Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 6 of 6)

Two orchestral harps standing side by sideThis is a wrap-up to our series on finding and assessing used harps for sale. In a nutshell, I recommend educating yourself as much as you can about the harps that are available in your area, as well as around your country. Find out the asking prices for similar models in different areas, so that you have an idea of the going rate for a given model. Get to know harps and their sellers in advance by contacting and talking to them, and ask for close-up photos to help you assess the harp’s condition. Go in person to inspect the harp if at all possible, and send a qualified surrogate, such as a harp technician or experienced harpist if you absolutely can’t  look at the harp yourself.

Once you’ve determined the harp you want to buy, discuss acceptable terms with the seller. Because thousands of dollars are often involved, the seller may prefer a cashier’s check or cash to a personal check.

Finally, make an offer. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. While no data is available, I believe that most harps sell for less than the original asking price, just like homes do. This may not be the case from dealers and manufacturers, but I believe it is in private sales. How much less? I wish I knew. I’m sure it varies quite a lot. Just remember that if you are asking a seller to accept a lower price, it is expected that you will back up the offer you made and close the deal. Here is where doing your price shopping homework may save you money.

Can you find a good buy on a used harp? Yes. It happens all the time. But getting good value depends on knowledge of the product and the market. Assuming you are not already an experienced harp buyer, you will need to do your homework, and between screening sellers and traveling to look at instruments, you may have to invest quite a bit of time. While that shiny new harp with its three-to-five year warranty may seem awfully expensive, if you are new to the harp, don’t underestimate the amount of time and work it will take to find a really good value on the used harp market.

Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 5 of 6)

Several pedal harps, a blonde one in the foreground, the rest covered upIn part 4 of this series, we talked about having an expert, such as a harp technician or an experienced harpist look at an instrument you’re interested in. This is generally the most foolproof way of making sure the harp that looks and sounds good to you isn’t sporting any expensive issues that you may have missed.

But what if this isn’t an option? You don’t know very many harpists and the ones you do know don’t feel they know much about harps beyond how to play them. What do you do then? Well, that depends on you. You may wish to wait on this purchase until you’ve been around the harp world a little longer and had a chance to meet more harpists who may be more experienced and willing to help. You may find that a technician is scheduled to be in your area and plan to line up a harp or two that are for sale and have the technician look at them for you when he or she comes to town. You may decide you’re safer just buying new – maybe a smaller or plainer harp than you may have wanted, but one that the company guarantees is in good condition. You may decide to stick with playing the violin or french horn, but I hope you won’t.

Or, you may want to try and do a detailed inspection of the harp yourself. Are you crazy, you may ask? No, you’re not crazy, its something that harpists have to do all the time. We’re a small and spread out community, and sometimes there’s no one around to tell us what to do. Be advised, however, that there are a large number of things that can be wrong with used harps, and they are not always obvious. In order to do a thorough inspection yourself, you’ll need a lot more information than I can provide in a series of blog posts. You’ll need to educate yourself about the structural issues a harp can face in its life, how to tell if an aging harp is hanging in there just fine or is about to need a new soundboard or re-riveted action. It’s a tall order, and it took me years to learn what I know now, but you can educate yourself about the basics.

There’s not a lot of really technical information  about harps on the Internet. I have a few blog posts and newsletter articles on advanced subjects such as assessing the condition of the base frame, but for the most part people leave these matters to the professionals. If you need to get some pointers on inspecting a harp for yourself, contact the technician you see yourself working with as the new owner of this harp, i.e. one who comes to your area once  a year, or who lives nearby. Ask him or her for the cliff notes on a harp’s structural issues. I can’t promise you’ll get an answer. Most people ask us technicians technical questions, and then we watch their eyes glaze over as we start to answer them. But, it’s worth a try. Also, we talked about asking the seller for detailed photographs of the harp. If you have some of these you can ask a technician to look at them and give you an opinion. There may be a fee for help like this. It depends on the technician. If there is a fee, it may be well worth it if it helps you arrive at a more informed opinion of a harp you want to buy.

When all else fails, at least bring someone with you when you go to look at the harp, even a parent or a good non-harpist friend. Ask this person to observe the scene as you look at the harp. How does it look to his or her (non-harpist) eyes? How does the house look? Is it messy or clean, organized or post-hurricaine? Does the seller seem friendly, trustworthy, or perhaps less so? Even if this friend doesn’t know the first thing about harps, he or she may be able to help you read the situation, and you’ll have someone to exchange ideas and thoughts with as you go about the process of trying to make a buying decision. Talk to her out of the seller’s earshot for a while. Get her take on the situation. Ask whether she leans toward or against buying the harp. Hearing her reaction may help you get in touch with your own gut reaction to this instrument and this seller. You may find your friend confirming a feeling you had but may not have even been aware of. Someone to help you keep things in perspective may help you avoid making a bad decision when you’re tired of looking for a harp and just want to buy the next one that comes along.

Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 4 of 6)

Bottom section of a gilded harp column and base

In our last post, we talked about pre-screening harps and sellers by having a phone conversation and asking for additional photos of a harp you may be interested in buying. Sometimes, however, you might hear about a really good deal on a harp out in California but you live in South Carolina. What should you do?

In my opinion, you should have a knowledgeable person inspect it, or you should decide not to buy it. If you buy a harp that must be shipped to you, this will add to the cost of your purchase. If you receive it and find there’s something wrong with it, even if the seller agrees to take it back, there’s the cost of return shipping. The stakes are higher if you do business this way, and it is easier to end up with a harp you aren’t happy with.

So, who do I mean by a “knowledgeable person?” In most cases, this ideally means a technician like me, who is used to inspecting harps, knows what to look for, and knows how to spot repair issues that the seller might not even be aware of. If there is a technician in or near the area where the harp you’re interested in is located, or a technician is scheduled to visit, then you’re in luck. You can contact the technician and see if he or she is available to take a look at the instrument for you. There will certainly be a fee, but it could save you a lot of money if the technician is able to see something wrong with the harp. You can find certified technicians through the manufacturer of the harp you’re interested in.

Some harpists are also quite knowledgeable about structural and repair issues on harps, but some are not. If you know a harpist who happens to live near the harp in question, ask her if she feels comfortable having a look at the instrument. Even if she may not have the technical knowledge a technician has, she may be able to further assess the care the harp has received by looking first-hand at the harp and talking in person with the seller. She will be able to tell whether the harp is reasonably in tune, indicating that it has been cared for by a knowledgeable owner, or if it is way out of tune, which probably means it has been sitting neglected for a long time, and its strings will need to be replaced. A harpist will also be able to give you some good feedback on the harp’s sound, which is also a very important factor in determining what to buy.

Unfortunately, technicians don’t live or go everywhere, and one might not be around when you need one. If you don’t know a harpist who can look at and play the harp, and can’t get a technician, I would advise you to think about looking for a different harp. It may not be the advice you want to hear, but it could save you a lot of grief in the long run. However, if you’re willing to do more research and spend more time, and you really, really want to buy this harp and not some other one, check out the next post.


Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 3 of 6)

A hand playing harp stringsIn the previous post in this series, we discussed ways of finding used harps for sale, both by consulting local harpists and teachers, and by searching Internet resources including ebay and harp dealers across the country who advertise used harps for sale. We also talked about educating yourself about the prices sellers are asking for harps like the one you’re interested in, so that you can tell whether one that may be available near you is competitively priced, a steal, or an absolute rip-off.

If you find a harp right near you, by all means schedule a time to go and look at it. More often than not, however, you may find yourself needing to drive a few hours, or maybe even out of state in order to look at a used harp. In this case, contact the buyer, and see what you can learn. By asking the right questions, you’ll be able to get a better sense of the harp’s history, and whether the seller is someone you feel comfortable talking with.

Get the seller talking with questions like “how long have you had the harp?” “Do you play, or is it someone else in your family?” How old is the harp?” By asking open-ended questions like these, you can hopefully pick  up clues about where this harp has been and how it has been cared for. In many cases, the harp has been owned and played by someone who wants to upgrade to a fancier model, or by a student who subsequently stopped studying. Other times, though, you might determine that the harp was bought in an estate sale, and the owner may not know a thing about harps. It is not necessarily bad to do business with this type of seller, but it is important to realize that he or she may not be able tell you anything reliable about the harp’s condition.

You may also request that the seller email some photos. While they may have one or two shots of the entire harp, and perhaps one of the maker’s name or serial number, see if they are willing to snap some close-ups of the strings, the soundboard, the base, the pedals and the neck. With photos like these, you can continue to get a better sense of how a harp has been treated. If it’s missing a large number of strings, for instance, it probably has not been played in a long time. If the pedal slots in the base have veneer missing or separating, the harp may have moisture damage, or it may simply be quite old.

Assuming it is going to take hours of driving time just to look at a harp you’re interested in, you may be able to screen out some by a brief conversation and some photographs, and save your driving for the prospects you feel most comfortable with and excited about.

But what if the harp is a thousand miles away and it’s just not feasible for you to go and look in person? We’ll talk about that next time.

Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 2 of 6)

A harp, bench and stand in a homeIt can be tough to find very many harps on the market at a given time in a given area, and there’s no guarantee that the size, style, and brand you’re looking for will be for sale when you need it. If you’re willing to drive some distance, your chances of having a choice will increase. It is even possible to arrange to buy a harp somewhere far away and have it shipped to you, but you have to decide whether you want to buy the harp without ever getting a chance to see or hear it in person.

To find harps for sale, contact teachers, professional harpists, and  fellow students in your area. The more people you ask, the more likely you are to pick up a lead. You can do the same thing with harpists in other cities that you’re willing to drive to. If you happen to live near one of the handful of retail outlets for harps such as Lyon & Healy WestVanderbilt Music, or the Harp Connection, give them a call to see if they currently have anything used for sale.

To search nationally, you can check the classified ads in Harp Column Magazine, browse the selection of Certified Pre-Owned Harps available through Lyon & Healy, or contact all of the stores named above, as well as others such as Salvi Harps Incorporated, or the Virginia or Atlanta Harp Center.

Yes, you can also find harps for sale on ebay, and a lot of them. While I wouldn’t recommend that you buy one sight-unseen, you may find listings for harps in your area, and the seller may be willing to let you have a look at it in person.

Even if you find a harp or two for sale close by, it’s worth consulting all of these resources to see what’s out there. You can always use ebay and some of the stores who sell used harps for comparison shopping even if you don’t buy from them. There’s no Kelley Blue Book for harps, and no final authority on what they should be worth. It would be good to have as much information as possible about asking prices for harps across the country.

By pulling both local and Internet resources together, hopefully you will find at least one harp, maybe more, that matches your interests and price range. In our next post, we’ll discuss what happens next, and how to pre-screen a harp AND its seller before making a trip to visit it.

Used Harps: Can You Find a Good Buy? (Part 1 of 6)

Several Pedal harps in a lineIf you’re getting started on the harp, you may have noticed that harps cost a few bucks. Or maybe your son or daughter has been taking lessons on a lever harp and the teacher has told you it’s time to move  up to a pedal harp. You check the prices of new pedal harps and …

After you regain consciousness, and pour yourself a stiff drink if you’re so inclined, you might ask yourself, “I wonder if I can find a good used harp?”

The answer, of course, is “maybe.” It  depends on luck, timing, the number of resources you consult with, and mostly, luck again. While there are definitely some good buys out there, you may need to do some detective work, get to know the market, and educate yourself on what to look for when you look at an instrument to determine whether it’s a gem or should be sent to the junk heap. In this series of articles, I’ll tell you where to look for used harps, how to learn more about a harp before you go to look at it, and how to assess its condition.

In my idea of a perfect world, only experienced harpists would get into the used harp market. People who have been around harps for a while are more able to assess a given instrument’s sound, and may also know better how to assess whether it has reached the point where major repairs are going to be necessary. In reality, though, it is very often beginners who look to save some money and get into harp playing on an affordable instrument. This is a perfectly logical idea, but unfortunately I’ve seen a few occasions when beginners bought a harp because the price was right, only to find that it was in need of major structural repairs, which ended up adding thousands of dollars to the purchase price.

The answer, of course, is to get some information out there that will help harpists of all levels of experience make knowledgeable decisions about the used harp market, so that’s what we’re going to do here. If I’m scaring you, well, it would be a lie to say I don’t mean to. I would love to see every new harpist buy a brand new instrument with a nice warranty and no hidden issues.  But it would also be a lie to say you can’t save thousands on a perfectly good harp if you know what to look for. So stick with me for the next few posts, I’ll see what I can teach you, and hopefully you will find the sweetheart used harp deal of the century.

My Husband, the Harp Guy

A guest post by my wife, Jennifer Moss

Blogger at Motivate – Jenny Moss

I asked Steve a while back if I could contribute a blog post to the Harp Herald.  I share Steve with harpists across America for about ½ the year, so I figured it was time I shared a little about what it’s like to be at home with him during the other half of the year.

One of the most common questions we get is if our daughters play the harp. No, they don’t play the harp.  But they are musically inclined.  They did take lessons from two amazing teachers, however, and we have a blue Lyon and Healy Folk Harp.  Our younger daughter has actually gone to sleep every night for the last five years listening to harp music.  Annie’s favorite:  Anne Lobotzke’s Daughter of the Stars.  Runners up:  Suzuki Book 1, and Park Stickney’s Still Life with Harp.

To answer the next-most-asked question:  Yes, it’s hard to have Steve on the road so much.  Steve’s gone about 2 weeks a month.  Sometimes more.  Often, it’s hard.  Sometimes, he comes back and it’s been so easy that we hardly realize he’s been gone.  But, other times, it’s tough.  My girls think I only know how to cook out of Trader Joe’s boxes.  When we moved to Oregon, Steve was on the road.  Moving to West Lafayette, Indiana, this summer however, Steve was with us for the move, and for a couple weeks afterward, too.  (Score!)

I’m proud when I think that in some circles he’s famous.  He described a time when he worked on a family’s harp, and the daughter was super excited that “Steve Moss, the guy from the video, was actually IN her HOUSE!”  He’s in my house, too, but he hasn’t made a video with instructions on how to find the missing earring in the sink trap, or how to make the kids’ favorite dinner, Walnut Pasta with Parmesan.

Our older daughter goes to Interlochen Arts Academy, studying opera.  A harpist friend stopped her one day and said, “Hey, Liza, Steve Moss is your dad, right? Oh wow! Mrs. Holland was talking about your dad in class today!”  The other girl thought it was so cool that Liza’s dad was some kind of harp celebrity, but Liza shrugged.  He’s just her dad, to her.

We joke about people who have jobs with niche markets smaller than his.  We thought about writing a book, profiling people with jobs that are more “niche” than his, but someone beat us to the punch.

(The whole list:

  • Odor Tester
  • Citrus Fruit Dyer
  • Fortune Cookie Writer
  • Cheese Sprayer (for popcorn) 
  • IMAX Screen Cleaner
  • Fountain Pen Repairer
  • Snake Milker
  • Dog Food Tester

So what does Steve do for fun at home?    He writes songs, plays the grand assortment of musical instruments we own – from an electric guitar to a clawhammer banjo, to the violin, and the cardboard box bass.  He has a cardboard harp kit on his workbench right now, and the remains of a coffee can banjo in a drawer.  When he’s not building, rebuilding, or playing instruments, Steve is also a Brown Belt in ATA Taekwondo, which he does with our younger daughter, Annie, and he has been making awesome electronic music with prerecorded samples.  His current project:  making a tiny lathe out of the motor of a vintage sewing machine.  Stay tuned to the Harp Herald to see if he decides to turn columns for the world’s smallest harp!

Lever Harp Spoken Here

Lever Harp Lineup at Lyon & Healy WestPeople often ask me if I’m willing to work on lever harps, and the answer is yes! In addition to my extensive experience with Lyon & Healy and Salvi lever harps, I have also serviced and repaired harps by a variety of other makers including Camac, Dusty Strings, Thormahlen, Sandpiper, Triplett, Heartland, and more.

While some traveling harp technicians prefer not to get involved with lever harps, I consider them a specialty. During my time at Lyon & Healy I spent two years performing final regulations on all of the Troubadours, Folk Harps, and Preludes that Lyon & Healy produced. I was a member of the R&D team that developed the Prelude. I also had a hand in the final assembly and regulation of many of the Salvi lever harps sold in the United States in the mid-1990’s.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about your lever harp and its needs. How often do lever harps need service? A lot less often than pedal harps. Lever harps can go for years and years without any more maintenance than regular cleaning and string replacement. If you’re starting to hear some buzzing when you play, or if the harp doesn’t sound in tune anymore when you flip up some of the levers to change keys, then you’re probably due for a regulation.

I generally recommend that lever harp owners who are not having any problems with their instruments have them regulated about once every five years. This gives me a chance to perform preventative maintenance like tightening screws, replacing levers that may be wearing, and watching for any structural issues that may be developing over time.

As with pedal harps, I recommend preparing for a regulation appointment by replacing the strings in the first and second octaves if they are more than two years old. Many harpists also decide to have their bass wires changed during a regulation appointment. As we discussed in this post, new bass wires can give your whole harp’s sound a big boost.

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.

So, You Want to Take Harp Lessons?

Harp CrownsI’ve talked to a lot of harpists who tell the same story: “I saw a harpist playing at a wedding (or party, or outdoor concert, or whatever) and I just knew I had to learn how to play.” Is this you? Do you feel drawn to the harp for reasons you can’t explain? Well, I say go for it! Find yourself a teacher, a harp to buy, rent, or borrow, and get started. If you’re the parent of a child who has expressed an interest in the harp, why not give her or him the opportunity to try it?

Finding  a Teacher

You can find leads on harp teachers in your area by Googling “harp teacher” with your community’s name. Ask at music stores. They may have referrals. If you run across a harpist you like at a wedding or public venue, ask if she gives lessons. You can also find a list of teachers at the American Harp Society website. Hopefully you’ll find more than one to choose from. If so, ask about their experience, styles of music they specialize in, their availability, and their fees. Some harp teachers have a very specific approach and repertoire they teach, while others are very open to following the interests of the student. Both approaches can be successful. What matters is  feeling you or your child is a good match for the teacher. Sometimes there’s no way to be sure without trying a few lessons to see how it goes.

Finding a Harp

Harps aren’t cheap. Even cheap harps aren’t cheap. If you see any advertised for only a few hundred dollars and imported from Pakistan, do not buy them. They are very pretty but almost unplayable. There are a few other small starter harps, such as the Harpsicle, or lap harps by companies like Stoney End, but you may find some teachers who do not recommend these. Talk to your teacher before you buy one. Some companies, such as Lyon & Healy, offer rent-to-own programs, which typically give you a six month rental in return for a small down payment on the harp. After six months, you can return the harp if you change your mind about it. Otherwise, you pay the balance and keep the harp. It is also possible to rent a harp before you decide to buy one of your own. See this post for more info on finding rental harps.

You Can Do This

If I had a dollar for every person who ever told me they have no musical talent, I’d be retired. There is an unfortunate misconception among many people that musical talent is based on genetics alone. This is simply not true. While the most outstanding among us, the Leonard Bernsteins and Whitney Houstons and Wolfgang Mozarts and the like, probably were born with an extra dose of musical genius, the capacity to make music is in all of us. The key is practice. Musicians are made, not born. Whenever you start a musical instrument, especially if you’ve never played before, it is difficult and discouraging. Your fingers will not want to obey you and you may feel that you just don’t have what it takes. Hang in there. Give it a full six months of really trying, going to your lessons and putting in regular practice before you decide it isn’t working. Everyone goes through this period, even the geniuses (Well, maybe not the geniuses, but everybody else does….). You may not believe it at first, but it does get better. Good luck!