Buying a Harp

Buying a new harp can be a challenging experience - there are so many different kinds. The shape, size, decoration (carving, painting, inlay) and the tonality of a harp can vary greatly from one harp to another, as can the price. How to choose a harp and the many variables involved are the subject of many discussions.

First of all, a harp is a musical instrument. It can be a tool for professionals or the "love of your life".  But whatever your need or reason for purchasing, one can look to some general areas in evaluating harp qualities and characteristics. Below are brief remarks on some of the points that you may want to consider.

The Sound
The sound is first - and most important. It should be rich and pleasing. It does not matter how beautifully a harp is decorated or carved, for if the sound is not to your liking you will not enjoy the harp except as a piece of furniture. As in many other instruments the choice of tonality is an individual thing. The tone of the harp can vary from being very bright and bell-like, to mellow and dark. Your preference is most important, but in all cases the sound should be clear and have enough projection to be heard well.

The Feel
The feel of the harp relates mostly to the string tension and string spacing. If the strings are too far apart then it is difficult to play chords and fast tunes. The overall tension will affect your playing technique. Too much or little tension makes it hard to pluck the strings or play smoothly and an unevenness in the tension between strings makes you work much harder to play well. The feel also relates to how the harp fits with your body when you play. If it does not feel comfortable because the harp is too heavy or unbalanced then your playing session will not be as enjoyable as you may wish.

The Look
The form and finish of the harp should be pleasing (satisfying) to you. The kind of wood you choose will have a very important visual impact. Dark coloured woods such as black walnut, or light ones such as maple have a very different presence.  The amount of decoration, carving and other details will also have a visual effect and will be related to what you can afford. Decorative elements can form a large part of the purchase price.

The Scale Range
The strings on a harp are like the white keys o f the piano. It takes 8 strings to make an octave. Sharping levers are used to make a "white key, natural note" string into a "black key, sharp note" string. Nylon strung Celtic harps can have less than 3 octaves (21 strings and smaller) to more than 5 octaves (36 strings and over). Of course this makes a big difference to the size of the harp, its acoustic capability, musical possibilities, and its price.

For most nylon strung harps the highest treble string is between G6 and C7 and as you add more strings you have more bass strings. Small harps have few bass strings; most 36-string harps have a C2 string for bottom bass. If you are already a musician and you are pretty sure you will play the harp seriously then you may be better off buying a 36-string harp to start with because you are probably going to want the bass strings. Otherwise, you may just get a smaller harp and see how you develop your skills. Having said that, many harpers have two harps, a small one that they can easily take with them while travelling so they can keep up with their playing and a bigger one for home or performances where they can enjoy the full musical spectrum of the harp.

Material Used 
Some harps are made of laminate or plywood. It is the view of this harp maker that there is no substitute for solid lumber especially for the frame and the soundboard. The reason for this is that the vibrations of the strings will be carried through and bounced back on the entire frame and soundboard of the harp. Solid lumber does a better job at this than laminated wood.

The two main structural components of the harp are the soundboard and the frame (neck, pillar, soundboard sides). The soundboard is the key factor, along with the stringband design in determining the sound quality. Veneered soundboards use lesser quality lumber and camouflage wood defects or workmanship that would not be acceptable otherwise. The back of a harp has a much lesser acoustic function and is more important for structural purposes so a laminated back topped with veneer will not diminish the overall sound quality of the harp.

One of the questions that is asked over and over is how various hardwoods used in the frame affect the sound. It is the frame that keeps the harp together under the pressure of the strings (between 500lb to 1500lb). It has to be strong enough to resist the twist of the strings and that is its main function. Most hardwood can do a good job if the harp is built properly. Many people believe they can detect different qualities in different woods. But there can be wide differences in wood characteristic between two wood samples of the same tree or between two different trees of the same species, so that, at the end the choice of hardwood should be made on the basis for what appeals to the purchasers.

Different harp designs emphasize different characteristics. How heavy and how big the harp is may be important to you. If you plan to take your harp to workshops and musical gatherings then you should pay attention to the size and the weight of the harp. Will the harp fit in your car? Can you carry it without collapsing?  Bigger and heavier harps do not mean better acoustics or tonality. Also, the overall size does not always correlate with the number of strings or their range. Check that out.

Levers: They allow  you to play in different keys without retuning your harp. Cheap ones are pivoting blades or wire hooks. They do not work very well. More expensive ones such as Loveland and Truitts are more popular and they work much better. You can have them on all the strings, just on the C's and F's, or something in between. They can be added at any time. The more levers you have, the more keys you can play in without retuning.
Soft Case: It is a good investment if you  plan to take your harp out to workshops, harp teacher's studios, or music gatherings. It will protect your harp against temperature change, bangs and make it easier to carry.
Riser or Stool: Most small harps (approximately 22-34 strings) require a small stool or riser so you can play it comfortably sitting on a regular chair. Proper height of the harp when playing is an important factor for good technique and comfort.

The Price
More expensive harps are not necessarily better instruments. The wide range of prices for harps may bewilder a new buyer. The reasons for these are many and can be subjective. Buying from harp dealers can sometimes be more expensive. Independent harp makers may provide you with more choices but not necessarily with better instruments. Understanding the instrument that you want to buy will be your best guide as to whether or not you have found a fair deal.

The Warranty
Whether you buy a harp from a dealer or an independent harp maker, you should know what kind of warranty the harp has. Make sure you are happy with the conditions of the warranty. If you buy from a dealer, ask who is the maker of the harp, and whether the dealer or the maker will honour the warranty or do any repairs that may be necessary in the future.

Buying a Harp on the Web

Harps are not readily available in all major centres. A number of good harp makers have chosen to live outside of large urban areas. For them, advertising their product on the web is only natural. It is a great  way to let the world know about their work. The web is like a big catalogue of products and information that can be viewed immediately. Although some will caution you about buying on the web, if  you do your homework and check out the company that you are considering buying from there are no more risks buying on the web than there are buying from a dealer who may not know much more than you do about harps. The harp world is a small world and if there is a bad apple out there it will not take very long before the "World Wide Web" will know about it. Independent harp makers are proud of their work and most will do their best to serve the needs of their clients. The key issues are:

What features do you like about a harp?

What do you want the harp for?

How much do you want to pay for it?

We hope these notes may be useful to you. If you have any questions or remarks you would like to make, please do not hesitate to send us an email. We will be glad to share our thoughts with you or answer any questions you may have.

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