[Editor’s Note: During guitarist Christopher Paul Stelling’s interview with Ben Harper for an Acoustic Guitar feature in the October 2016 issue, the two talked about Harper’s love of Weissenborn guitars. Here’s a previously unpublished excerpt from their discussion.]
Though you’re first and foremost thought of as a songwriter, the next association generally made about you is that of the Weissenborn guitar. What’s your first memory of a Weissenborn?
Songwriting and Weissenborn grew up together with me. I started doing them both at the same time, and the first song that I thought was something I could call a song was written on the Weissenborn. So, for me they’re one and the same.
My first memory of a Weissenborn was seeing them—not even hearing them—and going, “God, that’s one of the more beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen come through the doors of my family’s music shop.” And then I’d hear various people come in and play it and then the sound pulled me in once and for all.
It’s a haunting sound.
Yeah, haunting and rich and very vocal, very voice-like.
It’s like a human voice.
Very much so, and the Nationals and Dobros and things like that also have that aspect to them, but something about the Hawaiian Koa wood and the hollow neck, and the dimensions—the geometry of the instrument itself—just gave it something that stood out.
You play a style 4—that’s a hollow neck—but on this tour you’ve also been playing a solid-neck one.
Yeah, in the early-to-late teens or early ’20s, depending on which historian you talk to, Weissenborn was experimenting with a lot of different dimensions, different woods, and the half-hollow, half-solid neck. I’m not even sure if that didn’t come out before the completely hollow neck. I’d have to ask Ben Elder, who Acoustic Guitar knows real well as being one of the main historians on the Weissenborn. But some of his earliest models had this half-solid neck. It seems like he may have jumped to rope-binding pretty quick. It goes [from styles] 1, 2, 3, and 4, with 1 being most simple, 2 being solid binding, 3 having the top rope-binding, and then 4 being entirely rope-bound: top, back, and peg head.
‘My first memory of a Weissenborn was seeing them—not even hearing them—and going, “God, that’s one of the more beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen come through the doors of my family’s music shop.”’
That’s the beautiful binding that I think a lot of people associate with Weissenborn and his style of building.
I did some time as a luthier’s assistant, building guitars, and man, binding is tough.
Making it and applying it, right?
It makes me wonder how he even bent those around, or if he was doing it piece by piece, you know?
Yeah, I think [it was piece by piece] because the binding holds over the 80-plus years that they’ve been around. Weissenborn binding, as much or more than any other guitar, is pretty well intact, even on the ones that are beat up. It’s impressive how his binding stands the test of time.
Your guitar tech on this tour told me that you’ve been using D’Addario half-wound strings—I think they call them Flat Tops?
That’s a new thing for you?
That’s completely new.
What’s the benefit of those?
Oh, maybe around my third record I started using Flat Tops, just in the studio, because what you get as far as less string noise you compromise in high end.
And clarity. So there’s a trade-off. I’ve been experimenting this tour to see if I could get used to it and I’m still not 100-percent sold because—you know—the earliest recordings of our favorite music was all done on standard round-wound strings. The string noise never—I never batted an eye . . . I never saw them on the blues guys that would come in, on their guitars.
No, it was all string noise and round wounds.
It never fazed me, but—maybe at this stage I [developed] a sensitivity to string noise all of a sudden. I’m tonally experimenting, basically. It keeps you interested, it keeps your heart in the game. Maybe even before this tour is over, I’ll go back to standard round-wound phosphor bronze light gauge on the Weissenborn, or on the Weissenborn Style 4 square neck that I’m using the most. . . . I mean, I do like the tone of the round-wounds better, but I’m enjoying my strings.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.