Beginners’ guide to choosing a harp – which harp is best for me?
Beginning to learn a new instrument is an exciting time in the life of any musician, young or old, experienced or otherwise. However, along with the excitement of learning how to play, there can often be an intimidating number of unknowns: What are the differences between different types and model of harp? How many strings do I need? Are the big harps more difficult to play than the small ones? The list can seem endless.
The vast majority of beginners on the harp have experienced the same uncertainties and have similar questions. Everyone has to start somewhere, and everyone has different preferences. For parents of young harpists, we know that the decision to purchase a harp is a big one. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is that choosing a harp is an extremely personal decision and wherever possible we recommend trying out the model of harp that you are interested in.
The aim of the guide below is to clear up common points of confusion and to give you a few things to bear in mind when looking at harps. There are also some videos included where master harpmaker Allan Shiers talks you through some of the finer details. If you have any questions which aren’t answered here you are always welcome to ask us a question.
Why are they all different sizes?
If you have looked at a number of different harps already, you may have noticed that they vary quite widely in size. The main reason for this is that they all have different numbers of strings. A concert harp can have up to 47 strings and a lever harp down to 22 (some are even smaller, but the repertoire gets extremely limited below this number). However even among harps with the same number of strings they can still vary widely in size.
As with many things, this is simply down to design: just as there is no standard size for a car, there is no standard size for harps. Each maker will have a design that they consider gives the best combination of sound and aesthetics and it is largely a matter of personal preference which you prefer.
What’s the difference between a Celtic/lever harp and a concert or pedal harp?
Quite a lot! In construction terms it’s similarly equivalent to the difference between a bicycle and a car. Lever harps are diatonic which means that they can only play in a limited number of keys – keys are set by raising and lowering the semitone levers. The majority of beginners will start out on a lever harp.
Concert harps, on the other hand, are fully chromatic and can play in any key. Keys are changed by moving pedals located at the rear of the harp with your feet. There are seven pedals (one for each note of the scale), each of which which change all the relevant notes on the harp simultaneously.
For more details you can watch Allan explain in the video on the left or we have a whole page dedicated to this very topic.
If I want to buy a lever or Celtic harp, how many strings do I need?
As you search for harps, one of the first things you will notice is that the number of strings differs broadly depending on the make and model, leaving the budding harpist (or their parents!) very confused as to which is best. Put briefly, the more strings a harp has the bigger the instrument will be and (in general) the louder the sound (please note: more strings does not always equal a better sound).
The most common number of strings for lever or Celtic harps is 34. This will allow you to play a wide range of music and is also the accepted number of strings for most exam boards. A 34-string harp can take you all the way from beginner to advanced.
Harps with 36 strings are also fairly common. These tend to be bigger instruments in general and are often played by professionals who want a slightly louder sound with different string spacing and tension. The extra two strings are of course useful, but not vital for a beginner.
Many beginners look at much smaller harps as a ‘starter’ – 26 strings or even fewer. There can be many reasons for this, not least of which is cost and ease of transportation. Obviously, if you are intending to do a lot of travelling, or simply want to play by yourself and don’t have much space, a 26-string lightweight harp might be ideal for you.
Although it may seem counter intuitive, a larger harp is often easier to play than a smaller harp. Lap harps, for example, often need to be held in a particular way to prevent them from falling off your knee, whereas larger floor-standing harps only need to be rested on the shoulder – freeing up both arms and hands to concentrate on playing. There is not really such a thing as a ‘child’ harp and an ‘adult’ harp – apart from very young children, most people can play a 34-string harp with no problems. Young children might find it easier to begin on a lower tension harp until their fingers are stronger, but it does depend on the individual.
If a harp has fewer than 34 strings, this does slightly restrict the amount of music which can be played and music may need to be rearranged to prevent the hands from ‘crashing’ in the middle. If you have a 26-string harp and are receiving lessons, your teacher should be able to help you arrange and find music suitable for a smaller harp.
This is probably the most important part of choosing a harp: what does it sound like?
Choosing a harp is an extremely personal decision, and even after doing lots of research and asking a lot of advice, it is vital that the sound of the harp you choose sounds right to you. Harps respond differently to different types of playing, so don’t worry if you prefer one particular harp and your teacher or friend prefers another – neither of you are wrong or right! Harps also all feel different to play – some people will feel more comfortable playing a lighter tension harp, and others will prefer ‘heavier’ feeling strings.
Each harp has its own sound, which is a combination of the original design and manufacture, the natural ageing process and how well the harp has been cared for. Some of the most unlikely looking harps give out the most wonderful, warm sound. Good harps sing! As a rule of thumb, listen for evenness across the entire range of the harp. Some harps “boom” at the bottom and “tinkle” at the top. Some harps can be great at each end and flat in the middle. If you are looking for a harp, try as many as you can and remember to get someone else to play while you listen from a distance – harps sound very different from across a room. The most important thing is that you love the sound and that the instrument responds to the way you play.
Good quality levers should not displace the string when engaged.
How well is it made?
If you are investing in a harp you will want to be assured that it can stand up to the stresses and strains of playing and being transported around (for our guide on harp care click here). Unfortunately, in recent years the harp market has been flooded with cheap, poorly made harps from Asia. While these may look attractive and seem easy on the pocket, they are usually more trouble than they are worth. We often receive repair enquiries for such harps with bend or broken columns and necks. They usually sound less than desirable and come with crude semitone ‘hooks’ rather than proper semitone levers.
When assessing a harp keep an eye out for any twists to the neck or column. Are there any cracks anywhere in the wood? Is the soundboard peeling away from the box? All these can be a sure sign of impending disaster! Check the semitone levers – good semitone levers should not displace or wear the string and should be easy and smooth to use.
- Does it sounds good? This cannot be overemphasised. If you like the sound, you’re more than halfway there.
- Does it resonate well?
- Does the tension on the strings feel the same all the way up the harp?
- Is the sound quality consistent from bottom to top?
- Does the sound quality change depending on whether the levers are on or off? (there will always be a slight difference, but this should be minimal)
- Are there any twist or warps in the neck or column?
- Are the levers smooth and easy to use?
If you don’t feel confident in your own playing, or don’t play at all yet, ask someone you know (maybe your teacher, or a harp playing friend!) to play the harp you’re looking at. Trust your own ears – you don’t have to be an experienced harpist or musician to know if the sound is pleasing to you. But even if you don’t play at all (yet), sit behind the harp and strum the strings – you’ll find you have an opinion on whether you like a harp or not, and will almost certainly be able to tell the difference between different models.
If you still have questions about buying a harp or need more advice you can always get in touch with us. We’re always happy to help.