The following general information about harps and choosing a harp are provided for your information. Feel free to contact us if you have further questions.
BRIEF HISTORY OF HARPS
Other than percussion, the harp or its variants are thought to be the oldest instruments known to man. The first harps most likely evolved from the hunter’s bow and had a single string. As the harp developed, more strings were added but it was still in the basic bow shape. The harp then evolved into an angle harp with a sound box for greater volume. These harps had a sound box with a cantilevered arm from which the strings were attached. Pictures from ancient Egypt often depict some of these early types of harps.
A big development was to add a column much like the harps of modern times, this column allowed for greater tension on the strings and more flexibility in design.
In the early centuries, the harp was one of the most popular instruments. However, eventually the harp became less popular as music became more complex and the many accidentals where difficult to manage on the harps of that day. Most harps of that period where diatonic (white keys on a piano) and therefore the more complex music was more suited to chromatic instruments (black and white piano keys).
TYPES OF HARPS
There is no such thing as a “standard” harp and in making a come back, several types of harps evolved falling into several general categories.
The first category is to differentiate between harps with pedals and those without pedals and second is whether they are diatonic or chromatic. Compared to a piano, just the white keys is a diatonic instrument, whilst a chromatic instrument has both the white and black keys. The pedal harp much as we know it today, the cross-strung harp and triple strung where developed to enable the harpist to play music with accidentals. As a result of politics, the pedal harp became the harp of choice. The pedal harp allows the harpist to change a string between flat, natural or sharp by the use of a foot pedal, leaving the hands free to pluck the strings. Non pedal harps often have a system of semitone levers or blades, which allows the harpist to set the key at the beginning of a piece and to make minor changes during the piece. Since the hands are being used to pluck the strings, this restricts the amount of changes that can easily be made by moving semitone levers during the piece.
Briefly, other than pedal harps, types of other chromatic harps are as follows with the analogy of a piano to help describe them.
Cross strung where there are two rows of strings which cross from side to side. One row is tuned as the white keys and the other the black keys. The harpist by playing above or below the cross can play either the “white or black” keys. The double strung harp is simular and sometimes confused with the cross strung, but it is still diatonic. The double strung has two rows of strings that are parallel and both are tuned as the “white” keys. This allows for an overlap of notes and the capability to play the same note on either row of strings. The cross-strung harps have been around for several hundred years but are just now enjoying a come back in popularity.
Triple strung harps have 3 parallel rows of strings with each of the outer rows tuned to the “white” keys and the centre row to the “black” keys. To get a sharp or flat, the harpist reaches through the outer rows to pluck the required string.
There are also in line chromatic harps which have a single row, but in addition to the “white” keys, the “black’ keys are interspersed usually 11 strings per octave instead of 7.
The second broad category and very popular among harps is the non pedal diatonic harp, which is known variously as a Folk Harp, Celtic Harp, non pedal harp etc and is probably most accurately called a neo Celtic Harp. In addition to the “Celtic” shaped harps, these harps can also be made with a straight column that can resemble the look of a “concert harp” As mentioned above, these harps are often fitted with a system of levers that can raise each individual string by a semitone. As mentioned above, these harps are also occasional made with two parallel rows of strings called a double strung harp. There are small harps, designed to be held on your lap, called lap harps, and larger models called floor harps that are supported on the floor. Most people find a floor harp easier to play as it is supported on the floor as opposed to having to balance the harp on your lap.
Wire strung harps can be simular in style and shape but usually have closer string spacing and are traditionally played with the finger nails rather than the pads of the fingers. Metal strung harps tend to have strings the “ring”.
With in this Category there is also Latin or Paraguayan styled harps (originally Spanish) which are light weight, the strings are usually closer together and designed to be played with the finger nails rather than the pads of the fingers. These harps traditionally have strings that go down through the centre of the neck rather than being suspended off to one side and are lightly strung.
In addition to the above variations, harps also come with many other variables. The number of strings can vary from about 19 to 47 strings, with even more for cross strung, double and triple strung harps. Different shapes, which are largely cosmetic, and sizes as well as different types of strings such as nylon, gut composite, wound, and various metals and combinations of these are all variables with harps.
WHICH HARP FOR ME
This all may sound overwhelming, but the following are some guidelines for selecting the correct harp for you. Obtaining advice from a harp teacher and/or harp builder is advisable.
Type of harp
The type of music will definitely be a factor. For advanced classical music and jazz a pedal or chromatic harp (cross-strung or triple harp) will need to be given serious consideration. Most popular and Celtic or folk music is appropriate for a non-pedal harp. Latin and some early music lends it self to the Paraguayan styled harps. Levers can be added to most non-pedal harps to allow for playing in different keys and they can usually be added later as the harpist gets into more advanced music and budget allows, but check with your teacher and/or maker.
Type of strings (See more detail below)
Nylon and their composite combinations are appropriate for most non-pedal harps to be used for popular and Celtic or folk music and the tension is usually lower. Gut strings generally are of higher tension and may be desired by those who are planning on a pedal harp in the future, as the tension will be simular. Wire strung harps have a different sound and are normally only found on “folk” harps, the style of playing metal strung harps is usually different in that the nails are usually used like with the Paraguayan style harps. Gut strings are much more expensive than nylon and have a shorter life span. Carbon fibre or synthetic gut strings are available and reportedly have a longer life than gut but most people do not think that they sound as warm as gut.
Shape or styling
Other than for pedal harps, this is mostly a cosmetic consideration, some people prefer the straight round column found on pedal harps and others prefer the “Celtic” shape with a curved pillar. As to rounded or flat back, most people find the rounded back more comfortable to reach around and also prefer the look. The flat back by some theories could give a better sound quality, but I feel that in reality there are many factors that determine the sound quality and usually a well constructed light and strong rounded back sounds just as good or better. Staved back harps which are made from a number of flat surfaces are generally more comfortable to play than flat backed or square harps.
Size of the person who will be playing the harp.
A common misconception is that a small harp is required for a small person and therefore people often think that a lap harp is the choice for a child. Many find that lap harps are harder for small people in that it is often difficult to balance one on a small lap or balance it on a stand. A floor harp is usually easier to use. Lap harps are mostly only appropriate if small size is needed for travelling or other reason, but not just because the person is smaller. However, a person’s arm length/physical shape and how far they can reach can be a factor in reaching base strings of a larger harp especially if the soundbox is wide.
With proper sitting height and posture even small people can play a large harp, (perhaps not reaching all the strings yet) even a pedal harp. So the size of the person is not a limiting factor in choosing a harp. Budget yes, size of the harper no.
Type of timber
In a harp with a solid timber neck and column and a solid timber flat or staved back the timber can make a difference in the sound quality. However, almost all of the sound quality in a rounded back harp comes from the soundboard both from the timber used and the shaping that is done by the luthier (harp maker). Many pedal harps frames and structural elements are made from Northern Hemisphere maple and stained to various colours. So generally this choice of timber is mostly aesthetic given the physical restrains of strength, weight and stability. The exception is that harps made with a solid timber flat or staved sound box can be influenced by the type of timber and each type of timber has a slightly different characteristic sound wise. The soundboard is the heart of the harp and contributes most of the sound quality of a harp. Solid timbers called tone wood such as Northern Hemisphere Spruce and native timbers such as King Billy Pine can make very good sounding soundboards. Plywood soundboards are generally only used on cheaper harps and their sound quality is generally less. A solid tone wood harp will improve with use and age where as plywood soundboard one does not improve.
Costs vary and generally as with all musical instruments it is advisable to purchase the highest quality that your budget will allow. Like most things, you get what you pay for. There are some budget priced harps available but generally are only advisable for occasional “twinkling” rather than for more serious study. New pedal harps generally range from a bit under $20,000 up to $90,000. Quality non-pedal harps usually cost, depending on size from around $2,000 up to $8,000. Used harps are rarely available and generally not substantially less cost than a new one. Quality harps do hold their value.
Formal lessons can be important, especially if you plan on serious harp playing. The technique for playing a harp is important and difficult to learn on your own even using do it yourself books. If you plan to go it yourself, it is still generally recommended that you at least start with some formal lessons to prevent bad habits and then have occasional lessons after that. Obviously if you plan to seriously or proficiently play the harp, regular lessons are highly recommended. In choosing a teacher it is important that the teacher is familiar with the technique needed for the type of harp you plan to play and it is also a good idea to match the type of music you wish to play with a teacher knowledgeable to that style.
SUMMARY INFORMATION ABOUT STRING TYPES
It is important to know that most types of strings are not interchangeable and a harp is usually designed for a specific string type and gauge. To vary this will most likely result in a sacrifice in sound quality or too much tension which cab damaging results.
Metal strung harps are in a class by themselves and I will not go into their strings other than to say strings can be steel, brass, bronze, silver or gold and most commonly brass or bronze.
The types of string materials used on folk and pedal harps can be summarised as:
Gut: The most age-old and traditional string. Modern gut strings are made from cattle intestines (not cats!), and produce a warm, mellow tone. They have a nice natural feel and texture, and are preferred by pedal and many folk harp players alike. They have High tension which allows for dynamic range.
Qualities: warm, mellow tone, natural feel and texture. Expensive, need more frequent replacement. Gut is affected by humidity.
Nylon: Most of the folk harp world has settled on DuPont Tynex Nylon (TM), a formulation which is much less expensive and more reliable than the traditional gut. Nylon is a relatively new synthetic product which did not exist pre World War 2.
Qualities: brighter, less expensive, longer life span compared to gut and with lower tension. Wound nylon strings required in mid-range for best tone.
Fluorocarbon: In the last few years, a synthetic fluoro-polymer string has become popular with musicians. They are known as ‘synthetic gut’, fluorocarbon (polyvinylidene fluoride, PVDF) or just plain ‘carbon’ or “carbon fibre” with harpers. It was invented in 1970 by the Kureha Corporation, of Japan , as a UV resistant and waterproof fishing line. Their high quality fluorocarbon strings for guitars, violins, lutes and harps were developed jointly with Savarez Strings, of France , and Savarez markets them under the name ‘Alliance KF’. The Savarez strings are optically clear and smooth in upper reaches, while the midrange sizes have more the texture and look of gut. They are composed of numerous fibre strands, but are not ‘carbon fibre’, as that is a different material entirely, and is black in colour. Although often erroneously referred to as “synthetic gut” these string have tensions between nylon and gut and are not direct replacements for natural gut strings. Because fluorocarbon does not dye well, the colours red and blue that Savarez dyes the strings with may tend to wear off after a bit of playing, especially in the thinner blues & reds in the upper octaves.
Qualities: They have a brighter, clearer and more focused tone than gut or nylon, but closer to nylon, more dynamic range than nylon and a good life span. They are available in a large number of gauges for custom tensions. Fluorocarbon is not much affected by changes in humidity. They are more durable than gut or nylon, and are denser, thus thinner, for the same tension. They are also supple to the touch, and they stretch significantly more initially than nylon (start with no slack when winding on). Fluorocarbon is monofilament, so there’s no over-wrapped wound strings in the midrange like nylon. They cost less than gut, but more than nylon.
NylGut: Relatively new on the market is a product called NylGut, developed by the Aquila Company in Italy . While popular with lute and other stringed instrument players, it is now available in longer lengths, there for is new to the harp world and is our preferred string material. NylGut is distinguishable by its milk-white colour, has a specific density and acoustical qualities nearly identical to that of gut, and is the first true synthetic version of the natural product. NylGut is not nylon but a patented “secrete” material most likely a polydactyl material.
Qualities: strong points of Nylgut are its elevated resistance to wear under tension, greater than that of gut, but even more important is its extraordinary immunity to changes of climate, considerably better than that of Nylon and thereby ensuring a superior stability of tuning under normal conditions. They have a polished and comfortable feel. The waveform of the NylGut strings is similar to the fuller sounds of gut strings. The duration of the sound is longer than gut strings. The frequency characteristic of the NylGut string is almost the same as gut strings. They have a brighter, clearer and more focused tone than gut or nylon, more dynamic range than nylon and a good life span, excellent hydroscopic resistance and are available in a large number of gauges. It may take a few days for the strings to fully set and reach their optimum sound quality.
Bass Wires: The bass wires usually are made of silvered-copper wound over a steel core. There is a fibre bed between the copper & steel. Antique harps often use a lower tension fibre core wrapped with silvered-cooper in the base
Your dreams and aspirations will be a factor in determining which harp is appropriate for you. Sort through the above and hopefully this will help you select the harp that is correct for you. Consult with your harp teacher and harp maker and the choice is yours. Some harp makers including Harps and Harps will custom make a harp just to your requirements and dreams.