What prompted you to build instruments and what role should instrument builders have in shaping the future of music? Ed Kottick



Ed Kottick
Photo by Oscar C. Beasley

I started building musical instruments because I was both a musician and a woodworker. I realized that although a table or desk can look nice, it makes no sound; it’s only value is as something to put something on. But an instrument is not only a visually aesthetic object, it also makes music. That was a very powerful impetus to me. I built my first instrument, a harpsichord, in 1963, and have been building ever since. I’ve made something like 80 instruments in the last 40 years, including 45 harpsichords, 10 clavichords, 2 fortepianos, a dozen lutes, 3 guitars, and a number of other plucked and bowed instruments. This activity has provided immense satisfaction for me even though I’ve pursued building strictly as a part-time endeavor.

Building instruments also provided me with a scholarly path. Although my first research interest was early Renaissance music, I gradually drifted toward organology (the study of musical instruments). I even spent a period of 15 years investigating the acoustical properties of harpsichord soundboards, research that resulted in articles in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and Scientific American. The culmination of all this research—and all of it tied to my activities as a builder—is my recent book, A History of the Harpsichord.

My building has also led me to an association with Zuckermann Harpsichords, builders of kits and custom instruments. I’ve been an agent of the company for many, many years, but since my retirement from teaching in 1992, I’ve assumed a larger role in their activities. I now write the construction manuals for the various harpsichord and clavichord kits, I consult with them on instrument design, and I also do some of their technical support. I particularly enjoy helping people fulfill their dream of building an instrument with their own two hands. These are activities I find challenging and enjoyable, and I hope to keep doing them for years to come.

It’s a little more difficult to say what role instrument builders should have in shaping the future of music. I suppose the only answer is the traditional one, which has two parts:

  1. Builders make instruments to fill a need (which is why there are so many more electric guitars produced yearly than harpsichords), and
  2. Builders make instruments to satisfy an urge.

Little need be said about those who build for the first reason. These are the makers who supply the bread and butter instruments, and I count myself among them. Those in the second category have littered the world with instruments that few care about. Still, every once and a while one catches on. One of the most famous of these was the gravicembalo col forte e piano, the instrument we now know as the piano. Few instruments have shaped the future of music more than that one! Let’s hope that instrument builders never lose that spirit of adventure; knowing the breed well, I don’t think they will.

Actually, my answer begs the question: I’ve told you what I think the role of instrument builders is in shaping the future of music, not what that role should be. Frankly, I don’t think that question can be answered beyond this simple statement: an instrument builder affects the future of music by producing the very best tool he can, whatever it may be.