Considerations when purchasing a new or used harp

Purchasing a harp can be a rewarding yet complex and emotionally charged experience.  There are many issues starting with what type of harp you are considering, to cost as well as reliability, style, weight, size and longevity.  Then there are the all important considerations of sound quality, projection and responsiveness.
 
The reasons for purchasing a harp can be varied from the person who has always dreamed of playing and owning a harp to the professional that is mostly concerned with everyday practical issues as the harp is a tool of their trade. Other reasons for selecting a particular harp is often a mix of a person’s self image, personal prejudice, sound preference or even “the harp my teacher plays”.  Others have fallen in love with a particular model.  You need to remember when you are looking for your first harp that it is a musical instrument and you must also look beyond the romance and glamour of harping and focus on the musical and craftsmanship qualities of the instrument. Once you have a quality instrument your harp dreams will be a reality. 
 
This report will present information pertaining to harp buying that I hope you find useful.
 
First off a brief synopsis of the many types of harps is in order.  The harp is probably the least standardised instrument in the modern western world. Harps come in many sizes and types from large to small, one row of strings, two rows of string and even three rows of strings, plus they can be strung with nylon, gut, synthetics or metal. Other than chromatic harps, harps only have the diatonic notes, which to relate to a piano, only the white keys.  They then either have to be retuned or have levers or pedals to change the pitch of the string to get sharps or flats.
 
Folk harps
 
Folk harps are also called lever harps, non pedal harps and sometime Celtic harps. They are called lever harps because most folk harps use levers to change the pitches of the strings to get sharps or flats. I will discuss levers a bit later.
Generally speaking, the more strings you have (up to a point) the more useful the harp, because you have a larger playing range.  Although you can get folk harps with more than 36 strings, generally people find that 34-36 strings are enough. Most people find that it is easier to learn on a full size floor harp as opposed to a midsized, smaller or lap harp.  This is because a larger floor harp (34 or more strings) is more stable being supported on the floor and at a proper playing height rather than having to be balanced on your lap or requiring you to sit in a very small chair.  If you are a tall person make sure the harp you choose is tall enough so that you can sit up straight in a normal chair or stool.  Another consideration for a larger floor harp is that the soundboard will naturally be larger and will result in a much richer, resonating sounding harp. In most case the larger and bigger the harp, the bigger the sound box and the greater the sound.
 
 The mid size harps are of course easier to move around than a larger floor harp and you can always devise a low table or other stand to raise it to a good playing height.  Generally the sound is not as big as the full sized floor harp.  Lap harps although often a second harp for many people do have their place for portability and are often the harp of choice for therapy work due to their portability. A lap harp is not a “beginner harp” or a good childs’ harp just because it is smaller.
 
Other Folk Harps
 
Other harps that fall generally under the heading of Folk harps are harps classified as Chromatic or cross strung harps, double strung harps, triple strung harps, wire strung harps and Latin harps.
 
Chromatic harps sometimes called cross strung harps are full chromatic.  That is all the notes of the scale are always available.  Relating to a piano all the white and black keys are there.  There are two rows of strings that cross, one row being the white keys and the other row the black keys.  It is played near the centre crossing point and the hands are placed on the diatonic (white keys).  When a sharp or flat is needed the player just reaches either up or done slightly to reach the sharps and flats (black keys).  These harps can either have a 7 and 5 configuration like a piano or a 6 X 6 in which each set of crossing strings is tuned to a whole tone scale.  In line chromatic harps have been made but are not the norm. Although chromatic harps make a lot of sense and are not that hard to play, you may have trouble finding a teacher because many harpists including harp teachers have never seen one let alone played one.
 
Double strung harps have two parallel sets of strings, essentially two usually identical sets of strings, like playing two harps combined on one frame.  These harps allow for some creative playing and tunings. They usually have levers on the strings.  You use the same hand positions and techniques as a conventional folk harp and you can get a wonderful sound which comes from being able to play the same notes at the same time using both hands.
 
Triple strung harps have three rows of parallel strings, the outer rows are like the double strung harp (the white keys) and one reaches between the outer strings to get to the inner row which is tuned to the sharps and flats (the black keys).
 
Wire strung harps or Clarsachs are usually strung totally in bronze or brass and are often made along the lines of historical harps.  The sound of these strings are “ringing” with a long sustain and are distinctly different from the sound of most other harps. The wire has higher tension so these harps are built heavier and have hardwood soundboards.  The strings traditionally have narrower spacing and are played with the finger nails.
 
Latin harps, sometimes called South American or Paraguayan harps are similar to other larger floor harps with the difference being that they are usually very lightly strung, with the strings going between a split neck and with traditionally closer string spacing.  This allows for very fast playing using the nails rather than the pads of the fingers, it is more like a guitar technique.
 
Pedal Harps
 
Pedal harps differ from folk harps in many respects.  Instead of using levers to change the pitch of individual strings the harp player can place the harp pedals in one of the three positions; flat, natural or sharp.  There are seven pedals one for each note of the diatonic scale, operating one pedal changes the pitch of all the strings of a given note.  So for instance moving the “C” pedal from natural to sharp makes all the “C” strings sharp at one time.
 
If you intend to play orchestral, more advanced classical music, jazz or blues which have lots of chromatic changes; a pedal harp is usually the harp of choice/necessity.  Or a chromatic harp also can accommodate most of this same music.  You can play in every key, and change key with ease with these harps which is not the case with a lever harp.  Pedal harps are often very elegant, very large, heavy and expensive compared to most folk harps.  In the pedal harp world a concert grand as usually found in orchestra’s and have 47 strings. Semi grand usually have 46 strings and there are smaller versions such as 40 string 44 string and 45 string pedal harps.
 
Pedal or Concert harps are pretty much standard in that the strings are very similar or the same from maker to maker.  It is possible to get slightly lower or higher tension than the standard strings but this is not common.  They are usually strung with nylon in the first octave, gut in the mid ranges and metal wrapped in the base.  Some models have what is called an extended soundboard in which the soundboard flares out at the base compared to a straight soundboard which as the name implies has a straight edge.  The advantage of the extended soundboard is that there is more soundboard to vibrate and therefore produces a greater sound. The sound of pedal harps by different makers varies by maker but tend to be characteristic for that maker/model and you may need to hear harps by various makers to find the sound that appeal to you. Pedal harps are a significant investment so you will want to do your research before buying any harp but especially a pedal harp.
 
 
General information about learning to play a harp
 
Even if you have never played an instrument before with a little guidance from a teacher you can be on your way to playing harp.  If you have played a piano or keyboard you are a long way along the path to playing a harp as the music is very nearly the same and basically if you raise your hands from the horizontal playing position of the keyboard to the vertical of the harp strings the two are very similar.  The right hand plays the melody and the left the accompaniment or chords.
 
It is important to have a teacher at least in the beginning to make sure that you have the correct hand positions and playing positions and no bad habits.  There is a danger in being self taught that you may develop poor playing habits that may infringe on your playing as you progress. It may be optimal to have an in-person teacher but even if you do not have a local teacher, today, many teachers provide lessons over the internet with the likes of Skype.  Many students have made use of this technology with great success.
 
Learning to play the harp is like any other musical instrument or for that matter, any new pursuit; your success will depend on how much time and effort you put in.  Depending on your goals you should plan on at least some practice time every day and the more seriously you want to play the more time you need to set aside for practice.  Playing the harp can be a joy, you will find that you are able to begin making music very soon and it is up to you to what level you aspire.
 
The strings on harps have a colour system to give you a visual point of reference. With so many strings it helps to have some references.  For this reason modern harps have the C strings coloured red and the F strings a dark colour usually blue or black.
 
As a harp player you will have to learn to tune your harp.  Once you get the hang of it, this will become easy to do.  And the more you tune the harp the more it will stay in tune.  Most people use an electronic chromatic tuner to assist in tuning their harp.  Tuning is done by turning the tuning pins until the electronic tuner indicates that the note is in tune.  There is an exaggerated saying in the harp world that “a harpist spends half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune”.  Although it is not this bad you will have to tune your harp.  After a while most harps stay pretty much in tune unless there is a significant change in the weather.  Likewise string breakage is a fact of life and strings do occasionally break and need to be replaced.  Your teacher most likely can show you how to do this or there are lots of on line tutorials, once you have learned to do it, it is not really that difficult to do.
 
 
OK, you are serious and want to get a harp, what next?
 
How much will you have to spend?
 
Obviously the answer will depend on what type and size harp you have decided is the harp for you. There is often a tradeoff between your budget and what you can or would like to have.  Generally the advice is to get the most harp that your budget will permit as this will allow you to have a greater range.  You need a harp that sounds great and is something that “connects” with you, something that you can easily play, is the sound that you are drawn to and the look is something that you really like.  You should avoid the temptation to buy a cheap harp since if it is cheap more than likely it is cheap in all ways, almost a toy, cheap harps tend to have levers that do not function properly and often do not result in giving you a semitone, the strings are often not really harp strings and the sound and longevity questionable.  Unlike the multitude of available low cost guitars and other stringed instruments, a good harp is expensive to make and will be priced accordingly.  Generally you are better off to compromise the size harp that you can afford rather than opting for a low priced instrument. A good harp can be well worth the money you spend and low cost harps are often no more than harp shaped pieces of furniture rather than a serious musical instrument. Due to the great diversity in harps it is impossible to set an actual cost here but with a little research and due diligence you will be rewarded with a harp that you can enjoy and love. Be wary of harps found on sites such as Ebay and from music stores who know little about harps, these harps are usually imported from Asia and many although they look fine are of questionable quality for a musical instrument.
 
Used harps if they are of a good quality are usually not much cheaper than a new harp.  A well cared for used harp of high quality can be a good purchase as it will have matured in sound and will most likely be slightly less costly than a new harp.  There are many used harps that are of questionable quality so you need to be cautious when purchasing a used harp and remember that there are few really true bargains. Another consideration is that used harps usually do not have a warranty.
 
Rent first?
 
If you are uncertain as to the harp that is right for you and can find a rental harp this is often an excellent way to go.  By renting and presumably having some lessons during that time you can then discover more about the harp world and have a better idea of what type of harp you ultimately want.  Also if you are taking lessons, during this time, you will often be playing on your teacher’s harp(s) and get to experience even more harps.  Renting also gives you the opportunity to see if you really want to continue playing a harp.  Whether to rent or make an outright purchase is something that you will have to give some thought to and make an informed decision.
 
I am ready to buy a harp what do I do?
 
Basically there are two choices, one to purchase a harp that is stocked by a dealer or to have a harp custom made for you.  Other than the larger harp manufacturing companies that often do have an inventory of harps already made, smaller harp makers usually do not carry any stock of harps made and ready for purchase.  These harp makers generally make their harps to order.  The bigger companies will generally also make harps to order but are usually limited to their normal models and they can build a harp to you preferences such as finish or woods used.
 
They decision can be difficult.  Do you buy something readymade just because it is available now or do you want to wait for the harp of your dreams made just for you?  This can be a tough decision that only you can make.
 
String options
 
Unless you are opting for a metal strung harp, most other harps can have various strings.  We refer to harps by the name of the type of strings used for the majority of the harp or at least in the middle octaves.  All but the very small harps will have a combination of strings and have wrapped strings in the base including metal wrapped strings.  This is dictated by the physics of strings.  Most pedal harps are strung with gut strings.  This means that the middle octaves have gut strings with nylon in the very top registers and metal wound strings in the base. Folk harps are often available in either gut or nylon/synthetics.  For the most part these strings are not interchangeable but the harp is designed for one or the other.  Many feel that the sound of gut is warmer and offer greater dynamic range but the drawback is that gut strings tend to break more often and are more expensive. Gut strings also tend to have higher tension and you will need to decide if this is right for you. The sound produced and what you may like is a personal thing for you to decide. Today there are many synthetic strings available not only to substitute for gut but also in addition to nylon, each with slightly different characteristics. 
 
With a new folk harp you should get a string list that tells you which string is needed in each location.  This list becomes important when you need to order nylon wrapped strings because these strings need to be made for each specific harp model and note as they cannot be cut to length.  Dusty Strings and Harps and Harps also glue a copy of the string list to the back of the soundboard. Each harp maker and each model usually have a different string design.  Pedal harps and most gut strung folk harps do use “standard” strings which can be ordered by octave and note.
 
Replacing a broken string is really not that difficult and once you are shown how or comprehend one of the many online tutorials, you will find it is not as hard as it first seems.
 
Effect on sound with wood used
 
The wood can have an effect on the sound but I say this with qualifications.  By far the biggest effect on the sound is the size and shape of the sound box and to a certain extent the shaping of the soundboard.  Also the type of sound box matters.  With the typical rounded back sound box, since it is usually a veneered laminated construction, this has a neutral effect on the sound.  The neck and column can then have a minimal effect on the sound with heavier woods like Bubinga absorbing less of the strings vibration energy and creating a greater energy of the strings vibration to end up at the soundboard.  However, if the sound box is square back or staved construction with solid wood, the various woods can have an effect on the sound. You will have to listen to sound clips or actual harps to decide which sound appeals to you the most and then look for a harp made from this wood.
 
Levers
 
There are a number of commonly used brands of levers and most used by established harp makers will all do the job they are designed to do. All levers when engaged have a slight effect on the sound over an open string. The handle shapes of the various brands vary and you may like the feel of one over another and also the extent of the “throw”  i.e. how much the lever needs to move to fully engage the string varies and this might be something to check out in order to get what is best for you. Some of the common lever brands used are: Lovelands which have plastic handles and have been used for many years, they have a single mounting screw which means the levers can easily be knocked out of alignment. Truitt levers are gold plated and have been popular for their appearance and also the very minor effect on the string with the lever engaged, they are securely attached with two screws.  Camac levers have recently become the most requested levers in our experience.  Camac levers have a good smooth action; the effect of the engaged lever on the sound is imperceptible, they have comfortable handles and are secured by two mounting screws.
 
How many levers you want or need depends on the music that you will be playing.  Some people find that just the “F” and “C” strings are sufficient or perhaps also adding the “B”s.  The ultimate which allows you to play any key is to have a full set of levers, which is a lever on each string.  The full set not only allows you to play any key but looks more complete rather than having gaps between the installed levers.  If you do start with only partial levers, in most cases more can be added at a future date.
 
Accessories
 
There are accessories available but some are more crucial than others.  You will want a chromatic tuner which is an electronic devise to tell you when a note is at the correct pitch. A clip on lead for the tuner is useful to better pick up the sounds especially in noisy environments as it just picks up the vibration of the harp rather than the sound through the air. Most people find that a bench or stool is more conducive to correct playing posture than a regular chair.  Benches can be adjustable in height and are made for pianos or harps.  Many people like a stool; these are sold in music stores as drummer’s thrones.  You may want to consider having a spare set of strings; this is especially important if you will be performing.
 
 A padded case is a good investment if you will be moving or transporting your harp as most dings and scratches occur while loading a harp in a car or moving through doorways.  The padded case will help to reduce damage to your harp.  If playing a lap harp you may want to get a strap or some type of stand or even what is referred to as a lap stick to help support your small harp.  You most likely will want a good music stand and some music or learning materials. An extra tuning key is handy as tuning keys often get misplaced.  The same gremlins that pop up over night to cause a string to break also sometimes take or hide your tuning key.
 
Selecting your harp
 
Whenever possible it is a good idea to “play before you pay”, however in more remote locations such as Australia this is often not possible so you may have to rely on sound clips you find on line.  Another good source is folk, music and harp festivals at which you can usually find numerous harps. Most harp players are more than happy to talk “harp” and to let you listen and perhaps even have a play of their harps.
 
Being a part of the harp community can be a rewarding experience and most harp players welcome the opportunity to talk about their passion.
 
I hope that you have found this information helpful; I personally am very passionate about harps which is why I have become a harp maker, restorer and retailer.  We are available to answer your questions.
 
Here at Harps and Harps we like to say that we help make your harp dreams a reality.