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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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