partch's guitars

Partch's first Adapted Guitar 1 was a used 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 – he departed the United States for London to study (amongst other things) 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). This produced a justly tuned augmented chord, from low to high: 8/5 (Eb) – 1/1 (G) – 5/4 (B). As with the majority of the composer's 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 later become known for. 

In the rarer first edition of his book Genesis Of A Music [1949] Partch wrote regarding the first Adapted Guitar 1 that “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 specific 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].

In early 1945, whilst at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Partch developed a fretless, electrified version (with two pickups!) of the first, acoustic Adapted Guitar 1. This new instrument was most likely originally a late 1930's National "Spanish Electric" archtop guitar, which which would soon acquire a more evocative nickname: the "New Yorker". Partch would go on to insert pinheads and brass rivets into this guitar's fingerboard to delineate an even greater number of microtonal pitches. Somewhat confusingly, this now three-stringed instrument was also given the name "Adapted Guitar 1", and was tuned exactly like its predecessor. The composer used this guitar up until at least 1954, but in only a handful of pieces - the 1946 recording of the second version of U.S. Highball, Vanity from the Eleven Intrusions [1950], the revised version of Letter from Hobo Pablo [1949/1950], the second version of The Letter [1950], and the draft score of the 1954 version of Barstow. It was temporarily left with friends in Sausalito in 1956 and regrettably lost.

In late 1945 or early 1946 - again in Madison, 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 at some point between 1935 and 1939. It was first used in his collection of pieces known as the Eleven Intrusions [1950], as well as Sonata Dementia [1951], the speech-drama King Oedipus [1951], and 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 the composer 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 added for the 1967 revision of Even Wild Horses [1952]. This guitar was first used in the pieces Lover, Soldiers/War/Another War, Vanity and Cloud Chamber Music, which were 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 late 2013) differs from Partch's original in that its body is of the larger 'dreadnought' type, which increases bass resonance and projection. In its former equal-tempered life, it was a 1977 Japanese-made Takamine F-340, itself a clone of a Martin D-28. In addition to the frets required to perform the pieces originally composed for the instrument, my replica also has a number of additional frets, enabling 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, and 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 copy as was practically possible at the time it was originally developed in 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 required string configuration on Partch's instrument.

My copy of Adapted Guitar 3 (on the right in the above image) was also developed in 2017. Again it 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 my Adapted Guitar 1, Adapted Guitar 2 and its pickup, and the pickup installation on Adapted Guitar 3 was generously provided by Scordatura Ensemble as part of their "Rose Petal Jam" and "Tonality Flux" projects during 2016-2017 and 2020-2023. All of my Adapted Guitar replicas 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.

Image credits:

1) Harry Partch with the original, first Adapted Guitar 1 in his attic room in 1943 at 329 West Seneca Street, Ithaca New York. Courtesy of the Agnes Albert Collection of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
2) The original Adapted Guitar 2 (left) and the second, electric Adapted Guitar 1. Photograph taken in 1946 by Arthur M. Vinje. Courtesy of the Wisconsin University Archives.
3) Partch playing the original Adapted Guitar 2, most likely in Chicago in 1958. Courtesy of the Harry Partch Estate Archive, San Diego.
4) Partch playing the original Adapted Guitar 3, same location and date as above. Courtesy of the Harry Partch Estate Archive, San Diego.
5) Closeup of the neck of my replica of the first Adapted Guitar 1 (London, 2021).
6) My replica of Adapted Guitar 1 at the time of its final refretting (Melbourne, 2017).
7) Closeup of the neck and headstock of my replica of Adapted Guitar 2 (London, 2021).
8) My replicas of the first Adapted Guitar 1 (left) and Adapted Guitar 3 (right), taken in a hotel room in Bern, Switzerland in January 2023.
9) All three of my replicas of Partch's Adapted Guitars (Amsterdam, 2021).