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.

Should I be Worried about those Cracks by my Tuning Pins?

Veneer Cracks around a harp's tuning pins

Cracks like these are almost never a cause for concern

If you own an older harp, say thirty years old or more, you may be familiar with the little cracks that can develop on either side of the tuning pins, as shown in this photo. In some cases, cracks like these crop up in harps that aren’t so old, especially if they have been subjected to a particurly harsh environment (as in, “my Grandma kept this harp in the garage for 10 years. Do you think it’s okay?”).

While I always recommend showing any crack, bulge, or other inconsistency in your harp’s wooden frame to a qualified harp technician, if your harp has cracks like these, chances are there is nothing to worry about.

Pedal harps, even hundred-year-old ones, are covered over much of their surfaces  in a layer of wood veneer almost as thin as a sheet of paper. the old saying, “beauty is only skin deep” certainly applies to the average harp. The gorgeous birdseye or flame maple pattern on your harp’s body is only a veneer.

On most harps made since the 1920’s, when you look at the top of the soundboard you will see its grain running vertically. If you take a look at your soundboard from inside the harp’s body, however (use a flashlight if you need to), you will notice the wood grain running horizontally. Again, the outer surface of the soundboard is a veneer, decorating the underlying board.

The cracks you see in the photo only extend through the veneer. The structural” bones” of the harp’s neck are most likely intact. This condition should not result in loose or slipping pins. What’s going on, in my opinion, is that the harp’s neck warps to some degree over time, due to the constant pressure of the strings. This causes stress to the veneer, weakening the glue joint which holds it to the underlying wood. In addition, each tuning pin is pulled downward on the string side of the harp (and upwards on the opposite side), causing additional stress on the veneer. Over time, it can crack. The good news is, cracks in laminated wood, i.e. two or more layers of wood glued together, cannot transfer from one layer to the next. Laminates are intentionally glued together at cross grains – meaning their grain directions are perpendicular to one another. This arrangement adds strength and stability, and also prevents the spread of cracks.

Could cracks like the ones in this photo be a warning that there may be underlying damage in the next layer of wood? It is possible, but unlikely. If a harp has lived in a harsh environment, there may be further damage underneath the veneer, which could cause problems such as slipping pins. However, I rarely see this. Most of the time the damage goes no further than the outermost layer.

If you’re looking at buying an older harp, or see this kind of cropping up on yours, I would certainly bring it to your technician’s attention. They are rarely anything but cosmetic, though, so don’t be too concerned.

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.

Diagnosing Pedal Clicks


I had a reader recently write in in response to my article, “What is a Harp Regulation Anyway?” She referenced a section where I discussed checking the pedals for clicks and other issues:

“I check the motion of each pedal. Do they move smoothly? Do they stay where I put them?
Do they spring back quickly when disengaged? I make adjustments as needed, and also
check for any loose connections, which can cause the pedals to click or knock when moved.”

The reader’s question was, “where would the loose connections be?” Good question. The answer is the connection between the pedal lever and the pedal rod coupling, and between the pedal rod coupling and the pedal rod. If there is wear in either of these spots, there can be excess movement, or “play,” when the pedal is moved, and this can cause a loud clicking sound.

The reader goes on to say that it sounds like the clicks are coming from the top of the harp, not the bottom. Though I haven’t heard the harp for myself, she is probably right. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a little time to check the pedals, because sometimes pedal clicks can “telegraph” their way up through the column and sound like they are in the mechanism. Since the harp is built to resonate, the source of an unwanted sound can sometimes seem to be coming from someplace other than its true source. In the video above, I point out these locations and describe the procedure for diagnosing pedal clicks.

Proposed: A Harp “Blue Book”: Please Join the Discussion!

For Sale: But for how much?

“How much is my harp worth?”

As a professional harp technician, this is the question I dread the most. Why? Because there is so little information available on what harps actually sell for on the used market. When someone asks me or another technician for an appraisal of an instrument, we can give detailed information on its condition and what repairs it needs, but when it comes to market value, the best we can do is make an educated guess based on a few harp sales we’ve heard about and a search of current asking prices for harps on the market.

In other industries where market value appraisals are performed, such as the real estate and  used car markets, there are resources, such as the MLS and the “Blue Book” which help in determining the value of a particular item. When a real estate appraiser completes an appraisal, he or she provides documented evidence of prior sales of comparable homes. The piano industry, which I’ve also worked in, has its own version of the Blue Book, which is updated annually.

The harp world needs a similar resource. We are of course too small of an industry to support a published blue book, and the sale of real estate leaves much more of a paper trail. What I propose is a Web-based database to track the actual selling price of harps across North America, and possibly worldwide. The site I have in mind would allow anyone to view a list of the selling prices of harps by model, and the date of sale. Optionally, additional information could be included, such as harp serial numbers, location, etc. Individuals or businesses who sell harps would have a way of submitting these details on a sale, and controlling what relevant information was published.

I envision this as a free service available to anyone, both harpists and technicians. It would benefit technicians in providing data that would help us provide more substantive appraisals. It would help harpists get a ball park idea of a harp’s current market value if they are considering selling. Such a site would possibly also provide harp-related advertising as a way of supporting the cost of maintaining the site, and possibly compensating the Webmaster for time spent.

I am willing to spearhead, fund, and run this project, act as Webmaster, chief cook and bottle washer, etc. What I’m asking you for right now is your ideas. My first question, of course, is whether you personally feel this service is needed (although if you don’t now, believe me you will if and when you try to sell your harp!).

Secondly, a huge question is how to see that the information provided is accurate and honest. I’ve had the idea of doing something like this for years, but this has been the big sticking point for me. Many community driven resources on the Internet are run on the honor system, and my understanding is that the vast majority of contributors to sites like Wikipedia or Amazon.com are honest and legitimate, but there is always the potential for abuse. A harp dealer, for instance, with an interest in keeping harp prices high, could conceivably feed the site inflated or false data, thus ruining the site’s credibility.

What are your thoughts? Could a resource like this run on the honor system, given that we as a community are a fairly honest, close-knit bunch? Alternatively, would there be a way to provide supporting details, such as some kind of official sales contract, without forcing people to disclose too much personal information online?

I could really use feedback on ts proposal. I think this could be an invaluable resource for our community. But I want to do it right. I encourage you to comment below, so that your thoughts are visible to others. If you would prefer to contact me privately, you can reach me at steve@mossharpservice.com.

Those Pesky Soundboard Dings

Those pesky soundboard dings

Photo by Amber

Q: I dropped my tuner and nicked my soundboard.  Is there a relatively easy way to patch it?  I know it’s very minor, but it really bothers me.  Hope this isnt too dumb a question!
I appreciate your advice.

Amber

A: Dear Amber:

This certainly isn’t a dumb question, and it’s one I get asked a lot. Without seeing the damage, it is impossible for me to be certain, but my general inclination is to try to discourage people from doing their own touch-up work. It is very easy to make a nick like that look worse by trying to fix it if you don’t have the skills and experience.

My advice would be either to live with it or talk to a qualified touch up expert. You should be able to find someone in your area by contacting piano tuners (you can search for them through the national Piano Technicians Guild website at ptg.org) and asking who they recommend. Piano Technicians will often have a better handle on local experts such as these than us harp technicians, who travel all over. I recommend locating a piano technician through the Guild because its members subscribe to a code of professional ethics and they are often the most skilled and knowledgeable technicians in their areas.
Good luck,

Steve

New Harp Herald is Available

The Dusty Harp Pickup installed in a Lyon & Healy 23

The Fall 2010 edition of my quarterly newsletter, The Harp Herald, is now available. The feature article is a review on the new Dusty Strings Harp Pickup, which I had a chance to check out at the recent American Harp Society conference in Tacoma, Washington last July. You can download a copy of  The Harp Herald by clicking here. As always, please feel free to forward it to your friends or print out copies for your students.

The Summer 2010 Harp Herald is Now Available

The latest issue of my quarterly  newsletter, The Harp Herald, is now available at  http://mossharpservice.com/files/HarpHeraldSummer2010.pdf. The title of this issue’s feature article is “What is a Harp Regulation Anyway?” It offers a step-by-step account of the regulation process for those of you who’ve always wondered what the heck goes on when you drop your harp off for regulation. Please download it and check it out. And don’t forget to join my mailing list and you’ll receive future issues of the Herald automatically.

Moss Harp Service is Relocating

Dear clients and friends:

I am writing to let you know that my family and I will be relocating from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Corvallis, Oregon in mid-July, 2010. My wife Jenny is starting work on a Doctorate in Human Development at Oregon State University next fall. For many of you, this change will not have an effect. I will continue to travel around the U.S. performing harp regulations, and I intend to continue visiting the locations that I have been regularly servicing during the past few years. For my West coast Customers, I am looking forward to providing more convenient and frequent service than I have been able to in the past.

For my Wisconsin and Chicago area customers, I look forward to returning to the area periodically, and hope that many of you will choose to continue working with me. I understand, though, that you do have a choice of technicians, and if you choose to switch to another technician located nearby, I will certainly understand. If you would like to have your harp serviced before I leave the area, please contact me and I’ll do my best to help you. My road service schedule is very heavy starting this June, but I have some openings over the next two months.

I am sad to be leaving behind many friends in the Midwest, where I’ve lived all of my life. At the same time, my family and I are excited about our new home. After five years of Milwaukee winters, we’re ready for a change!