Asked Questions about Holloway Harp Guitars
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Harp Guitar F.A.Q.s
All answers, statements and opinions are my own. Some topics apply also to
Dyer-style harp guitars in general.
Q: Is this Holloway Harp Guitars? Are you affiliated with them?
No, this is Harp Guitar Music, run by myself, Gregg Miner. Holloway Harp Guitars is owned by Scott Burwell, which he runs with a staff of various luthier, web, technical and other assistants. Scott is a highly successful skateboard manufacturer/entrepreneur, and an excellent guitarist, with studies and relationships with Will Ackerman, the late Michael Hedges and others. We are friends and like-minded harp guitar fans and connoisseurs. As of yet, there are no Holloway dealers. I am a temporary secondary outlet for making his instruments available to a wider audience (as my two harp guitar sites remain the "lightning rod for all things harp guitar"). He sets my pricing, and we have the same general stock, but offer different customer service (my testimonials). I conduct my harp guitar business and activities part time, as I work during the day as an aerospace engineer (go figure).
Are the Holloways “ready to
go,” or will I need to have any upgrades or set-up work?
I’ve heard feedback from dozens of owners (both my customers and those of Holloway), and opinions have run the gamut.
But here’s a fact: Muriel
Anderson (who now has a Holloway sitting in Europe, Japan and several
around the States) plays them right “out of the box.”
Not only does each one sound great, but she has no problem
with the neck, set-up, tuners, etc. That’s
a heck of a testimonial.
Could they be improved? Of course - what entry-level instrument that you’d find at Guitar Center couldn’t be? But that level of necessity is different for each customer. Professionals have their expensive new Taylors adjusted and set-up; these will obviously warrant similar attention, depending on your playing level. Different batches may be different as well. The current stock (Jan, 2012) has its own subtle to noticeable differences. My recent stock has not been set-up by Holloway, nor by me (and is reflected in the pricing). In my case, I prefer not to do a half-ass job (I haven’t the time or patience for it), and more to the point, I think each customer should have any finessing or upgrades done locally by a guitar tech they trust – based on a multitude of factors related to their personal tastes, touch, technique, tunings, and other goals. I am of course happy to advise and consult where I can.
In this “As Is” case, you are definitely getting what you pay for, but with a couple of caveats.
Firstly, there are dozens of Chinese makes of 6-string acoustic guitars that run the gamut from astounding for the price to unplayable. So, depending on your experience (if any) with such instruments, you may be either blown away by the Holloway, or disappointed. A general rule of thumb is that a Dyer-style harp guitar is twice as costly to build as a comparable 6-string. So it’s not fair to compare every little detail of a Holloway harp guitar to the best imported 6-string of the same price. Compare it instead to a decent 6-string at half the price (and one from China, not other Asian countries, some of which do a superior job in certain features).
Conversely, it remains somewhat of a black art to build a great-sounding harp guitar, yet the Holloway excels in the tone department far beyond its price tag. It surpasses many hand-built instruments at 3-4 times the price. Note that I’m comparing harp guitars with harp guitars, not with 6-string acoustics.
If you want tone and a fully professional instrument set up for your specific playing needs, then I’d highly recommend shopping for a hand-built instrument in the several thousand to 5-digit range (which I usually have in stock at any given time). They’re not only a joy to behold and play, but they’ll typically sound “smoother” and more glorious than an imported Holloway.
Or take advantage of the Holloway’s price to get a jump start on your harp guitar career, and either use “as is” or upgrade and set up as you require. Either way, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
For nit-pickers, read on…
Are the tuners high quality, or will I need to
The tuners on the 2012 models are made in Japan, and are better than the original prototype tuners, which were definitely borderline. I would try them before automatically assuming you need better ones on either the neck or the subs. However, if you have a couple extra hundred dollars, and plan on playing your Holloway (or a vintage Dyer for that matter) either professionally or often, then definitely get a set of Waverlys for both the subs and (if possible) the neck. Understand that no tuners used for Dyer-style sub-basses were designed for them. They are (generally) re-purposed 4:1 tuners intended for small diameter, light gauge banjo strings. Yet they do the job quite well, and most brands will work fine. All brands will require initial and periodic tightening of the outer screw, which the owner can easily do as necessary for the “feel” they prefer. The recent Holloway tuners still need to be tightened very snugly (and the heavier your gauges, the tighter they need to be).
If I decide to change them, what should I use
and how do I do it?
I’ll address subs, then neck:
Sub-basses: Depending on the specific Holloway (or other Dyer-style) harp guitar you end up, you can sometimes replace the subs yourself. Waverlys are favorites (one of mine, as well), though the cam housings are non-concentric (off-center). Those and Stew-Mac 5-Stars (another common choice, even with those big goofy buttons) may be “drop in” replacements. Other brands like Gotoh, the various Czech brands, etc are great, but may have different dimensions. Always check the depth of your headstock and the dimensions of any tuners you’re shopping for. Also note that the shaft, and more specifically, the string hole, may protrude in front to a different degree. Your windings will be below that hole, and the amount of winding will greatly affect the end location as well, so the height of the nut posts should be calculated off this as well (more on nut posts below). Don’t forget that all these tuners were designed for skinny banjo strings, so some will need to be drilled for your string gauges. Again, I’m lazy, so I just do it as needed right on the guitar with a hand drill, using a bit just above the size of the string I plan on installing. Don’t worry, you don’t need much meat (wall thickness) remaining.
Neck: Caution required: Don’t buy tuners before you determine if the original ones can first be removed. Most original Dyers appear to have had their neck tuners installed before attaching the neck. Many new Dyer copies (and probably Holloways) are done the same way. You may or may not be able to get them past the bass headstock (the “cloud”). In the best of cases, you may have to apply pressure to bend the neck and heads apart as far as they’ll flex to get the tuners past. Some will be easier, some will be impossible. A recent Holloway owner reported “The (new) single Grover Sta-Tites fit in on the bass side of the guitar neck with me having to flex the sub-bass peg head by less than 0.010".”
Note that my current offering of 2012 Holloways vary quite a bit in head separation. This is true of vintage Dyers as well – it is a complex puzzle resulting from several factors (mostly that crazy neck joint) that is not fully controllable. Holloway has specifically tweaked the plans a bit to try and keep the neck and bridge more centered while keeping a bit of room between the headstocks. You may wish to request the “widest gap” in stock if you think you’ll want to replace tuners. But the alignment of the two heads along the parallel is even more important – you need clearance behind the bass head. Another owner writes “I took out a good 1/4" groove on the back top edge (of the sub-bass head) in order for the Grover Sta-Tite single to fit on the A tuner spot - and had to shave a bit for the guitar low E also.” Folks, if this sounds horrific, don’t freak out, it’s usually not too noticeable from the front, and, obviously, you’d sand it out. It’s a Dyer design issue, a sort of “necessary evil.” I have seen all sorts of vintage Dyers with chunks carved out of the back or edges of the cloud headstock to either get tuners in and out, or even simply for clearance to allow normal structural changes over time (decades). A better option might be to just leave the neck tuners alone.
Like the subs, decide if your choice includes aesthetics, and what that is (and “modern appearance” vs. “traditional Dyer appearance”). I like a Dyer “copy” to look like a Dyer, so prefer Waverlys, or if on a budget, the new “Vintage tuners” from Stew-Mac, made for slot-head steel-string guitars. There are all sorts of better and smoother tuners, usually individual tuners. Many will work – just check the specs and dimensions.
Is that connecting bracket required?
What does it do? Does
it affect the sound?
Actually, it’s just a silly little leftover from the original Knutsen Symphony harp guitars, which the Larson brothers retained for the Dyers. From a structural standpoint, it’s not a great idea, as in supporting the neck, it may actually twist it over time. There is a long-held myth and ongoing discussion about whether it affects the tone or not, including an observation by Jim Merrill that his original harp guitar for Stephen Bennett required it – that the subs sounded terrible before installing it. I'd have to see the data to believe Jay Buckey's eBay statement that it is "to keep the sub bass arm and neck "in harmonic phase"..." - that's a new one! Personally, I’ve yet to conduct any kind of controlled A/B test to see what tonal effect it has, but suspect it is both negligible and random from instrument to instrument (so yes, feel free to experiment, and let me know!).
What about those bridge pin standoffs for the
I refer to them as “nut posts,” as they are individual posts that act like a string nut. Traditionally, Knutsen used brass screws (the string normally going around the shaft) and Dyer used standard plastic bridge pins. Some builders have done away with nut posts (which necessitates more precise string-winding set-up) after I noted a small, but noticeable, increase in volume and sustain upon removing them from my Knutsen Symphony model (but I left the original plastic posts in my Dyer Style 8, so go figure…it’s all relative). Some builders (like Kathy Wingert and Duane Noble) prefer the longer resulting string length (from no nut posts) as it theoretically supplies a better bass tone (basic physics: use a longer scale and a smaller diameter [light gauge] string for a better engineered scale – especially as you need to switch to double-wound strings at some point). But if a Holloway, why leave empty holes in a nice headstock? For nut posts, I know of no specific A/B comparison experiments: Builders use bone or metal, or different woods (or straight saddles of various material) - so what would work best for a Holloway, or your desired tone, is entirely up to you. Remember that with more volume and more sustain comes more “mud” if you are unable to develop suitable sub-bass muting techniques. The current Holloways appear to be bone, and note that on the current 2012 batch they are too tall and of random (non-uniform) height. Some address this, but it isn’t always necessary: see next:
What height should the nut posts be?
Again, there is a lot of leeway. They should be high enough so that the string has a decent break angle (it doesn’t need much), and to keep the low strings from slapping against the arm if played hard. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter, other than how and if it affects your line-of-sight if you’re a left-hand-finger-watcher (like I am). Your final nut post height depends on at least 5 things: the curve/bend of the arm-to-bass head transition (the “corner” where strings would most likely hit); the height of the hole for the string in the tuner shaft protruding through; the amount of windings below the tuned string protruding out of that hole; the tension (from gauge and pitch) of each string, and hard or soft you play.
Additionally, the slot in the nut post may have to be shaped – depending on all those factors above – if you get any mysterious buzzing. On some Holloways, the Powell brothers got rid of string buzz by filing those slots to mimic the break angle of the string between it and the post. Typically, this isn't needed. Again, all the factors above are part of the set-up puzzle. For all we know, something as simple as changing from a single-wound .060” to a double-wound .070” (say, to explore a different tuning) could necessitate a new set-up tweak. I just found 1 random bass string buzzing on the latest Holloway when I tuned it up. I simply yanked out the post, spun it 180°, pressed it in, and tried again. Played perfect (just the inherent unevenness in the bone's string slot gave me a better seat in this orientation).
Does Holloway use a template to place and drill the tuner holes and the
posts? It could just be angles in pictures, but it seems the placement is
different in both comparing separate Holloways and also in relation to
other builders. As you seem very aware of scale length for different
HGs and the then necessary string tension, I thought you might be quite
aware of this variable - if there indeed is, or is it "just my
I don’t know – I
suspect they do. The current batch looks pretty consistent. Yet,
while you would think that the Larsons would have done so on the Dyers, it
sure doesn’t seem so; their placement of tuners and posts is all over
the place; the only consistency is that the “spread” of the strings at
the head is evenly spaced. And yes, different instruments and
different makers of Dyer “copies” will all be a bit different, whether
intentional or not. In my opinion, other than one’s particular
aesthetic preference, it makes absolutely no difference. Sub-basses
– not being fretted – have a much larger range of usable tension (or,
if you prefer, length, gauge, pitch, etc.). This ranges somewhere
between the very light side, where it will sound “wobbly” or make that
out-of-tune “boing” when you strike it, to the too-heavy side,
so that you can rock out on it, but you’re about at the point where your
guitar will implode. I design my HGM sets (admittedly, an inexact
science) to fall somewhere in the middle, at about 27-28 pounds tension
per string. Yet Andy Wahlberg tunes the 6th sub of his Dyers to F
and has always just used an 0.070”, which, to me, is ridiculously light
(about 20-21 pounds tension). I supply an 0.080, and recommend
0.085-0.090” – but his giant thumb never overdrives his 0.070.
Conversely, Stephen Bennett has over time increased his 6th bass G (a
whole step above Andy’s F) from his original D’Addario 0.070” to a
John Pearse 0.076”- mainly because he wants to be able to drop it 1, 2
or even 3 steps to E. That E sounds a little weak to me, but
otherwise works fine, while the “nominal” G sounds ideal (and can be
hammered if desired) and puts about 30 pounds of tension on his priceless
heirloom Dyer with no ill effects. He and I have even used an
0.080” for that G on occasion. Of course, in the harp guitar
world, each strings their own instrument at their own risk.
The flip side of the
examples above is that you have a good inch of leeway in the length of
your basses with a given gauge string at a given pitch before you have to
give a thought to any tension changes. Your thumb might never even
notice. So it’s hardly worth discussing the small variation
described in the initial question above.
Even more to the point is
that the dynamics of playing the instrument – let alone the differences
between players – makes much of this minutia irrelevant. (How in
the world did Hedges play Because It’s There on a Dyer strung with all
high 050’s?!). I’ll elaborate in the next question.
Q: I see that the new Holloways have a fret wire for the sub-bass saddle. Is this an historical nod, or does it give a marked difference in tone?
“possibly.” The original Dyers used fret wire as saddles for
both the neck and the sub-basses (another holdover from Knutsen).
Amazingly, some of t he original wire neck saddles still intonate
perfectly (like Stephen Bennett’s great-grandfather’s). Most do
not; many need to be both compensated and moved back a ways. So when
the neck saddle is replaced with bone, the question comes up about whether
to change the sub-basses to match – either for tone, visual aesthetics,
or height consistency across the two “banks” of strings. All of
this is simply the players’ (the instrument’s owner’s) preference;
there is no “right” or “wrong.”
This question comes up from
time to time (I am asked often) both by luthiers restoring vintage Dyers,
or those building new knock-offs or variants. There is increasing
discussion about whether a wire saddle will yield better sustain, volume,
clarity, overtones, brightness, bass response, etc. Like the
infamous connecting bracket, and the discussion on nut posts above (or
removing them), my feeling is that this is another random and subjective
(and tedious) physics experiment-in-waiting. (Don’t get me wrong,
I love stuff like this – and hope to hear all of your results)
I have seen and heard all sorts of wire and bone sub-bass saddles on hundreds of Knutsens and Dyers (and modern instruments of various designs). I have to be honest and tell you that (like the bracket), I haven’t done my own controlled experiments. But in my opinion, any differences – for better or worse - are almost certainly dependent on many other factors: your tunings, your particular string tension, location of bridge pins, and construction of bridge, top, bridgeplate, in fact, the whole instrument. And all of that is probably still “in the noise.”
By that I mean that all these very real cause and effects of an instrument’s subtle details and construction – all those addressed above - are merely relative, and are buried in the mud of the true variables: the dynamic performance. In my opinion, the thousand subtle changes you make while plucking, strumming, angle of attack, location along string, force, energy and on and on provide 100 times the amount of perceptible differences than any of those subtle but “measureable” experiments above. This becomes 1000 times more dynamic when you add the differences between players (even on an identical instrument): one plays the basses with the flesh of the thumb, one “plays through” with a long nail, one plays with acrylic thumbpicks with a heavy rest-stroke. So keep it in perspective.
What should the sub-basses be tuned to?
The previous prototype runs of Holloways all came with sub-bass strings meant for “Standard Tuning” (F-G-A-B-C-D), and were fairly accurate to the requested gauges I suggested to Holloway. You should NOT tune those up to “Stephen Bennett Tuning” (any more than you’d buy a 6-string at Guitar Center and try to tune it up a third to try “terz tuning”) – you could ruin your instrument.
When buying any harp guitar, you need to either know what tuning the sub-basses are strung for, or request strings for your sub-bass tuning. Though the options are almost limitless (including creating your own custom tuning), the two most common are Standard Tuning and Stephen Bennett Tuning. Not sure and want to experiment? No problem – just buy the inexpensive D’Addario Bennett set ($14.95) and start there. You can always safely tune strings down to experiment – they will just be a bit loose and “boingy” but will give you an idea of your musical options.
Why does my neck’s low E string go dead?
Actually, no one has yet mentioned this specifically about their Holloway, but I imagine it occurs. This is a more recently noticed phenomenon that several have independently noticed. I long ago observed that my newly-strung Knutsen Symphony and Dyer sounded both fantastic and uniform – especially the problematic transition from low neck string to first sub-bass (the mark of a properly-designed and executed harp guitar in some players’ view, including mine). But after only a couple weeks (or days, if I was playing a lot), the low neck string would go quite dead. The 5th string next to it would be only slightly “old” and that first sub would still be fine. Quite mysterious and aggravating. And inconsistent. Others started to mention it, and not just with Dyers or copies (Jason Carter’s Brunner OHG for example). It seems to be random – so may be dependent on several factors, including overall physical construction, bridge material and angle, string gauge and brand, or perhaps amount of fretting? (as opposed to the adjacent sub of similar gauge, but never fretted) No one seems to know, but it seems to be a weird harp guitar-specific variable. So don’t freak out. Just keep plenty of E strings and change them more often than the others.
Q: I have about a two-finger width bulge on the top, just under the treble side of the bridge, but it has remained constant. I have seen you mention that this seems to be quite expected on most HGs in general.
Hmm, not sure what
comment(s) of mine you’re using for reference. I don’t know that
I’ve seen a treble-side bulge; most (if any) are bass side (anywhere
around the edge of that circular bridge end). And of course, common
“bellying,” which can occur on most any instrument. Whatever it
is, I wouldn’t necessarily panic. I’ve seen some bass-side
bulges and dips in some of the prototype Holloways, but I’ve also seen
the exact same thing in year-old high end instruments by expert builders.
It’s annoying, and can be scary, but as long as it “settles,” is
usually better left alone. What if it’s part of the “magic
ingredient” that gives the instrument its amazing sound? That’s
not to say it shouldn’t be looked at by an experienced luthier.
Some, for example, have put an extra little brace or bridge patch in the
bass area of the occasional Holloway prototype (which may or may not have
been an improvement).
Holloway) are always trying to dial in and fine tune the construction of
the tops of Dyer “copies.” Remember that the GAL plans represent
just one Larson brothers Dyer harp guitar (and an early, 5-bass model).
The Larsons certainly made many small changes to these instruments over
time, or from trial and error. Other than an annoying dip above the
soundhole, which causes the neck to ramp down above the 12th fret, and
intonation problems from top changes, vintage Dyers range anywhere from
amazingly flat to full roller coasters. And – post restoration –
it doesn’t seem to affect the tone, playability or stability.
Frankly, I’ve come to expect bellying behind the bridge on even brand
new harp guitars. If I don’t see it, I suspect the
instrument may be overbuilt. Every Dyer-style builder (and player)
owes it to themselves to pick up their best, most resonant reproduction
instrument, and then pick up a vintage Dyer. They’re half the
weight! (and yes, I’m talking about those with the same
heavier modern tuners installed) IMHO, most new harp guitars are
still being overbuilt.
Before addressing any deformation issues, make sure you’re using appropriate strings for your tuning(s). Don’t assume that any instrument you bought (even from me) has the proper strings on it – unless you have either had a proper dialog with the seller (who should have sufficient expertise) and/or thoroughly educated yourself about your potential tuning and playing plans. Warranties don’t cover a harp guitar strung for standard tuning that you decided to tune to Hedges.
Q: Does the Holloway come with a pick-up? What are my options?
Not at the moment. Holloway continues to experiment with various pick-up systems, and some may be occasionally available, or they will install something for you. I can have something installed for you as well. In fact, I can offer the same upgrade options I used to offer on Lark in the Mornings (set-up, new tuners, pick-ups, etc.), but you can probably have it done faster and better by your own repairperson. I don't currently carry or recommend any pick-up systems, though that may change in the future. Truth be told, I tend to loathe the whole amplification mandate. In fact, a couple years ago, our Harp Guitar Gathering Board decided to implement a microphone-based "acoustic-only" concert as much as possible. Even though everyone plugs in for certain gigs, we became really tired of hearing the world's finest, most gorgeous acoustic instruments sound like generic crap with even the best of P.A. systems and internal electronics. Personally, it amazes me how many players are so fussy about tone - sometimes paying many thousands of dollars for it - then immediately plug in their new Holloway or high end boutique harp guitar, its true nature and beauty seldom to be heard again...
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