Tim Donahue – Fretless Harp Guitar

Tim Donahue Signature Fretless Harp Guitar review

Description: The World’s First production Fretless Harp Guitar
Manufacturer: Aska/Deviser Corp. – Nagano, Japan
Website: Tim Donahue Signature Harp Guitars
Review – Jahloon – Jan 2011.
Cost: USD $2200, Case $300 (Dec 2010)

Fretless Harp Guitar in Case

Fretless Harp Guitar in Case

Fretless Harp Guitar Review

When Tim Donahue announced he was making his harp guitars available for purchase it was naturally of great interest.

I had been after a TD fretless guitar for quite some time, but there were never any available.

So the harp guitar was the next best option.

At the time there were two colours available, natural mahogany and wine (trust me, red wine, maybe burgundy) trouble was my missus would not have red guitars in the house (another story) and while the natural looked quite nice I wanted green. Yes Green, I just had this vision that it had to be green.

So I contacted Tim and put forward the green idea, he told me that green oil stain on mahogany was the vilest colour known to man, and that it would make me feel unwell.

Fretless Harp Guitar Ebony Headstock

Fretless Harp Guitar Ebony Headstock

So we went forward with the natural look. To give Tim his due, and unknown to me, he got his manufacturer to try a sample of mahogany with the green oil, and amazingly, it looked great! We were back on with an order for a green fretless harp guitar.

The clock was ticking and we were hoping the guitar could be completed before tax rises in the UK, well Tim’s crew came in ahead of schedule and shipped 7/Dec/2010. The guitar arrived in the UK 9/Dec/2010 and spent an excruciating 6 days in customs, I collected it on 15/Dec/2010 the day before a significant snowstorm shut down the whole country and kept me snowbound until after Christmas. (You can guess this did not matter too much as Santa’s present had already arrived)

Hey, I should be telling you about the guitar… I unpacked it and opened the case, it was visually stunning, the green and gold combination with the jet black ebony fingerboard and headstock are a classic combination. The pictures you see here may look good, but in the flesh it is awesome.


Fretless Harp Guitar EMG pickups

The active EMG pickups have individual signal paths

More about the Harp Guitar:

As mentioned before, the body and neck are Mahogany, the fingerboard and headstock fascia ebony. All the hardware is gold plated. Pickups are EMG with active electronics. There is a single coil pickup and volume control for the harp strings, and a single humbucker neck pickup and volume control for the normal strings. Both systems are completely independent and exit the guitar via two quarter inch jack sockets.

Before delving deeper into the technical aspects you really need to know how the instrument is intended to be played. It is a two-handed technique (did I really just say that?) the right hand playing the harp strings and the left hand playing the normal strings with a variety of techniques; hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc.

Now if you are a little familiar with standard harp guitars you will know that the harp strings are often a bass sub-set and used for accompaniment. On the TD harp guitar the strings are .017 first two and .016 for the remainder. Tim’s recommended tuning (low to high) is A B C# D E F# starts at A=220Hz (that’s the A above the 3rd string open G, finishing on the F# above the 1st string open E) The next interesting diversion is that the dynamics of the harp guitar design dictate that the lowest pitch harp string is closest to your normal strings and the pitch therefore ascends in the opposite direction to convention. Now this is not too bad a thing, it means conventional thumb / fingerpicking roles are reversed, giving the harp section a very different feel.

Part of the specification on Tim’s site reads “Built like a tank” which did make me giggle, but this guitar is very well put together, absolutely solid.

The neck is rather high profile, but you have to balance that against how the instrument is meant to be played, two handed, you don’t need a thin neck using this technique. Both neck and headstock have aluminium reinforcements and need no adjustment. The headstock is just as thick as the neck, though this does not affect what is a beautifully balanced guitar. Where I believe it does make a marked impact is in the sustain of this instrument.

The sustain is just phenomenal, it goes on and on and on, want more sustain? Buy a piano.

Tuning up

Once you have the instrument tuned up to key, throw away the digital tuner and tune the instrument to itself, using string harmonics etc.. The method is widely available on the web, if you don’t know it already.

Tuning up the harp strings; this should be to the strings / harmonics of the main strings, using Tim’s tuning all notes are available on the main neck via open strings or harmonics apart from the C#, but you will be able to tune this accurately just by ear, comparing it to the other notes, (it is the natural 3rd of the A chord A C# E, so your ear will find it).

Fretless Harp Guitar Case Detail

Strap anchor point to the left of the bridge

The Strap

The strap points on the guitar are one on the neck joint, and the other, rather unconventionally, on the top edge of the guitar above the bridge. This may seem very strange, but by virtue of the position the guitar is played in it works very well indeed. It is the most natural anchor point you could imagine, and Tim does say he has never lost a guitar from the strap unhooking itself.

Set up and Action

Well I do know that Tim personally sets up all his harp guitars and this was no exception. The set up was perfect out-of-the-box and has not needed any adjustment. Action is nice and low you could take this down even further as the neck is die straight. (For non-fretless players the neck should be straight on fretless guitars, with no toe-in as on a fretted instrument)

One unique feature of the tuners is that you can adjust the height of these with the supplied allen key. This is most useful on the harp side as technically there is no bridge, the strings resonate the whole length from the nut to the tuner itself. This gives tremendous vibrational transfer of power from the harp strings into the body, setting up resonances in the main strings, this brings the whole instrument alive.

Jahloon harp guitar & pedalboard

Harp Guitar and Pedalboard

Look / Feel / Pedals

Well there is no doubt that this is one of the most beautiful and visually interesting instruments available, but how does it feel? The playing balance is very good indeed, and as you would expect it does take some getting used to, if like me you have always used a pick. You do get used to the dynamics of the harp guitar very quickly and it does open up a whole new breadth of available music.

Currently I’m using the following set-up; the Harp strings feed a chorus pedal which feeds the left hand channel of a stereo delay, the Main strings feed an overdrive pedal set up to add octave bass on the lower strings which feeds the right hand side of the stereo delay.

With the above set-up you hear harp on the left and main strings on the right, helps a lot when practising with headphones and gives you an appreciation of how the two sets of strings interact on the instrument itself. The two sections are electronically isolated but mechanically linked, so whatever you play on one set of strings has its subtle effect on the other.

Tim Donahue headstock signature

TimD laser etched signature

Other versions

There are of course fretted versions of this guitar, and more of these exist as to date no more fretless harp guitars have been manufactured. On the early fretted versions the TimD signature was the 12th fret marker, this has now migrated to the headstock.

There is also the option to have 8 harp strings.


My thoughts are that this is a very well designed instrument. Tim has had 25 years to refine his design and it definitely shows.

The more I play the harp guitar, the more I like it, and the more I appreciate the work that has gone into producing this instrument.

As what I would class as a boutique guitar, the price is very reasonable for the instrument you get. That is of course a personal view, but you have to weigh that against this being a unique instrument, you could be buying the equivalent of the first Les Paul, or a curiosity destined for a place in a museum. Either way you will get a very unique instrument with a very unique sound, and that’s priceless.

…ends Jahloon, Jan 2011

Artists playing the Tim Donahue Harp Guitar:

tim donahue, gorilla_house

Tim Donahue

Harp Guitar Masato Wada

Masato Wada

Harp Guitar jun amano

Jun Amano

hg tim donahue fretless

Tim Donahue – Original Fretless Harp Guitar

harp guitar jahloon xmas special

Jahloon – Fretless Harp Guitar – Xmas Special
(Now you know why it is also called the “Christmas Special”)



Per Boysen with his fretless electric Harp Guitar debut.


Facebook – Tim Donahue Signature Harp Guitar Players

timdonahue.com – Tim Donahue’s Harp Guitar Website

More Gear Reviews More Fretless Guitars