Choosing A Harp

Choosing A Harp

Compiled and written by Joyce Rice

with material from contributors including Danielle Perrett (UK), Sue Richards (US), Janelle Lake (US), Mark Andersen (US), Nancy Thym (Germany) and The Harp Connection (US)

 (Note: this article does not discuss Paraguayan, historical, double, triple or cross-strung harps.)

Getting Started

Sylvia Woods, one of those responsible for the amazing resurgence of the folk harp in the last 40 years, used to give introductory workshops at her store in Glendale, CA, called “I’ve Always Wanted to Play the Harp”.  Are you someone who has always wanted to play the harp but doesn’t know where to start? It can be bewildering because harps come in more sizes and varieties than any other instrument I can think of: they can be from about 25” to 76” tall and have from 15 to 47 strings; they also can be very plain or extremely ornate with 24 carat gold leaf, painted sounding boards and you can even be “plugged” in (electric); they may have no sharping mechanisms, or have hand-operated levers or foot-operated pedals for making accidentals. If you are brand new to the harp, it might be helpful to you to check out Wikipedia’s quite complete history of the European-derived harp and Catrin Finch’s several-part series on YouTube called “The History of the Harp”.

People buy harps in different ways. For example, as a young adult I bought a used Wurlitzer Starke model pedal harp from Lyon & Healy sight unseen and over the phone, and loved and played it my whole professional life. My second purchase was a custom-made but inexpensive 22-string gothic-style Westover harp, whose correct size for me was determined by Harold Westover in his New Hampshire shop. The third was a Dusty Strings lever harp, which I bought after working in Sylvia Woods’ store and tuning and comparing 55 harps.

What can we learn from my experience?

  • Sometimes you’re just lucky (Wurlitzer).

  • Working with the maker can get you just what you want. (Westover). 

  • Playing and comparing several harps can help you find the right one for you. (Dusty Strings)

If you really want to be methodical in your search for a harp for yourself or for a student, there are some things to think about or do. Mary Radspinner at Melody’s Traditional Music & Harp Shoppe says, “Like a good suit of clothes, the right harp should ‘fit’ the music you want to play…feel comfortable against your body and ‘fit’  within your budget. Harp making is very labor-intensive work and the prices are quite reasonable when compared to other handcrafted musical instruments. Anything worth investing time and energy into is worth investing money into as well. Evaluate your situation and determine what part the harp will play in your life both now and in the future. If you see that the harp will be of importance to you, then go from there to determine how much you are willing to invest.”

Photo of  a concert of the combined ensembles directed by Patricia Wooster and Alison Austin,
courtesy of Jim Wooster. Used with permission.

Where to find a harp?

Be very wary of Craigslist or EBay, advises Janelle Lake. “I have heard only one success story from those websites and many horror stories. If you’re buying online, be sure it’s from a trusted individual or company.”  There are many reputable harpmakers and retailers – see the lists in Harp Spectrum’s Links section for a lot of them.  For a used harp, try the Harp Column online Classifieds, or look at their bi-monthly magazine or the quarterly Folk Harp Journal, and be sure to read the Harp Spectrum article, Buying a Used Harp. Or try to find out if there’s a harp chapter near you with a newsletter with some classifieds. (Harp Spectrum can help you locate a chapter.) Some retailers sell used harps online. In other words, try to buy from someone connected to the harp world. (A few of our article contributors have sent us the names of some of their favorite harpmakers. Click here to see their recommendations.) [Link to list at end of article.]

What is your budget?

This might be the determining factor in what kind of harp you buy. A harp can cost you anywhere from just hundreds of dollars, if you’re incredibly lucky, to $180,000 if you’re wanting the crème de la crème. Folk or lever harps will probably cost $1,000-$5,000. Pedal harps start around $10,000 and go up.  All plus tax, of course. Used harps may be less, although harps don’t lose their value very much. It is probably best to avoid the cheapest harps available.

Don’t forget that you will want a bench, a tuning key, extra strings, probably an electronic tuner, and if you plan to take your harp out, a harp dolly, perhaps an amplifier of some kind, and a vehicle big enough to carry it all. It’s wise to think about whether these things will fit into your budget. (The Harp Column magazine periodically publishes a thorough article on personally tested “harpmobiles” for their size, ease of getting harps in and out, and other pertinent features. They’re not yet available online, but for a reprint, email Carol at cringen@harpcolumn.com, or call Harp Column at 800-582-3021.)

Buy or rent?

Mark Andersen says rent first, if at all possible: “Everyone has his or her own take on what is beautiful and easy to play. I've played many harps chosen by others that did not suit me at all. I've also owned harps that I personally loved that were not liked by other harpists. For that reason I always stick to my guns with the sound advice to rent first, for several months at least, and then make your choice to trade or purchase based on living with the harp on a day to day basis. If you do not fall in love with it then move on. It will probably be right for someone else. Above all, do not bend to marketing or peer pressure in making your choice. Get to know the harp up close and personal. If it makes you fall in love then buy it. If you are still unsure after several months then extend the rental period or consider trying another.” Mark uses The Harp Connection in Salem, MA, but says, “there are many companies (both retail stores and harpmakers) around the U.S. that will rent a harp (lever or pedal) with a plan that will allow the rental (or a portion thereof) to apply to the sale price. Many companies also offer some sort of bounty program that allows for trade in, trade up, or cross trade for those starting out.”

What do you intend to do with your harp?

Play Irish ballads and reels? Comfort the sick and dying?  Be part of a symphony orchestra?  Celtic music players use lever or folk harps, and there are many makers of these – you’ll find some names at the bottom of this article and also in the Links section of Harp Spectrum. Harp therapists often like a harp that’s light and portable to carry through hospitals. Orchestral harpists, or someone who likes to (or wants to) play jazz or pop standards, will usually need pedals. (Yes, I know Deborah Henson-Conant plays jazz on her little strapped-on blue electric harp.) Beginning students often start on a lever harp because it’s less expensive. I think that those who know they want eventually to play a pedal harp should probably start on a harp with the same tension in the strings, like a Lyon & Healy Troubadour, as just one example among many. Some folk harps like my Dusty Strings have a lighter tension – they’re easy to get a big sound from, but it can be hard to transfer to the higher tension strings of a pedal harp.

Size

Lap harp: It’s not generally a good idea to get a lap harp as your first harp, unless it’s the only size that you can afford. Mark Andersen says, “Getting accustomed to the physics of harp playing is not easy for even the most adept and agile beginners. Having to balance a harp on one’s lap and at the same time deal with hand position, sound, coordination, etc., all at the same time just does not work well, in my humble opinion.”

Folk harp: Sue Richards says, “Personally, I think a 34-string harp that weighs under 20 pounds is perfect for the kind of music I teach, which is Irish, Scottish, and Swedish. If a harp is big and cumbersome and heavy, then the harper will not want to take it out and play with other people, and the social aspect is a very important part of playing harp, in my opinion.”  Click here  and go to Resources for more information.

 Pedal harp: As for a pedal harp, part of your decision may rest on your size. Harp Connection says: “We usually like to make sure the seated player’s head is near the top of the knee block (scroll down to Parts of the Pedal Harp in Pedal Harp 101). As well, the player’s feet should be able to rest flat on the floor, and the knees able to hold some of the weight of the harp. It is important that the harp not be too large, or the player might relax her posture under the weight and her technique would suffer. Sitting at the right height can help to ensure that this doesn't happen - that's why an adjustable bench is so important for a pedal harp student. Petite pedal harpists may want to consider a semi-grand harp because the balance point is slightly lower on the harp and therefore allows smaller harpists to sit at a height where their feet can comfortably reach the pedals. Fortunately there are a lot of semi-grand pedal harps on the market that have 47 strings (the full range of a concert grand), so this means that harpists are able to purchase these 4” to 5” shorter harps but still perform music intended for a 47-string instrument.” 

 

 

 

 

Large lap harp: Triplett Shanti 
(25 strings)
Lever harp: Dusty Strings FH36S
(36 strings)
Pedal harp: Salvi Arianna
 (47 strings)

Photos courtesy of The Harp Connection. Used with permission.

 

How many strings do you want?

  • Lap harps have about 15-26 strings.

  • Folk or lever harps have about 26 to 38 strings

  • Pedal harps can have from 40 to 47 strings. 40 strings are fine for some purposes, but in an orchestra you will probably want 46 or 47 strings. Incidentally, the 47 strings equal almost the range of the piano, minus the bottom two and top three keys, so C on the bottom to G at the top. There is apparently not a golden rule for which strings are removed when there are fewer of them, so it’s good to check them out.

Sound

Danielle Perrett is succinct in what she looks for:  warmth, clarity, projection, roundness, even tone, power.

Janelle Lake has some questions to help you: 

  •  Do you like the sound?

  •  Is there enough volume?

  •  How loudly can you play the harp before the strings don't sound good?  Will you ever need that volume?

  •  Do you like the sound of the top strings?  (Are they "bright" sounding but not "shrill"?)

  •  Do you like the sound of the middle strings?  (Do they give you enough balance with the top strings?  Are they clear, clean, and even?)

  •  Do you like the sound of the bass strings?  (Do they have power behind them without using a lot of muscle?)

Appearance

Take a look at many harp websites – the variety of shapes, woods and finishes is amazing especially among folk/lever harps.

Janelle Lake: “In the harp world there are some people who want a harp simply as a decoration in their living room (it looks much better and costs less than most grand pianos!), and some people who want a harp for a limited amount of time to get a student from point A to point B. The majority of harp buyers want a combination of both glamour and function at the best price. Perhaps a deciding point is which finish/color we like. Ask what details are interchangeable. For example, ‘Can I have that crown switched from a princess crown to a standard wood crown?’ Sometimes it just comes down to which harp is going to make you feel better even if you're just playing in your living room.”

Mark Anderson: “Every single harp manufacturer in the world makes fine harps and, on occasion, those not so fine. For that reason seeing and playing the harp in person is the best rule all around. A harp can look absolutely beautiful but have a truly dead sound. I've also seen some harps that weren't so beautiful cosmetically but had the richest and most colorful sound of those I tried.”

Round or square back? Lever harps may have round, square or staved backs. Round or staved are generally more comfortable than square, depending on the player, but click here to read more on this subject.

Craftsmanship 

The ingredients in making a harp are wood, mechanics to make accidentals (levers or pedals), and the skill to do it well.

  •  Wood: Sue Richards says “Each harp will have its own personality, and the buyer should play many harps before purchasing. The main element is the wood- its density, color, thickness, and resonance. Each wood has characteristics of brightness, warmth, and projection.”
    Janelle Lake adds
    Ask your harp maker who supplies his/her wood.  A good harp maker will have pride in the materials he/she uses.  If the harp maker can't answer that question or says Lumber Liquidators, head for the door!”

  •  Levers and pedals: Harp Connection says “Look for levers that are ergonomic to the fingers, move very smoothly, and do not wear down the string when moved up and down.” Levers that are clearly marked blue or red for Fs and Cs are a bonus, making it easier to find levers quickly. When trying out a harp, move every lever and pedal in every position to be sure that there are no buzzes or other unpleasant noises, and that strings have the same quality of sound whether or not the levers or pedals are engaged.

  • Skill: Check to be sure there are no cracks large enough to stick your fingernail in. Other obvious details are the finish and the decoration. (For more details, see Buying a Used Harp.)

See and try out the harp

Once you’ve located one, see it in person and play it. If it’s far away from you or you don’t yet play, try to find someone who will see and play it for you. Have someone (another harpist/teacher, etc.) go with you to try out and listen to the harp(s)--it can sound different hearing from behind the harp vs. out in front.  (If you need to locate a player, contact Harp Spectrum.) Do you or your “tester” like the way it looks and sounds? Is its appearance important to you? Know your priorities.

 I hope this information will be a help on your quest for a harp. To find out more about harps, go to our Links section for lists of harp makers, repairers, history and more.

                                                                                          

Some of the contributors to this article sent in names of their favorite U.S. and international harp makers or outlets. These tend to be largely for the folk or lever harp as there are so many makers, whereas there are many fewer pedal harp makers. See the Links section of Harp Spectrum for many more makers. Harp Spectrum takes no responsibility for any of the makers or products listed below.

 

Danielle Perrett

U.K.

  • Pilgrim

  • Morley harps

  • Holywell

  • Teifi

  • Harps.com

  • Pencerdd

  • Vining

France

  • Le Magasin de la Harpe

  • L'Instrumentarium

  • Camac

Antique harps 

  • I don't know whether he is still trading - M Bissonet (Rue Pas du Mule, Place, Vendome, Paris)

Switzerland

  • Beat Wolf

  • Gerard David - www.david-harps.com. His harps were the first ones to have an extended soundboard all the way up

Australia

  • Stephen Carter

  • Gillian Weiss (lever harps)

New Zealand

  • Kim Webby

 

Nancy Thym

Austria

  • Peter Mürnseer – Tyrolean single action pedal harps

Germany

  • Fischer Family in Traunstein for lever harps

  • Winfried George in Freising for small, reasonably priced medieval harps to start out on

  • Rainer Thurau and Thilo Viehrig for professional historical harps

Sue Richards

Favorite models:

Janelle Lake

See also:

http://www.celticharper.com/Buyhrp.html - lists harp makers from all over the world

 

 Some semi-grand pedal harps with 47 strings:

  • L&H 85 E (Extended soundboard), 70 1/4”

  • L&H Chicago Concertino, 70” (w/ extended soundboard)

  • Salvi Arion, 70” (w/ extended soundboard)

  • Salvi Daphne 47S (Straight soundboard), 69”

  • Salvi Daphne 47SE (Soundboard Extended), 69”

  • Pilgrim Malvern, 70"

  • Horngacher 179, 70.5"

 

Our contributors’ preferred levers:

  • Camac

  • Truitt

  • Loveland

See images of these three types at http://www.thorharp.com/pages/levers.htm

 

 
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