The Lowdown: Getting the Most from Your Harp’s Bass Wires

Have you ever felt like your harp just doesn’t resonate like it used to? Let’s talk about bass wires and the sonic contributions they make over the harp’s entire range.

What are bass wires and why should you care about them? They are the metal strings in the lowest two octaves on your harp. On a typical pedal harp, the bass wires run from the lowest string up through 5th octave G. On some lever harps, the wires run as high as 5th octave C.

Each bass string consists of two pieces of wire. A plain steel core runs straight up from end to end. A much thinner winding coils around the core, and this is the part of the wire that you can see. Between the core and the winding a layer of silk threads keeps the core and winding from vibrating against one another. A good set of wires will resonate sympathetically even when you’re playing strings in higher registers,resulting in a richer sound and better projection across the harp’s entire range.

You can demonstrate this by playing a chord in the second or third octave, then quickly dampening the strings you just played. Do you still hear the chord? That’s the sound of the lower strings vibrating in sympathy with the higher ones. The bass wires act as assistants in the harp’s resonance, even when they aren’t being played.

Over time, dust and grime work their way in between the coils of the winding, muffling the wire’s sound and dampening its sustain. Old bass wires have a tubby, plunky sound that dies quickly, while new ones ring out and hold their tone longer.

Eventually, the tight winding of the coil begins to loosen and the wires begin to rattle or sizzle loudly. As wires age, their ability to vibrate sympathetically decreases. Tarnish on the coil’s surface will cause it to lose its resonance. This happens slowly so that you may not notice the effect, but you may wonder why your harp just doesn’t sound as good as it used to.

How often should you replace your wires? That depends on your playing level and your needs. Many orchestra players I know replace their bass wires once a year. They need every bit of sound the harp can produce to compete with the other instruments onstage. I would recommend that anyone who plays in public on a regular basis change their bass wires every two years. More casual players can wait longer, perhaps as many as five years. If you haven’t replaced your bass wires in a long time, try it, and you’ll be pleased with the instant improvement in your harp’s tone.

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New Video Available: Troubleshooting Salvi Levers

I recently received a question about how to deal with buzzing levers on Salvi lever harps. While they are good quality and sound good when they’re in good regulation, Salvi levers are prone to a buzz when engaged, especially in the lower strings.

Since I had a Salvi Ana to regulate on the same day the question reached me, I took the opportunity to shoot some video segments. I also dug through the vault and realized I had some older footage which deals with the same issue, so I spliced that onto the video below as well.

This was the day I learned I need to travel with my good camera. I shot most of this video on my phone, and the sound and video are not ideal. Since I had the Ana to work with, though, I thought it was best to get some answers out there. Apologies for the sound quality.

Does a Harp Regulation Include all new Strings?

Harp Stringing toolsPeople often ask me if I’ll replace all the strings when they bring their harp in for a regulation. A smaller number of people assume that a regulation includes all new strings and are surprised (and disappointed) to find out that this isn’t the case. While I may replace a string or two at a regulation appointment, and I’ll often replace the bass wires, complete restringing requires a significant additional investment of time, and thus carries an extra labor charge. Then there’s the strings, which on a full sized pedal harp can cost close to $500 for a full set.

I am always glad when my customers are willing to invest in new strings. A lot of harpists tend to leave strings on their harps longer than they should. I often work on harps whose strings have lost much of their tonal quality and sustain. I am happy to schedule the additional time to restring a harp before regulating it. However, I can’t offer the same-day service I can offer for a standard regulation. In order to completely restring and regulate a harp, I generally request that the customer leave it with me for three days.

The reason for this time lag is that brand new harp strings don’t hold their tuning well enough for me to accurately regulate the harp’s intonation. Ideally, there should be a two-week lag  between the day a harp is restrung and the day it is regulated, and someone should tune the new strings at least once a day.

Since my road service regulation stops rarely last two weeks, I have to compress this “string settling and stretching” period down to a couple of days. I do this by tuning the harp over and over, accelerating the settling process. After two days of intensive tuning, while the strings will still stretch to some degree, they will hold their tuning well enough to complete the pitch regulation process.

If you are interested in having your harp both restrung and regulated, please contact me in advance. We’ll need to work out a time for you to leave the harp with me, and there are decisions to make about which strings to order. You can use strings you already have on hand, but I caution you not to bother with them if they are more than five years old. Strings age even sealed in a package, so if your spare set goes back more than that, it’s better to throw them out and start fresh.

Moss Harp Service to Visit Las Vegas, February, 2010

Holiday Motel

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

I’ll be setting up shop somewhere in Las Vegas in Mid-to-late February of 2010. I’ve been there once before, and have a few customers who have been kind enough to ask me back. Overall, though, this is a new territory for me. If you happen to be a harpist in the area, please get in touch if there’s anything I can do for you. If you know a harpist in the Las Vegas area, won’t you mention this blog entry to them or direct them to my website? Remember, I’m authorized to do the free first year warranty regulations on Lyon & Healy and Salvi Harps, as well as other warranty repairs. Again, let me know if there’s anything I can help you with, and spread the word!

How Often Does a Harp Need Regulation?

harpreg30Does your pedal harp need regulation once a year? Every other year? Only occasionally? The answer, of course, is “it depends.” It depends on how much you play your harp, how strongly you play, and how high your standards are for sound and intonation.

What causes a harp to go out of regulation? Time and use. Over time, the pedal felts become compacted where your pedals rest against the notches in the base. Under continuous string pressure (close to 2,000 pounds on a full-sized pedal harp),  the soundboard pulls up slowly and the neck twists slightly. As the harp is played, constant vibration can cause parts to work slightly loose, resulting in noises you didn’t hear before. As parts age, some can lose their initial strength and require adjustment to function properly. Frequent use and moving can also result in breakage to fragile action parts, accidental movement, and other minor hassles.

As a harp gradually goes out of regulation, it gradually loses playability. The strings will start to snap against the discs instead of being held firmly in place. The sharp pitches will start to sound out of tune. How quickly you notice these changes depends, again, on how you play and your tolerance for and sensitivity to pitch issues. Professional harpists tend to have their harps regulated more frequently because they are the first to notice losses in the harp’s playability. Students and casual players, on the other hand, may not notice a loss in performance for a longer period of time if they play with a softer touch.

The the losses in playability that a harp experiences tend to begin at the extremes of its range. In the top octaves, the intonation is most sensitive to any change in the discs or string condition. In the bass wires, the changes in disc rotation that happen as the felts compact are more pronounced. For this reason, too, more experienced harpists who use the entire harp will notice problems more quickly than newer players who work mostly in the harp’s mid-range.

So, what does this all mean? If you are a professional, harp major, or otherwise frequent player with a strong playing style, consider having your harp regulated every year, or at least every other year. If you just play for fun, every two or three years is fine. You may go even longer before noticing problems, but I recommend seeing a technician on some kind of regular schedule so that he or she can help spot and avoid larger problems before they become an emergency.

What is Harp Regulation?

harpregulation11

People call me all the time to ask me “what’s a harp regulation? My teacher told me my harp needs one but I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

Harp regulation is a periodic maintenance service designed to keep your harp in optimal playing condition. In a nutshell, harp regulation includes:

  • Replacing pedal and slot felts (pedal harps only) and adjusting pedal rods
  • Diagnosing and eliminating unwanted noise
  • Optimizing the harp’s intonation between pedal or lever positions
  • Let’s look at each of these points in a little more detail. A pedal harp regulation always includes replacing the pedal felts, even if they don’t look ripped or worn out. Pedal felts compress over time. In addition to making your pedal action louder, this actually throws pedal rods and the playing mechanism out of adjustment. Your technician will replace the felts before doing any adjustments, to bring the harp closer to its original specifications.After the felts are  replaced, the pedal rods may need a slight adjustment to compensate for the normal “bellying,” or slight pulling up of the soundboard that occurs over time.

    The next step in a harp regulation is locating and eliminating unwanted noise. Your technician will move the pedals or levers to different positions and play each string, listening for noises that weren’t eliminated by the felt and pedal rod adjustments described above. While it’s not always possible to eliminate every unwanted noise a harp makes, many annoying sounds can be eliminated.

    Finally, the technician will check and optimize the harp’s intonation. He or she will play each string in each pedal or lever position,  compare the pitches on an electronic tuner, and make adjustments to insure that the half-step increments between each position are as perfect as possible.

    How often does a harp need regulation?  That depends on how much you play, how hard you play, and how high your standards are. Most busy professional pedal harpists have their harps regulated once a year. Part time or casual players and new students can usually wait two to three years or more. Lever harps require less maintenance. I generally recommend having a lever harp serviced once every five years or so, as long as the player isn’t experiencing any problems.