Harp Guitar Music Dyer Style 4
Huge Savings on a modern copy of the harp guitar played by Michael Hedges and Stephen Bennett!
You’re looking at the first collaborative effort between myself and Arul, a maker of fine classical guitars living in India.
After seeing his first harp guitar, my friend Brad Hoyt started a dialog with Arul about future inventions along the lines of this unusual instrument. When it became clear that Arul was both passionate about building instruments and completely infatuated with the harp guitars on my site, I contacted him about a possible collaboration. My focus was (and is) the continual demand for Dyer copies, and the quest for more affordable professional instruments. Arul understood this and was equally anxious to try his first “Dyer copy” as well…and so we decided to embark on a trial build of instruments. I will spare you the details of the long-distance logistics of obtaining materials, fine-tuning the elements and crunching the numbers. Suffice it to say that, while we have some way to go, we’re enjoying the shared challenge of tackling and solving the problems of finding a way to bring affordable, "budget" hand-built harp guitars to market. Harpguitars.net readers already know that my heart is in the right place. Rest assured that Arul’s is as well. While he has an interest in creative instruments as I do, he shares the appreciation and respect for honoring the Larson brothers’ aesthetic and historical importance, and we hope to be able to create something for everyone.
My original intention was to create something as close as possible to the exact Dyer Style 4 harp guitar that Michael Hedges played – as this may be the most recognized and popular harp guitar of all time. It is also, by dumb luck, the simplest of the five Dyer models, and thus the cheapest to produce. By complete coincidence, the Style 4 Dyer is also the instrument inherited by Stephen Bennett that became his own signature guitar. To this day, 95% of new harp guitarist hopefuls tell me that they were influenced by either Hedges or Bennett (and increasingly, YouTube phenomenon Andy McKee – who plays a Spillers Dyer copy). Quite expectedly, nearly all of them are looking for this same instrument, or a “reasonable facsimile thereof.” As it turns out, a strictly accurate “Hedges model” is not a desirable goal. I recently discovered the ironic – and surprisingly, unknown - fact that Michael’s famous 5-bass Dyer was actually a six sub-bass instrument that had had the last tuner and bridge pin removed and plugged (see the full story on Michael's harp guitars here). That kind of “re-creation” seems a bit too much! So instead, do we make a 6-bass or a 5-bass? Or do we make a 6-bass and remove the last string?! Simple – we model it on Stephen’s Bennett extremely popular 6-bass Dyer Style 4 model - popular because Stephen has created an exhaustive and admired repertoire for this instrument and tuning, compared to the extremely few Michael Hedges HG pieces. Hedges emulators can then remove the last string if they like (don’t laugh – Michael did this very thing in concert for each performance of Because It’s There when he used a later 6-bass Dyer).
In the future, we may not necessarily strive for semi-accurate “reproductions,” but perhaps “close copies,” with substitutions for woods and trim that make the job more realistic, and even more interesting. Hopefully, we can create both. Note that there is no standard Dyer harp guitar – measurements and details have varied quite a bit from specimen to specimen, and the harp guitar community continues efforts to come up with a set of average specimen specifications.
This prototype was a rather bold experiment to see how close we could come to the real thing right out of the gate, while still keeping costs down to an absolute minimum. The GAL plans were followed nearly to the letter. The woods are Sitka spruce for the top and mahogany for the back and sides, like the originals. This unusual (and unknown type of) Mahogany was substituted for Honduras due to availability, so the results are, in fact, a “custom instrument” – one which many have found attractive. The top is a bit too much on the yellow side; this was an attempt to color the varnish for a more “vintage look” – a request of mine that I may or may not re-visit. The French polish was Arul’s idea, and, depending on his workshop capabilities, something that will continue and improve, or something that we will abandon in the quest for less expense. For the traditional Style 4 appointments, I obtained from a luthier friend some custom Knutsen/Dyer multi-colored purfling which Arul masterfully turned into both rosettes. Some Style 4’s have a single blue ring for the small soundhole – again, many variations have been seen. Similarly, Dyers (like all guitars) are seen with the 4th fret marker at either the 9th or 10th fret. Both seem to have their supporters (I have a “tree-of-life” so I don’t have to choose!).
Tuners: This is a challenge for vintage reproduction instruments. Certainly no one wants to use friction pegs for the subs – in fact, we replace them on nearly all vintage instruments with either Stew-Mac 5-Star or Waverly 4:1 banjo tuners. For this project, I tried Gotoh tuners, which feel even smoother than Waverlys, but are less costly, and have a similar (but more translucent) button. Overall, I am quite pleased with them. The neck tuners, not so much. Believe it or not, replacements for these ultra-common vintage tuners have never been properly addressed. These are the German-made 3-on-a-plate version used by National for their reproduction resonator guitars. Unfortunately, they suck. They work, but are somewhat stiff and inconsistent. As it happens, Stew-Mac has finally created their own 3-on-a-plate tuners! They are simpler (non-engraved, rectangular) but will presumably be of better quality, and fit the vibe of a vintage instrument. As anyone could have told them, demand has been through the roof, and it will be weeks/months before most of us can obtain them. When I do, the purchaser of this instrument can request them as a replacement free of charge, or alternately, decide to live with the current tuners, for which I will send a $40 rebate.
Fit and finish: This one is not quite up to Arul’s standards, so let’s call it a 7. To be fair, I am pushing him for the lowest possible price point, and so keep reminding him to keep it simple and not sweat the details. For example, I had to tell him not to worry about the inside looking beautiful (the Larson’s often left braces un-sanded and rough). He was taking too much time on the quality of the insides; in the future I hope he can provide good, solid workmanship but streamline this as much as possible. More care will be paid to the outside in the future; this one was rushed through a bit to make HGG6 (which it just missed). The photos should show that I am being critical - it's really very nice. Again, the dichotomy is that I want a budget harp guitar - meaning that it cannot possibly have the look, feel and sound of a $8000-15,000 instrument - while Arul naturally takes pride in what he is building. The trick will be to cajole him into building instruments somewhere in-between, resulting in a great, but inexpensive, instrument - that's what my customers are clamoring for. Bottom line: It’s still way better than a Lark in the Morning, and only a couple hundred bucks more!
So how does it compare to Lark in playability and tone? Fret wire was "jumbo" stock Arul had in hand, higher than I prefer, so Stew-Mac med/med has been sent for the next batch. For non-classical players, it is easier to play as it has the standard Dyer nut width and slight radius, not the wider, flat fingerboard of the Lark. Tone is hard to describe! Larks are a bit harsh, wild and wooly, but “pleasingly jangly” and plenty loud with decent basses. Vintage Dyers are often loaded with overtones, sometimes too much. The finest copies and variations offer a sophisticated palette and balance, with medium, controlled overtones. This one sounds like a piano. I mean almost literally. Perhaps due to the resulting neck angle and low saddle, perhaps something else, but it is virtually lacking in overtones. Every note, from lowest sub, to open strings, to any fretted note, sounds the same – clean and “pure.” Separation then, when playing complex chords and bass all at the same time, is incredibly clear. This may not sound quite like a vintage Dyer, but it could very well make a wonderful and unique recording instrument for various styles of music. I don’t think you could get this sound again if you asked for it! It is of course brand new, so will loosen up down the road.
Bottom line: I don’t yet know what we will price the next Arul instrument at, let alone a future supply. I was shooting for 3k, but practically speaking, it’ll have to be somewhere closer to 4k. This one is a grand off just because we know we can do better. Yet it totally kicks the Lark in the Morning version’s butt, and compared to a Lark that has had the necessary fret dress, set-up and tuner upgrades (equivalent to this instrument), our prototype is only a few hundred more. Aesthetics, playability, construction, historical accuracy, you name-it.
Proving that we never sleep, bringing you a new “Harp Guitar Music Budget Model” at a bargain!
- Gregg Miner, the "harp guitar pope"
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