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When the father-son team of William and Garen Rees came up with their idea for the tiny, colorful Harpsicle harp, they said they had no idea how successful it would be
Even on the busiest street in the small, sleepy town of Rising Sun, Ind., there doesn’t appear to be much going on. But behind the doors of 222 Main Street, there is an explosion happening that is over a decade in the making. In a little shop in a little town on the Ohio River, Rees Harps is churning out hundreds of its wildly popular little Harpsicle harps each year. William Rees started building instruments several decades ago, eventually making his way to harps. Eventually his son Garen joined the family harp-making business, and they built a reputation for well-made traditional instruments.
In 2003, the father-son team came up with an idea that would change their business completely. They came up with a design for a tiny, compact, affordable harp that was so portable you could stick it in an airplane’s overhead compartment. The idea caught on immediately and their harp-making business became a Harpsicle-making business as the little, colorful instruments quickly became the bulk of their production. We sat down with William and Garen Rees in their old turn-of-the-century storefront-turned-factory to find out how they created one of the world’s most popular harps.
Harp Column: One thing that has struck me after seeing your operation here today and seeing you at different harp conferences and festivals, is you guys really seem to enjoy what you do. You seem to have a lot of fun building harps.
William Rees: Yeah, we do! [Laughs]
Garen Rees: Oh yeah, but I think the biggest enjoyment is seeing what people are doing with our instruments. That’s the biggest enjoyment. Seeing the out-of-the-box things people are doing all over the world. It’s really cool to see harps getting into the hands of people who would never normally be able to touch harps, and to see people doing new styles with them…it just blows my mind. That makes me happy. And seeing how people are helping other people with our harp—that’s the biggest drive for me.
HC: Now, I had heard about your harps long before the Harpsicle—you’ve been making harps for a long time. Tell us a little bit about how long you’ve been making harps and how you got started making harps.
WR: I think the first harp we made was maybe 35 or 40 years ago. But that was back when I was making harpsichords, violins, guitars, etcetera. We just went on until finally I couldn’t build all the instruments for other people, so we just started doing harps. One thing we did that’s quite a bit different is that we didn’t follow the rules. I mean, I did follow the rules for quite some time, but from my experience building so many other instruments, I asked, “Why is the harp this way when we could actually do this?” And it’s those sort of things that we started changing and using totally different materials. Like we don’t use sitka spruce soundboards anymore. We used to, but I couldn’t get the sound I wanted out of them. But when we went to the poplar soundboards, the harps gave me what the spruce wouldn’t. We’ve learned all sorts of things like that. So we use totally different designs, and apparently it’s worked for our harps.