Harp guitars link Sandpoint to China

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  • The Powell Brothers, Tony, left, and Dave, are firing on all cylinders with the release of new CD, production contract with the largest online and retail guitar business in the U.S., and upcoming launch of agreement to export ToneDevil harp guitars to the Chinese market. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

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    (DAILY BEE FILE PHOTO/DAVID GUNTER)Tony Powell, left, and Dave Powell play a duet on a pair of their harp guitars, which they build in Sandpoint under the name Tonedevil Guitars, in this 2012 photo.

  • The Powell Brothers, Tony, left, and Dave, are firing on all cylinders with the release of new CD, production contract with the largest online and retail guitar business in the U.S., and upcoming launch of agreement to export ToneDevil harp guitars to the Chinese market. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

  • 1

    (DAILY BEE FILE PHOTO/DAVID GUNTER)Tony Powell, left, and Dave Powell play a duet on a pair of their harp guitars, which they build in Sandpoint under the name Tonedevil Guitars, in this 2012 photo.

By DAVID GUNTER

Feature correspondent

SANDPOINT — Well, it’s about time. After five years of making history, making a name for themselves and — when schedules allowed — making fine music, the Powell brothers finally got around to making a CD.

The siblings, Tony and Dave, perform under the name, The ToneDevil Brothers. It’s both a nod to the line of harp guitars they build in Sandpoint, as well as a savvy bit of marketing for the instruments themselves.

Their timing could not be better.

In 2012, the brothers were first out of the gate to take a contemporary, production line approach to building the hybrid stringed affair, which merges the body of a 6-string guitar with the bass strings of a harp to create the closest thing to an orchestra that you can fit in a case. Having planted that standard, they went on to become active spokespeople for what now is a burgeoning community of builders worldwide.

In 2014, they hosted the annual Harp Guitar Gathering in Coeur d’Alene, attracting the largest turnout of international players and builders in the event’s history.

This year promises even greater achievements, as the brothers roll out their new recording on the heels of major production contracts in both the U.S. and China. Their first visit to the latter nation, in fact, was the impetus for completing the CD.

“We got the album done one week before we left for China,” said Tony.

“That was our deadline to get it finished,” Dave said.

The China opportunity fell into place after the main player in a partnership there — who, according to the Powells, also happens to be the largest guitar dealer in that country — became interested in the ToneDevil harp guitars as a possible addition to his line. When the partners later traveled to the U.S. for a West Coast tour of potential builders, they kicked the trip off at the ToneDevil shop.

By the time the Chinese businessmen left Sandpoint, an agreement was taking shape that will, no doubt, completely alter the brothers’ timeline for achieving wider notoriety.

“I never dreamed this kind of opportunity would come this fast,” Dave said, adding that the Chinese market is stacked with the kind of musicians who are most likely to find the harp guitar a natural progression for their playing style — a fingerpicking technique commonly known as “finger style” guitar.

“Over here, finger style is sort of nerdy and geeky,” he said. “Over there, it’s huge. The market is amazing. There’s four times the population that we have in the U.S. and four times the number of finger style guitar players.

“Fortunately for us, they’re taking the harp guitar seriously, as well.”

When ToneDevil guitars were first coming off the workbench in Sandpoint, the instrument was still in the early stages of a players’ renaissance, despite getting a temporary bump in the mid-1980s by virtuoso instrumentalist Michael Hedges.

“Eight years ago, if you wanted a harp guitar, you’d have to find somebody crazy enough to build it for you,” Tony said.

Within a few years, the Powells proved themselves both crazy and prescient, establishing ToneDevil as the first production line company to build harp guitars in the century that had passed since the instrument had its heyday. That would have been around the turn of the 20th Century, when builders such as Dyer, Knutsen and Gibson were hustling to keep up with demand.

Now it’s ToneDevil’s turn to fill that role, as the musician-builders ship off finished instruments almost as quickly as they’re polished, strung up and put in a box.

For Chinese players, the local company will offer two options — an artist series of instruments made by the brothers in Sandpoint, and a lower-priced student model built under their direction by a factory in China. Initially, they questioned whether having a Chinese-made instrument was a good plan, wondering if quality would be up to their standards. Their recent trip to the factory there removed all misgivings.

“We played a prototype and I said, ‘Wow — this sounds like one of our guitars,’” Tony shared.

Not long before the opportunity abroad happened, ToneDevil was selected by the biggest online and retail store guitar company in the U.S. to deliver harp guitars for sale on the Musician’s Friend website and in the company’s chain of Guitar Center stores. The original deal was for about one instrument a month — a pace that already has doubled, based on consumer interest.

The same can be said for the company’s overall output, which is twice what it was only a year ago.

“We used to do about 25 harp guitars a year,” Dave said, adding that ToneDevil hit a milestone this year with its hundredth guitar build. “Now we’ve got this thing humming to the point where we’re stringing one up every week.”

And with a total revamping of the shop floor and production area in process — the Powell brothers do tend to pile big projects on all at once — they expect to double production again by next year.

Just as the trip to China to finalize a production deal was the driver for wrapping up the recording process, being ready for customer reaction to that agreement has them rushing to conclude the remodel and put their improvements to the test.

“The goal now is to finish this up and get back to manufacturing so we can keep up with demand,” Tony said.

Future trips to China to monitor production there and promote higher-end artist series harp guitars already are in the planning stages. Domestically, the Powells will be hitting the road for a series of concerts and showcases at guitar dealers, where those attending can hear the harp guitar and try it out afterward. The new CD, too, will be available at those shows, placing the harp guitar bug a little deeper into the ear of those who take it home.

“It’s a company promotional tool as much as it is a new album for us,” said Tony.

The recording, which puts harp guitar, mandolin and the brothers’ vocals at the front of the mix, also features the work of fiddlers Avery Anderson, Arvid Lundin and Andrew Wilson, as well as an epic, “basso profundo” turn by Sandpoint’s own Leon Atkinson on the song “Sixteen Tons.”

For more information on the local company, to hear clips from the new CD or watch videos of the harp guitar being played, visit online at: www.tonedevilguitars.com

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