Setting up a String Replacement Schedule

Happy New Year!

While you’re putting together your list of resolutions for this year, how about instituting a string replacement schedule?

Your harp only sounds as good as its strings, and unfortunately strings do deteriorate with age and use. While it is obviously necessary to replace strings when they break, I would also advise you to adopt a regular schedule of replacing your strings even if they don’t.

Without a regular replacement schedule, you might have an octave that includes two strings you just replaced, two more that you replaced a year ago, and four that have been on the harp for longer than you can recall. Hey, it’s great that those four strings never broke, right? Saves you some money, and we all know how expensive gut harp strings are. But that mixed-vintage octave is not going to make your harp sound as good as it should. Newer strings have more resonance and sustain than old ones, and as a result, your harp will sound uneven in tone. In addition, you may have most of your harp strung in gut, but there is the odd nylon string that you threw on in an emergency at a gig. While you had to do it at the time, now it sounds and feels different than the others. You mean to change it, you really do, but there just hasn’t been time.

No more false strings. Change those darn things!

No more false strings. Change those darn things!

I’m not saying you need to replace all of the strings on your harp every year, or even every two years. Some strings can sound good for much longer than that. Others tend to wear out more quickly. I will outline some proposed schedules below that break things down by octave, and you can you can choose one that best fits your budget and your goals for your harp’s sound.

The strings that should be replaced most often are at either end of the harp. The top two octaves need changing more frequently because, due to their short lengths, any slight wear or damage can affect the harp’s ability to stay in tune as you change pedal positions. Over time, divots form where the strings are gripped by the mechanism. These divots can throw off the harp’s intonation and lead to unwanted snapping as well.

At the other extreme, bass strings are not subject to the same kind of wear, but they lose a lot of their brightness and sustain over time. This change is insidious because it happens slowly and as you play from day to day you won’t notice the change. Once you change all of them, you will think you have bought a new harp, the sound will be so different. Since it’s hard to judge when your own harp’s wires are too old, adopt a schedule and replace them regularly, and you will never have to play tubby, dead-sounding wires again.

There, that wasn't so bad, was it?

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

My esteemed colleague and mentor, Peter Wiley, put together a choice of three string replacement schedules and posted them on his website, harpdoc.com. With his permission, I am reprinting them here. As the new year gets rolling, why not pick one of these plans for the coming years? You can put some alerts on your Google calendar to remind you when to buy strings. The only change I might make to this list would be changing the name of the third, or “average” level. Frankly, if you replace your strings as often as recommended here, your harp will definitely sound above average compared to many of the harps that I see and hear on a daily basis. So, with homage to Peter, I am renaming “average” to “excellent.”

Following the guidelines below you will help to keep the voice of your harp sounding at its best. When you’re estimating the cost of the various options, remember that the first and second octave strings are double (sometimes triple) length. Some manufactures now package the third octave in double length.

If the sound you want is:

Extraordinary

  • 1st, 2nd and 3rd: Once yearly (possibly twice)
  • 4th and 5th: Every three years
  •  Bass Wires: Once yearly

Professional

  •   1st and 2nd: Once yearly
  •    3rd: Every other year
  •    4th and 5th: Every four to five years
  •    Bass Wires: Once yearly

Excellent (was Average)

  •     1st and 2nd: Every two years
  •      3rd: Every three years
  •      4th and 5th: Every five to six years
  •      Bass Wires: Every two to four years

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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!

 

Lyon & Healy Lever Harps: Pedal or Lever Strings?

Lever Harp Lineup at Lyon & Healy WestI was talking with a colleague over at harp.com, Lyon & Healy’s partner website for strings, accessories, and all things harp, and he told me that his customers frequently experience confusion over what type of strings to buy for their Lyon & Healy lever harp. Bow Brand, which produces strings for Lyon & Healy and harp.com, produces both pedal and lever harp strings.  The confusing thing is that many models of Lyon & Healy lever harp are designed to take pedal harp strings.

Lyon & Healy’s three current models of lever harp, the Troubadour, Prelude, and Ogden, are all string with pedal harp strings. The same is true of the Folk Harp, which is no longer produced, but there are still lots of them being played. Since Lyon & Healy is a pedal harp maker, they have long designed most models of lever harp they produce to have the same spacing, tension, and feel as their pedal harps. This eases the transition for a student who begins on lever harp and then progresses to a pedal harp once she has decided she’s crazy enough to stay with the harp. In esssence, these models of lever harp function as “starter” pedal harps as far as tension, sound, and feel are concerned.

Other models of Lyon & Healy lever harp were designed for the player who intends to stay with the lever harp. The Lyric and Shamrock are two examples. Both of these are strung with Bow Brand lever strings. The electric Silhouette is also strung with lever harp strings.

You don’t need to keep all of this information in your head if you generally order through harp.com. The site includes a form where you can select your model of harp and get a list of the appropriate strings. The problem arises, according to my friend who handles harp.com orders and shipping, is that many customers are confused when their order arrives and they find they’ve received a set of pedal harp strings for their lever harp. If you own an Ogden, Prelude, Troubadour, or Folk Harp, don’t send that order back! You’ve got exactly what you need.

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.

The Harp Care DVD is Now Available.

For the past seven months or more, I’ve been at work on a DVD that answers all of the most common harp-related questions people ask me, like “how do I replace a harp string?” or “what’s the best way to load my harp in the car?”

I’m proud to say that the project is complete and Harp Care with Steve Moss is now available. this 85-minute DVD features detailed instructions on harp tuning, cleaning, restringing, and moving. If you’ve just bought a harp, or are about to, Harp Care will answer all the questions you don’t even know how to ask yet.

I shot the footage in Salt Lake City with the help of good friends like Catharine Delong and Eliza Hintze, and with an excellent film crew headed by Heather Aoyagi. Ann Hintze Rodriquez did the jacket design and the fabulous Mary and Craig Bircher contributed music. I’m proud of what we came up with, and I hope that you will like it too. You can view the introduction and place an order online here.

Let me know what you think!