From Sognefjord to Sandpoint to Shanghai
Harp guitars make connections across two oceans for Norwegian Americans from Idaho
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
Harp guitars, largely credited to Norwegian immigrant Chris Knutsen from Sognefjord, and a century later hand-crafted in Sandpoint, Idaho, by two brothers of Norwegian heritage, now are also gaining a presence in China where the Powell brothers recently completed a 10-city music tour.
It’s been a circuitous route, not just for Knutsen, but also for Anthony and David Powell, first featured in this newspaper in November 2014 (“From freedom tree to harp guitar,”).
Chris Knutsen came of age in North Dakota, moved to Port Townsend, Washington, in 1895, and developed a prototype for a harp guitar, acquiring patents in the U.S., England, and Canada. After his death in 1930, Knutsen’s legacy faded for some time, but early in the 21st century, the Powell brothers became the first to produce harp guitars on U.S. soil in nearly 100 years.
Like Knutsen, they have Norwegian heritage and ties to North Dakota and are at the forefront of harp guitar development. Their recent milestones include completing their 100th harp guitar.
Among those many instruments is a replica of Knutsen’s harp guitar and a special one commissioned by guitarist Leon Atkinson, a Julliard Music School graduate who presently lives in Sandpoint and is featured on the Powells’ new CD.
More than a decade ago, Dave Powell spotted a harp guitar at Vintage Guitars, Post Falls, Idaho. It wasn’t for sale, but the owner allowed him to play it; Dave was hooked so he asked his brother Tony to build one. That first effort is strictly a wall ornament now, but several years later Tony renewed his efforts, constructing two more.
The next step forward seemed like two back. They met someone at a Nashville conference who had been importing harp guitars from China and also wanted to build them in the U.S. But after fulfilling a three-month contract in Los Angeles for this businessman, he decided against U.S.-built harp guitars, leaving Dave and Tony out of his loop.
Undaunted, the brothers chose to focus on two key realizations from that apparent sidetrack: a market exists for harp guitars, and the two of them make a good team. From these truths, Tonedevil Guitars was born.
The last three years have been busy ones for the Powells. Where once they struggled to complete 25 instruments in a year, they now find themselves stringing one on a weekly basis.
Built from cedar or Engelmann Spruce, Tonedevil guitars feature local wood from the Idaho Panhandle. The instruments’ unusual shape requires trees with tremendous girth. A harp guitar has a long, hollow arm and merges the body of a six-string guitar with the bass strings of a harp, enabling a multiplicity of sounds.
A year ago the brothers had a meeting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., at the corporate headquarters of the biggest guitar store chain in America, Guitar Center Stores, which also owns Musician’s Friend, an online sales center. From this meeting emerged the possibility of Tonedevil’s guitars being added to these lines. Negotiations are still being finalized.
Another landmark event of 2017 is the completion of a new CD, Livin’ and Lovin’, by the Tonedevil Brothers and the Fiddlers Three. The latter consists of a trio of A’s: Andrew, Arvid, and Avery. At least two of the three have some Scandinavian heritage. Arvid Lundin is a Swedish-Norwegian mix and is quite devoted to the Hardanger Fiddle, even traveling to Norway to learn more before making his own. Avery Anderson also has some Scandinavian background. (How else would you explain a brother named Leif?) Andrew Wilson is Fiddler #3.
The 15 songs on the CD include eight numbers composed by the Powell brothers: four by David, three by Tony, and one where they both collaborated with a lifelong friend. Leon Atkinson is featured in their rendition of “Sixteen Tons.” In contrast, “The Norwegian Table Prayer,” a tune from A.D. 1551, is also included.
Finished just one week before the China trip, this CD played a promotional role during the 10-city tour which included Shanghai, Beijing, Changsha, and Wuhan. Their first 100 copies of the new CD sold in China.
So how did China get in the loop again? A Chinese businessman named Weifeng who likes fingerstyle harp guitar music started a blog and website, fingerstyleChina.com, attracting 200,000 Chinese subscribers, making a profitable business, and helping others start stores. He also promoted tours for American artists.
Fingerstyle primarily uses the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers for strumming, allowing more varied and resonant tones as opposed to the flat pick style where a piece of solid material is used to pluck the strings. The latter is currently more popular in the U.S., especially with electric guitars.
And contact with the Powell brothers? As often happens in today’s world, it was through the internet. Their communication led to a face-to-face meeting earlier this year. When Weifeng and his business partners began their West Coast tour of potential harp guitar builders, they began at the Tonedevil shop.
Agreements began forming at that time, and in May Dave and Tony took their first trip to China, demonstrating their harp guitar, playing music, and selling CDs.
Skepticism was initially paramount in the minds of the brothers when they contemplated their hard-won harp guitar mass-produced in China. But when they were presented with a prototype at the Chinese factory, many of these doubts vanished. Built from pictures and a somewhat different design, the Chinese version sounded much like their own harp guitars.
Heading the Powells’ list for the immediate future is completing the renovation of their shop to improve assembly line procedure for faster production and better quality. Part of this redo involved construction of a two-room recording studio. Their insulation was also upgraded and a guitar gallery created where they can be kept clean and away from tools.
This fall they will be attending the annual Harp Guitar Gathering in Carlsbad, Calif., where there is also a Museum of Making Music.
Demand for their harp guitars has already increased based on their association with Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center Stores. They will be doing a tour of selected stores across the nation, promoting their guitars and their CDs.
A workbook for learning to play the harp guitar is also in the planning stages for the Chinese market. With the vast opportunity there, the Tonedevil Brothers may want to consider naming it Volume I.
To hear CD clips or learn more about the Tonedevil Brothers, visit www.tonedevilharpguitars.com.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.