One fact of harping life is that strings break – often for no apparent reason and usually at the worst possible time!
The good news (or bad news, depending on your point of view) is that a certain level of string breakage is quite normal. However, if you think that your strings may be breaking too often, then this section should help you decide whether there could be an underlying cause.
The Type of String
The thinner, higher strings tend to break more often than the thicker, stronger, lower strings. On lever harps, B, A and E strings break most often, as these are the strings that are most commonly engaged by levers.
Gut strings will break more regularly than nylon or synthetic gut strings.
Changes in Temperature
All strings, but particularly gut strings, are prone to breaking in extreme changes in temperature (going from a cold car to a centrally heated room, for instance) or during changes in the weather and air pressure (thunderstorms are notorious for broken strings). So, as far as possible, try to avoid exposing your harp to dramatic changes in temperature.
Wear and Tear
Another common cause of string breakage is wear and tear. Often, a string will show warning signs that it is about to break. They tend to fray first at the points when they come into contact with levers or disc forks, as well as bridge pins, so keep an eye on these weak areas. However, strings can fray at any point along its length. If a string frays in the middle, while you are playing, snip the frayed part as soon as possible to stop it fraying further and replace it when convenient.
Any string which appears worn anywhere should be changed before it breaks.
Bear in mind that gut strings are an organic material and occasionally you may come across one that is flawed. Any string that comes out of the packet with a kink or knot should be discarded.
Strings also break if they are subject to over-tensioning by being wound too tightly. For this reason, it is important to make sure that your harp is tuned to the correct pitch (A=440 or thereabouts). Using an electronic tuner will help you achieve this easily. Even if you prefer to tune by ear, make sure that you have the correct starting note: otherwise, you can end up with a harp that is in tune with itself, but is two or more pitches sharp. This puts too much strain on the strings and they will tend to break.
In particular, the bass wires strings of Dusty Strings harps can be broken due to over-winding. These strings need only a very slight movement to alter the pitch, so do keep an ear out for the pitch change as your tune.
A quick way to break a string while tuning is to have your tuning key on the wrong pin. Nothing appears to be happening to the string you intend to tune, so you keep on turning, until… snap!
Sometimes, a string AND its replacement will both break in a short space of time, causing the harpist to conclude that there is something wrong with their harp. This can be true, but it is also possible that there is another reason.
There could be a resonant frequency in the room where you keep your harp, which matches the frequency of the breaking harp string. This can cause the string to vibrate sympathetically and in extreme cases, break. If you can see no obvious reason why the same string keeps breaking, move the position of your harp (if possible, to another room) and see if things improve.
However, if on examination, you discover that there is a sharp point or abrasive surface that comes into contact with your consistently breaking string, you have your answer! You may be able to file smooth the offending surface, but if not, you will need to replace your lever, pedal disc or bridge pin. We can supply you with spare parts for your harp: when ordering, make a note of the string in question, as these spare parts vary slightly in size, depending on the string.
People ask how many broken strings is an acceptable number. Harps do vary considerably in this regard, but to give you an idea, I think nothing of breaking 6-10 gut strings on my lever harp and 4-8 strings on my pedal harp per year. I wouldn’t give it a second thought until I got to about 15 per year. If your harp is breaking more and you cannot detect an underlying cause, then you may decide to have your harp looked at by a harp service specialist. Again, we can arrange this for you.
Due to the nature of strings, we recommend having a spare set of all gut and nylon harp strings. However, for those on a budget, it is most important to have a spare set of the first three or four octaves, as these are the most likely to break.
Wire strings rarely break. In fact, it is more common to need to replace worn out wire strings long before they break.
Signs that your wire string has come to the end of its useful life include tarnishing and flabbiness. Wrapped wire strings can start to fray and shed. Regularly used wire strings can become greasy. All these conditions will affect the sound of the string, causing a dull response and muffled sound.
Of course, if your wire string starts to fray around the tuning pin, then replace it before it breaks. A snapping wire string can do quite a bit of damage, so it best to avoid, if at all possible.
Replace Broken Strings
One final word of advice: do try to replace broken strings as quickly as possible. Missing strings alters the balance of tension on the frame of the harp and left too long, this can cause structural movement in the harp.