One of the most frequently asked questions on the Celtic Harp Page is what makes for a good beginner harp. First-time players are often baffled by the abundance of choice, and usually hampered by a limited budget. They want a harp that is inexpensive, but still has a nice sound and a decent range.
With that in mind, I’ve outlined a few basic things that will help when looking for a beginner harp. For more on all the different types and styles of harp available to choose from, you can browse the “What Type of Harp Should I Get?” section on the CHP.
The main things to keep in mind when looking for a starter harp (all other things being equal), are range, size and cost. Other important factors to consider include levers, case, and various accessories, such as electronic tuners.
What range to look for is often the most confusing thing for a beginner, since there are so many options to choose from. I usually recommend a harp that goes to at least the C below middle C, which gives you one full bass octave. This isn’t to say that I have anything against lap harps that only go down to G or F (I own three lovely lap harps myself), but they do pose some potential drawbacks for the beginning player. The most obvious one being, that most beginner method books for lever harp assume you have a harp that goes to at least the C below middle C, and so all the music is arranged accordingly. While experienced harp players may have no trouble transposing and rearranging pieces to fit on smaller harps, this can be a daunting hurdle for a complete beginner, especially if they have no previous musical experience. Having a full bass octave will get you through the first level of most method books (and often beyond), and will give you lots of good practice reading for and playing in the bass clef (a skill that I find is often under-developed in many self-taught players). Be sure to read the fine print when looking at any mid-range (25-29 string) harp; not all of them go down to C. Some lap harps, on the other hand, go lower than you might think; my very first harp was only 22 strings, and had a full bass octave.
Another thing to consider is size. This is not necessarily synonymous with range, although naturally the bigger range a harp has, the larger it is likely to be. However, size and shape can vary quite widely from one harp maker to another. Sitting with lap harps and mid-range harps can be a bit tricky at first for beginners (you can read the Harp Blog trouble-shooting section on Sitting with Small Harps here). I usually recommend that beginners, when possible, use a harp that can either sit directly on the floor, or be brought to the correct height by either an attached base or set of legs, or by placing the harp on a stable raised surface. Accessories like knee bones, lap boards and hip/shoulder straps can be awkward for a beginning player. You will also need to consider how much space you have to store your harp, and whether or not it will fit in your car (full-size floor model harps, for instance, usually require a hatch-back with fold-down seats, and may not fit in a smaller compact car).
Cost is another consideration, often the most limiting one in terms of choice. We have a whole section on cost on the CHP here. [See Starter Harps: Part Two for tips on hunting for harps on a limited budget.]
You will also need to consider what additions and accessories you will need. While you can certainly learn on a harp with no levers, I usually recommend the minimum set of levers on F’s & C’s. This opens up your range of keys significantly, and should cover most of the keys you’re likely to encounter in a beginner method book. Method books almost always start off in C (no sharps or flats), but many will begin to introduce the occasional F or C sharp towards the end (expanding the keys to include G and D major). Having some levers also means that you will have better luck finding repertoire for your first (and possibly only!) harp. Levers can always be added on later, but it is usually significantly cheaper to do it as part of the initial package when buying the harp.
While some people choose to tune their harps by ear (using, say, a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or piano as a reference point), tuning your harp is much easier with an electronic tuner, especially for a beginner with no previous musical experience. Electronic tuners work best in conjunction with a tuning pickup, which are inexpensive and available at any standard music store.
Another important thing to consider is whether or not to purchase a case for your harp, if it doesn’t come with it as part of the basic package. Having a good case for your harp is very important if you ever plan to travel with it, and is even a good idea if it will mostly stay in your home, as it will protect the harp from dust, damage, and rapid temperature or humidity changes. Like levers and spare string sets and the like, cases are usually cheaper to get as part of a starter harp package, rather than having them custom made later on.
Finally, a basic set of pros and cons concerning the standard sizes of lever harp (lap, mid-range and floor model):
Lap harps (between 19-24 strings) have the advantage of being light-weight, portable, easy to store, and less expensive. Drawbacks include a small range, often a quieter volume, and they can be awkward to sit with for the inexperienced player. They may also have slightly narrower string spacing, which can be good for children and those with small hands, but might be an issue for people with larger hands, or anyone used to standard concert spacing.
Mid-range harps (between 25-32 strings) can be the best of both worlds, in that they give you a bigger range and sound while still remaining portable and less expensive. However, the styles can vary quite widely; you will need to find a model that you find comfortable to sit with, and has the range and sound that you want. Rental harps for beginners often fall in the 26-30 string range, and many people go this route for their first harp.
Floor model harps (33-34 strings and up) give you the best range, and usually the fullest sound and volume. A full-size floor model harp should have two full bass octaves, which gives you by far the most flexibility in terms of finding music. They also provide an unparalleled depth of sound, especially in the bass range. Potential drawbacks include weight, size and cost. However, keep in mind that as with any size of harp, these vary quite a bit from one luthier to the next.
2013 Update: For tips on how to hunt for harps on a limited budget, see PART 2