Thinking of buying a harp? A beginner's guide!
Buying a harp can be a daunting prospect. Whether you're buying for yourself, or for somebody else, there are so many things to think about. Here we look at some questions to help get you started!
Which type of harp?
There are two main types of harp – lever harps and pedal harps. Lever harps are diatonic and have levers on the strings which can raise the string by a semitone. Pedal harps are fully chromatic and have 7 pedals, one for each note, which can raise each string by two semi-tones. Here at The Early Music Shop we specialise in lever harps.
It's most common to start learning on the lever harp and later progress (if you want!) to the pedal harp. Many people stick with the lever harp due to size and cost! Lever harps are suited to folk music and classical music, and are sometimes known by their Celtic name "clarsach".
Lever harps come in a variety of sizes with two main options – knee harps and floor harps. Smaller harps tend to be knee harps, which are very transportable and can be played on your knee. Larger lever harps are floor harps, as they sit on the floor and you lean the harp against your shoulder. (A few smaller floor harps come with legs which you can screw into the base of the instrument.) It is always possible to place a lap harp on a stool or table, making it a floor harp.
There are also basic and specialist types of harp that don't have pedals or levers. Unless you are playing very specific repertoire like medieval music, it's always advisable to get a lever harp, as this gives greater possibilities of repertoire, keys and accidentals.
How many strings?
There are lots of harps available with various number of strings. The most common lever harps range between 19 and 40 strings. A pedal harp generally has 47 strings, though different number of strings are available with these as well.
A smaller harp isn't necessarily for beginners. In fact, smaller harps can be harder to learn on! The number of strings determines the range of notes available to you. 22 strings offers a 3 octave range, whereas 38 strings offers over a 5 octave range. A common middle-ground is 34 strings; this is the minimum number of strings required for graded music exams with ABRSM and Trinity (Grades 1-2 with ABRSM may be done with 27 strings).
That's not to say that fewer string harps don't have their advantages. Given the price of harps, it may be that you want something smaller and more affordable to start on, to see whether the harp is the instrument for you!
Why are you learning the harp? What music do you want to play? Will you be travelling lots with the harp? These are great questions that will help decide on the best number of strings for your harp. If you are learning the harp to take graded exams, and to move onto a pedal harp, go for 34+ strings. If you want to learn and play the harp as part of music therapy, go for something smaller like 22 strings. In terms of travelling about with your harp, as a general rule fewer strings mean a lighter harp. It isn't always true as some harps are specifically light-weight, but is always true of bulkiness!
Harps are expensive – unfortunately there's no escaping that! But there are some more affordable harps as well as lots of finance options which help to make more expensive harps accessible to more players.
As a general rule, price does reflect quality. Less expensive harps tend to have a smaller, less rounded sound than more expensive harps. The levers can be harder to operate in comparison with more expensive harps. However, they can be great starter instruments to help you decide whether the harp is for you. You can always upgrade when you're sure!
To give you an idea of price, here are some starting prices of some of the harps we stock:
|No of strings||EMS Heritage Harps||Salvi Harps|
There are three types of strings: nylon, gut and synthetic.
Nylon is the most common for lever harps. Nylon strings produce a bright sound and are more durable and less expensive than gut strings.
Gut strings produce a warm sound and are the most commonly used strings on pedal harps. They can be affected more by changes of temperature and humidity, so are much more likely to break.
The synthetic "BioCarbon"© strings combine the roundness and power of gut strings with the robustness of nylon strings, and while they are slightly more expensive, they are likely to last a long time.
We find the best place to start can be setting a budget. This, along with your answers to the questions above, will give you a good selection to choose from. Some harps will feel instantly comfortable to hold and play, and this is a big factor in helping decide on make/model.
Each make and model has different advantages – factors that can help narrow down the make/model choices are the wood/finish, the type of case supplied, and the design of the levers.
Once you have an idea of the above, our expert early music specialists can talk you through your selection of harps. We will be able to help narrow down your selection by discussing which would work well for you.
We recommend trying harps before making a decision and our Saltaire and Snape showrooms both have a large range of instruments on offer. We recommend contacting us in advance of a visit to make sure the right instrument(s) are available in the showroom you wish to visit.