my marriage - or yours!
-Gregg Miner, the "harp guitar pope"
Thanks to Robert Milburn for filling in all the details on this exquisite instrument.
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