What is the right harp for me?
That depends on which sound inspires you,
and how you want to play…
Our guide covers the principles of the harp today,
in order to help you choose your future instrument.
These are the most widespread harps. Having almost died out some centuries ago, they were revived by enthusiasts in the 1970s. This type of harp is often called a “Celtic harp”, because of its history, but today it is capable of playing more or less every style of music.
• Size: 1.5 – 1.6m
• Strings: nylon, carbon or gut (steel → antique harps)
• Range: 34 – 38 strings (4 – 5 octaves)
• Weight: 8 – 16 kg
• Price: 2000- 5000 € (new)
• Suitable for: harpists from the age of seven
• Position: seated or upright (with raised harps).
• Transport: small hatchback cars.
Small lever harps
• Size: 60cm – 1m
• Strings: nylon, carbon or gut (steel → antique harps)
• Range: between 19 and 27strings (2 – 4 octaves)
• Weight: 3 – 7 kg
• Price: 700 -1000 € (new)
• Suitable for: harpists from the age of six
• Position: seated (balanced on the knees, or with the harp set on legs) / upright (with strap)
• Transport: easy because of its small size. There are even rucksack cases.
A sweet, dynamic sound, which can be tender or percussive. These many facets make for a highly versatile instrument.
Initially used in traditional music (Celtic, medieval, etc), today’s lever harp has a number of modern innovations (levers, types of strings and electric options). It has also been adopted by harpists throughout the world who play all sorts of contemporary styles: pop, blues, reggae, latin, etc. This type of harp can also play classical and jazz, within certain parameters (there comes a point where the pedal harp is more suited to these styles).
One of the main improvements to the lever harp made at the time of its revival is the lever system. Most small harps now have levers.
When you move a lever upwards, the string is sharpened by a semitone (half step). There are different makers of levers, the market leaders being Camac and De Lacour.
- Changing key on the harp, expanding its range and harmonic possibilities.
- Performing effects by changing a note’s pitch while playing (accidentals, bends, etc).
- Although the lever harp has been built to offer the maximum number of keys, it is not possible to play in all keys because you are limited to four sharps, and three flats. Western music involves keys that go up to seven sharps and seven flats.
- Changing key while playing can be difficult because you have to use your hands to do it. You can do it in a pause between notes (current practice), but for example it is not possible to change all the Cs on the harp while playing with both hands.
Energetic and majestic, this harp’s full sound is as imposing as its stature. From its voluptuous bass to its pearly top register, its sound and its pedals offer a fascinating, wide range in all styles of music.
• Size: 1.70 – 1.90m
• Strings: nylon (top register) + gut + bass wires
• Range: 40 – 47 strings (5 – 6 octaves)
• Weight: 30 – 40kg
• Average price: 15 000 – 25 000€ (new)
• Suitable for: from the age of ten (to reach the pedals)
• Position: seated (to be able to work the pedals)
• Transport: large car and harp trolley
The pedal harp’s large soundbox and a lot of frequently used plain wood contribute to its powerful, full sound. Its 40 – 47 strings offer a very wide range, almost that of a piano. Its mostly gut strings are less bright than nylon, with a round and sweet tone in the middle register.
This is an instrument that allows you to play in all keys thanks to the pedal system (see below). The sound is particularly good for classical and jazz music. For latin and reggae music, the drier, lighter sound of a lever harp is generally considered more suitable (although this remains a question of taste).
Harp pedals appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. There are seven, one for each note of the scale (CDEFGAB). The pedals allow you to:
• Play in every key
Unlike lever harps which are limited to particular keys, the pedal system allows the harp to play in all keys. They even make enharmonic equivalents possible, where two pedals are set differently in order to obtain the same note on two different strings. For example, C sharp and D flat create an enharmonic equivalent because C harp and D flat are the same sound.
• Change key while playing / modulate
This is indispensable in jazz, and necessary for many classical and contemporary pieces. Unlike levers on small harps, the pedals allow you to make changes without taking your hands off the strings.
Moreover, the pedal action changes all strings belonging to that note at the same time. If you move the C pedal to the sharp position, all Cs on the harp become C sharp, whereas you would have to change all C levers to sharp individually.
• Effects: chromaticism, accidentals…
Chromaticism is when you play all available notes within a certain range, with all possible flats or sharps e.g. C – C# – D – D# – E, etc. Thanks to the pedals, it is therefore possible to come close to the possibilities of the piano. In this way you can also enjoy a wider range of phrasing (jazz, contemporary, improvisation), as well as accidentals (changing the pitch of a note, in order to modulate key, or play notes outside your home key, like blue notes in the blues). There are also effects such as the pedal bend, pedal slide and many more.
When you move a pedal, you move a series of arms in the mechanism, in the column and neck of the harp (see above picture). These move the discs, which shorten the strings.
This system is called a “double action” because you can alter the strings by either one or two semitones.
• Position 1: the strings are not affected. They are all in flats (i.e. C♭).
• Position 2: the natural discs are activated and shorten the strings by the “length” of a semitone/half step (i.e: we get C♮).
• Position 3: the sharp discs are activated and shorten the strings by a further semitone/half step (i.e: we get C#).
The result of long years of research and experiments by manufacturers such as Camac and Salvi, and by artists like Alan Stivell and Andreas Vollenweider, these instruments were born out of the need to amplify harps on-stage, especially with a lot of other musicians. Solid-body harps (without sound boxes) saw the light of day in the Camac workshops.
• Size: 1.17 – 1.45m
• Strings: nylon
• Range: 32-36 strings (lever) | up to 47 strings (pedal)
• Weight: 5 – 7.5 kg (lever) | 35 kg (pedal)
• Price: 2.000 to 5.000 € (lever) | up to 30k € (pedal)
• Suitable for: from the age of seven
• Position: seated or upright (32 strings, with body strap)
• Transport: small cars, rucksack (lever) | medium car (pedal)
The electric harp allows modern and original playing. It is possible to play in every style, within the obvious confines for classical and jazz because of the number of strings, and the levers.
This harp has to be connected to an amplifier in order to sound – as there is no soundbox, the harp is otherwise mute. The main advantage of this is that there is no feedback or distortion (Larsen effect) when amplified, which makes this harp ideal for the stage, and in groups with drums, bass, DJ, etc. The other advantage of this harp is its light weight. The 32-string models can be played standing up.
The guitarist Steve Vai with Deborah Henson-Conant
The sound is captured by piezo pickups on each string. This allows them to reproduce all the subtle nuances in the playing. The listener feels as if they are “in the strings”. That said, the sound is cooler than that of an acoustic instrument, because it is amplified by microphones, not wood.
Adding effects through pedals and racks opens the door to an infinite realm of possibility. You can play rock (within certain limits, distortion effects tend to get too much because the strings vibrate for a long time). Nonetheless, with a good technique more or less everything becomes possible.
It is important to remember that this is a recent instrument, and amplifiers and effects boards are often designed for the guitar or piano. Harpists and manufactures continue to develop and experiment with these systems.
South American Harps
(Llanera harps, Paraguayan harps, etc.)
These harps arrived in South America via the colonies, and have become an emblematic instrument of Venezuela, Colombia and Paraguay. Their roots are in Western harps, they have undergone various transformations to adapt to South American music. There are two principal families: llanera harps, and Paraguayan harps.
• Size: 1.30 – 1.60m
• Strings: nylon
• Range: 34 – 38 strings (4-5 octaves)
• Weight: 8 – 16 kg
• Price: 2000 – 5000€ (new)
• Suitable for: from the age of seven
• Position: seated or upright
• Transport: small hatchback cars
These harps are played either seated or standing, usually with the nails.
The strings have a very light tension, and the traditional sound is obtained by playing very high on the strings. This also gives rise to effects that are particular to Latin American music.
South American harpists have developed numerous techniques in the course of time. The range of sound colours you can obtain on this instrument has become very rich.
Levers are rare on this type of harp. The first lever llanera saw the light of day recently, via a collaboration between Edmar Castaneda and Camac.
Other types of harp (coming soon)
Even if some other types of harp are rarer or more highly specialized, we would like to present every type of harp played today.
Coming soon: Gaelic harps (ancient, metal-strung Celtic harps), antique harps, chromatic harps, triple harps, harps of the world, MIDI harps, etc.
The strings are the vibrating element of a harp (the one that generates the sound).
The tone and colour of the sound comes in large part from the strings.
The principal types of strings, coming from the material used:
Chords & Arpeggios
Little Cascade (trad.) by E. Simon
• Clear, crystalline sound. Brighter than gut or carbon strings, nylon is very versatile (outside the roundness of gut, which it does not have).
• Lighter tension than gut. Less effort. Good for beginners.
• Because these strings are synthetic, they are less sensitive to temperature and humidity than gut, and break less often.
• They stretch for some days after being put on the harp, and take more time to stabilise than other types.
• Nylon strings are currently used the most on lever harps.
Note : over 27 strings, lever harps have bass wires.
Chords & Arpeggios / Wolf Pack (E. Simon)
Chords & Arpeggios / Summer (J. Hisaishi) by E. Simon
• Made of the synthetic polymer PVF (Polyvinyliden fluoride), we call these strings fluorocarbon or carbon.
• Created in order to imitate the sound of gut strings without gut’s typical issues (high cost, short life and unstable reaction to climate changes).
• Sound: less bright than nylon, but a bit brighter than gut.
• The feel and tension is somewhere between nylon and gut:
Do not slip under the fingers, and have a good feel without being hard on the fingertips.
A good compromise on all levels – sound, tension and texture – which motivate luthiers to offer them more and more.
• Like nylon, they are solid materials which do not react much to changes in temperature and humidity.
These strings do not break often, and stabilise more quickly than nylon, depending on brand.
The sound, tension and density vary according to brand, which is why these strings have various different names:
Fluorocarbon: different brands, mostly Kürschner.
Alliance: carbon strings from Savarez.
Silkgut: carbon strings from Bow Brand.
Nylgut: carbon strings from Aquila.
Note : over 27 strings, lever harps have bass wires.
Canon (Pachelbel) by Evélina Simon
I Wanna (Evélina Simon)
• Round and voluptuous, gut lends its characteristic sound to pedal harps, for all it is also used for some lever harps.
• Less brilliant than nylon or carbon, it has a less harsh, rounder sound, great for classical music and jazz.
• A higher tension, which has to be played with more strength and a deeper articulation than nylon.
Harder on the skin, it can damage the fingers more easily.
• An animal product (cow or sheep gut), it is sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations, and breaks more easily.
• Stabilises rapidly when put on the harp.
Note : over 27 strings, lever harps have bass wires.
Lever gut / folk gut: gut strings (often synthetic – see carbon) of medium tension, for the lever harp.
Concert gut: natural gut strings, heavy tension, for pedal harps.
From the fifth octave down on harps of more than 27 strings, we use “bass wires”:
• They are made of a steel core, wrapped around with silk or other material, then covered with bronze or stainless steel wire.
• The steel core makes these strings much less sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations.
• Stabilise very quickly when put on the harp.
NB: some luthiers use nylon strings wrapped in nylon or bronze wire, to get a softer transition from the nylon or gut upper register, to the metal bass.
Metal strings are used on antique harps (more info coming soon). Gaelic harps, antique Celtic harps, Irish harps, Gothic harps, etc.
• Usually these strings are bronze or brass, and sometimes in steel.
• Very brilliant, resonant sound.
• Damping/muffling techniques (étouffés) are frequently used to stop too much resonance.
• Historically, these strings can be played with or without nails, both methods are possible.
Good to know: each harp is build for the sound and tension of a particular stringing. It is not possible (with some exceptions) to change it subsequently.
(to skip technical details about the wood)
The sound of the harp is generated by the vibrations inside the soundbox:
mostly from the soundboard, and to some extent from the body.
The soundboard is the soul of the harp. It receives the vibrations from the strings to amplify, and the quality of the sound and its resonance depends on the soundboard.
The main wood is spruce, because it has an excellent balance between strength and suppleness, allowing a very good return of the vibrations.
The body wood subtly influences the harp’s sound. It is chosen according to criteria like solidity, and then for its aesthetic qualities. Generally, plywood is used (wood stuck together in numerous fine layers) for the neck and the base (the strings can cause up to 680kg of tension in concert harps), and plain wood for the column (which is not placed under so much tension).
Woods for finishes / Varnishes
Often, a fine veneer of higher-grade wood is used on the body of the harp. This has no effect on the sound. One model of harp (made of the same wood) can have several different finishes. Soundboards are rarely veneered on concert harps, because this would adversely affect the sound.
Different colours of varnish are also used, and also painting (more rarely on the soundboard).
When you play a note on an acoustic instrument, this produces several sounds:
The fundamental frequency of the note, as well as the harmonics that surround it
(closely-related frequencies which add to the complexity and warmth of the sound).
Used for the soundboard and body of most harps.
• Material made by sticking fine sheets of wood together. Often, only the exterior sheet is of fine wood, for aesthetic reasons.
• Projects many core notes but fewer harmonics: it gives a powerful sound, but with less warmth and richness than the sound from plain wood.
• As the wood is fixed by glue, there will be very little improvement with age. That said, if the harp sounds good in the first place, you can be assured that this will hold well.
Used for columns and some soundboards, but rarely for the neck or the soundbox.
• A single piece of wood from the tree trunk. For soundboards, sometimes cut down the middle and stuck together following a butterfly principle
• Projects a lot of core frequencies and harmonics, gives power and more richness that the sound from plywood
• Transmits vibrations better, and they can resonate freely in time. As there is no glue, the sound continues to get better throughout the instrument’s life.
As not every harpist has the same means, there are instruments classified as study or concert harps.
The main difference is in the quality of the woods used, and therefore in the price..
(entry-level to mid-range)
The woods used for all the parts will be of lesser quality. The higher up the range you go, the more high-quality wood will be used. A study harp will have plainer finishes (in terms of quality of the varnish, decoration etc). Depending on brand, the quality of the mechanism (pins, discs etc) will also be lesser.
Regarding pedal harps, a study harp will have slightly fewer strings than a concert model, as well as a narrower soundboard called a “straight soundboard” (in contrast to the extended soundboard of concert harps).
These instruments are suitable for amateur and semi-professional harpists.
(mid-range to top-end)
A concert harp will have a better-quality soundboard, which gives a better sound and allows the concert artist to fully express their talent. You will also find better woods in all other parts of the body. The mechanism and its finishes will also be of superior quality.
Regarding pedal harps, concert harps have an extended soundboard (which extends out past the width of the body at the sides), in order to amplify the power and the resonance of the instrument. This gives a more ample sound, extending the harp’s possibilities still further → same principle as a grand piano, which has a bigger sound board than an upright piano.
These instruments are conceived for semi-professional to professional harpists, or for amateurs seeking a high sound quality.
THE wood for soundboards
Alps – France, Switzerland, Austria..
Rocky Mountains – North America
US West Coast / Canada
These are the three types of spruce most commonly used.
Spruce has been the preferred wood for soundboards for hundreds of years. This applies to the soundboards of harps, pianos, guitars and violins.
It gives a very clear sound, crystalline in the upper register, combine a lot of sensitivity and a sweet, pleasing timbre. It responds to the slightest touch.
On the harp, the choice of body wood has little
impact on the sound. Nonetheless, harp makers and
harpist generally agree on the following sound specs:
Spruce being the wood most commonly used for the
soundboard, you will find below a selection of the woods used
for the body and finishes (and rarely for the soundboard).
Note: The big brands use mostly beech and maple for the body (and other woods for finishing). Independent luthiers use other types of wood more regularly..
The Big Names
Choosing a famous brand will guarantee you substantial
experience and reliable construction. Their after-sales care
and servicing are also an asset (depending on the brand).
Harp School’s favorite! This renowned brand with half a century of
experience is always on the ball with the latest innovations in harp
making, and they make very high-quality harps with a beautiful sound.
Their wide range will satisfy an equally wide range of demands → see our selection
Camac is also excellent at accompanying beginners as well as
professionals. They have very good sale and hire conditions.
This is why, after many tests and reports, we have chosen to recommend
this brand to you. Do not hesitate to contact their friendly team!
A Selection of Luthiers:
Unusual woods, decorations, carvings… this is the magic of luthery!
Meet the Luthiers
As far as is possible, we advise you to travel to meet the luthier you are thinking of, and visit his workshop. You can test and compare models before buying one. Each luthier works differently, so ask about after-sales service, especially regarding possible regulations when your instrument is older.
The smaller number of luthiers in the harp world (unlike those making guitars or pianos) means that savoir-faire is rarely passed on. Yet the complexity of the instrument, especially the fact that the strong tension of strings, makes for a highly specialised task. Making instruments that are reliable and have a beautiful sound takes many years of experience.
Question owners of harps by your chosen luthier, in order to find out how the instruments develop over time. You will discover some harps that split after just a few years (a rarity in guitar and piano luthery). There are some very good artisan harp makers! We do not want to discredit them, but you should understand the importance of informing yourself before you buy.
• Go and see the instrument (if impossible, ask as many questions as possible and request detailed photos).
• Get the facts on the instrument: owner(s), brand, why is it for sale?
• Compare the sales price against other new and second-hand offers, online or otherwise advertised.
• Big-brand harps offer you the chance to ask the maker for a cost estimate, about the age, and so on (via the serial number that you will on a label inside the soundbox or on the column).
• Ask the date of the last service. If applicable, ask about the possibility to have it serviced by the manufacturer or luthier.
Wear and Tear
• How has the instrument been kept? An instrument kept in a humid environment could be damaged.
• A harp that has not been used for many years needs to be tuned up in stages and transported gently, until it has stabilized.
• If a lot of strings are missing, restring the harp in stages, in order not to put the harp under too much tension suddenly. Watch how the soundboard reacts over the course of several days.
To Check on the Instrument
• Tune the harp, and check that the semitones are accurate (using a tuner, and changing the levers or the pedals). If they are out of tune, the maker needs to regulate the harp, so this is why it is important to know their conditions.
• Cracks in the soundboard or column: get professional advice.
• Small dents and scratches on the harp do not alter the sound quality at all.
You will find pretty, carved harps at very low prices, somewhere between 200 and 500€. These low-cost harps are also called Pakistani, and also “orphan harps” (harps “orphaned” through their lack of sound. They are controversial among the harp community. They are nonetheless present in the market, so we think it is important to discuss them here.
They are small, practical and generally solid. They are easy to transport, so good for travelers. They stand up well to climate changes (we tested a model under sometimes bad conditions). Their higher strings are a little sensitive, and break easily if you play a lot.
The levers are these harps’ main default. They are often badly-regulated, which can cause buzzes and the string to break. In some cases, the lever does not touch the string at all and has to be readjusted, involving taking the lever off, and making more holes in the harp. Sometimes it is necessary to carry out a lot of DIY to get proper lever function.
Very variable from one harp to the next. However, in this price range you cannot expect much quality. The sound is okay. The 27 strings have basses that do not resonate much, but that is fine for beginners.
The best part of these harps is the price. If possible, study the hire or sale price of a “real” second-hand harp. The low-cost harps at least allow some people to begin or try out the harp, before buying themselves a better harp to carry on with. These harps can therefore suit the beginner, if they are aware of the problems they can present (especially the levers), and the fact that not all notes are always in tune. We do not advise them for harp aficionados who want a real sound and an instrument that is in tune. They can be all right as an extra harp for travelers who do not want to transport and potentially damage their harps.
What to choose between 19 and 27 strings? With or without levers?
We suggest you choose a harp of 22 strings or more, and with levers, for more ease of playing and greater possibilities.
How to recognize them?
They are all made of rosewood, usually carved with Celtic or floral motifs. The levers are silver metal. Some models have Celtic watermarks in the wood or on the column. And of course, they are cheap.
Feel free to send us your comments,
using our feedback contact form!
The Harp-School Team