(pronounced "Ay-Harp")

Dave's "Oddball" steel guitar mystery

Some years back (1990 or so) I attended a guitar show and sale in Washington DC. At this show I found, in somewhat diminished but functional condition a 10 STRING lap steel guitar, an Eddie Alkire E-Harp. The seller alleged at the time that it had been made by Epiphone in the early to mid 1940's, with a distinctive curved "E" stamped into the tuning gear cases, and emblazoned with the E-Harp logo. I was very curious and got what I thought was a good deal on it as part of a package with a maroon "mother-of-toilet- seat" finish Supro 6 string lap guitar.

I tuned the E-harp up to an open pedal steel-style C6th tuning, plugged it in and strummed across the acre of strings - WOW! What a sweet tone! Sounded like a palm tree over my head with breakers in the distance... but I digress.

Scene shifts to last year. I had read some bits and pieces about Alkire guitars and knew there was a unique tuning, but had not found any further information; how it was tuned, just who is this Eddie Alkire, etc.

I had meanwhile moved to Bucks Co. PA, north of Philadelphia, and in trying to acclimate to my surroundings, attended a Hawaiian Music get together that was locally advertised. It was a festive day of music and good fun, and late in the afternoon a fellow named Tommy Dinoh performed with his Hawaiian lounge band. He was playing a homemade 10 string steel on legs. I watched him carefully and noticed his picking "grips" were unusual for the sounds coming out.

After his performance I cornered him and asked what tuning he was using. "Oh it's the old Alkire tuning- I'm the only guy I know around who uses it- it's what I learned on. I sure would like to have one of those old Alkire guitars." I explained how I do have one and had been looking for information about it. He tried to explain the tuning, and how there were published lesson plans when he was learning, and then he says "You know Eddie used to live in Easton?" Easton PA is only 40 minutes of beautiful riverside driving from my new home. My jaw dropped.

I drive a lot for my day job and had occasion to travel to Easton shortly thereafter. I looked in the phone book and discovered a listing for "Alkire Guitar Studios" only two blocks from the phone booth I was in. A storefront attached to a Victorian house, with the name blazoned on plate glass met my eye, but unfortunately no one was in.

Several weeks later I was again in Easton, and stopped again at the Studios. This time my knock was greeted by a classic Central Casting grandmotherly figure, who explained that, yes she was Mrs. Alkire. I babbled out an explanation that I was a steel player who had this guitar and wanted to know more about the tuning and could she help me and...

She asked me in and we sat in the front studio room as she explained that "Mr. Alkire" (she corrected me with a stern glare when I called him "Eddie") had passed on (1907-1981), but that she did have some of the original lesson plans and sheet music.

She disappeared for some minutes, and returned with a stack of numerically sequenced sheet music folio sized lessons for the "Alkire Eharp (ay-harp) System - A Complete Technic and Chord Method by Eddie Alkire," from beginner ("How to Tune the Eharp, pure by natural harmonics") through advanced performance pieces. She also showed me an 8x10 publicity photo of Mr. Alkire playing a guitar identical to mine! She sold the lessons to me at their original cover price. The photo she threw in gratis.

As a collector of old Hawaiian Guitar related sheet music (Oahu lessons, Calumet music with 'special Hawaiian guitar chorus' inserts, etc) I was thrilled; as a player with an unusual instrument I was ecstatic! It would now be possible to start to learn the Eharp as it was intended by the inventor. I thanked her profusely and she seemed grateful that anyone even cared to know about her late husband's endeavours.

I have played with a thumb pick and three finger picks almost since I started, and discovered that this was an integral part of Alkire's approach as well. His "technic" focused on the feasibility of four-part harmony using his special tuning His efforts predated the introduction of pedals by probably a decade and a half ( I am still unsure of the development time-line of his technic, although the Eharp was introduced in the early Forties to the best of my knowledge).

My Eharp skills are still in the early stages; admittedly I have not practiced as assiduously as I should, but I feel much more informed and better equipped to tackle this fascinating branch of the Steel Guitar family tree since my fortuitous encounter with Tommy Dinoh, and through his information, Mrs. Alkire.