the final four vs. 27 strings

keith medley and the 27 string harp guitar.

When a guitarist goes up against an inner-state NCAA Final Four rivalry  that will be broadcast nationally, there had better be a hefty level of instrumental firepower at his disposal. If not, he can pretty much forget about getting noticed this weekend.

Seriously now, would you want to be performing while Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville semi-final is being played?

Luckily, Kentucky-born Keith Medley has some rather distinctive musical artillery to show off. His weapon of choice for a solo performance Saturday in Danville is a self-designed variation on the centuries-old harp guitar that boasts 27 strings. Not 6. Not 12. We’re talking an instrument that essentially blends a traditional acoustic guitar with an autoharp and a somewhat mutated harp into a single frame.

Medley, who grew up near Owensboro, has said in interviews that designing the instrument wasn’t difficult. After spending time in Nashville playing funkified R&B and, of course, country, he quit the road and devoted his career to guitar building, design and repair. The big trick has been mastering the ability to play the beast.

Though he has released an independent album titled Ride, the best glimpses of Medley’s 27 string guitar design have come through a series of videos viewable on youtube.

The most arresting clip features an unaccompanied performance of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King played at multiple tempos. The base guitar establishes the melody, sweeps upon the autoharp-like section provide a taste of ancient orchestration and the harp portion fleshes out the composition’s overall lyricism. But Medley is remarkably deft in juggling the instrument’s numerous capabilities. After all, the kind of arm span required to simply reach the different sections of the harp guitar would likely make Anthony Davis proud.

Though the instrument has roots as far back as the 19th century (and much further if you consider the stringed settings the instrument encompasses), Medley’s fascination with the harp guitar began in earnest with a photo of the late Michael Hedges holding an early model. But the multi-neck electric guitars popularized in the ‘70s by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page also had their place in Medley’s design. Other guitarists that have helped introduce versions of the harp guitar to mainstream audiences have included jazz pioneer Pat Metheny.

“The 27 String was designed and built for me to play,” Medley states in an essay posted on his website. “I didn’t build it to sell, or any other ill motive. I am a player. I hear music to play and share as a gift to those who want it. Building is my craft. Playing is my passion.”

Keith Medley performs at 7 tonight at Danville High School Gravely Hall, 203 East Lexington Ave. in Danville. Tickets are $15. Call (859) 319-0773, (859) 319-3016.

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