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.

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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.