partch's guitars

Harry Partch playing his first Adapted Guitar 1 in Ithaca, New York, 1943. 
Courtesy of the Harry Partch Estate Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Partch's first Adapted Guitar 1 was a 1928 Martin O-18K parlor guitar that he purchased in New York in August of 1934. Shortly afterwards – with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation – Partch departed the United States for London to study the history of intonation at the British Museum. Up until 1942 or 1943 he gradually developed the fingerboard layout on this guitar, adding more frets as new pieces were composed and new pitches were required. He replaced the usual low, wire-style frets on the original instrument with high stainless-steel ones, fitted into slots in a brass plate, which was then screwed onto the neck. The six strings of this guitar were tuned in three pairs of octaves, separated by the interval of a just major third around Partch's fundamental tone 1/1 [G] - producing a justly tuned augmented chord (from low to high): 8/5 [Eb] – 1/1 [G] – 5/4 [B]. Like many of his later instruments, this first Adapted Guitar 1 did not actually contain all of the ratios in the forty-three-note-to-the-octave scale that Partch would become known for.

Partch wrote in the first edition of his book Genesis Of A Music: “the instrument is played more like a mandolin than a guitar, but its low range of pitch and 2/1 [octave] pairs contribute to a result that is unlike either." He used this particular guitar to perform the first three versions of Barstow [1941/42/43], the first two versions of U.S. Highball [1943], December, 1942 [1942] and Letter from Hobo Pablo [1943].

Adapted Guitar 2 (left) and the second, electric Adapted Guitar 1 (right), circa 1945. 
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives. Photograph by Arthur M. Vinje.

In early 1945, whilst at the University of Madison in Wisconsin, he developed a fretless, electrified version [with two pickups!] of the first, acoustic Adapted Guitar 1. This instrument was most likely originally a late 1930's National 'Electric Spanish' archtop guitar. Partch would go on to insert pinheads and brass rivets into this guitar's fingerboard to delineate an even greater number of microtonal pitches. This now three-stringed instrument was also given the title Adapted Guitar 1, and was tuned exactly like its predecessor. It was used up until at least 1954 in a handful of pieces - the 1946 recording of U.S. Highball, Vanity from the Eleven Intrusions [1950], the revised version of Letter from Hobo Pablo, the second version of The Letter [1950], and is present in the draft score of the 1954 version of Barstow. It was temporarily left with friends in Sausalito in 1956 and regrettably lost.

In 1946 - again in Wisconsin - Partch developed Adapted Guitar 2, a ten-string acoustic lap steel guitar played Hawaiian-style, with a brass [later Pyrex] rod to make gliding pitches possible. Originally a six-string Regal Oahu model (also marketed under the Kahlua and Associated Teachers brands) to which the composer added four strings, this guitar was manufactured somewhere between 1935 and 1939. It was first used in the Eleven Intrusions [1950], Sonata Dementia [1951] and Partch's speech-drama King Oedipus [1951], but also in many of the composer's later large-scale ensemble works such as Delusion Of The Fury [1966]. It was tuned in various configurations as required, and at some point in 1951 was also fitted with an electronic pickup.

Partch’s final adapted guitar was actually a reworking of his very first one. At some point in 1950 he removed the frets of his original, acoustic Adapted Guitar 1, painted its fingerboard in bold colours, and converted it into a lap steel guitar, renaming it Adapted Guitar 3. All of this instrument’s strings were originally tuned to unisons or octaves of G [his fundamental tone, 1/1] - with the exception of a small part in the 1967 revision of Even Wild Horses [1952]. It was first used in the pieces Lover, Soldiers/War/Another War, Vanity and Cloud Chamber Music [all composed in 1950]. It is also present in the score to the 1954 version of Barstow, as well as in the composer's final completed composition, The Dreamer That Remains, which was written in 1972 for the film of the same name.


My replica of Adapted Guitar 1 [initially developed in 2013] differs from the original in that its body is of the larger 'dreadnought' type, which increases bass resonance and projection [in its former life, it was a 1977 Japanese-made Takamine F-340, a Martin D-28 clone]. In addition to the frets required to perform the pieces originally composed for the instrument, it also has a number of additional frets, which allow me to perform works originally conceived for other Partch instruments [such as the Adapted Viola and Harmonic Canon II]. These extra frets also assist me with microtonal vocal pitching. These were added on three separate occasions between 2014 and 2017.

Apart from its narrower string spacing, and a slightly different visual approach to mapping out the multitude of pitches required on its fretboard, my replica of Adapted Guitar 2 is as faithful a replica as was practically possible at the time it was originally developed [2017]. Approaching the composer's original adaptation process from the opposite direction, I decided instead to remove two strings from a 12-string acoustic guitar [originally a 1976 Japanese Takamine F-400] in order to achieve the instrument's required string configuration.

My copy of Adapted Guitar 3 [2017] again has a 'dreadnought' Martin D-28 body type [in this case a 1981 Takamine F-340 model], unlike the smaller "parlor guitar" size of the original. I also took a slightly different approach to the layout of the microtonal pitches for this instrument, echoing the aesthetic approach to the fretboard employed on my replica of Adapted Guitar 2


Fret layout, string configurations, open string tunings and the microtonal pitches required for particular Partch compositions were calculated through a long process of historical research, consultations with Partch scholars around the world, and reverse engineering the relevant original scores. The fretwork and various structural modifications of the original instruments were done by James Mumford of Mumford Guitars in Warrnambool, Australia. The microtonal fingerboard indications on Adapted Guitar 2 and Adapted Guitar 3 were painstakingly measured, affixed and annotated by Tess E. McKenzie. Financial support for the additional fretwork on Adapted Guitar 1 and the replica of Adapted Guitar 2 and its pickup was generously provided by Scordatura Ensemble as part of their 'Rose Petal Jam' project during 2016-17. All of my Adapted Guitar replica are fitted with K&K pickups. My Adapted Guitar 2 is played with a replica Pyrex and oak tone bar made by David Lavis in Bath, United Kingdom. Adapted Guitar 3 is played with either this aforementioned bar, a Shubb Long Dawg stainless steel bar, or a solid brass bar made by Woodshed Capos in Essex in the United Kingdom. All strings are Elixir Nanoweb.


Below: My replicas of Adapted Guitar 2 (left) and the first Adapted Guitar 1 (right), Paris, October 2017. 
Photograph by Emmanuel Ferand.

Below: My replica of Partch's first Adapted Guitar 1, Amsterdam, October 2018

Above: Partch playing Adapted Guitar 2, circa 1957. 
Courtesy of the Harry Partch Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Above: Partch playing Adapted Guitar 3, circa 1957. 
Courtesy of the Bob Gilmore Archives/Elisabeth Smalt.

Above: Performing with my replica of Adapted Guitar 3The Hague, April 2018. 
Photograph by Alex Schroder.

Above: Adapted Guitar 1, 2 and 3 [left to right], London, June 2019.