How to Replace Your Pedal Caps

Your harp’s pedal caps, the black rubber pads that cover the tip of each pedal, are designed to give your feet traction as you move the pedals. Over time, and the more you use them, pedal caps wear away. In the case of the slip-on type, they can also split or crack, giving your harp a tired look. Fortunately, pedal caps are reasonably priced and replacing them can easily be done by the harp owner.

Screw-on vs. Slip-on
As the name says, screw-on pedal caps are attached to the pedal via a screw from underneath. They cover just the top of the pedal where your foot goes. Slip-on pedal caps cover the whole tip of the pedal, and are slightly stretched to fit tightly over the pedal. Screw-on pedals are standard on Lyon & Healy, Salvi, and Swanson harps, though some Lyon & Healys use the slip-on type. Venus and Camac Harps use the slip-on types, as do old Wurlitzer harps. When replacing pedal caps, your best bet is to order new ones from your harp’s manufacturer. Lyon & Healy sells a slip-on cap, but I’ve found that they are too tight on Venus pedals, and prone to splitting. Lyon & Healy slip-ons do work well on Wurlitzers, however, and Lyon & Healy screw-on caps can be used on Swansons.

 

 

Screw-on pedal caps are the most commonly found type.

Slip-on pedal caps on a Venus Prodigy.

 

Replacing Screw-on Caps
To replace screw-on caps, you need to get access to the underside of the pedal. You can crouch down and flip the pedals up like you do when moving the harp. For easier access, you may also want to lay the harp on the floor so that the bottoms of the pedals will face up, or even elevate the harp by laying it down on a bed. To remove the old caps, unscrew the screw with a flat head screwdriver. The screw is very short, so it will only take a few turns. The new pedal caps should come with new screws, but if not you can reuse the old ones. Once the old cap is removed, fit a new one into place. It’s a little tricky to line up the cap’s screw hole with the hole in the pedal. It takes a little pressure from your hand to line them up. Once you do, screw the new cap back on and you’re done.

The pedal cap screw is located underneath the pedal brass.

Pedal brass with screw-on cap removed.

Replacing Slip-on Caps
Old slip-ons can sometimes be pulled right off, especially if they are cracked or split. If you have trouble, you can grab them with a pair of pliers and pull them off, but be careful not to damage the underlying brass of the pedal. Once the old ones are off, you may be able to push the new ones right on, but if they feel  too tight, add a small amount of lubrication, such as 3 in 1 oil, to the mouth of the cap. That will get it started stretching over the widest part of the pedal. Be careful not to use too much oil, though, because a cap that goes on too easily can also slide right back off.

Slip-on caps are pulled off to remove and pushed on to install. A drop or two of oil may help if the cap is tight.

That’s all there is to it. Now you can get back to making some music. Cheers!

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The Dreaded P.R.T.B.

What the heck is a P.R.T.B.? It stands for pedal rod tubing buzz. It is a sympathetic vibration caused by a harp’s pedal rod tubing assembly, the system of parts inside a pedal harp’s column that connect the pedals at your feet with the mechanism above your head. It can cause very prominent unwanted vibrations, primarily in the 5th and 6th octaves, when they are played loudly.

Why Do They Happen?
P.R.T.B.s happen when either: 1.)one of the pedal rods or 2.)some part of the tubing assembly vibrates along with the playing of one or more of the of the strings. Since the rods and tubing are as long as some of the harp’s longest bass strings, these vibrations can be rather loud. They can develop because lubrication that was originally added to the tubing dries up, leaving more room for vibration, or the tubing itself widens over time, causing the same result. There have been a variety of different materials used for tubing over the years. All of them can develop buzzes, the reasons why can vary.

A harp’s pedal rods can start to vibrate sympathetically along with the strings.

Diagnosing a P.R.T.B.
P.R.T.B.s are almost always heard on 5th Octave B or below. The most common one by far is the 5th Octave A flat. 5th Octave G and 6th Octave C are also more frequent troublemakers, but these buzzes can happen throughout the lower register. If you hear a loud, low rumbling sound when playing in this range, it may well be a P.R.T.B., especially if it only occurs in one particular pedal position on a given string. Playing the offending string as well as the one an octave below it may make the tubing buzz more prominent. Another way to diagnose a tubing buzz is to play the offending string plus an adjacent one. If this causes a pulsating sound in the buzz, chances are it’s the tubing.

It’s also important to try and rule out loose linkages in the mechanism, which can cause similar buzzes. If your harp’s mechanism needs reriveting, it may cause buzzes similar to those in the tubing. Linkage buzzes, in general, are higher pitched and more metallic than tubing buzzes.

Does it Mean Something’s Broken?
No. It is merely an unwanted sound. You have to play pretty hard before hearing a tubing buzz. I often hear them when the harp’s owner does not, because I play very hard when I regulate, in order to detect potential problems. A tubing buzz is not a sign that anything is damaged or about to break.  If it doesn’t bother you, or you only hear it when you play really hard, you can ignore it without worries.

The pedal rods need to be disconnected from the mechanism before the buzz can be fixed.

Fixing a P.R.T.B.
Eliminating a P.R.T.B. is a labor-intensive project, as it is necessary to disconnect all the pedals and springs, as well as disconnect the pedal rods from the mechanism. In some cases, the tubing assembly has to be removed as well. On newer instruments, it is often possible to cure this buzz by pushing grease into the tubing to fill any voids that have defeloped between the rods and the tubes. This is often called lubricating or “greasing” the rods. Lubricant is used, though the point of the excercise is not actually to increase lubrication, but to cut down on free space inside the tubing. If this alone doesn’t work, sometimes removing the tubing assemly itself and adding some additional padding to fill any voids between it and the harp column can do the trick. In other cases, it is necessary to replace the entire tubing assembly, though the pedal rods can generally be reused. Regardless of which solution is used, this is a job best left to a technician. Because of the disassembly and reassembly involved, it is time consuming (technician-speak for “expensive”). Another reason why, if this buzz isn’t bothering you too much, you can just ignore it.

Make Sure it’s not the Room
Last month I wrote about ruling out sympathetic vibrations coming from somewhere in your harp’s environment, not the harp itself. If you’ve already followed those instructions and made sure your room is innocent of all charges, and the buzz you’re stalking is in the lower register, see if you can determine if it is, in fact, the dreaded P.R.T.B.

 

Harp Buzzes 101: That Annoying Room Buzz

The lighting fixtures in rooms like this crowded harp studio just love to vibrate sympathetically.

The lighting fixtures in rooms like this crowded harp studio just love to vibrate sympathetically.

When is a harp buzz not a harp buzz? When it’s coming from somewhere else in the room.

The world we live in is teeming with objects that want to deceive us into thinking our harp has a buzz. Disguised as ordinary lighting fixtures, heating registers, even as innocent tchotchkes on glass tables, they sit patiently, waiting for us to play that one particular note, then–

BUZZ!

You think it’s your harp. You curse that scheister who just did the regulation. How could he miss this? You play fourth octave F sharp and it sounds like a swarm of bees is heading right for you. You can’t get good help these days! But before you fire off an angry email to that son of a bleep, take a minute to rule out unwanted noises coming from elsewhere in the room.

Every object has a resonance frequency, meaning when sound vibrations of a particular frequency or pitch hits it, it vibrates. In most cases, these vibrations will not be noticeable. If an object is too thick, for instance. But certain items, such the thin pieces of metal found the covers over every fluorescent light fixture in every harp practice room in America, vibrate very easily. These are known as sympathetic vibrations, wherein sound from one vibrating object (your harp string) excites another (that confounded light fixture).

In other cases, two objects that are touching each other can make a noise when one of them vibrates. Sometimes, when I’ve found myself tuning up a harp next to a desk, I’ve heard a noise and found that two metal objects, a pen and a stapler, for instance, are vibrating against one another. Steel wastebaskets are also good for this, especially when you replace your bass wires and throw the old ones into it. More than once, part of my procedure for “regulating” a harp has involved kicking the wastebasket or the desk to rearrange the items inside, thus disrupting the marriage of whichever objects are too close to one another.

How to detect a room buzz? First, determine whether the sound you hear is a sympathetic vibration or not. In other words, is the buzz directly connected to the string you’re playing (and any parts it is in contact with, such as a disc)? Most non-sympathetic harp buzzes have a short duration, or cause the string to sound muted or snappy. They are most often caused by improper gripping of the discs (or levers, on a lever harp). Sympathetic vibrations tend to last longer. They also can start just a fraction of an instant after you play the string.

Once you are certain you have a sympathetic vibration, try to determine whether or not it is coming from your harp. It can be harder to tell than you might think. Stick your ear next to a soundhole and play the offending string. If the sound is louder, chances are it is coming from the harp. Do the same with the mechanism and column (on a pedal harp). If a sound gets louder as you put your ear right next to parts of the instrument, there’s a good bet it’s the harp. If the sound doesn’t get louder closer to the instrument, try leaning as far away as you can and playing the string. See if you can hear the direction the sound is coming from. Once you suspect a room vibration, take your harp in another room, ideally not one with the same type of light fixtures, which are the number one cause of these things. If the sound is gone when you play it elsewhere, it is clearly in the room.

If you have a room buzz, you may be able to fix it. Check around. I mentioned desks and metal wastebaskets. Glass curio cabinets are also frequent culprits. If it’s that darned light fixture, you may have to live with it. At least you’ll know it’s not your harp!

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How to Prepare for a Regulation

When you make an appointment to have your harp regulated, there are three important things you can do to get ready. The first is to make sure your strings are in good condition, especially in the top two octaves. The second is to make a list of any specific problems you would like to see addressed. The third is to let your technician know in advance if you will want strings or other parts replaced.

Good String Condition –> Good Regulation

Over time and with use, harp strings wear away at the points where the discs of the mechanism (or the lever cams on lever harps) contact them. Strings that have been in heavy use for a year or more will often look like they’ve been chewed on, or even had a bite taken out of them, at those points. On thicker strings, from the third octave on down, this wear can affect the string’s tone, but generally doesn’t affect its ability to play in tune. In the top two octaves, however, the shorter string lengths mean that any change or damage to a string will have its effect multiplied. As the string wears away, the disc will grip the string less strongly. The string will tend to sound flat, and may even begin to snap.

These problems can be fixed by a regulation even if you don’t replace the strings, but there’s a problem. If I adjust your harp to sound in tune with old, worn strings, then they wear out or break and you replace them, their relationship with the discs will change, and they will likely sound sharp. That’s why, for the most accurate and durable regulation, I recommend replacing old or worn strings prior to your regulation.

Since strings take a while to stretch and settle, it’s best to replace them two weeks prior to the regulation appointment so they will be stable by the time you see your technician. If you miss that window, however, even one week prior is okay. I’d rather regulate your harp with new, slightly unstable strings than with those old clunkers.

When a string is in good condition, it can be gripped well by the discs, resulting in a clean sound and accurate intonation.

When a string is in good condition, it can be gripped well by the discs, resulting in a clean sound and accurate intonation.

Worn away strings will not be gripped as well. They will be out of tune when you change pedal positions and will probably snap against the discs as well.

Worn away strings will not be gripped as well. They will be out of tune when you change pedal positions and will probably snap against the discs as well.

Be Specific

If there is a buzz or strange vibration in your harp that is bothering you, make a note of it, along with as much specific information as possible about conditions when it happens. Better yet, practice reproducing it. The best way to make sure I hear what you’re hearing is to be able to make it happen when you bring the harp in for service. If you make some written notes, you’ll be able to remember the pedal position, string, et cetera. I often have people give me vague information like, “there’s a buzz. I think it’s in the third octave somewhere. Or was it the fourth?” Having as much info as possible about what key you’re in and what string your playing when you hear the buzz will give me a greater chance to locate and troubleshoot it. There are many cases where a buzz will happen one one particular string and in one particular key. If I don’t set the pedals exactly the way you do and play the string the same way, I may not hear what you hear. Later on, when I’m headed back to Indiana and you play in that key again, you hear that the buzz is still there and you decide I’m a lousy harp technician. Neither of us wants that to happen!

Likewise, if you have a question or several about your harp, do yourself a favor and write it down. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “I know there was something I wanted to ask you but I can’t remember what it was” I could probably take a luxury cruise.

Plan Ahead

If you would like bass wires or pedal caps replaced, or if you have a disc that is broken, please let me know in advance. I can make sure I bring what you need, and schedule in any extra time that may be required to replace strings or broken parts. I try to keep spare parts on hand, but I’m limited to the amount of things I can cram in my luggage and the airlines limit the amount of weight I can carry, so I’m not prepared for every situation. I also only carry an emergency set of strings. If you’re not sure whether or not something will need replacing, feel free to ask me. I may need you to send a picture, or we might make a plan to have the part on hand just in case.

So there it is, your harp technician’s wish list. Paying attention to these issues will help you get the best possible regulation when the appointment time rolls around. Not only that, but you’ll make your technician’s day. Cheers!

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Setting up a String Replacement Schedule

Happy New Year!

While you’re putting together your list of resolutions for this year, how about instituting a string replacement schedule?

Your harp only sounds as good as its strings, and unfortunately strings do deteriorate with age and use. While it is obviously necessary to replace strings when they break, I would also advise you to adopt a regular schedule of replacing your strings even if they don’t.

Without a regular replacement schedule, you might have an octave that includes two strings you just replaced, two more that you replaced a year ago, and four that have been on the harp for longer than you can recall. Hey, it’s great that those four strings never broke, right? Saves you some money, and we all know how expensive gut harp strings are. But that mixed-vintage octave is not going to make your harp sound as good as it should. Newer strings have more resonance and sustain than old ones, and as a result, your harp will sound uneven in tone. In addition, you may have most of your harp strung in gut, but there is the odd nylon string that you threw on in an emergency at a gig. While you had to do it at the time, now it sounds and feels different than the others. You mean to change it, you really do, but there just hasn’t been time.

No more false strings. Change those darn things!

No more false strings. Change those darn things!

I’m not saying you need to replace all of the strings on your harp every year, or even every two years. Some strings can sound good for much longer than that. Others tend to wear out more quickly. I will outline some proposed schedules below that break things down by octave, and you can you can choose one that best fits your budget and your goals for your harp’s sound.

The strings that should be replaced most often are at either end of the harp. The top two octaves need changing more frequently because, due to their short lengths, any slight wear or damage can affect the harp’s ability to stay in tune as you change pedal positions. Over time, divots form where the strings are gripped by the mechanism. These divots can throw off the harp’s intonation and lead to unwanted snapping as well.

At the other extreme, bass strings are not subject to the same kind of wear, but they lose a lot of their brightness and sustain over time. This change is insidious because it happens slowly and as you play from day to day you won’t notice the change. Once you change all of them, you will think you have bought a new harp, the sound will be so different. Since it’s hard to judge when your own harp’s wires are too old, adopt a schedule and replace them regularly, and you will never have to play tubby, dead-sounding wires again.

There, that wasn't so bad, was it?

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

My esteemed colleague and mentor, Peter Wiley, put together a choice of three string replacement schedules and posted them on his website, harpdoc.com. With his permission, I am reprinting them here. As the new year gets rolling, why not pick one of these plans for the coming years? You can put some alerts on your Google calendar to remind you when to buy strings. The only change I might make to this list would be changing the name of the third, or “average” level. Frankly, if you replace your strings as often as recommended here, your harp will definitely sound above average compared to many of the harps that I see and hear on a daily basis. So, with homage to Peter, I am renaming “average” to “excellent.”

Following the guidelines below you will help to keep the voice of your harp sounding at its best. When you’re estimating the cost of the various options, remember that the first and second octave strings are double (sometimes triple) length. Some manufactures now package the third octave in double length.

If the sound you want is:

Extraordinary

  • 1st, 2nd and 3rd: Once yearly (possibly twice)
  • 4th and 5th: Every three years
  •  Bass Wires: Once yearly

Professional

  •   1st and 2nd: Once yearly
  •    3rd: Every other year
  •    4th and 5th: Every four to five years
  •    Bass Wires: Once yearly

Excellent (was Average)

  •     1st and 2nd: Every two years
  •      3rd: Every three years
  •      4th and 5th: Every five to six years
  •      Bass Wires: Every two to four years

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How to Replace a Bass Wire

Since a harp’s bass wires are thicker and stiffer than the rest of its strings, many harpists choose to avoid replacing their own, preferring to have a technician do the job during a regulation. But if you’d like to do it yourself, or one breaks and you have to do it for yourself, here are some tips to make the job go more smoothly.

Removing the Old Wire

If the old wire isn’t broken, use your tuning key to unwind it from the tuning pin, while pulling it away from the harp with your left hand. This will help the wire uncoil from the pin, and will help prevent the sharp end of the wire from scratching your harp’s finish. When the wire is ready to come loose from the pin, pull it away from the harp. Coiled wire can have a mind of its own, so you want to keep it away from the instrument as soon as it comes loose from the tuning pin.

If the old wire is broken you can uncoil it from the tuning pin and pull it off the harp, pulling away from the harp as above to prevent scratching. If the wire breaks just under the coil, you will probably need to use a pair of pliers to uncoil it and work it out of the tuning pin.

Once the wire is loose from the pin, cut off the coiled end so that you can pull the rest of the wire through its hole in the soundboard.

pull-away

While uncoiling the wire from the tuning pin, pull away from the harp to keep the sharp wire end from scratching the finish.

Installing the new wire

Make sure you have the correct wire. Each one is different, and installing the wrong one can put undue strain on the instrument. Grasping the end of the new wire, reach inside your harp’s body through a soundhole and locate the proper hole for the wire. I often place the tip of a finger over the end of the string to prevent it from scratching wood on the way in through the soundhole. Insert it in the correct string hole and pull the wire all the way through until its ball end stops against the inside of the soundboard. Give it a good pull to be sure it is seated, especially if it is a thick wire and you felt some resistance as you pulled it into place.

Orient the holes in your tuning pin so they are pointing straight up and down. Feed the wire end through the tuning pin and pull it tight. There should be six inches or more of excess wire that has passed through the pin. Now you will need to let out some slack to allow the wire to coil around the tuning pin. You are aiming to coil the wire around the pin about three times once the wire is tuned to pitch. Place your left hand above the tuning pin and measure about three fingers of wire. If you feel your fingers are extra slim or extra thick, adjust up or down a little. You will learn the best amount with practice. Now let the wire down by the amount you measured. Once you’ve done this, bend the wasted end of the wire at the tip of the tuning pin to mark the length you’ve chosen for it.

Measure "three fingers" worth of slack on the wire, then let it back down through the tuning pin hole.

Measure “three fingers” worth of slack on the wire, then let it back down through the tuning pin hole.

 

After letting the slack through the pin, bend the wire above the pin to mark then intended length of the wire.

After letting the slack through the pin, bend the wire above the pin to mark then intended length of the wire.

Next you need to start turning the pin and coiling the wire onto it. This is the trickiest part. The stiff wire will resist your efforts to coax it into a coil. As you turn the tuning key with your right hand, use your left to “herd” the wire into a coil. As much as this motion may feel tentative at first, it is actually easier if you go fairly quickly. This allows the wire less time to fight your efforts to control it.

Once the wire is under some tension, make sure it is properly aligned through the discs or levers, and seated where it belongs on the nut. Tune it up to pitch. It will require several tunings before it holds well, but it does settle much faster than gut or nylon strings, and should be stable within a day or two.

Keep your fingers on the wire to help guide it into a coil as you turn the tuning pin.

Keep your fingers on the wire to help guide it into a coil as you turn the tuning pin.

When you’re finished, cut off the excess wire. A heavy duty end nipper makes this job easier on your hands. I recommend the Channellock.

If you need to replace all of your wires, or want to practice this skill, start with the highest, thinnest wire. It will be the easiest to work on, and will help you gain some confidence before you tackle the really thick strings lower down. Take only a small number of wires off the harp at the time to minimize disruption in tuning stability. I usually replace four wires at a time, but if you’re new to this, try one or two at a time.

Safety First

Protect your eyes when replacing wires! those dangling ends can put an eye out, and when cutting off the excess, I’ve had bits of wire fly at my eyes. Wear safety glasses or goggles. Also, consider wearing gloves. Those wire ends are sharp.

Good luck!

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Baby it’s Cold Outside!

The Holiday season means lots of harp gigs. But what about all that cold and snow? (Photo by Meg Rodgers)

The Holiday season means lots of harp gigs. But what about all that cold and snow?
(Photo by Meg Rodgers)

As we head toward the holiday season, and it starts to get cold in many parts of the northern hemisphere, a question I am asked a lot is whether it is safe to move a harp on very cold days. Fortunately, as long as you take basic precautions, the answer is yes.

You may have heard that cold weather can have a negative impact on a harp and its finish. Many harp makers do not ship their products in weather below freezing. However, it’s perfectly fine for you to take your harp to an office Christmas party or three. The difference lies in how long the harp is exposed to the elements. Several days in an unheated freight truck can be very damaging to a harp. But if all you need to do is wheel your harp from a warm car to a warm building, the elements will not have enough time to affect it. The harp is large enough to maintain its ambient temperature for the few minutes it will take you to go from house to car and then car to gig.

The thing you don’t want to do is leave the harp in a cold place, such as your garage, for hours. In that case, it might get as cold as the air around it, and the finish–even the wood itself–can crack. A good rule of thumb is to remember that your harp belongs in places where you yourself are physically comfortable. If it is too cold for you to sleep in your garage, it’s too cold for your harp as well.

Another point to remember is the importance of covering the harp to protect it from rain or snow. In last month’s newsletter, I discussed the importance of purchasing a three piece transport cover if you will move your harp with any regularity. This goes doubly for place where it rains or snows a lot. Again, if you need to put on a coat, so does your instrument.

Other than that, there’s nothing to worry about. The holiday season is the busiest of all for most of the working harpists I know, and harps are constantly being moved around in the winter. So take that harp with you to the party and enjoy yourself!

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