Monday, July 30, 2007

So what’s “Real Quill”?

Like others in this business, I tend to separate the instruments of the baroque band into three general types: blowers (winds), scrapers (strings) and pluckers (harpsichords, lutes, harps et al). We pluckers need some means of plucking our strings, and that’s where bird quill enters the picture.

The harpsichord’s mechanism is very simple. When depressed, a key makes a wooden jack rise and pass by a metal string. Attached to that jack is a little thing called a plectrum that plucks the string. Releasing the key causes a bit of felt at the top of the jack to damp the string, so that the “ring” of one string won’t interfere with the plucking of the next one.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, all plectrum were made of bird quill, just like old-fashioned writing pens except a much smaller piece of same. When the harpsichord was revived in the 20th century, builders thought they could do better with a plastic substance known as delrin, which mimics the characteristics of real quill but lasts longer. Only recently have leading builders and players decided that the real stuff is actually better: more musical, less prone to brittleness, and it even feels better underneath the fingers!

And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a recent convert. The three harpsichords in Houston I use most often — all built by John Phillips of Berkeley, CA — all now have real quill: turkey vulture and Canadian goose, to be exact. Have a look at his website for more information on the instruments:

So when you’re in a park or stretch of wilderness that’s frequented by big flyers (no sparrows or robins, please), gather up a few sturdy feathers and give them to a harpsichordist!


Biggie Shawn said...

Delrin is a type of plastic developed by Dupont. It is tough, rigid and resilient to most chemicals and has a very low - almost nil - water absorption rate.

Any other questions you come across about plastic... send'm my way

Rob said...

Many, many years ago in the early '70's when I worked for Bill Dowd he was wont to say that when he did something the way the old masters did it, he found out why it worked for them. At that time he had just recently switched to using 18th C. French style wooden upper guides bushed with leather instead of the milled brass he had used previously, but Delrin jacks and plectra, and plastic lower guides were still the norm in his shop. Here we are some thirty-five years later and we're still just finding out that the original makers usually knew what they were doing in their choices of materials.