Most people start with the lever harp, even if they hope to go on to the pedal harp eventually. This is mainly due to financial reasons: the cheapest pedal harps start at around £7,000, which is a serious investment for a beginner.
Good, reliable 34 string student harps start at around £1,000, with professional lever harps costing from £2300-£4500. Of course, there are lever harps available for a lot less, but, as we hope to demonstrate during this article, there are so many things to look out for when buying a harp that you significantly improve your chances of getting a harp that will be rewarding to play if you pay that bit extra. Ultimately, if it won’t stay in tune or if it sounds dull and lifeless, you won’t want to play it.
Harps are very individual instruments and even the same model can vary significantly. There is no substitute for going to a showroom to try them out for yourself. Here at Clive Morley Harps we have one of the largest selections of harps in one place in the world and we encourage visitors to come along and play our harps. Try as many as you like and see which one feels right for you.
For your first lever harp, we advise going for a harp with 34 strings (or more). 34 Strings is standard for educational use, but even if you just want to pick out a few tunes for your own pleasure, you will find yourself restricted with less strings. There are some wonderful lap and travel harps available in 22-26 strings and these are ideal for use as a second harp, when the larger harp would be too cumbersome to carry.
If you do decide to go for a pedal harp to begin with, try to get some advice about whether the size of the harp is a good match for you. Some people choose the smaller, less expensive 42-44 string pedal harps for financial reasons, but these harps are generally only suitable for children and smaller adults. Likewise, its possible that a full sized 47 string grand concert harp may be too large.
As a general rule, avoid any harp that has any sign of warping. Likewise, avoid cracks in the soundboard, the harmonic curve and around the tuning pins. Make sure that the tuning pins stay in position when they are turned (and if they do shift, gently tapping the pin on the side opposite from the strings should sort it out). If there is significant wear on the strings, check that there are no sharp edges on the levers.
Test the regulation (tuning) by playing each string in all possible ways (ie, in both lever positions or in all three pedal positions) and listen to whether the string remains in tune when its position is altered.
If you are trying a new harp, make allowances for the fact that the strings will not have had time to settle in tune and the levers may be stiff. Its worth bearing in mind that it takes about 2-5 years for a harp to mellow, so a new harp will sound less warm and rich than an older counterpart.
Harps are designed to sound best to the audience, not to the player, so if possible, get someone to play the harp for you and listen to its sound at a distance. However, be aware that there are as many possible harp sounds as there are harps and players: some combinations of harp and player just don’t work and the harp that could one day sound beautiful in your hands may sound downright unpleasant in someone else’s.
You will need to choose between gut, nylon and wire strings. (Gut and nylon strung harps have wire strings in the bass as standard.) Wire strung harps (often known as Clarsachs) are the most specialised of the three options. Popular in Scotland and Ireland, they have a distinctive sound (imagine a hammered dulcimer being plucked rather than hammered). They require a different playing technique and for that reason, if you are attracted to the sound of this harp, its worth checking that there is a wire strung harp teacher in your area as a classical harp teacher would not know how to approach this instrument properly.
If you want to go on to the pedal harp, or take lever harp exams, then you will need to choose nylon or gut strings. Nylon strings have the advantage of being easier on the fingers. They stay in tune better, are less liable to break and sound brighter. Gut strings can break without warning and can go out of tune with the slightest change of temperature. They tend to be quieter and older strings can sound dull. However, in the opinion of many harpists, gut strings are capable of far more expressive playing. The best advice is is try both and see which sound and feel you prefer.
Another important factor to consider is string spacing (literally the distance between the strings) and tension. Concert harp or pedal harp spacing is wide and therefore desirable, especially if you want to go on the pedal harp later on. Slightly smaller than concert harp spacing is perfectly acceptable for a beginner though, as long as you avoid strings which are very close together as these are difficult to play without catching neighbouring strings. Whatever spacing you go for, the most important thing is that the spacing is equal throughout the harp.
Tension is also important. You won’t get concert harp tension on a lever harp (the frame of the smaller harp wouldn’t stand up to it) but, do try to go for fairly high tension strings. Although they are harder to play at first, the higher string tension forces you to work harder, meaning that you can get a warmer, richer tone. In general, gut strings allow higher tension than nylon. One problem area can be the lower strings on a nylon strung harp. If they are too slack, you won’t be able to play cleanly in the bass.
Once you have chosen the harp you like, there are alternatives to buying outright. We offer a rental scheme with a proportion of the hire payments going towards purchase later on.
Be aware that there are other costs associated with buying a harp. You will need a tuning key (often included with the harp), a carrying case (£100-£350) and possibly a stool. A chromatic tuner and pick up are a good idea. As strings can break for no reason, it is highly advisable to keep a spare set of strings which can cost £150-£300. Separate insurance is also a good idea.
We have a database of teachers around the UK and should be able to put you in touch with one in your area. Even if you are the type of musician who prefers to teach themselves, please, we beg you, have at least five or six lessons just to get the finger technique and hand positioning right. Good harp technique is not obvious unless you are shown and without it, you will never have the stability needed to play fluidly or create a wonderful, sonorous sound.