Local pastor plays unique stringed instruments

by Wes Mayer


John Riley sings “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with his Wishnevsky harp guitar. 

Most people know what a harp is — even more are familiar with a guitar. But a harp guitar? What’s that?

Well, John Riley, senior pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church in Newnan, has three of them.

On Monday, Riley gave a special presentation on the antiquated and whimsical instruments at Western Baptist Association pastor’s conference on Jefferson Place. For the presentation, he showed off his rare instruments, told facts about their history and even played and sang songs with each harp guitar.

Riley said he is close to his harp guitars not only because they are unique and rare, but all three were broken when he acquired them, and he spent the time to repair each one. Actually, Riley said all the guitars and stringed instruments he owns, and there are dozens, he either repaired, built or modified in some way.

“This is what I do for fun and relaxation,” Riley said. “So often with ministry, you don’t know if what you’re doing means anything. But when you take something broken, and in the end it sings again, you know you did something.”

A harp guitar is, according to Gregg Miner at www.harpguitars.net — who Riley cited in his presentation’s brochure — “a guitar, in any of its accepted forms, with any number of additional ‘floating’ unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.”

With a harp guitar, the musician switches between strumming the upper open harp strings, which play deeper, resonating tones, and the lower strings along the traditional guitar neck. Riley, a guitarist from age 7, described the harp guitar as challenging and unforgiving to play because while a guitarist is accustomed to about two and a half inches of vertical movement, a harp guitarist must play with nearly 12 inches of vertical movement — if the harp guitarist plucks the wrong harp string, it’s very obvious, Riley said.

“You are literally leaving your comfort zone as a guitar player,” Riley said.

The harp guitar dates back to the late 1800s, when the mandolin was the most popular instrument, Riley said. Some of the first harp guitars were designed by Orville Gibson, the famous luthier — a stringed instrument maker — who became famous for his new, skinnier mandolin design. Gibson had the idea of creating a mandolin orchestra, Riley said, a group of stringed instruments centered around the mandolin — these instruments were a mandola, mandocello, mandobass and a harp guitar.

Riley happens to have a Gibson harp guitar, made in 1914 — which means it turns 100 this year. Because these instruments were so expensive back in the day, pricing around a third of the average American’s annual income, not many were made. Only about 100 still exist today, Riley said.

Riley said he bought his Gibson harp guitar with a missing tail piece, but was fortunately able to recreate it, with some help, using obsidian and artificial tortoise shell. Now, his Gibson harp guitar sounds as good as new, and he performed with it for his first demonstration.

Riley also has a Frank E. Coulter harp guitar from 1922 — which is truly one of a kind. Coulter was known for making stringed instruments special to order in Portland, and also made “odd” instruments. Some of the odd ones were harp guitars, and to date, only five Coulter harp guitars have been rediscovered. Riley has one of them, and out of the five, his is the only one with 12 strings along the guitar neck.

With the Coulter harp guitar, Riley played “The Prisoner’s Song,” one of the oldest country songs written — sometime in the 1920s. Riley said he likes trying to play music from the era when the harp guitars were made, and his Coulter harp guitar was built around the time of hillbilly music, the precursor to country.

Riley’s third harp guitar was custom made by Steven Wishnevsky from Winston-Salem, NC. Even though the guitar is only 14 years old, Riley said Wishnevsky used 100-year-old wood, salvaged from an old grand piano, to build it. Riley likes to show off the harp guitar because it is a more modern harp guitar, and it was built with a more unconventional style.

With the Wishnevsky harp guitar, Riley played the well known, “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” from the George Clooney film, “O Brother Where Art Thou.”

Riley said he would love to come out to any group and give his presentation on his harp guitars — he likes to be more visible as a minister in the community. He said he would especially like to speak at middle schools and high schools, and it’s great to see the kids light up and become interested in music.

“I’m not the world’s best singer, and I’m not the world’s best player,” Riley said, “but I am a great lover of these instruments.”

Those interested in having Riley give his presentation at their school, class, church or other event may contact him at jriley@numail.org or call 770-328-2450. According to his brochure, Riley does not charge for the presentations, but will happily accept contributions for travel expenses. For more information on harp guitars, Riley suggests looking at www.harpguitars.net .

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