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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Lyon & Healy Lever Harps: Pedal or Lever Strings?

Lever Harp Lineup at Lyon & Healy WestI was talking with a colleague over at harp.com, Lyon & Healy’s partner website for strings, accessories, and all things harp, and he told me that his customers frequently experience confusion over what type of strings to buy for their Lyon & Healy lever harp. Bow Brand, which produces strings for Lyon & Healy and harp.com, produces both pedal and lever harp strings.  The confusing thing is that many models of Lyon & Healy lever harp are designed to take pedal harp strings.

Lyon & Healy’s three current models of lever harp, the Troubadour, Prelude, and Ogden, are all string with pedal harp strings. The same is true of the Folk Harp, which is no longer produced, but there are still lots of them being played. Since Lyon & Healy is a pedal harp maker, they have long designed most models of lever harp they produce to have the same spacing, tension, and feel as their pedal harps. This eases the transition for a student who begins on lever harp and then progresses to a pedal harp once she has decided she’s crazy enough to stay with the harp. In esssence, these models of lever harp function as “starter” pedal harps as far as tension, sound, and feel are concerned.

Other models of Lyon & Healy lever harp were designed for the player who intends to stay with the lever harp. The Lyric and Shamrock are two examples. Both of these are strung with Bow Brand lever strings. The electric Silhouette is also strung with lever harp strings.

You don’t need to keep all of this information in your head if you generally order through harp.com. The site includes a form where you can select your model of harp and get a list of the appropriate strings. The problem arises, according to my friend who handles harp.com orders and shipping, is that many customers are confused when their order arrives and they find they’ve received a set of pedal harp strings for their lever harp. If you own an Ogden, Prelude, Troubadour, or Folk Harp, don’t send that order back! You’ve got exactly what you need.

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.

The Harp Care DVD is Now Available.

For the past seven months or more, I’ve been at work on a DVD that answers all of the most common harp-related questions people ask me, like “how do I replace a harp string?” or “what’s the best way to load my harp in the car?”

I’m proud to say that the project is complete and Harp Care with Steve Moss is now available. this 85-minute DVD features detailed instructions on harp tuning, cleaning, restringing, and moving. If you’ve just bought a harp, or are about to, Harp Care will answer all the questions you don’t even know how to ask yet.

I shot the footage in Salt Lake City with the help of good friends like Catharine Delong and Eliza Hintze, and with an excellent film crew headed by Heather Aoyagi. Ann Hintze Rodriquez did the jacket design and the fabulous Mary and Craig Bircher contributed music. I’m proud of what we came up with, and I hope that you will like it too. You can view the introduction and place an order online here.

Let me know what you think!