Dear Marcodi.com Visitors,
Thank you for taking the time to see, hear and read about the harpejji, a brand new keyboard-inspired instrument with the timeless sound of real strings! It is the product of several years of research, experimentation and, well, just forging ahead one day at a time. The harpejji would never exist if it weren’t for the patience and support from my wife, Joy, to whom I am very grateful. Likewise, I am grateful for the lifelong example of craftsmanship, determination and tenacity in my late grandfather, Anthony L. DiMarco (1921-2007), whose name is proudly encrypted in the Marcodi name. Invention is just as much about the people around us as it is about science and math.
First, here is a little background. I started playing keyboards regularly in 1987. The only other instrument in consideration for me was guitar, because I really enjoyed playing complete compositions by myself. But since my family always had an organ or piano in the house, I gravitated towards the keyboard. After all, it was a workhorse of a classic and an instrument that was constantly benefiting from advancements in technology. So I enjoyed playing keyboards for many years, and I always will.
But over time, my regrets for not choosing guitar began to pile up. A lot of the music that I found myself liking was guitar-dominant and I started to realize that my ears really preferred stringed instruments of many types (guitar, mandolin, upright bass, etc.). Meanwhile, I was gaining a clearer and clearer awareness of certain inherent limitations in keyboards that had been preventing me from creating the sort of music that I was after. Among the areas of limitation were expression, openness and time-transcendence, which you can read about here. To sum it all up, I wanted an instrument that had the power of ten-finger compositions plus the ability to authentically sing. And so I began exploring: extensive synthesizer programming, MIDI controllers, vintage electro-mechanical keyboards and finally, alternative instruments.
One such alternative instrument was the Chapman Stick® (www.Stick.com), a body-worn string tapping instrument developed by inventor Emmett Chapman in the early 70’s. I knew of it as an interesting but obscure new instrument when I was younger, but in the late 90’s, my brother-in-law’s Stick®ist friend explained it to me well. To my amazement, the Stick® addressed all the limitations of keyboards that frustrated me, by bringing a two-handed playing style directly in contact with real strings. The Stick® and its competitors harness the composition power of two hands (well, eight fingers) plus all of the nuance that comes with real string contact. For some players, like virtuoso Greg Howard (www.greghoward.com), the Stick® has been a satisfying life-long adventure; as I was learning.
So, these were all compelling enough reasons for me to purchase a Grand Stick® in 1998. I gave it the college try, really. But I eventually concluded that the transition from keyboards to Stick® was a longer road than expected. First of all, where was a B-flat? You know the black note to the right of those other two black notes. I had to memorize the fretboard! But since the Stick® is actually laid out as two instruments in one, I had to memorize two completely different fretboards! There were just not enough hours in the day. Secondly, I found the posture to be uncomfortable as compared to the bodily freedom of playing a keyboard and disliked the ever-present traffic jam caused by criss-crossed hands. Finally, the instrument did not physically integrate into the rest of my keyboard rig, so I felt that I had to choose between keyboards or the Stick®. And choose I did; back to keyboards for me and back to the online auctions for my Grand Stick®. Bummer.
But in the back of my mind, an idea was brewing what if a Stick®-like instrument were played horizontally, on a keyboard stand, with the notes rearranged to be ascending left to right, and markers that were similar to a keyboard? A design like that would allow any keyboard player to more easily adapt to a two-handed tapping instrument, thus making a pleasant and quick transition from keys to the sound of real strings. That was the spark that eventually led to the harpejji.
In late 2001, I e-mailed Emmett Chapman (he’s a neat guy), asking if he could build a custom instrument of this nature for me. Focused on his existing work, Emmett respectfully declined but mentioned that a man named Dr. John D. Starrett (then a mathematics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver) had invented and patented something similar to my idea, which he called the StarrBoard®. I phoned Dr. Starrett and found out that the StarrBoard® was indeed conceptually close to the idea I had brewing in my head. Moreover, Dr. Starrett had a few prototypes left over from his experimentation and offered to sell me one. So, I bought a 35-string prototype, which happened to be his first prototype.
It arrived and, lo and behold, it worked! It sounded okay, and had the meat and potatoes of a real working design. Thanks to Dr. Starrett and his StarrBoard®, I now had confidence in the feasibility of the concept. But I wanted more. I was also a home studio guy, and I knew that this prototype would not sonically cut it for solo recordings. Intonation issues, buzzes, hissing, dead spots and high playing action all made this particular instrument truly a prototype and not quite ready for prime time. Maybe I should have bought one of his later prototypes; or maybe not.
I tweaked it. And it worked a little better. And I tweaked it some more, and then some more until I systematically gutted the prototype and rebuilt it from the body up; frets and all. Even the body itself was heavily routed out. By the end of 2003, I had finished rebuilding the prototype, complete with modern off-the-shelf components, custom CNC-machined parts and several improvements. [So now youre thinking, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just learn the Chapman Stick ®? OK, you got me there.] To my delight, I was pleased with the results. It sounded different (more “acoustical”) than the StarrBoard® prototype did and played quite nicely. One of the more significant improvements was the move to whole tune tuning, which broadened the interval reach and overall note range. Other improvements included fully adjustable string saddles with embedded piezo pickups and string-gauges more optimized for vibrato. But I still wasn’t done yet. Hours of playing my new prototype had me adding more and more improvements to the wish list. Don’t get me wrong; Dr. Starrett did an amazing job of creating his invention at a time in history when the internet did not exist and when computers did little to aid the average inventor in executing a great idea. But by 2001, it was a different world, and I had made it my self-imposed task to use modern tools to perfect this idea in a way that the world would accept and find really cool.
Many more improvements were fully implemented into the next design revision by early 2007: new sleak design with recessed hand-holds, thru-body stringing, integrated nut and tuner channel, front-mounted master volume, etc. This would later be called the “harpejji d1”. When I say design, I mean a highly detailed and optimized 3D computer model. Technology, baby. With eight years in consumer audio product development, I knew the right guys. By this point in time, I knew that I was on to something special, and decided that it was time to apply for some patents. And I did just that in the spring of 2007. Around that time, I also realized that I needed someone to help me take the message of this new instrument to the world. I turned to my good friend and former colleague, Jason Melani, a talented musician and all-around motivated guy. Together, we formed Marcodi Musical Products, LLC on April 6th, 2007 via the state of Maryland. More patent applications followed in 2007, four in total.
Our instrument was noticeably a new generation StarrBoard®, bearing marked improvements in playability, sound, appearance and ergonomics. It had its own patent filings, and also deserved its own name. Playing off of our half-Italian heritage, Jason and I looked through a list of Italian musical terms for inspiration. The word arpeggio seemed highly relevant for two reasons. First, the instrument lends itself well to playing progressively changing arpeggios, made possible by the vast array of note options available to one hand. And second, the Italian meaning of arpeggio is “harp-like”, quite fitting for an instrument with twenty-four strings. So from arpeggio came the new name harpejji.
Thats the harpejji story in a nutshell. Hope you enjoy our website and that someday you will have a chance to listen to the harpejji in person.
Timothy E. Meeks
Marcodi Musical Products, LLC
“Stick”, “Chapman Stick” and “The Stick” are registered trademarks of Stick Enterprises, Inc.
Inherent Limitations of Keyboard Instruments
Keyboards are among the very few musical instruments on earth whose vibro-acoustical elements (eg strings, tines, reeds, etc.), if they exist at all, are not in direct physical contact with the player. Keys dont vibrate, and the key mechanism does more to separate the player from the real vibrations than it does to connect them. The result is that each note sounds pretty much the same each time you play it. True, I could play a key louder or softer, but what about the nuances a guitarist or saxophonist gets from note bending, muting, sliding, vibrato, etc.? Why couldnt I make a note sing on a keyboard? Synths provide things like pitch wheels and programmable LFOs, but do those things really make the instrument convincingly sing or do they make it morph in a tell-tale synthetic way? I felt that the latter was the case.
One of the beautiful things about strummed guitar is the ability to play open chords, i.e. chords whose intervals are wide in note range. This open characteristic tends to shower you with harmonics from all over the frequency spectrum. By contrast, keyboard chords tend to sound more closed because the note distance prevents you from reaching 2+ octaves on a hand. Closed chords sound smaller and less rich to my ears.
Strum a guitar, blow on a horn or bang on a drum. Does it sound like 2008? 1957? 1600? 1200? Yes. It could sound like any one of those years, depending upon the musical context. Play on a synth with as many knobs, wheels and sliders as you want. Just as timeless? Not a chance. The music immediately sounds dated. Keyboards tend to time-stamp the music to the extent that people can usually guess which decade a piece was recorded. Piano does this the least, but even so, it has trouble evoking ancient eras; it’s a relatively modern machine. And still, we have the first two limitations to deal with. So then, why not play an emulation of a timeless instrument, like violin, on a keyboard? The problem is that now youre not really playing the keyboard. You are faking the violin and even the kindest of audiences senses the gimmick. It works for a trick or two, but the lack of authenticity is unfulfilling, especially for the player.