You’ve got to like a book that begins, "Anybody can spout off his own opinions into a book if he puts his mind to it. Why a person would want to go to such trouble is a question I’ve been asking myself lately."
I should point out that there’s an alias at work here. Jeremy H. Brown, author, is in another life Jerry Brown, founder and head honcho of Musicmaker’s Kits, Inc. (See John Calkin’s "Kit Review: Musicmaker’s Regency Harp" in AL#69.) Does that mean the book is a shill for selling kits? Not at all. Naturally, most of the references are to Musicmaker's designs. That’s reasonable enough; they are, after all, the designs Brown would be most familiar with. You wouldn’t expect Chris Martin to write a book on Gibson designs. However, Brown doesn’t stop there. I counted over two dozen references to the approaches and opinions of other harp builders throughout the eight chapters of the book.
Title notwithstanding, this book is much more about harp design than construction. It’s not meant to teach you how to build a harp, but rather to introduce you to some of the decisions you have to make in order to come up with a good harp. I suspect that Brown would say, `"If you’ve never built a musical instrument before, don’t buy this book; buy one of my kits." To his credit, he does not say this in the book.
Musical instrument design is always a careful playing-off of elements: responsiveness, durability, visual attractiveness, and so on. Brown examines many approaches to answering these difficult questions. A case in point is the chapter "The Great Plywood Debate," five pages on the pros and cons of solid vs. laminated wood soundboards, synthesized from the opinions of some fifteen harp builders. As a guitar builder (primarily), at one point I would have said, "There’s nothing to debate; laminated soundboards have no place in a quality instrument. Period. End of discussion." Since I started to build harps, I’ve learned that the issue isn’t quite so simple. There’s plenty to be said on both sides. Brown allots approximately equal space to both points of view, so that regardless of what decision you eventually arrive at, it will be an informed one.
Guitar builders don’t know anything about musical strings. At least I didn’t, until I started building harps. And in all my years as a Guild member, I can scarcely remember a single article in AL, or the Data Sheets before, about strings. What’s to know, right? Light, medium, or heavy gauge, nylon or steel, maybe some preferences as to brand; what else is there? Quite a lot, actually. And although Brown claims to know very little on the subject, for me this section in the book comes under the heading of "I wish I’d known that when I started." Brown discusses the importance of proper string tension (sound production vs. breakage) and presents what he calls the "Monofilament Window for Nylon, Gut, and Steel," a graph that contains the parameters necessary for relating string length to pitch. If I’d had that chart in my neophyte days, I wouldn’t have wasted a whole bunch of time trying to tune two strings of the same length to notes two octaves apart, regardless of their gauges!
Brown’s book comes in a three-ring binder. As such, it lies open nicely on drawing table or workbench. Also, Brown himself says that this format makes it easy to insert notes, writings of others on the same subject, and so on. Again, to me this points out the man’s humility and generosity. He frankly states that his word is not the be-all and end-all; rather, he encourages his reader to explore the issues further.
As I said, Brown refers frequently to Musicmaker's designs. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to analyzing the string charts of the various Musicmaker's models -- not with the intent of demonstrating their superiority, but to give the novice harp designer some possible points of departure for his or her own designs. Included are several blank string charts for your own designs and a full-size blank string layout chart for designing your harp actual size. This consists of a huge sheet of paper with parallel lines drawn to represent the instrument’s strings. You can, of course, do this yourself, but it’s tedious in the extreme. I speak from experience.
This book will have a very important place in my library of reference materials. In fact -- and perhaps this is the highest praise one instrument maker can give another -- it has caused me to start rethinking some elements of my own harp designs, and has hopefully put me on the road to being a better harp maker!
--- Fred Casey