When you go looking for a harp to buy or rent you will learn a lot of new things. You might start wondering why you are having to make all these choices without knowing much about it; it might even seem you are being asked to do the impossible….
In my experience though, I find people are able to make the right choices for themselves, even when they don’t know much in advance. However, it is important that you get the right information, and I hope I can help with this blog.
Many times people will ask about the type of strings that a specific harp has, because they think this will make the most difference in sound. However, in my experience at de Zingende Snaar, it is much more important which wood the harp is made of. The type of wood will provide a base sound, which the strings can then enrich.
In the very beginning there is one main choice to make: a harp can be made of solid wood or plywood.
A solid wooden harp often has a distinct sound and a beautiful finish in which you can see the structure of the wood. The colour and markings of the wood will differ per harp, and many harp builders will be careful with matching patterns/colours when they build the harp. No two harps are the same. My cherry wood harp for instance has a very pink sheen to it, but I have seen other harps of cherry wood that have a much browner sheen. The types of woods that are often used for building a harp are: maple, cherry, bubinga, mahogany and walnut.
Every type of wood will have its own sound. What sounds better is up to your preference: a heavier wood will make for a richer sound (bubinga, walnut), while lighter woods will make brighter sound (maple, cherry). Harps made of solid wood are usually more expensive, but the quality of sound reflects that.
If full wooden harps sound nicer, why are some harps made of plywood?
Plywood has some qualities which make it attractive to use for harp builders, mainly in regards to: solidity, predictability and ways of use. Because of these advantages, harps made of plywood can be made cheaper, which is of course an advantage for the consumer.
One of the biggest differences between solid wood and plywood is the way the sound box of the harp is constructed. A solid wooden harp cannot be built with a rounded sound box, because wood does not bend in that way. This is why many solid wooden harps have a sound box that consists of facets to make it as comfortable to sit behind as possible. When a harp has a rounded sound box you know at least that part of the harp is made of plywood. Because of the many layers of wood glued together, the wood can be shaped into a rounded form by using a mould. A vacuum press is used for this purpose. Solid wooden harps often times have a more angular sound box.
The predictability of use is of huge advantage to harp manufacturers, who like to use their material and man hours as efficiently as possible. I remember harp builder Hans den Brok once told me he did not like working with walnut wood. He did so every once in a while, but found it was a lot of work to make the harps still look similar. Walnut has many knots in the wood, and it would make a lot of extra work to make sure those knots did not appear on the body of the harp in places they would look bad (for example in the middle of the pillar). Sometimes he would go as far as removing less aesthetically pleasing knots out of the wood and replacing it with darker wood in a pleasing pattern, turning it into a sort of decoration. A fine example of his craftsmanship, but all those hours would be spend on unpaid work, because the price the type of harp would not go up.
Next to the type of wood, the strings are the most important in making the sound of the harp. You will also find yourself with a choice in this: natural material (gut) or synthetic (for instance: nylon, silkgut, carbon, fluor carbon).
Gut strings usually make a warmer sound than synthetic (although this difference is less distinct when the harp is made of solid wood). You will need a little bit more strength for playing gut strings; the tension of these strings is a little higher. It makes a difference whether you go for pedal or lever gut strings. Pedal gut strings are thicker than lever gut strings. They give a fuller, more classical sound, whole lever gut strings sound brighter.
The main reason for many people to choose synthetic strings is that gut strings are more susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. You will have to tune them more and they break more easily. They are also more expensive than synthetic strings, and because they break more often they will cost more in maintenance.
Synthetic strings come in many different forms; their main characteristic being that since they break less easily than gut strings and they as easier to keep in tuner. Regarding the way they sound, manufacturers try to come up with strings that are more similar to the way gut strings sound but you will find most synthetic strings sound brighter than gut strings regardless. Synthetic strings are cheaper to purchase and because they are less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity they are also cheaper in maintenance.
I own lever harps with nylon strings and one with gut strings. Since I keep the gut strung harp in the same spot and on a regular temperature, the strings don’t break all that often. For my main performance harp however I choose nylon strings over gut: seeing that occasionally I also use the harp to perform outside, I wanted to keep string-breaking to a minimum.
I hope I have given you some useful information in these two blog entries and that it will help you in making a choice that suits your need. Remember: there is no right or wrong choice; the most important thing is that you are happy with the harp you choose!
Let me know which harp you ended up buying?