Never heard of this instrument
March 20, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
I began playing the bass at eighteen. When I was thirty, I became a music journalist, a job I held for ten years. My brother Pat Wictor is a professional folk singer. From 2002 until 2012 I didn’t listen to music because it was too painful, representing the loss of all that I loved. Still, that left forty years of life, yet I’d never heard of this instrument.
It’s a harp guitar. The photo belongs to Scott Wylie and shows an Austro-Hungarian soldier playing in his barracks in Bosnia-Herzegovina; the postcard was sent October 4, 1911.
When I first saw the photo, I thought it was a double-necked guitar. As a fan of Jonas Hellborg, I knew about double-necked guitars and basses.
A harp guitar isn’t a double-necked instrument, I learned. The top neck is for resonating strings. The player uses the classical finger-style picking and strums the resonating strings with his or her thumb. Until just a few days ago, I had no idea that this instrument existed. Here’s a great video on the history of harp guitars, put out by Retrofret Vintage Guitars.
I love new information. It’s amazing to me that I was completely unaware of this class of guitar. If you look up harp guitars on YouTube, you’ll see lots of instruments shaped like this.
Though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I thought those were just showoff guitars. As a former bassist, I saw plenty of ridiculous, totally impractical instruments that manufacturers said would be the next big thing or players used to draw attention themselves. The swooping, modern-art-sculpture harp guitars didn’t seem like “real” instruments to me, so I ignored them.
My prejudice cost me. Not only did I miss out on good music, I blanked off a whole area of knowledge. During a February 2002 press briefing, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld extemporized a very memorable quote.
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.
In my defense the harp guitar was an unknown unknown. I honestly had no idea that the instrument existed. When I saw those flashy, bird-in-flight versions in the hands of present-day players, I curled my lip. They weren’t legitimate.
Stupid of me.
Blame it on my loathing of drawing attention to myself. Yes, I’ve been called an attention whore. The reality is that I prefer anonymity. If I hadn’t spent ten years at Bass Player, I would’ve begun writing under a pseudonym. Tim told me that I should’ve chosen a woman’s name. I even had one in mind: Gwen Durusoy. That was the female love interest in my thinly disguised, unpublishable autobiography The Mermaid Lamp. My sister Carrie Gonzales said she’d pretend to be Gwen and do interviews for me.
I worried about her, though. People absolutely hate my guts for what I write. I attract crazies. Carrie’s husband Bobby is former US Army, and he owns several large-caliber weapons. Still, I felt that I couldn’t endanger them just because I abhor attention. So I put on my big-boy pants and used my own name. Fate was merciful and gave me Meniere’s disease, which prevents me from making appearances.
It was a massively lucky break. I’ll tell you a secret: I always had a premonition that I’d be shot to death at a book signing. It was very specific. I’d see the man in line, looking nervous and sweaty. He was a skinny young guy with lank hair and a sparse black mustache, and he’d have a bulge in his jacket. I’d be frozen, in the rabbit trance. When he got to the table, we’d stare at each other, both aware of what was about to happen.
He’d fumble the gun from his pocket, breaking the spell. I’d jump to my feet and overturn the table to try and foil his aim, but he’d jump back and shoot me twice in the chest. I’d fall down, and he’d walk over and put the gun in my face.
“Enjoy hell, fucker,” he’d say with a smile, and then he’d shoot me in the mouth. It’d be like a horse kicking me in the head. I’d see a bright flash, followed by blackness.
So now you know why I view being housebound as a blessing. The funny thing is, I’m no longer afraid of dying. I could do book tours without fear. And if someone shot me to death, it would just mean tons of sales. Given the prevalence of phone cameras, my murder would likely become legendary footage. If I saw someone filming me before the final bullet went into my gob, I’d do this.
And I would’ve told Tim and Eric that I want a harp guitar played at my funeral, which would be held here, where Carmen and I collected sea glass and polished stones.
Tim and Eric would toss my ashes into the inlet, and I’d be washed into the ocean, settling over the sea glass and polished stones that were still making their way toward shore.
No PTSD, Meniere’s disease, brain fog, or painful memories at the beginning of the next cycle. What’s not to love?
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