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TideWriters Tales
Stephen Bennett of Achilles Performs With the Harp Guitar
By Zachary Loesch

     Stephen Bennett of Achilles in Gloucester County has performed all around the United States and in several European countries with an instrument that once belonged to his great-grandfather. I met with him at his home recently and asked him to speak briefly about his music.

     “My great-grandfather, Edgar Pierce, played the harp guitar early in the last century. For many years it was stored, almost forgotten, in the basement of our home. I took up guitar playing at about the age of ten. My mother had kept one in our living room, always intending to learn how to play it. Although I first picked up the instrument in a casual manner, I became more enthusiastic about playing as my skill improved over a period of several years. I began playing my grandfather’s instrument in the 1980s. I was in my thirties at the time.

Stephen Bennett with his grandfather's harp guitar - Photo by Zack Loesch ©

     Stephen continued, “I was born in Oregon and raised in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York. While in high school , I played the clarinet for various school-sponsored events. During my spare time I hammered out tunes by such popular groups as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Yes, playing an electric guitar in our family garage. My wife, Linda, and I met at a small college in New Jersey, Drew University, located in the town of Madison. We came here on the first of January 1977 after Linda was accepted into the graduate studies program administered by the College of William and Mary at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She is now on the faculty as a benthic ecologist, or one who studies marine life and the environment at the bottom of any body of water. I took a degree in History from William and Mary in 1980.

     “The harp guitar differs from a regular guitar in that it features addition strings. These are bass strings played on a second fretted guitar neck, allowing notes of a much lower pitch to be sounded than what a regular guitar features. This past April I performed in Genoa, Italy where I met a man who told me of a musical instrument very similar to the harp guitar that was played in Renaissance and Baroque times, the Theorbo. 

     Stephen said, “Essentially, it was a guitar that featured some additional bass strings. My great-grandfather’s instrument was built in 1909 by the Larson Brothers, a small company owned by Swedish immigrants working in Chicago. The Gibson company began manufacturing them soon afterwards. I had the opportunity to examine a Gibson harp guitar built in 1917. Its heavy construction guaranteed its durability. Unfortunately, the sound quality left much to be desired. The Martin Guitar company built a few also and they are demonstrably better than the Gibson product. Harp guitars were often found in the mandolin ensembles that were popular in the nineteen-teens and nineteen-twenties. I own four harp guitars, two old ones and two new ones.

     “This past May I performed with Pat Donahue, the guitarist regularly featured on Garrison Keilor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion’ radio program. This was broadcast from Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. I’ve played with Tommy Emmanuel at the annual Chet Atkins guitar festival at Nashville. Tommy Emmanuel had won the ‘Entertainer of the Year’ award four times in his native country, Australia, and Chet Atkins once said that Tommy was the world’s best guitar player. During the past year I have performed in twenty states and two foreign countries, France and Italy. I have, in the past, performed in England and Germany also. My wife has persuaded me to perform in an upcoming concert series at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She hopes to raise money for the library there.”

     Stephen said that his initial reaction to the terrorist bombings of Tuesday September 11th was one of despair. “I was scheduled to fly to Kansas the following day to perform at the Walnut Valley Acoustic Music Festival but found my flight canceled in the wake of this terrible tragedy. I was finally able to catch a flight when service resumed and walked onto the stage at Midnight on Friday. I quickly came to realize that people need music and that what musicians do is important. Our job is to bring beauty to people’s ears and hearts. Other artists perform a similar task in other ways. This is not a trivial pastime or a self-centered pursuit. A good musical performance is an inclusive experience shared by the artist and the listener.

     “One of the funniest experiences I’ve ever had while performing happened some years ago in Richmond at O’Toole’s Restaurant. A member of the audience, hanging around the stage and obviously enjoying the music, suddenly leaned over and clamped his teeth into the neck of my guitar. I asked him what the heck he thought he was doing and he replied that his daddy had told him that that was the best way to determine what a guitar really sounded like.”

     Stephen and his wife have one child, two dogs, one cat and two new kittens. He has written a song for each of the dogs. One is entitled, ‘Bad Dog’ and the other ‘Linda Gets a New Dog.’ He owns a dozen guitars and has a passing familiarity with the piano. He has lived in Gloucester County longer than anywhere else in his life and he considers it his home.”

     More information concerning Stephen’s music and his new release entitled, ‘River,’ may be found at his web site: members.aol.com/hrpguitar

© 2002 Zachary Loesch All Rights Reserved.

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