c.1918 Gibson Style U Harp Guitar

Well, no, it's not every day or even every lifetime one gets to see one of these old Gib harp guitars up close. This one is owned by a friend of mine and he brought it over for show and tell... and it sounded good then, but I'm glad I convinced him to get a bit of setup work and a fret dress done. This thing is now fantastic.

For those not in the know, harp guitars tend to be a 6-string guitar neck with a number of "sub bass" strings plucked on their own and not fretted to add bass accompaniment to a guitarist's melody playing on the neck. These old Gibson U models date originally to the early 1900s and were an Orville Gibson peculiarity. They happened to be somewhat popular, though, so manufacturing continued on even after he left the business and, to my ears, improved as they went along.

Like all high-end Gibsons of the time, this instrument is a carved-top and carved-back build and, just from the guitar part of the instrument's voice, sounds like a nice hand-carved archtop with a big body: bold, punchy, loud as heck, and with very good fundamentals and sustain.

The harp section is not as meaty as other harp guitar makes, and that's mostly I think because the archtop build doesn't favor bass as much as it does midrange cut. It's also a little more confusing to play compared to something like a Knutsen or Larson due to having so many darn strings to keep track of.

While there's evidence of past regluing here and there on the instrument, it only has two repaired hairline cracks -- one on the upper bout below the pickguard and one to the bass side of the bridge. I'm actually amazed at how structurally stable this instrument is. It's pretty "rock steady." The giant support bars running up the bass and treble side inside the body must help, though, too!

My work included shaving the bridge for the guitar neck side and also a fret level/dress, setup, and cleaning.

Did I mention that the redburst finish is gorgeous?

Dyed-black headstock veneer with pearl script Gibson logo. Some of the extra ornamentation has been lost over time, unfortunately.

 These are like modified Grover Champion banjo pegs but tune on the back with a dulcimer tuner.

Bound ebony fretboard, pearl dots.

The scroll is lovely!

The soundhole rosette is both fancy and restrained at the same time.

The ebony/maple bridge is really cool.

Do you see how the bridge is cut out on the guitar side for improved tone? Also do you see how the angle to the top of the bridge dips after the sub-bass strings? At some point an owner filed deep slots for the guitar strings to lower the action, which is fine, since the instrument seems to have settled. It looks pretty sloppy, though, so I removed some material and fine-tuned the slots to make it look a little more natural (and also improve the action).

Giant double tailpiece.

The string anchor appears to be entirely made from celluloid. Cool!

The pickguard bracket holders, of course, needed to be re-bent slightly so they held better. Note that the guitar is bound on the top, back, fretboard, and soundhole.

Woods appear to be spruce for the top and birch for the back and sides. The neck(s) look like mahogany.

It's such a pretty instrument. When it was built, it was both extremely modern but also extremely antique in the sense that it functions in the same way as old harp-lutes. The scroll and general cut of the body are pretty magical, though.

Customers who were wandering through the shop today couldn't help but be drawn to it while I was working on it.

The beauty is followed up on the back, too.

Nice original tuners with ivoroid knobs.

Rear of the simple modified Champion-style friction pegs.

The little "crease" at the heel is elegant.

I added a new ebony endpin as the original was missing.

Heh, heh -- and an original hard case, too.

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