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.

What is Harp Regulation?

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People call me all the time to ask me “what’s a harp regulation? My teacher told me my harp needs one but I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

Harp regulation is a periodic maintenance service designed to keep your harp in optimal playing condition. In a nutshell, harp regulation includes:

  • Replacing pedal and slot felts (pedal harps only) and adjusting pedal rods
  • Diagnosing and eliminating unwanted noise
  • Optimizing the harp’s intonation between pedal or lever positions
  • Let’s look at each of these points in a little more detail. A pedal harp regulation always includes replacing the pedal felts, even if they don’t look ripped or worn out. Pedal felts compress over time. In addition to making your pedal action louder, this actually throws pedal rods and the playing mechanism out of adjustment. Your technician will replace the felts before doing any adjustments, to bring the harp closer to its original specifications.After the felts are  replaced, the pedal rods may need a slight adjustment to compensate for the normal “bellying,” or slight pulling up of the soundboard that occurs over time.

    The next step in a harp regulation is locating and eliminating unwanted noise. Your technician will move the pedals or levers to different positions and play each string, listening for noises that weren’t eliminated by the felt and pedal rod adjustments described above. While it’s not always possible to eliminate every unwanted noise a harp makes, many annoying sounds can be eliminated.

    Finally, the technician will check and optimize the harp’s intonation. He or she will play each string in each pedal or lever position,  compare the pitches on an electronic tuner, and make adjustments to insure that the half-step increments between each position are as perfect as possible.

    How often does a harp need regulation?  That depends on how much you play, how hard you play, and how high your standards are. Most busy professional pedal harpists have their harps regulated once a year. Part time or casual players and new students can usually wait two to three years or more. Lever harps require less maintenance. I generally recommend having a lever harp serviced once every five years or so, as long as the player isn’t experiencing any problems.