In the late 70’s Rick Rubarth was a young singer/songwriter/guitarist working folk clubs in the Detroit area, when he heard his first harp on a recording by Robin Williamson. Captivated by the beautiful sound of the Caswell harp on the album, Rick vowed then and there to become a harpist. But how do you get a harp if you’re a starving artist with no extra money for new instruments? Solution: build your own. It took Rick about six months working evenings in a small workspace in his apartment to make a very credible first instrument on which to learn how to play. Thirty years and 1100 harps later, at the age of 52, Rick Rubarth has sadly become only a modest harpist, but fortunately for the harp world, he is one of the best builders on the scene today pergola builders jacksonville
Being an instrument maker of any kind requires great sensitivity to sound and a compelling desire to make objects with one’s own hands. Rick possessed both qualities early on. He grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, a member of musical family which would gather every Sunday after church at Grandma’s house play and sing old-time classics from Vaudeville era, like Sidewalks of New York and Bicycle Built for Two. Strumming guitars were Rick’s father and older brother, while his mother played the piano. “She was the real talent in the family,” recalls Rick. “She could sight read sheet music and play by ear as well. She played everything from Chopin and Copeland to Rhapsody in Blue and boogie-woogie. Unlike a lot of classically trained players, she could improvise and pick things up by ear. I didn’t get any formal instruction from her, but I got some of the musical genes. My dad did show me how to play guitar. By 14, I was writing my first songs.”
As for the handicraft side of the equation, Rick remembers always building something or other throughout his childhood. Model planes and boats were a favorite pastime, as were elaborate Rube-Goldberg style constructions of cardboard, which would deposit a coin in a bank in the most complicated way possible. Later, high school wood shop proved particularly rewarding and kindled a life-long interest in wood and its properties.
Rick had to eventually sell that first harp during one of those inevitable lean times any working musician is subject to, but thus was created an opportunity to build a new harp, which hopefully would sound even better than the first. Throughout the early period of his career he would build one or two harps at a time and then reflect on what he could change to improve the sound. In the early years the goal wasn’t to make a living, but rather to learn a craft and discover the mysteries of an instrument.
In 1977 Rick moved to Ann Harbor Michigan where he worked as an industrial electrician in the auto industry. Most of his free time was devoted to making harps. “I lived near the Stearns instrument Museum and the curator would let me into the back rooms to look at the old harps in their collections. These were important historical instruments — there was an early Morley harp and a very old copy of the Queen Mary harp — but they had fallen apart and were lying in pieces on shelves, awaiting some time in the future when they might be restored. This was an unbelievable opportunity for me because I was able see the inside! I took lots of measurements and observed the way the tops were carved and braced. It was a great foundation for my future education.”
Four years later Rick, now married, relocated to Denver, Colorado where he has lived ever since. He established a pattern of working part time, gigging around town, and building harps. In the late 80’s, a music retailer suggested there was a niche available in the market for small harps, so Rick designed a 22-string instrument, which proved very successful. Throughout the years he has built and sold over 700 of these affordable harps, however larger harps have remained his true passion.
He currently devotes all his attention to his Merlin design, a 36-string harp that Rick feels is the pinnacle of his life’s work. Designing and refining the Merlin took over a decade of experimentation and hard work.” A harp is a complex puzzle whose pieces must work in complete harmony,” he explains. “If you change any one element — the scale length of a string, for example, all the other elements are affected as well. You have to keep building new harps to test your ideas. Sometimes the improvements are small; sometimes they are more dramatic. It all takes a lot of time and patience.”
The Merlin has a coopered staved back of solid maple, a soundboard of aircraft birch ply, and a truss-rod system in the column, which allows the harp to be extra strong but not too heavy. But what really sets the Merlin apart is unique system of struts inside the instrument that are made of a synthetic material, which, unlike wood, does not lose strength over the years. The struts relieve much of the huge tension (about 1100 lbs) that the strings exert on the soundboard, allowing it to move more freely and produce a stronger, richer sound.
I recently interviewed Rick to find out more about this unique harp.