1920s Paramount Style E Tenor Harp

William Lange and his company are often credited with creating the first modern tenor banjos with the release of the Paramount line in 1923. These banjos were loud and brash, perfect for cutting through the cacophony of brass instruments that frequently comprised popular bands, but not particularly amenable to mellow, sustained notes or chords. Banjo players searched for an instrument that would produce a guitar-like sound without the need to learn a whole new fretboard, and several ideas were tried.

All used the neck of a tenor banjo, but the designs varied in the nature of the body. Companies that were experienced in building mandolins – including Gibson and Vega – used mandola bodies. The results were mixed; Vega’s tenor lutes have plenty of volume and projection, while Gibson’s are generally considered to be weak and thin-sounding. A few builders began creating tenor guitars; Gibson and Vega actually built tenor guitars alongside tenor lutes for a few years. In the end, as 6-string guitars gained popularity in the early 1930s, the tenor guitar became cemented as the most popular 4-stringed instrument with a wooden body.

One additional design was created by Lange: the tenor harp. In fact, Lange created an entire line of harp instruments. None was related to the instrument frequently seen in the hands of a red-haired Marx brother; the “harp” designation really signified a banjo rim with a head made of spruce. For a company that made nothing but banjos, the design made sense; aside from deciding how to brace the top, no new techniques were required. The Paramount name was applied to tenor harps, plectrum harps, banjo harps (with the neck of a 5-string banjo), guitar harps and mandolin harps. These last two must have seemed redundant even at the time, given that they were quieter than conventional guitars and mandolins.

The large majority of surviving Paramount harps are tenors, though a few plectrums can be found; only a handful of the other models are known to exist. Paramount built tenor harps either "single-strung" (4 strings) or "double-strung" (8 strings), but this instrument is a sort of 6-stringed mutant. It's a rare high-end model, a Style E from 1926; the only other Style E I've seen is also a 6-stringer, so it may have been standard on this model. The upper two courses are doubled, like a mandola, but the bottom two are not. This gives it a somewhat odd sound; I liken it more to a bouzouki than a guitar or banjo.

All the letter-model harps appear to be identical in ornamentation to their banjo counterparts. Like the Style E banjo, this harp features a holly neck, rim and resonator with gold hardware and a carved design on the heel and the back of the headstock. It is fitted with a 6-string version of the standard Paramount adjustable-tension tailpiece, made by Page (like the geared tuners). The bridge, though it may look out of place, is actually original.

If the instrument has one design flaw, it was the bracing of the top (or lack thereof). It was originally fitted with a single brace spanning the center of the top, with nothing providing support directly under the bridge. As a result, decades of pressure have caused the top to sink and crack down the center – a common occurrence on Paramount harps. In order to keep it in good playing order, the top of this harp has been repaired and braces have been added to strengthen it. While the additional braces dampen the sound a little, the instrument is once again playable. The neck is unusually chunky, probably to counteract the extra tension from six strings, and has remained very straight. The instrument weighs surprisingly little because it lacks much of the metal hardware that is normally found on banjos.