Four years ago, Andrew Kasab brought home a pair of cheap acoustic guitars. In fact, one was so damaged that it was free—a gift from Music & Arts, the instrument retail store where Kasab has taught since moving to the Triangle in 2003. He purchased the other for a pittance.
Kasab is a guitar teacher, not a luthier or a carpenter. Still, he cut the neck from the broken instrument and grafted it onto its mate, adding a set of six heavy strings above the guitar's regular set. His Frankensteined creation was his first harp guitar, the odd instrument that's quickly become his calling card on local stages.
"Taking a circular saw to an acoustic guitar is pretty entertaining. You cut it in half, and you're like, 'Oooo! Look at the guts,'" says Kasab. "I really love the low tones. I like the high tones. I like this varied open tuning. And I like the different ideas that you can get with fingerpicking. That's where I ended up putting together a junker harp guitar."
Raised in Maryland, Kasab bounced between various locales before settling in North Carolina a decade ago. His musical mind was restless, too, seeing him through stints with acts that ranged from folk and blues to jazz fusion. Shortly after his move, he refocused on the solo acoustic performances he'd started with in 1985. Burnt out by band drama, he sought a way to expand his sound without incorporating additional players. He became fascinated with the tangled, tantalizing styles of progressive instrumentalists such as Leo Kottke and Keller Williams. He soon discovered the harp guitar, a rare instrument that expands upon a normal acoustic body with six heavier strings spread wide in the way of a harp.
"As I was conversing with my wife about it, I was like, 'Should I just get it?'" Kasab remembers, laughing. "'No, you're not going to just go out and buy a $1,000 instrument just to see if you like it.' So I ended up making it, and I think it was $200 or less to do this makeshift thing."
It worked, too. Kasab finally purchased a proper harp guitar in 2011 for about $1,500. And now, his gig calendar overflows with dates. Last weekend, for instance, he scheduled three shows; this week, he will perform twice. Kasab happily attributes this to the curious nature of his guitar, but it's not his only strength.
His arrangements for the harp guitar are incredibly vibrant, with nimble plucks creating intricate patterns as savvy bass lines add gravity beneath limber melodies. When he reaches for a typical six-string guitar, his blues numbers are fiery and precise.
He's also a charming performer: During a recent appearance at Roost, a beer garden in Pittsboro's Fearrington Village, he elicited as many chuckles for his banter as he did claps for his playing. During a break, he visited every table, handing out stickers and chatting with his audience.
"It really has broken through a lot of those superficial ideas of, 'Oh, this is an acoustic guy,'" Kasab says. "I'll go in and play places, and it's very different from what a lot of people have ever seen. You're not going to see a whole lot of people playing harp guitar. You're just not."
Influences: Michael Hedges, William Eaton, Leo Kottke, Keller Williams
Known for: Lush and lively acoustic melodies, made more robust by the bass tones of his prototype harp guitar
HOLLOWAY HARP GUITAR
Kasab plays a 2011 prototype harp guitar, made by an Idaho man named Scott Burwell. "He's an accomplished harp guitarist himself. He was also a luthier, so he decided he was going to start up a company making only harp guitars. He cranked out about a hundred or so of these guitars just to see what they would do," says Kasab. "It's modeled after a Dyer 1909 model. They were a company founded around the turn of last century, and they made these harp guitars up until about the 1930s."
The guitar has the regular six strings, while there are six bass strings above, stretched in a widening array. Kasab has been tinkering with something called re-entrant tuning, which allows greater variety of technique. The guitar strings go from low notes to high notes, while the other half alternates— "High to low, high to low, and then high to high to low: What it allows you to do is this kind of back and forth fingering on your right hand, so you can manage subtle little bass ideas while still doing something with your left hand."
With so many strings working against the hollow body of one instrument, Kasab is constantly working to balance the tension he needs to get the proper notes from each part of the guitar. "One of the things that I've tried to do is to keep the tension really low on the bass strings, partly because these are banjo tuners that I'm using on the bass strings," he explains. "They're very, very fussy to get into pitch."
The strings can also push one another out of whack: "On a standard guitar, it's about 190 foot-pounds of pressure. On this, in some of these higher tunings that I might use, it'll get upwards of 300. It's braced really well, but it's a game of tension. If I adjust it too much, then the guitar will actually detune. I have to go back and tune it again."
Though the harp guitar has been in existence for more than a century, Kasab isn't fully convinced that the technical approach to it is completely developed yet. "I'm trying to use as many alternate techniques to play as I can," he says. "I may use my left hand to carry notes while my right hand is doing something different, harmonics or something that's a little outside the normal using a pick and strumming. At some point I might see about incorporating a violin bow, maybe a slide. And if I can figure out how to get enough pressure on here, then I may even be able to do some little chromatic movements on each bass string. But that's something I haven't broken yet."
DTAR SOLSTICE PREAMP
Stored in a soft gig bag that Kasab is able to easily move between shows, this device splits the guitar and bass side of the harp guitar, allowing him to elicit a better and more defined range of sounds. "It adds a little more roundness on the bottom," Kasab explains. "It's very easy to manipulate live. If I'm playing through a larger system, then I just use my preamp. It just goes straight in, and it really feeds them a good sound."
Finding the right balance between the bass and mid-range sounds can be an entertaining process of trial and error, though. "Last year, I played at Deep South the Bar in Raleigh, and I had a different preamp that I was using," he says. "The subwoofers were doing a little feedbacking. All the sudden, it gets to be a little fun because if you work the sustain right, then it's like the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar. It was driving the sound guy nuts."
Because the harp guitar produces such a wide range of sounds, Kasab splits the signal into two amplifiers: "[The top] is just a Fishman Loudbox, which is a really good standard for an acoustic ... really covering the mid frequencies and the higher frequencies.
"Under it is just a consumer-brand Sony powered subwoofer. It's really covering the very lowest of the low frequencies and a little bit of the extra punch," he continues. "This poor little [subwoofer], I got on Craigslist for 30 bucks. It's just about the ugliest thing ever. It's got a couple of erasers that have been Krazy-Glued and cut in half and amplifier feet that have been tacked into the top [to support the top amp]. It's lasted for about a year, and I'm amazed that it's still there."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ball of strings."