Replacing Harp Strings 102: 4th and 5th Octave Knots

Here’s another of the great videos Michele Rassmussen shot at a harp care class I gave at Lyon & Healy West. Here, I focus on the knot used to anchor 4th and 5th octave nylon or gut strings. While you would use a string anchor of some kind to tie strings in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd octaves (I use one-inch pieces of 5th octave A,B, and C gut strings), the 4th and 5th octave strings are so thick that no anchor is necessary, and using one only makes the whole operation that much more difficult.

One of the trickiest things about the larger gut strings is how stiff and strong they are. The key to coaxing them into a knot is to weaken the part you want to work with by pulling it between your finger and thumb with a slight bending motion, as you see in the video. When you’ve done this successfully, the gut will turn from opaque to white. The trick, which comes with practice, is in not weakening any more of the string than you need to tie your knot.

With the larger nylon strings, you have the opposite problem. There is nothing you can do to weaken the nylon, so it keeps fighting back. Learning to tie them takes practice and patience. Or, if you prefer, you can avoid them and only string your 4th and 5th octaves in gut. I know gut is much more expensive, but nylon strings in this register really don’t sound good on pedal harps (and pedal-tensioned lever harps). And no, the string makers are not paying me to say this!

Replacing Harp Strings 101: Tying String Knots

During a  harp care class I gave at Lyon & Healy West in Salt Lake City, one of the attendees, Michele Rasmussen, was kind enough to shoot a few videos of me demonstrating some techniques for replacing harp strings. The videos came out great so I thought I’d post them here and include some additional explanation as well. The first one is shown above. You can find the next one here.

For a much more comprehensive demonstration of string replacement, Check out my DVD:  Harp Care with Steve Moss. You’ll be restringing like the pros in no time.
Click here to learn more about the DVD.

The technique shown in this video applies to the first, second, and third octaves (and the “zero octave” F and G strings at the top of some harps). For these octaves, it’s important to use some kind of anchor that is thicker than the string you’re using, to insure that the string knot doesn’t pull into the hole and get stuck there. Trust me, you don’t want THAT to happen!

My anchor of choice is a one inch (2.5 cm) piece of 5th octave A,B, or C string, the three thickest gut strings on the harp. At Lyon & Healy we were trained that only these three strings were thick enough to provide a stable anchor. I haven’t tested this for myself, but I have seen instances where harps were anchored with thinner strings, and you can see them bend under the string tension. If they’re bending, do you think that string is going to stay in tune?

The video shows how I tie the knot around the anchor. I’m using a piece of nylon here. The same technique works for gut strings, but they’re a little trickier to work with because they’re stiffer. Stay tuned for another video in this series where I demonstrate tying 4th and 5th octave string knots. There, I use a gut string and you can see the technique for breaking the integrity of the gut fibers so you can form the necessary loops for your knot. If you don’t want to wait for that blog post, you can watch all three videos now on this web page.

Pedal Harp Stringing: Nylon or Gut? Part 3

Should you use gut or nylon strings?

Should you use gut or nylon strings?

In the last two posts, I have discussed some of the differences between nylon and gut harp strings. I strongly recommended that, despite their significantly higher cost, all harpists use gut strings in the fifth through the third octaves. In this range, gut strings provide more dynamic range, a richer, clearer sound, and more accurate intonation.

If gut strings are so much better, shouldn’t they be used in every octave? Not necessarily. Let’s consider the first and second octaves in turn.

Every new pedal harp I know of comes with nylon strings installed in the first octave, and the vast majority of harpists keep their harps’ first octaves strung in nylon. Why? For one thing, gut strings in this register are pretty fragile and subject to breakage. For another, the qualitative difference in sound that I have discussed between gut and nylon strings is far less pronounced in this range. I have mentioned before that nylon strings have a more complex, or layered sound, with greater emphasis on partial pitches, or overtones. In the first octave, though, many of these overtones are so high the human ear doesn’t hear them, so the string’s fundamental pitch is more prominent by default. Those overtones that our ear does perceive tend to give first octave nylon strings a brighter sound than gut strings, and this makes them more distinct and easier to hear, especially in ensemble situations. So, while you might wish to experiment with gut strings in your first octave, I generally recommend nylon strings.

New pedal harps are delivered with gut strings in the second octave, but you will run into quite a few harpists who have replaced these with nylon strings. For many people, this is an economic decision, and this makes sense. In the second octave, nylon strings give a strong, reasonably clean sound, with acceptable intonation. They are certainly worth a try. If they sound just as good to your ear as gut strings, then by all means use them, as you’ll save some money. Some harpists, though, are sticklers for intonation, and if you are one of them I’d encourage you to use gut strings in the second octave. Gut strings can be regulated more accurately than nylon strings. Since they flex less, their intonation will vary less as your dynamics change, while a nylon string played fortissimo will then to sound flatter than the same string played mezzo piano. If you are a newer or casual player with a soft touch, you will demand less from your harp, and nylon strings may serve you just fine.

I have talked to a number of symphony harpists who prefer nylon strings in the second octave because their brighter quality helps them “cut through” the other instruments in the orchestra, and in this context the harp needs all the help it can get. If you play in a lot of orchestral or other group situations, you may want to try nylon strings in your second octave to see if they give your sound an extra boost.

To sum up, then, I encourage most harpists to use gut strings in the third, fourth, and fifth octaves, and nylon strings in the first octave (and “zero” octave). Your choice in the second octave depends on your preference and your situation, so I would encourage you to experiment with both.

Pedal Harp Stringing: Gut or Nylon? Part 2

Should you use gut or nylon strings?

Should you use gut or nylon strings?

Welcome to the second installment in a series of posts about pedal harp strings. In my last post, I discussed some of the structural differences between gut and nylon strings, and how these differences translate to differences in sound character.  To recap, gut strings do not flex as much as nylon strings when played, resulting in a cleaner, more prominent fundamental pitch. Nylon strings stretch laterally when played, resulting in a more complex sound, with a weaker fundamental and a more prominent array of partial pitches or overtones.

This difference in elasticity also translates to a difference in intonation. In my opinion, the intonation of a string  (i.e. how “in tune” the flat, natural, and sharp positions are, relative to one another) can be set more accurately with a gut string than a nylon string. In other words, in general, a harp that is strung in gut will play more in tune than one strung in nylon. Yes, it turns out that the extra expense of a gut string does make a difference. But this doesn’t mean everyone should string their harps in gut in every octave. There are other factors at work, which vary by octave. So let’s focus in on different areas of the harp.

From the fifth octave A through the third octave on any pedal harp, I HIGHLY recommend that all harpists use GUT strings. Why? First and foremost, they have a far superior sound over nylon strings. since nylon strings flex more, I believe they dissipate some of their playing energy, and lose their power to vibrate the harp’s soundboard as much as a gut string will. It is very difficult to get any volume out of a nylon string in these octaves, especially in the fourth and fifth octaves. If you try to play the string really hard, its elasticity will cause it to slap against a disc and cause a buzz, and if you play it mezzo forte or below, it won’t produce any sound.If you do play a nylon string hard enough to get some volume, all the extra lateral stretching I mentioned will mean prominent overtones, which will cloud the fundamental, meaning the pitch will sound like several pitches at once.

In addition, as I said, nylon strings cannot be regulated as accurately as gut strings, especially in the sharp position. With their greater tendency to stretch, nylon strings require a higher degree of grip, or twist, on the discs, to hold them in position. Greater disc grip translates to a sharper pitch, so the regulation on a nylon string in the third through fifth octaves will tend to be sharper than on the same harp strung in gut.

So, in my opinion, you do get what you pay for, and it is worth the extra money to use gut strings in the third, fourth, and fifth octaves. I don’t necessarily give the same advice for the first and second octaves, however. We’ll focus on those in the next post.

Pedal Harp Stringing: Gut or Nylon? Part 1

Gut or Nylon Strings: Does it Matter?

Gut or Nylon Strings: Does it Matter?

Most new pedal harps come from the factory strung in nylon in the first (top) octave, and gut in the second through fifth octaves. Lever harps that use pedal harp stringing and tension, such as the Lyon & Healy Prelude, Troubadour, and Ogden, and the Salvi Ana, are normally delivered with nylon strings in the first and second octaves and gut strings in the third through fifth octaves.

When it comes time to replace a string (or a whole set), harpists realize they have choices. Strings are available in both nylon and gut from the top the way down to fifth octave A.  And, wow, gut strings cost five times as much as nylon strings. Is the cost of a gut string worth it? I’m going to address this question in a series of posts, and show that the answer to this question varies by octave.

First, a little bit about the differences between gut and nylon strings. Note for note, nylon strings are more elastic than gut strings, meaning they stretch more when played. Think of the difference between a rubber band and a piece of cotton string or twine. If you stretch a rubber band, and then pluck it like a harp string, it will give, or stretch more, then snap back when you let go. If you hold a piece of string taut, and pluck it, it will stretch far less, offering your finger more resistance, until you let it go and it snaps back. While harp strings are neither as slack as rubber bands nor as stiff as cotton string, nylon strings act more like rubber bands and gut strings act more like cotton string.

This difference in elasticity translates into a different sound character in nylon and gut strings. While we usually say that a string produces a particular note, each harp string actually produces a multitude of notes when played. The most prominent note is known as the fundamental. This is the note we name the string after, and the primary frequency at which it vibrates. However, a string in motion actually vibrates at a variety of frequencies. These secondary frequencies are known as partials, harmonics, or overtones. When you play harmonics on your harp, you are isolating one of these partials, specifically the the one an octave above your harp’s fundamental.

In practice, gut strings tend to have a stronger, cleaner fundamental tone, while nylon strings have a more complex sound, with more emphasis on some of the partials and a weaker fundamental. I believe this is because a nylon string not only vibrates when played, but also stretches and contracts laterally, to a greater degree than a gut string, causing its various partials to sound more prominently.

Whew, that’s enough acoustics theory for one post. These behavioral differences in gut and nylon strings translate into differences in sound quality and character on the harp, and we’ll examine these in the next post.

Replacing Strings Before a Regulation

bad-stringYou may have heard that you need to replace your strings before a regulation. Why, you may ask? Do you have to change all of them or only some? You’re hiring a technician. Why can’t he or she do them, for crying out loud? Let’s explore the answers to these questions.

I generally recommend that harpists replace the first and second octave strings on their pedal harps at least two weeks prior to a regulation appointment. The reason for this is that in the upper register of the harp, string condition has a strong bearing on the accuracy of pitch regulation – that is on whether your harp remains in tune when you change pedal positions.  In this high register, where the strings are very short, any change in the position of the harp’s nuts and discs will have a noticeable effect on pitch. The more a disc “grips” a string, or pushes it at an angle, when the disc is engaged, the sharper the pitch will be. The less a disc grips a string, the flatter it will be.

All strings develop divots over time at the exact points where the discs engage them. Essentially, a string slowly wears away at the point of contact, thereby slightly reducing the disc’s grip on the string. this reduction in grip may not have any effect on 3rd, 4th, and 5th octave strings. With their relatively long speaking lengths, reductions in grip have less of an effect in relation to the overall length of the string. In the first and second octaves, however, the grip reduction caused by worn strings is significant relative to the short length of each string. In plain language, on worn strings, the natural and sharp positions will tend to be flat even if the open string is in tune.

While  replacing all the harp’s strings can certainly make it sound better, for the purposes of regulation, your harp benefits the most from new first and second octave strings. Now, why does the technician want you to do this ahead of time? Because new strings don’t hold pitch, and it will be difficult to accurately calibrate the action to play in tune if the string itself is stretching like a rubber band. It’s not that technicians don’t want to change strings for you. We would be happy to have the additional work (and the additional labor charge). But in order to do the best regulation possible on the day of your appointment, the strings should be installed ahead of time, then tuned regularly until they are willing to hold pitch reasonably well. If you know you need your harp restrung AND regulated, talk to your technician ahead of time about dropping the harp off early. If he or she restrings and then tunes it aggressively for a few days (rather than two weeks), it should hold tune well enough to regulated.