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what to look for when buying a harp

The first thing to realize when you are looking for your first folk harp is that it is a musical instrument. One must try to look beyond the romance and glamour of harping -- bards of old and strolling minstrels etc. -- and focus on the musical qualities of the instrument. Other things being equal, sound is everything! There is no substitute for actually hearing the instrument that you are considering. The glowing words of praise that are written in flyers and catalogues should not be taken at face value. Everyone, myself included, makes the "best harps in the world!"

The materials that are used in the crafting of a harp make the difference in the quality of the sound. For centuries the wood of choice for sounding boards has been quarter-cut Sitka spruce. Nowadays other varieties of spruce have been used successfully. Laminated wood or plywoods are sometimes used in inexpensive instruments, but in comparison one would find that they give a harp a muffled, unfocused sound. You can get away with using laminated wood in little harps (sopranos) because the dulling effect of the laminate mediates the shrillness of the harps.

Next in importance to sound is the feel of the strings. This relates to the tension that the harp was designed to withstand. If a string is too slack it will be hard to "find", sharping levers will not give a clear tone and the overall sound will not be dull. The extreme example of this would be the sound of rubber bands.

In talking with the maker you should try to determine if s/he seems to know what design criteria to use in the making of a good harp. Ask if the designs are original or borrowed from some other maker. Ask if the harps are made from kits. Unfortunately some makers are using kits and not telling customers that this is the case. A harp from a kit can be compromised as a musical instrument because both materials and construction techniques are inappropriate. Most kits are easy to assemble, are inexpensive and if bought for the right reasons can be made into good starting instruments.

Another question to consider is whether the harp has sharping levers. A full set is the most useful in the long run, but sometimes you can save money by ordering the harp with only levers for C's and F's. Also make sure that the harp uses harp style (tapered) tuning pins. Those that use "zither" type tuning pins will eventually wear to the point that they will not hold their tuning.

Remember that most makers actually do enjoy answering your questions so don't be afraid to ask.

The range of the harp is important for it's usefulness. In general the bottom line of the base clef (G) is a suitable low string if the harp is not going all the way down to the C below the base clef. My two smaller harps the Celtic 25 and the Gothic 29 have low G as their lowest notes. It most be noted however that in the case of the Celtic 25, because of its small size and relative shortness of strings that it is actually a soprano instrument. This means that the strings sing one octave higher than the notes that are written. This is a given because the pitch of a string is determined by its length. Unless the material of the string is changed we are stuck with a limited pitch range for any given string length.

  Roger Muma, 1157 St. Anthony Rd., London, ON, Canada, N6H 2R2, Ph. (519) 649-0309.