GRAND JUNCTION— Harps have a reputation that has a whole lot to do with chubby cupids and highbrow-hotel lobbies. Harp music is the Pearly Gates’ soundtrack.
But inside a metal building tucked between a supply business and a laboratory in an industrial section of Grand Junction, it is quickly obvious that harps are also associated with a whole heap of down-to-earth work.
At Blevins Harps Inc., Jamin Wright laboriously builds harps, wood layer upon wood layer, string by string, and lever after lever.
Each harp takes four to five months from start to finish — from rough wood plank to playable instrument. The last two to three weeks of that is devoted to just plucking the same string over and over again several times a day to check the sound. Jamin said he usually has about 15 harps in various stages at any given time.
Jamin, 23, is not a harp player. Most harp builders aren’t. He is a craftsman. He leaves the glissandos — the ethereal sound of fingers gracefully sweeping across the strings, and the arpeggios — the plucking that creates recognizable tunes — to his mother, Laurie Wright, a harpist and now a partner in this family business.
Laurie, a diminutive harpist (the tallest instruments in the shop have nearly a foot on her), for decades has been playing with the Grand Junction symphony and giving harp lessons.
Jamin’s younger sister, Malaya, 16, also plays and teaches on instruments produced by her brother.
It was Laurie’s idea to buy a harp-making business to meld the woodworking skills of her son and her husband, Dale, with her and her daughter’s musical talents. Dale also works full time as a therapist.
The Wrights acquired what is a bit of an outlier business in the music world. There are only two harp makers listed in Colorado. Blevins Harps is the largest. Harp maker Dan McCrimmon produces two models of Highland Harps in Fort Collins. There are fewer than 50 harp makers in the country, according to Harp Wiki.
The woodshed was privilege, no punishment
Jamin is something of a prodigy in the harp world. He was still in his teens when the Wright family took over the 30-year-old Blevins Harp business in 2019 after the founder retired.
Jamin had already worked for several years making high-end cabinets. Long before that, he had made bows and arrows and other wooden doodads in his family’s garage.
He was such a lover of woodworking at an early age that his upbringing came with a switch on the proverbial “getting sent to the woodshe”’ punishment. Getting sent to the woodshed — in his case, a garage — was a reward.
“I was homeschooled and I was always out in the garage making things. I was happy building anything custom,” he said. “My mom always told me that I had to finish my schoolwork before I could go the garage.”
Blevins Harps, which employed 10 harp builders and shipped about 3,200 harps a year around the world, had been shuttered for a year when Jamin’s parents pitched the idea of taking it over. Jamin’s first reaction was an unequivocal “No!”
He envisioned having to piece together giant unwieldy symphony instruments with foot pedals. For someone in love with wood, all that mechanization held no interest. But, folk harps, with their simple beauty, were more intriguing.
Jamin knows that harps are one of the oldest instruments in the world — if not the oldest. They were played in ancient Mesopotamia. They are depicted on the walls of Egyptian pyramids. David played one for King Saul in Biblical accounts.
But even though harps are now his livelihood, Jamin isn’t aware that harps have turned up in recent Latin Grammys or as an accompaniment to Lady Gaga or Drake. He is speechless when he hears that harps have become features of Pornhub soundtracks and TikTok videos. He hasn’t seen the Harp Twins strum Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child O’ Mine while standing on a highway in metallic bustiers and miniskirts, belying the harp’s prudish reputation.
New hands, old patterns
Most of what Jamin knows about harps has to do with all their beautiful swooping curves and resonant soundboxes. What he produces range from delicate 28-inch-tall lap harps to 5-foot high standing harps. He can make 94 different models that have anywhere from 20 to 38 strings made of nylon filament — the longest of them wrapped with wire to prevent sagging. Some of today’s popular harps also come with two parallel rows of strings.
The patterns for those harps hang on the walls of Blevins Harps. They were designed by the previous owner, Dwight Blevins. Blevins was a professional sound engineer in southern California who became in love with harps through that work and decided he could build them.
“Basically, harps are a box with strings on them,” Blevins said.
I have designed harps under the widely-known Blevins name for 30 years. With his wife, Cindy, a musician and composer who maintains the Blevins Music business, he constantly came up with new designs as a way “to get peoples’ attention.”
One of his signature designs has what he describes as “a blip, a curve or a knot,” on the center of the harmonic curve — the wood piece along the harp’s top. The “blip” looks like a wooden spit curl that gives Blevins’ harp designs a jaunty touch.
“I really took something that existed and modified it. I moved it to the middle of the harmonic curve,” Blevins said.
He gave his harp designs names that are penciled on the stencils that Jamin uses — Zena, Marie, Eden, Sonata, Meadow Wind and Bourre. In an intensive few months of instruction, he taught Jamin the intricacies of building those various harps.
Jamin makes the harps in more varieties of woods than one might find in an arborist’s dream forest.
Cherry and walnut are the most popular. One customer asked for a harp made from an apricot tree she had to cut down. In the racks on one wall, there is maple, curly maple, quilted maple, purple heart from South America, spalted pecan and hackberry just waiting to become harps.
Some of the woods have swirls and whorls in the pattern that Jamin likes to feature as he is laminating multiple layers together to withstand up to 1,600 pounds of pressure on his largest harps.
Then comes the sanding—most of it by hand. Jamin dispels any notion about the hours and hours of hand sanding being meditative.
“For the first five minutes,” he responds when asked about that. “Then it just gets annoying.”
Once the neck, the column and the sound box are pieced together into what is basically a wooden triangle, each harp gets six coats of polyurethane coating, and, in some cases, custom painting. Some of the more recent harp-buyer color requests have included tea green, ballet-slipper pink and gumdrop. Some people paint butterflies or flowers on their harps, Laurie said.
One of the last chores in harp building is adding levers—small, gold-plated metal bits on the underside of the neck that can flip the pitch of the harp’s strings.
Sent with “fragile” stickers and a little prayer
Jamin does all this in a shop that is so tidy it looks like it could do double duty as an operating theater. Drill bits are lined up on the walls. The drill presses, the sanders, the band saw, the jointer and the planer are all clean as a whistle.
“I can’t stand clutter,” Jamin explains.
On a front office wall, a map of the world bristles with pins in several locations where most Blevins’ harps end up. The Netherlands looks like it’s been the target of a porcupine. Hong Kong and Japan are crowded with pins. So is Colorado. A single pin punctures Australia.
Most of the harps are custom made to meet orders for models that range from around $1,500 to $4,000. Many will end up being used as “therapy” harps – to provide soothing music to either the harpist or to listeners, some of whom are in hospital or hospice beds. (Though Dale is a therapist, he does not play a therapy harp.)
Before harps go out the door of Blevins Harps, they are carefully swaddled in foam packing materials and boxes plastered with “fragile” stickers. Jamin admits he “says a little prayer for each one” knowing all his work he will be jounced around in delivery trucks and airplane charges.
None of Jamin’s harps have been damaged yet in shipping. The angels must be listening. After all, these are harps.