By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
July 23, 2011
It looks a little bit like a body board, and it does ride the waves — sound waves, that is. Meet the harpejji, a fretted string instrument invented and built in the Baltimore area.
Coldplay bought one. A.R. Rahman, who composed the score to "Slumdog Millionaire," purchased several of the instruments. A huge global audience saw Rahman play one during the Academy Awards ceremony last February, in a performance of the song "If I Rise" from his score to "127 Hours." And Jordan Rudess, keyboardist of prog-metal group Dream Theater, plans to feature the harpejji (pronounced "har-PEH-jee") in concerts this fall.
"The first harpejji was sold in January 2008," said inventor Tim Meeks, "so seeing it performed on Oscars night only three years later was pretty cool."
Meeks, 38, a Baltimore County native, got the idea for a new instrument a decade ago.
"I have been playing piano for over 20 years now," he said, "and I played in several bands while I was growing up. But I always felt a little bit frustrated with the piano. I wanted it to be more expressive, like a guitar. I wanted to make it sing. When you hit a note on the piano, you're done. There's nothing you can do."
Classical piano fans may take issue with that indictment, given how such keyboard giants as Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein could generate myriad tone colors from a grand piano. But keyboard use in the pop music world tends to stay within a much narrower sonic frame.
"I went down a trail of trying different instruments," Meeks said.
One of those was the Chapman Stick, a long, narrow, guitarlike instrument worn across the body.
"I thought that was cool," Meeks said, "because you can use all eight fingers to make different sounds; you can bend, slide and pluck. But I found it extremely uncomfortable to play. You get a crook in your neck."
Eventually, Meeks figured he might as well try making his own string instrument. "It was the only way to get what I wanted," he said.
He took inspiration from a variety of existing ones — electric guitar, piano, bass, harp, autoharp, zither, as well as the Chapman Stick — before developing a compact flat board with strings on top, electronics "under the hood." It is played resting on a horizontal stand and plugged into an amplifier.
"I had the first working prototype done in 2001," Meeks said. "But I put it down for a few years. I thought it would be really smart to invest in real estate. That didn't pan out so well. So eventually, I picked up the harpejji again."
As for the instrument's name, that came about organically.
"Lots of musical terms are in Italian," Meeks said. "After searching through them, I came back to arpeggio, which means 'harplike.' I liked that; you can play arpeggios on the instrument. I added an 'h' at the front and changed the ending to be unique."
Meeks finished his design in late 2006 and began applying for U.S. patents (he has been awarded four). He also launched a company to handle the manufacture and distribution of the harpejji.
He met one of his first associates at his day job, working for Polk Audio — Jason Melani, who also had a background in bands. Melani signed on as vice president for customer service and sales.
John Meyer, an electronics technician whose input helped refine the capabilities of the instrument, was recruited as vice president of manufacturing. (Meeks and Meyer used to play in a cover band together.) A couple of other people round out the firm.
Initially, Meeks thought to call the company DiMarco Musical Products.
"It was named for my grandfather, a very creative guy," Meeks aid. "I liked how his name sounded. But I was advised to change it, so I switched it around to Marcodi. It still sounds Italian, but it's not a common name."
In a converted chicken coop in Sykesville, Meyer crafts each harpejji by hand, a process that takes about 90 days. The board is made from bamboo, an "Earth-friendly" choice of material, said Meeks, who adds the final touches to each instrument himself in his Towson home.
There are two models, one with 16 strings, priced at $2,999; the other with 24, priced at $3,999. (The instrument uses a combination of electric bass and guitar strings.) Various options, including a maple body or custom artwork, are available at additional cost.
"The harpejji is a new interface, if you will, for making music," Meeks said. "It's an alternative to the instruments that have dominated popular music for decades — piano and guitar."
Classified as a tapping instrument, the harpejji is played somewhat like a guitar, by tapping on a string to produce a note. But all 10 fingers of the player can be used in a way that is more like the approach of a keyboard player.
Small black and white patterns placed underneath the strings, and the arrangement of notes from lowest on the left to highest on the right, reinforce the keyboard influences on the instrument.
While the fundamental sound of the harpejji is guitarlike, the net effect is deeper, richer. And an accomplished player can produce an effect that suggests a lead guitar and bass together. The instrument does not sound synthesized.
"You can play chords that are hard, or even impossible, to achieve on the piano or guitar," Meeks said. "You can create all sorts of nuance — bending the note, sliding between notes, adding vibrato. There is a tone knob that lets you darken or brighten the tone. Someone who has the dexterity of playing with two hands can apply those brain circuits to this instrument. Everything else is completely new."
A distinctive aspect of the harpejji is that it's isomorphic. Scales and chords have the identical geometric shape across the board.
"Once you learn a chord position," Meeks said, "you can take that muscle memorization anywhere on the instrument."
If you buy a harpejji, you won't receive a how-to manual with your purchase.
"There are no rules," said Melani. Added Meeks: "There is no right or wrong way to play a harpejji."
Living in Nashville, Tenn., last year, the 32-year-old Melani kept in touch with Meeks by phone and email.
"Tim would send me clips of him playing the harpejji," said Melani, who now lives in Hampden. "I would hear his music getting better and better. … I don't know if we'll ever say we're virtuosos. It's still a discovery process for us."
Video demonstrations of Meeks and others are on the website of Marcodi Musical Products LLC (marcodi.com), as well as on YouTube. The latter has played a major role in spreading the word about the harpejji, Melani said; nearly half a million views have been logged. The company's fan page on Facebook has also proved effective.
Although it's hard to predict the long-range future of any newly fashioned instrument, the harpejji gives every indication of getting traction. So far, about 60 harpejjis have been sold, half of them customized models.
"What's interesting is where they're sold," Melani said. "About a third have gone overseas — Australia, Sweden, Italy."
The harpejji's use in the "127 Hours" soundtrack was a boost. "There were some great close-ups of Rahman playing it," Meeks said. "That spurred a lot of curiosity."
As the harpejji's creator sees it, the time was ripe for something different to appear on the music-making scene.
"Instruments that are out there were starting to get stale," Meeks said. "So people have been using iPad instruments, electronic, plastic-y things. But I don't think people want to see someone just pushing buttons."
Meeks considers the harpejji more organic than an electronic keyboard (or "a plastic appliance," as he calls it), and he thinks of it as having a starring role.
"We are not setting out to provide a novel-sounding instrument that is just the background of some music track," he said. "The harpejji can be the centerpiece instrument for a songwriter or a band. There's an authenticity to it, a sense of timelessness. When you hear it, it doesn't sound dated. And you know right away that it's an instrument someone has built."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun