The sound of harps is alive in Red Wing

Gary Stone
Gary Stone is the co-owner of Stoney End Harps and Hobgoblin Music in Red Wing, Minn.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

When you enter the three-and-a-half story hip barn that is Stoney End Harps and Hobgoblin Music, Eve Stone, a petite and ruddy faced woman, will be there to greet you. Eve and her husband Gary Stone own and run the businesses.

Their showroom is a nearly overwhelming display of harps, whistles, drums, guitars, concertinas and dulcimers. On a Minnesota winter day the sun streaks through the windows and onto the display of music.

Stoney End Harps only makes Celtic harps, also known as lever harps. They also build mountain dulcimers and banjos. Eve Stone points out a 29-string model and explains the difference between the pedal harps often used in orchestras and lever harps.

Click here to view an audio slideshow of the Stone's workshop in Red Wing.

Harp strings
Strings on a Stoney End harp.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"This has levers instead (to change keys). So this harp was tuned in E flat and it has some of the levers engaged. It should be in the key of C," she says as she plucks a few notes.

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Celtic harps are played in folk and gospel music as well as music therapy.

"We make our harps out of cherry, walnut and maple. Maple being the hardest wood and cherry usually being mellowest and walnut is kind of the darker sounding," she said.

Everything on a harp influences the sound it produces, including the wood. She strums a cherry harp, and a sweet, calm tone emanates from the harp, Stone says. Then she runs her fingers across a maple, and the tone is deep and rich.

There's something you should know before we go much further: Neither Eve, nor her husband Gary play the harp, even though Gary designs and builds all of the harps. Gary Stone started making harps without any intentions or plans. It just happened.

Eve Stone
Eve Stone is the co-owner of Stoney End Harps and Hobgoblin Music. She helps promote and sell their products.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Stone is a thin man with large, watery blue eyes and short dusty hair. He makes his instruments in the first floor of the barn.

"I wanted to make mountain dulcimers in my workshop. I did kitchen cabinet work and I had a workshop where I did a lot of antique furniture," he says.

He was always aware of the elegance and the economy of material that an instrument needed to sound good to the ear and feel good to the player, Stone says. So when he had the chance to buy a dulcimer shop he took it. With it he got all the dulcimer patterns.

"But there was a harp amongst the stuff. I re-engineered that. Amazingly enough people started buying (them). Harps have just taken over ever since. We ship them worldwide. All these harps we're working on right now, they're all going to Japan. We've got orders for 16 of them for one customer," he says.

Heart on a harp
The heart on the sound board is a design feature of Stoney End harps. It allows the uppermost strings of the harp to vibrate, improving their sound quality. Each sound board is made of five-ply birch, a strong thin wood.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

His instruments are well-regarded. Stone says that's in part because of the amount vibration he allows on the sound board. A Stoney End harp has a trademark heart hollowed out of the top of the sound board. That allows even the thin, high notes at the top of the harp to sound bright instead of flat. He comes at harp building from an engineer's perspective.

"I don't have the musical background. There are maybe a dozen major harp makers in the United States. And all of the good ones are not particularly good musicians or harp players," Stone says. Then, sheepishly, he adds, "There are a couple of harp makers who are really good musicians, but they don't make the best harps. I don't know if there is some sort of a reason for that or not."

Stone goes back to tuning a harp that's almost ready to ship.

Every week he and his staff complete six to eight harps. The whole process takes about six weeks. Each harp is stamped with Stoney End's motto, "Music Can Save the World."