In 2012, Tim Meeks got a tap on his shoulder and a message that changed his life and his business: Stevie Wonder was coming, and wanted to hear the musical instrument Meeks invented.
Meeks, CEO of the small, Baltimore County-based manufacturer Marcodi Musical Products, was attending the National Association of Music Merchants conference in California, where he was demonstrating the Harpejji—a stringed instrument that Marcodi builds and sells.
Soon, Meeks was showing the “Higher Ground” superstar how to play, gently placing the blind musician’s fingers on the strings and frets and helping him find the notes; Meeks even tapped out a few bars of "Superstition" himself. Wonder ordered a Harpejji on the spot and invited Meeks to Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles for what became three days of lessons.
“You could tell he loved it,” Meeks said. “He told me he’d been praying to God to provide him a new instrument to play, because he had this itch to play something else ... he said he thinks this is the one.”
Wonder is now one of the Harpejji’s most passionate and most visible supporters; a quick YouTube search reveals he’s sung the instrument’s praises (figuratively) to paparazzi who encounter him on the street; he’s also performed with it in concerts, on TV’s Dancing with the Stars, alongside Pharrell Williams performing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and even used it to play a tribute to Prince on CBS This Morning after the Purple One died in 2016.
And he’s far from alone: other prominent Harpejji owners include Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and writer-director J.J. Abrams, whose work has included relaunching the Star Wars movie franchise in 2015. The instrument was even featured at the Oscars in 2011, where it was used to perform A.R. Rahman’s nominated song from the film 127 Hours.
“It’s been a roller-coaster. It’s been a wild ride,” Meeks said, explaining that while many things in life have an owner’s manual, running this business isn’t one of them.
“It’s hard, it’s expensive, it’s challenging, but all along there’s been moments of awesomeness that have pulled us out of the difficulty and given us a really big boost. That happens to us on a regular basis,” Meeks said.
The idea for the first Harpejji grew out of dissatisfaction Meeks began to feel after years of playing piano and keyboards. He wanted an instrument that gave him the sort of sound he was looking for.
“I was frustrated with the amount of acoustic nuances you get with keyboard instruments,” he said. “I always wanted to have an instrument that combined…the acoustic nature of a piano with the expressive capabilities of a synthesizer.”
Meeks made his first Harpejji prototype in 2001 and started building them for others until 2007, when he saw the enthusiastic response he was getting when he demonstrated his new instrument.
Meeks, whose professional background is in audio and acoustics, says his design takes cues from other modern instruments, including the Chapman Stick and the StarrBoard, but with a number of its own, patented changes.
The Harpejjis themselves are flat, wooden panels with 12, 16, or 24 strings. The sounds are primarily made by tapping the strings with the fingers, although they can also strummed; the vibrations are then amplified like with an electric guitar.
Marcodi’s first workshop was in a converted chicken coop, but the company has since expanded into a newer and more spacious shop near Glen Arm. It now has two full-time employees, including Meeks and shop manager Chris Mazmanian, and part time employees that include three college students and two high-school students; Meeks’s wife handles social media and customer service part-time.
In recent years, Marcodi has been able to speed up production of the instruments; production of the wooden frames is outsourced to a Maryland cabinet maker, but the painting, finishing, and installation and tuning of the strings and electric components is all done at Marcodi’s shop.
But while the company has been streamlining manufacturing, sales have also been increasing, so number of instruments on back or has been staying more or less constant, Meeks said.
So far, Marcodi has sold more than 400 instruments in 25 countries and had over $1.5 million in sales, he said. “Just about every year has been a big growth year for us.”
So what does the future hold, other than keeping up demand for Harpejjis? Meeks isn’t quite ready to talk about future plans yet, but said the company is developing some new products it hopes to bring to market soon.
“We’re Marcodi Musical Products. It’s not just the Harpejji,” Meeks said. “We have a lot of things in the works, but we’re not taking our focus off of our core product.