Harp Buzzes 101: String End Vibrations

String ends can cause a sympathetic vibration when their tails are in contact with one another.

String ends can cause a sympathetic vibration when their tails are in contact with one another.

One of the most common and annoying harp buzzes is caused by unwanted vibrations where the strings are anchored in the soundboard. Fortunately this is also one of the easiest buzzes to eliminate. With a little patience and detective work, you can easily fix that annoying buzz yourself.

Have Some Sympathy.

You are probably already familiar with the concept of sympathetic vibrations, but if not, let me give an example. In your harp studio or practice room, have you ever had a light fixture or object nearby start buzzing every time you play a specific note? For some reason, that object is prone to vibrate at a particular frequency, and if your note matches, it will vibrate. If the vibrating object touches something else, it will cause a buzz, the same way a snare drum will sound when the band plays a particular note, even if no one is playing the drum. Depending on the thickness of the vibrating object and the acoustic properties of the room, the buzz may become loud enough to annoy the heck out of you.
A string end vibration is caused when the tail end of a string vibrates sympathetically with the note you are playing and the vibration causes it to come in contact with something else, usually a string anchor, another tail end, or the wood of the harp itself.
Since harps are designed to project sound, an unwanted buzz inside the body will be amplified and pushed right at your ear through the sound hole. The trick to eliminating it is to track down what two objects are touching one another and find a way to make them stop touching.

Diagnosing String End Vibrations

String end vibrations sound the loudest when you are sitting at the harp. To rule out noises coming from elsewhere, such as the action, play the buzzing string with your ear close to a soundhole, then with your ear close to the action. If the sound is louder at the soundhole, it is likely coming from inside the body, and the most likely culprit is a string end. Another common clue to a string end vibration is how many strings cause it. While most vibrations manifest in one particular string, some will occur in two or more adjacent strings, or in a single string in different pedal positions. In cases like this, the offending string end is so excitable it is vibrating along a range of frequencies.

It’s logical to think that if, for example, your harp buzzes when you play third octave C, that the problem is coming from that strings end, but this is rarely the case. Alas, it can be coming from practically any string end on the instrument. In most cases I’ve seen, though, it is probably coming from somewhere in the first through third octaves.

To locate a string end buzz, you can start by taking a look inside at where your strings are anchored. Can you see any places where two long string ends are touching one another, or where a long tail is able to brush against the soundboard? If so, carefully clip the tail shorter to see if you can stop the buzz.

If a visual inspection doesn’t do the trick, you need to play the offending note while using your other hand to push on each string end one at a time. If pressing against a particular string end stops the buzz, you’ve found your culprit. If not, keep trying. Press on each end more than once in slightly different places. You may need to hit some tiny little spot in order to stop the buzz. More than once I’ve checked every string and not found the source of the buzz, but then checked again and found it after another try, or even two more.

Once you find the location, try to determine what is likely to be buzzing. A string end that is very close to an anchor is a common one, as is a string end that is slightly long and touching wood. If you have a tail longer than the anchor, try to clip it shorter. If that doesn’t do the job, try rotating the string knot a quarter turn. Don’t overdo the rotating, as it can damage the string. In some cases, you can bend the tail so that it is farther from whatever it is in contact with.

If none of the fixes in the preceding paragraph work, and you are certain you are stopping the noise on this particular string, replace it. That should take care of the problem. Sometimes, there’s just something about the knot that is buzzing and there’s no way to fix it without starting over.

Not every buzz inside the harp’s body is a string end vibration. I have seen rib screws that were loose, braces that had come unglued, and handles that needed to be tightened. Once, we had a harp brought into Lyon & Healy to fix a bad buzz, and one of the technicians discovered that the problem was a ball point pen that had been clipped inside! However, over ninety-five percent of the buzzes you hear from this part of the harp are due to string end issues. It is well worth your time to try and eliminate them yourself instead of waiting months or a year for your technician. Happy hunting!


The Care and Feeding of Pedal Felts

Yep. Time for new felts!

Yep. Time for new felts!

As part of a standard regulation, I always replace a harp’s pedal felts, the red pads that cover the pedals where they sit in the pedal slots. But why? Often, they look just fine. Sure, if they go too long without replacement, they can get torn up and really affect the harp’s playability, but short of that, what’s the point?

The point is that the felt becomes compressed over time, and this affects how the discs rotate and twist the strings. When pedal felts are new, they act like puffed up pillows, padding the harp pedal as it moves against the notches in the base. Over time, though, like pillows that have been slept on, the felts get pressed down. Spaces between the fibers of felt are reduced. In effect, this lengthens the pedal’s “stroke,” or full range of motion.

Even though it isn't torn, this felt is ready to be replaced. Time and use have compressed it.

Even though it isn’t torn, this felt is ready to be replaced. Time and use have compressed it.

New felts increase the discs' grip on the strings, eliminating buzzes and snaps

New felts increase the discs’ grip on the strings, eliminating buzzes and snaps

Even though the increase in stroke is only a few hundredths of an inch, this change affects the stroke of the discs in the mechanism, affecting how much they rotate and grip the strings. As the felt compresses, this discs’ grip is reduced, which can lead to snapping, buzzing, and compromised intonation.

A freshly replaced felt optimizes the action's "stroke."

A freshly replaced felt optimizes the action’s “stroke.”

Besides having your harp regulated on a regular basis, what can you do to prolong the life of your felts? Leave the pedals in the flat position when you are not playing. The pedals are connected to very strong springs which helps them move up when you want to move from sharp to natural, or from natural to flat. If you leave your pedals in a natural and sharp notch, the felts are pressed against wood, which causes compression over time, even if you aren’t playing your harp. If your move the pedals all the way up to flat when the harp is not in use, the pedal felts rest against the white slot felts. this padding reduces compression, prolongs the life of the felts, and thus the life of your harp’s regulation.

How to Check Your Harp after a Regulation

Style 14 harp with benchMost harpists don’t have a professional technician based in their home towns. If you do, this article will bore the heck out of you. Please return to looking at cat videos. If not, you probably have your harp serviced by a technician who comes to your city periodically, often once a year. If you live outside a metropolitan area, you may have to drive several hours to bring your harp to a visiting technician in the nearest big city.

If your technician is a once-a-year visitor to your area, you’ll want to do what you can to make sure you’re comfortable with the work that was done before he or she leaves. This means checking out your harp after it is regulated. Play one or two of your favorite pieces of music. If there was a spot on one piece where you often noticed a buzz before the regulation, play that spot. Is the buzz gone? Try a few pedal changes. Are you comfortable with the pedal action?

The top professionals I work with always check their harps. They play them hard and loud, and run through some of the most technically demanding pieces they know. If something isn’t quite right, they’d rather find out while I’m standing in in the room with them than two days later when I’ve flown to another part of the country.

Students and novice players are often uncomfortable about playing in front of me. If you’re newer to the instrument, I understand the discomfort you must feel, but I wish you would try to play a little anyway. I’m not there to judge your abilities. Heck, I don’t even play the harp! I just want you to have a chance to ask any questions you may have about the regulation while I’m still present to address them. Nothing’s worse in my world than trying to diagnose a problem with a harp over the phone a week or two after I’ve worked on it, especially if the owner was reluctant to play it when she picked it up. Now, if she had tried it out  after the regulation, and didn’t hear the problem until a week later, at least I would know she tried.

Checking your harp and not finding a problem does not mean my responsibility to you ends. It just means you’re respecting my time and yours by trying to prevent future questions from arising. I can and do try to help resolve problems long-distance and will even make a return trip if necessary, but obviously I need to keep these solutions to an absolute minimum.

Do you hate confrontation? Do you feel awkward complaining about something to a service provider? After all, I’m the professional technician and you’re just a customer, right? I understand that too. The thing is, different people play the harp differently, and often have different expectations about what is most important in their harp’s sound. I adjust the harps I work on based on the feedback I’ve received from hundreds of customers over the years, but there is no one-size-fits-all regulation. If you don’t like something I did, it doesn’t always mean I made a mistake. You’re not insulting me. I’d much rather learn what is important to you so I can set up your harp the way you like it next time.

Harp technicians are human beings. We do make mistakes sometimes. If you help us catch one before it’s too late, we’ll be embarrassed, but we’ll also be relieved that we got the mistake fixed without a return trip to your town.

So, plan on checking your harp. Play it through. If you need music to read, bring music. You may need to bring a portable stand as well. You don’t have to play the most demanding piece you know. Just make some music. Hopefully, you’ll notice that your harp sounds much better after a regulation, but just in case something doesn’t seem quite right. Let’s discuss it right then. We’ll both be glad we did.


Fall 2014 Harp Regulation Schedule

harpreg30Here’s an at-a-glance look at my schedule from late July, 2014 through the beginning of November:

  • July 21-27: Redlands, CA
  • August 25-30: Ann Arbor, MI
  • September 5-8: Interlochen, MI
  • September 19-24: Salt Lake City, UT
  • September 25-27: Spokane, WA
  • October 6-10: Omaha, NE
  • November 3-8: Austin, TX


If you’d like to schedule an appointment for any of these locations, feel free to contact me (steve (at) mossharpservice (dot) com). If you’re viewing this post after Summer/Fall of 2014 you can find an updated schedule on my calendar page.

Check out Harptechguild.com

techGuildLogoThere’s a new website called harptechguild.com, sponsored by the Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild, that can come in handy when you need to know which technicians serve your area and when one will be coming to town.

While I wish everyone in the world would just hire me to do their harp regulations, obviously that isn’t possible. I simply don’t go everyplace. Or I do come someplace near you, but sometimes the timing of my visit doesn’t work for you. Now, you can search technician service areas through harptechguild.com.

The Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild isn’t a guild in the purest sense. It is a group sponsored by the Lyon & Healy and Salvi Harp Companies.  Technicians who are considered by these companies to be qualified to service their harps are admitted to the Guild. Members include technicians employed by both companies as well as independent techs like me who have extensive training and experience with these two brands.  We get together periodically to share information and to learn from each other, and we regularly communicate about regulation issues and coordinate service for customers looking for technicians in their areas. The companies also use the Guild to keep independent technicians informed on advances and design changes happening in the factories.

The members of the Guild pushed for the creation of a website where customers could find a list of technicians who service their area and access their contact information, as well as an online calendar listing service trips for each technician. Lyon & Healy  and Salvi responded with harptechguild.com.

The site is young, and admittedly not every member is using it to post a schedule, but you can find listings of highly qualified  technicians who come to your area, and the listings cover the entire world. I encourage you to check it out. If you are connected to a  harp society  chapter or other harp group, i would encourage you to consider adding a link on your community website.

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: http://www.jobprofiles.org/library/guidance/weird-jobs.htm)

  • 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!

Does a Harp Regulation Include all new Strings?

Harp Stringing toolsPeople often ask me if I’ll replace all the strings when they bring their harp in for a regulation. A smaller number of people assume that a regulation includes all new strings and are surprised (and disappointed) to find out that this isn’t the case. While I may replace a string or two at a regulation appointment, and I’ll often replace the bass wires, complete restringing requires a significant additional investment of time, and thus carries an extra labor charge. Then there’s the strings, which on a full sized pedal harp can cost close to $500 for a full set.

I am always glad when my customers are willing to invest in new strings. A lot of harpists tend to leave strings on their harps longer than they should. I often work on harps whose strings have lost much of their tonal quality and sustain. I am happy to schedule the additional time to restring a harp before regulating it. However, I can’t offer the same-day service I can offer for a standard regulation. In order to completely restring and regulate a harp, I generally request that the customer leave it with me for three days.

The reason for this time lag is that brand new harp strings don’t hold their tuning well enough for me to accurately regulate the harp’s intonation. Ideally, there should be a two-week lag  between the day a harp is restrung and the day it is regulated, and someone should tune the new strings at least once a day.

Since my road service regulation stops rarely last two weeks, I have to compress this “string settling and stretching” period down to a couple of days. I do this by tuning the harp over and over, accelerating the settling process. After two days of intensive tuning, while the strings will still stretch to some degree, they will hold their tuning well enough to complete the pitch regulation process.

If you are interested in having your harp both restrung and regulated, please contact me in advance. We’ll need to work out a time for you to leave the harp with me, and there are decisions to make about which strings to order. You can use strings you already have on hand, but I caution you not to bother with them if they are more than five years old. Strings age even sealed in a package, so if your spare set goes back more than that, it’s better to throw them out and start fresh.