What it takes to invent a new musical instrument

On a Sunday night in Los Angeles in 2011, composer and instrumentalist AR Rahman took to the stage in front of the gathered glitter and millions of other people watching the Oscars on television. Next, he and singer Florence Welch performed “If I Rise,” his Oscar-nominated song from the movie “127 Hours.” On the other end of the telecast, on a television station in rural Maryland, Tim Meeks was setting himself up for overnight success.

When he heard about Rahman’s upcoming performance – spotlighting in prime time the musical instrument Meeks had invented and started selling in 2007, a hybrid piano-guitar called a harpejji – he enlisted a few friends. to help him manage the phones. the next day. “But that’s not how it works,” Meeks told me. The anticipated run on the harpejjis – perhaps by curious musicians – did not take place. That didn’t materialize even when Stevie Wonder performed “Superstition” on a harpejji (pronounced har-PEH-gee) in 2012 at the Billboard Music Awards. Or in 2015, when he performed “Ain’t No Sunshine” at Bill Withers’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. It was going to take more time, more patience.

But now the new instrument, made by the family business, Marcodi Musical Products, headquartered in the basement of Meeks’ home in Glen Arm, Maryland, has seen sales increase. The company has sold around 500 harpejjis since 2019, the same number sold in the previous 12 years combined – no doubt helped by the continued exposure and public adoration of Wonder, as well as musicians like Harry Connick Jr., who played a harpejji last year. the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and British prodigy Jacob Collier, who used his to serenade 1.5 million Instagram followers.

The harpejji, which sells for $3,000 to $6,000, is long, flat and electrified, with strings stretched over frets along a wooden body. Below them are black and white markers that correspond to the notes on a piano. Horizontally, the notes run in whole tones; vertically they are halftone. A note sounds only when a string touches a fret, and this is done with any number of fingers at once. These active strings can also be bent, shaken or strummed.

Meeks, a keyboardist, was looking for a more expressive way to play without giving up his piano prowess. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he came across the work of inventors exploring stringed instruments, such as Emmett Chapman’s Chapman Stick and John Starrett’s StarrBoard. The latter was close to Meeks’ vision, and he bought one of Starrett’s prototypes and started tinkering. When the only original piece left was wood, a new iteration arose, Meeks says, and he has five patents related to its design and technical components.

“The harpejji is kind of a progressive thing,” he told me. He is not the first to mention this combination, but this particular body design and this set of modifications “just work for musicians.

Musical innovations often stem from hybridization, says Krystal Klingenberg, music curator at the National Museum of American History. Since they’re created to solve a problem, “instruments don’t just follow these linear progressions of development,” she told me. “There are all these little ramifications of potential for this and potential for that.”

Even instruments that may seem static over the past century or two are constantly evolving to pursue sonic or utilitarian ambitions or enduring materials, says Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD She points to the trumpet from the museum collection, which is a set of fun and mirrored horns, including a jazzophone, a saxophone-shaped trumpet with two bells.

Adaptations are mostly for a few lucky parents, but sometimes become commonplace. Klingenberg and Sheets cite technological breakthroughs like the electric guitar, the Moog synthesizer, and the hip-hop reinvention of the turntable.

The harpejji began to intrigue Meeks’ friends, and he decided to go into business. He had a certain know-how: at that time, he was developing consumer products for Polk Audio. What he had less was time and money. He and his wife, Joy, a singer, were building a family of what are now six children, ages 23 to 8, and Joy took on the brunt of the household chores while Meeks, 49, could see this through.

Early on, the harpejji rose to prominence in YouTube videos with Jordan Rudess of progressive metal band Dream Theater. Then Stevie Wonder found Meeks at a trade show in January 2012, and soon after Meeks and Joy traveled to Los Angeles to deliver Wonder’s harpejji. They spent three days with him while he learned to play. “We were eating chicken and waffles — just sitting at a table eating chicken and waffles with Stevie Wonder,” Meeks recalled with lingering amazement.

It was at Wonder’s fingertips that Jacob Collier first saw the instrument in a video. “I was a little puzzled and puzzled, because I had never seen anything like it before,” the 27-year-old, five-time Grammy winner told me. Learning the harpejji at the end of 2019 was a “rare treat” for its novelty – it was an instrument that Collier had not already heard countless others play – but also for the uniqueness of its layout, the fingering of the chords and shift patterns through them. “Another thing that really blew my mind,” he says, “is after introducing it to [my musical] regime, I found myself playing new piano and guitar stuff because… the logic of it had unlocked this new kind of system.

In 2016, Meeks quit his job to run Marcodi full-time. Joy now takes care of customer service and sales, working alongside four of their children and two other store employees. As of 2020, Meeks has served as both managing director of Marcodi and president of Wingard, a metal parts maker in Baltimore.

Later that year they move to a house nearby that will triple the size of the workshop. Meeks has ideas for other products, including effects pedals. And the harpejji is no more static than any other instrument. Like the music itself, it continues to evolve.

Danny Freedman is a journalist in Memphis.