'Harpejji' gaining traction in music world

String instrument created, crafted in Baltimore featured on Oscars, in "127 Hours" soundtrack

  • The Harpejji, invented by Tim Meeks, is gaining traction in the music world. Coldplay bought one, and the instrument was featured on the soundtrack to "127 Hours."
The Harpejji, invented by Tim Meeks, is gaining traction in… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
July 23, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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