Three Ancient Harp Techniques for Today's Harpers

by Diana Rowan

As one of the oldest instruments in the world, the harp in its many forms is beloved in almost every culture. As a result, the harp has developed a multicultural voice that speaks in a wealth of fascinating techniques and colors. Since harps inherently have such an exquisite tone, it is often tempting to stay within a fairly confined number of techniques, being so gratifying. However, branching out into other timbres and textures can be rewarding and inspiring, bringing great dynamism to our art.


In this article I will document three very usable and versatile world music harp techniques. These can be employed right now in your own composing and arranging, and fit practically any genre of music! Since a video is worth more than a thousand words, there are video demonstration links for all these techniques cited throughout this paper, which you can also access directly in one place on my website under the Blog entry entitled “Video links for Folk Harp Journal article”.

In this article I will document three very usable and versatile world music harp techniques.  These can be employed right now in your own composing and arranging, and fit practically any genre of music!  Since a video is worth more than a thousand words, there are video demonstration links for all these techniques cited throughout this paper, which you can also access directly in one place on my website under the Blog entry entitled “Video links for Folk Harp Journal article”.


 1. Strumming:

Since ancient Egyptian times, strumming has been a feature of harp/lyre music, and we see the very same technique employed as far afield as the krar of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, the Anglo Saxon lyre and the Venezuelan arpa llanera.  Strumming involves dampening the specific strings you don’t want to sound with the fingers of one hand (initially a little disorienting since this means putting your fingers on the strings you don’t want to play!) and strumming the free strings with the other hand, either with pads, nails, or the back of the hand.  This technique creates a crisp, articulated sound, quite different from the usual lush tones of the harp.  In this picture, Ethiopian krar master Temesgen Hussein demonstrates the string blocking technique of one hand:



From here, one can experiment with strumming particular rhythms plus exploring directions of strum.  For example, one can strum in completely free rhythm, imitating the Indian tampura (a short video on this instrument:, creating a background-type texture, or one can imitate the driving rhythms of flamenco guitarists.  A favorite of Venezuelan harpists is to explore alternating measures of 3/4 with 6/8 meters, and all the permutations therein.  This can work up to exciting polyrhythms via subdivision; 3/4 can divide into triplets on each beat, creating 9/8, and from there we can go on to more complex groupings such as a measure containing a quintuplet, a triplet and a duplet, or even a duplet against a triplet - anything is possible!  To view strumming in action, see this video by Michael J. King on a self-made Anglo Saxon lyre (note his YouTube channel has many other videos, plus describes other instruments he builds, including a new wire-strung harp):


 Further, by varying the direction of strum such as up-down, up-up-down, down-up, down-up-down, etc. the harp practically becomes a percussion instrument, a role we rarely get to enjoy.  Each combination of movements creates a different feel, from the uplift of down-up strums to the finality of up-down strums.  Luwam Thomas offers a tutorial video on this technique (again, her YouTube channel is a wealth of information, this time on the krar/krar of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan):  More strumming in action:




Finally, one can of course vary the blocked notes so that chord progressions and/or color changes emerge - this can also be seen on the videos above.  A personal favorite technique of mine is to move my blocked hand shape around the strings randomly, allowing surprising and refreshing colors to manifest.


2. Plectra & Picks:

The more articulated sound of strumming has often been further emphasized by the use of plectra/picks.  The ancient lyre of Israel frequently employed a plectrum, creating an angular, bright sound, and we see this exact technique used today on the krar.  Try using a plectrum/pick on your harp for a fresh new color - I recommend experimenting with a soft oud pick at first, as these are amongst the least damaging to strings and easy to hold.  They can be ordered at and look like this



In the following video you can see Michael Levy using a pick on a replica of an ancient Israeli kinnor/lyre (this video also shows string stopping, which will be explored in another article):  Note how Michael alternates between pick and pad use.

Taking this plectrum technique further, the Asian guzheng player may have individual plectra/picks attached to each playing finger.  If plectra are on the right hand only, this allows for an interesting contrast of tone between the bright right hand and the mellow, lush tone of the left hand.  The plectra also allow for powerful and long tremolos, a strong feature of Asian music.  Glissandi and chords also take on new hues when played with plectra.  Guzheng picks (pictured below) may be ordered at, and instructions for attaching them to your fingers can be viewed here:



 Guzheng technique has a highly developed sensitivity to plucking technique, distinguishing between inward and outward plucks, and reminding us of the detailed approach early Celtic music also takes to this matter.  The work of Ann Heymann, Bill Taylor and other historical harpists continues to deepen the field, bringing out yet more musical possibilities for harpists today.  Of course, in Celtic music, as well as Latin American music, nails can be used as de-facto picks, and combinations of pads and nails are employed to impart even more color differentiation.  For those unable to maintain real long fingernails, temporary artificial nails can be interesting to try out.


 Experimenting with how much nail and pad to use allows further variation; for example, playing close to the tip of the finger (yet still on the pad) allows for a nasal quality different from either nail or full pad sound.  In Latin American music, we find an interesting technique of pinching the string forcefully outward to create a pick-like, twanging sound – again, the possibilities are endless!


 3. Palm facing strings stance:

Although we as folk harpists often have our palms angled at some degree toward the floor when playing (for many good reasons), there is also a case for palms directly facing the strings to facilitate certain techniques, as seen in Temesgen’s image above.  This is very much the case in Latin American harp techniques, where the heel of the hand is used extensively in creating articulation via dampening, bringing out harmonics, and basic bracing in order to facilitate finger patterns.  Angel Tolosa demonstrates many of these dynamic techniques in concert: www., and the stance can be seen here with Venezuelan harpist Eduardo Betancourt:




One of the most exciting and characteristic Latin American harp sounds is the “growl,” which is created by grabbing the chord forcefully and rolling it quickly while almost immediately dampening with the heel of the hand.  This can only be done with the fingers up/palm facing strings stance, which harpist Liza Wallace ( has aptly described as a “claw-like” position, seen here (along with the many fascinating techniques this stance allows) with Carlos ‘Metralleta’ (‘Fireworks’) Orozco:


The “bordoniado”/slap bass technique, which has also been described on Alfredo Ortiz’s DVD Special Effects for All Harps and can be seen extensively in the two links directly above, also requires this palm-upwards hand position.  The effect sounds very much like a plucked double bass, and involves bracing the left hand high on the strings in the bass range and plucking forcefully with the thumb.  A twanging sound results, which can be immediately dampened by the hand or allowed to ring.  If dampened, it can be followed up with additional notes, creating punchy bass lines.  And of course this stance facilitates playing close to the harmonic curve, a technique familiar to early harp players, bringing out a pres de la table tone and allowing different finger patterns/motifs, as seen in the lyre playing above.  Slap bass in action:




 Taken further, this heel of the hand blocking allows great scope for staccato playing all over the harp, and by extension percussive playing.  If both hands are involved in this heel blocking, the harp can become a completely percussive instrument to the point where it is hard to distinguish specific pitches: rhythm alone predominates.  Plucking forcefully with both thumbs at once/interlacing higher on the strings is a favorite technique in creating this metallic, percussive effect



As a bonus, this upward stance also allows blocking of the strings by one hand and allowing rapid and simultaneous harmonics to be played by the other hand.  In fact, many of these techniques open the door to other effects, and can be combined in any number of permutations.


Have fun!

The techniques described in this article are just a fraction of the treasure trove of world harp techniques available to harpers today.  Although many think of the harp as having a limited scope in terms of expression, as we see above, we actually play one of the most dynamic and versatile instruments around.  Have fun experimenting!


This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the Folk Harp Journal and is used with the Journal's and the author's permission.

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