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Carl Brown - Genius or Clown?

It's one of those mysteries of nature. How could anyone who started out by inventing an instrument as ludicrous as the *snort* Harp-O-Chord go on to invent such a sweet and practical little instrument as the harp zither? Did Carl E. Brown have giant clown feet and a bozo nose, or the soul of a poet? You be the judge. You can also decide if you want to move from the sublime to the ridiculous or the other way round by choosing your path from the links below.
The Amazing Harp-O-Chord
"Twice as Loud as Both Mandolin and Guitar."
The Enchanting Harp-Zither
aka the MacArthur Harp
Carl Brown holding Harp-O-Chord
Kelly Williams's harp-zither
My Harp-O-Chord
My Harp Zither

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My Harp Zither
This is my very favorite instrument to play. I like it because it's small and sweet - you can play it curled up in a chair, upright on your knee, lying flat on a table, or in pretty much any other position that appeals to you. I particularly enjoy playing it in an upright position, because you can pluck the chord strings from behind, as if you were playing a harp. 

Margaret MacArthur holds hers tight against her chest, plucks the melody strings with the fingers of her right hand and the chord strings with the thumb of her left. I sometimes hold mine that way, but it's hard to see the strings in that position, so I usually rest it on my knee, hook my left thumb around the post, and pluck the chords with my left forefinger. I wear a thumb-pick on my right thumb. I started out playing the melody with just the thumb-pick, but soon realized that I needed to use several fingers to make the melody play smoothly. I still use the thumbpick for the lower notes in the melody, or sometimes if I just want to play louder (it's a very quiet zither).
Modern copies of this instrument (sold by Lark in the Morning) are tuned in the key of C, but the original  was meant to be tuned in G. There is no doubt about the intended tuning, since the notes are labeled. The chords are arranged, from left to right, I-IV-V rather than the common order of I-V-IV. This makes it a little harder to switch back and forth between this instrument and any of the other chord zithers. There is one advantange to this arrangement, however; you can strum the lowest melody string (D) along with the 3rd chord (D or D7) for added resonance. 

Margaret MacArthur has developed her own tuning for the instrument, which she describes in detail in her book, How To Play the MacArthur Harp. Her original instrument, found in decrepit condition in a Vermont barn, had lost all its paint and decals, so she and her husband started from scratch and reconstructed the instrument. When they were finished, it was in the key of C and the chord strings were arranged somewhat differently. I believe that the modern reproductions use the MacArthur tuning. 

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My Harp-O-Chord
my Harp-O-Chord
My Harp-O-Chord
Click to see closeup of label
An unusually chatty soundhole
label. Click on picture for 
closeup of the label.
I have bought most of my instruments on Ebay, but this one just came to me. Actually, it was given to me by one of my daughter's friends, who had noticed the zithers all over the walls and thought to himself - "Aha! Someone who would appreciate that bizarre instrument that we found in the basement!" 

I thanked him politely and turned the thing over in my hands for awhile, trying to figure out why there was a funny rectangular hole near on one side, right under the curved top. I kept thinking a piece was missing. It wasn't until I started reading the soundhole label that it finally hit me, and I started jumping around yelling, "A Harp-O-Chord! I can't believe it, it's a real Harp-O-Chord!" 

I even went out and bought a harmonica in the key of G so I could try it out. This thing is a hoot to play, although it's hard to imagine audiences being spellbound by it for as long as Mr. Brown apparently envisioned. 

It's simple enough to play: you play the melody on the harmonica, and strum the 3 basic chords in accompaniment. The strings are arranged in an unusual fashion for a chord zither; the bass strings for each chord are separated from the chords themselves. This is actually very clever, making it easy to hit the bass string with the thumb and then strum the rest of the chord with the fingers. This is an important consideration, since the performer cannot actually see the strings while blowing into the harmonica.

What makes it such an unforgettable experience (for the musician, anyway) is the way the bass notes of the chords vibrate your lips and resonate in your teeth. It's not just the soundbox of the zither that becomes an amplifier for the harmonica - your entire head is turned into an amplifier! I'm sure that most of this effect is lost on the listener, but let's face it, listeners aren't likely to stick around very long once they stop laughing. 

A sad sight - a Harp-O-Chord with no harp
What's that gaping hole?
A Harp-O-Chord as it was meant to be
Ah, that's better! 
A Harp-O-Chord fulfilled!


This is the instrument I would like to own if I were an embittered former idealist living alone in a small room in a shabby boarding house. I would play it every night, losing myself in oneness with my harmonica, and drive the rest of the boarders berserk It's a different artistic vision than Carl E. Brown's, but, in my opinion, a much more achievable one.

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Site Last Updated  April 21, 2002
By Sharon Kahn