partch's guitars

[Harry Partch playing his first Adapted Guitar no.1 c.1941. Photograph courtesy of the Harry Partch Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]


Partch's first Adapted Guitar no.1 was a 1927 Martin O-18K parlor guitar that he purchased in New York in 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. He gradually developed the fretting on this guitar until about 1942, adding frets as new pieces were written and new pitches were required. He replaced the usual low, wire-style frets with high stainless-steel ones fitted into slots in a brass plate, which was screwed onto the neck. The six strings 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: Eb – G – B.

Partch wrote: “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 guitar to perform the first versions of Barstow [1941], U.S. Highball [1943], December, 1942 [1942] and Letter from Hobo Pablo [1943].

In 1945, whilst at the University of Madison in Wisconsin, he replaced this instrument with a fretless electrified archtop guitar, with pinheads and brass rivets delineating an even greater number of microtonal pitches. This three-stringed instrument was also named Adapted Guitar no.1, and tuned exactly like its acoustic predecessor. It was used up until about 1956 in a handful of pieces - Vanity and 'version B' of The Letter [1950], as well as the 1945 recordings of Barstow and U.S. Highball - at which point it was left with friends in Northern California and regrettably lost.

Also in 1945, Partch developed his Adapted Guitar no.2, a ten-string acoustic lap steel guitar played Hawaiian-style, with a brass [later, Pyrex] rod to make gliding pitches possible. This guitar was first used in his Eleven Intrusions [1949/1950] and King Oedipus [1951]as well as many of the later large-scale ensemble works such as Delusion Of The Fury [1969]. It was tuned in various configurations as the works required. 

Partch’s final guitar was actually a reworking of his very first guitar. At some point in the late 1940's he removed the frets of his original Adapted Guitar no.1, painted the fingerboard in bold colours, and converted it too into a lap steel guitar, renaming it Adapted Guitar no.3. All of this instrument’s strings were tuned to unisons or octaves of G [his fundamental tone, 1/1], and this guitar was used right up until his very last work The Dreamer That Remains, which Partch composed in 1972 for the film of the same name.

My replica of Adapted Guitar no.1 differs from the original in that the body is of the larger 'dreadnought' type, which increases bass resonance and projection [in its former life, it was a 1977 Japanese-made Takamine 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], as well as assist me with microtonal vocal pitching. 

Apart from narrower string spacing, and a slightly different visual approach to mapping out the multitude of pitches required on Adapted Guitar no.2's fretboard, my replica of this instrument is as faithful a replica as was practically possible. Partch's original instrument was a 1940's Oahu squareneck 6-string Hawaiian guitar, to which he added four extra strings. I decided to approach the process from the opposite direction, removing two strings from a 12-string acoustic guitar [originally a 1976 Japanese Takamine].

My copy of Adapted Guitar no.3 again has a  'dreadnought' Martin D-28 body type, 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 Adapted Guitar no.2's fretboard. 

Fret layout, required microtonal pitches and string configurations and tunings 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 was done by James Mumford of Mumford Guitars. The microtonal indications on Adapted Guitar no.2 and Adapted Guitar no.3 were painstakingly done by Tess E. McKenzie. Financial support for the additional fretwork on Adapted Guitar no.1 and the replica of Adapted Guitar no.2 and its pickup was generously provided by Scordatura Ensemble as part of their Rose Petal Jam project.


[My replicas of Partch's Adapted Guitar no.1 and Adapted Guitar no.2, before a Paris concert, October 2017. Photograph by Emmanuel Ferand]

[My replica of Partch's first Adapted Guitar no.1, photographed by Tess E. McKenzie in Melbourne in 2017]

[The same guitar, with slightly fewer frets. London, 2015]

[Partch playing his Adapted Guitar no.2, possibly in the 1950's. Photograph courtesy of the Harry Partch Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

[Partch playing his Adapted Guitar no.3, possibly in the 1950's. Photograph courtesy of Elisabeth Smalt]

[Playing my replica of Adapted Guitar no.3 at souncheck for a concert in The Hague, April 2018. Photograph by Alex Schroder]