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  • PARTCHed - May 2019

    ~ A tale of obsession ~
    by John Schneider

    Part V: Adapted Guitar II

    By 1998, I had decided that there was no turning back (see Part IV), as the search for a deeper understanding of Partch’s music had already begun in earnest. With the successful construction of the Adapted Guitar I, followed by performances, a recording, and very enthusiastic audience response, I felt absolutely compelled to continue down that path. I wanted more… But what next? Of course!

    There were at least three different guitars in Partch’s history, and I had only explored one. Having finally decided that I must reconstruct the 10-string Adapted Guitar II, I was facing all sorts of hurdles. So many questions! It turns out that Genesis of a Music, Partch’s essential book first published in 1949 with a second expanded Edition in 1972, not only serves as an extraordinary music theory primer, hidden history of music, and autobiography— it’s also a cookbook. The ingredients needed to recreate his marvelous instruments can be found in those pages: tantalizing recipes with most of the details intact, though certainly not all, as I was about to find out. Luckily, Partch supplied a photograph for each instrument, and the Adapted Guitar II was no exception.

    Sure enough, the exotic fingerboard was there all right, with what was basically a wooden ruler on the treble side that was evidently covered with the ratios of just intonation. But they were completely illegible. AND the fingerboard itself was with covered with an amazing pattern what were supposed to be colored triangles, according to the written description. But it was a black and white photo! Sigh. I would just have to visit the original.

    That would have been a lot easier back when I first met the instruments in 1977, when they were still living in San Diego under the supervision of Danlee Mitchell, Partch’s assistant for the last twenty years of his life. But now they were back East and in the care of Dean Drummond and his group Newband, who had been performing and recording with them since their arrival for a spectacular performance of Revelation in the Courthouse Park at Philadelphia’s American Music Theatre Festival in 1987 (recorded on Tomato Records TOM 3004). Sadly, I didn’t have the budget or time to make the necessary pilgrimage east to examine those mysterious colored triangles, but luckily, I happened upon this announcement:

    Newband presents “Harry Partch and His Legacy”
    Thursday, Sept. 23, 1999 at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center;

    Tickets are $13-15. Partch instruments will be on display Sept. 21-23

    Now that I could manage, Yerba Buena being in San Francisco. So I booked a flight, bought a ticket, and wrote to Dean to arrange some private time with the instruments before the performance.

    My, what a strange instrument this was! Originally a 6-string Oahu brand ‘squareneck’ Hawaiian guitar, this version had ten strings, and the craziest headstock I’d ever seen. When Partch adapts an instrument, it seems like everything changes. In order to add those four extra strings, he attached a set of four connected mandolin tuners to the top of the newly designed tuning head, and made a custom bridge and nut that were much wider than the original, suspending two bass strings and two treble strings over either side of the original fingerboard. And then, there were those triangles:

    So I took lots of pictures and measurements, bringing them home to figure out what it was all about.

    As Partch had discussed in Genesis, the triangles are colored to correspond with the Chromelodeon Color Analogy, assigning the six different colors of the rainbow spectrum to each of the six harmonic overtones of his just intonation Hexads:

    1………… = root, or fundamental
    3………… = 3rd harmonic above the fundamental = perfect 5th
    5…………..yellow = 5th harmonic above the fundamental = Major 3rd
    7………… = 7th harmonic above the fundamental = minor 7th
    9………… = 9th harmonic above the fundamental = Major 9th
    11…………orange = 11th harmonic above the fundamental = Octave + tritone

    Ratios would be represented by two colors, since an interval is the relationship between two different pitches. The pure Major 3 rd G-B, for example, is described numerically by the ratio 5/4, which is the distance between the 5 th harmonic and the 4th . The 4th harmonic is the G two octaves above the fundamental, and would be represented by RED, while the 5th harmonic is the B a major third above that, represented by YELLOW. Thus, to find a 5/4 on a particular string, the guitarist slides the plexiglass rod to the base of a triangle that is colored YELLOW/RED. Suddenly, it all made sense, as the actual colors were the Rosetta Stone that made the possibility of making an accurate copy the instrument a reality.

    But why there were two continuous lines of Isosceles triangles, touching apex to base all the way from the nut to the soundhole? And why were the patterns different? There was only one set of ratios on the ‘ruler,’ which were in the correct order, but they only corresponded to some of the note/triangles in the lower row, not the upper! (Guess I’ll have to ask Partch next time I see him, since Genesis certainly never said why.) What the heck: just copy them, and figure that out later.

    Next question: what instrument should I use? I suppose I could try to find a 1930’s Oahu (they were actually manufactured by Kay guitars for the Oahu Publishing Company of Cleveland, Ohio that was riding the huge wave of Hawaiian music’s popularity). Partch’s creative tuning head would be a challenge to make, but not insurmountable. But I remembered the instrument being very hard to handle because of those extra strings hanging over both sides of the neck, the exact place a player hands onto when carrying the guitar on & off stage, let alone removing it from its case. Hmmm its case…the original had no case, and maybe that’s why! Very impractical.

    Ten strings, eh? Wait a minute, there already exist 10-string lap steel guitars that are played in exactly the same way. Perhaps there are acoustic versions? Nope—very rare, so that’s out. 10-string Pedal or Lap steel guitars I could find, but they were all solid body electrics: the sound would be all wrong another dead end. So instead making a ten-stringer by adding four strings to a six string guitar (6+4=10), I decided to go the other way: get a twelve string guitar, and take two strings off (12-2=10), and that would also fit in a premade guitar case. 

    Gee, I've always wanted to have a Martin guitar.....

    Stay tuned for Part 6 - “Hello ebay…!”