written by Juliet Grable | photos by Ezra Marcos
Glenn J. Hill built his first harp for the reason so many young men do extraordinary things—to impress a girlfriend. Inspired by the second-hand instrument a visiting friend played for him, he used the wood shop of his spiritual community in Santa Barbara, California to secretly create his own.
“At the time I had only done two woodworking projects in my life,” said Hill, now 62. “But I looked at it and said, ‘I can build one of those.’” Thirty-five years later, Hill has made close to 500 instruments. Through his business, Mountain Glen Harps, he offers pedal harps, crossstrung harps, Celtic harps, laser harps and lyres, each with customizable options for size, strings, tuning and design.
“I basically do a lot of things no one else does,” said Hill. “I’m an artist, not a cabinetmaker, so that’s how I approach making instruments.” He works from templates and full-scale drawings that include a few key measurements, and often incorporates carvings, inlays and customized sound holes. He modeled one project—a full-sized harp made from Hawaiian koa—after “the architecture of Rivendell, the Middle Earth realm from Lord of the Rings.” Carved roots sprout from the base and wrap around the soundboard; interwoven branches twine along the pillar and neck sprouting applique leaves.
After building his first instrument, Hill made several more, and eventually attended the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City to learn more about acoustics and structure. (Part of his entrance exam was to carve a perfect cube from a “weird” hunk of maple using hand planes.) While in Utah, Hill met Laurie Nielsen, now his wife of thirty years. Shortly after, they moved to Southern Oregon. Today they live in Phoenix, Oregon with two dogs and a small flock of chickens. A perfect complement, Nielsen makes custom harp strings and harp cases through her business, Markwood Heavenly Strings & Cases.
The ideal harp balances strength, beauty and acoustics. Hill glues the harp’s pieces to a skeleton structure, which he then rounds off, leaving pleasing curves on the outside and strong framing hidden inside. He uses many types of wood, but favors rock maple for structure, spruce for sound boards, and cherry, Oregon myrtlewood and Hawaiian koa for their beauty and rich sound.
More recently, Hill discovered a market niche after a Louisiana chef commissioned a gift for a Catholic healing center—a King David lyre made from ancient olivewood from the Holy Land. He has since made several more, using sustainably harvested wood from 500-plus-year-old trees. The instruments feature olive branches, Star of David sound holes and raised-relief Hebrew phrases from ancient manuscripts, stone carvings and coins.
“A lot of my harps are instruments that may have been,” he said.
In contrast, one of Hill’s current commissions is a laser harp for Guinness, which, as drinkers of the rich dark ale know, has the Celtic harp as its logo. A peculiar marriage of the ancient and modern, a laser harp uses laser beams in place of strings to operate a Midi keyboard. Interrupting the laser triggers an action, whether a single note, a series, or images or video. Hill will personally deliver the completed instrument to Ireland later this spring.
Hill’s harps start at $2,300 for a 19-string lapsized harp and go up from there. He cautions those who might be attracted to cheaper plywood or carbon fiber versions; these “harp-like objects” may look pretty, but they won’t stand the test of time.