Of all the questions we get asked via the CHP, how to get a harp on a limited budget tops the list. From the renaissance of the folk harp that began in the 1960’s, to now nearly seven decades later, the breadth and depth of choice for harp players in terms of instruments and music has expanded dramatically. Unfortunately, a good harp is still not a cheap harp, no matter how you look at it. Good instruments require time, careful worksmanship and decent quality materials, and the harp is no exception.
Thankfully, there are ways to get a good working instrument on just about any budget, with enough patience and dedication.
To start with, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the size of an instrument is in any way connected to its quality. Big harps aren’t better just by virtue of their size. The advantage of a larger range isn’t worth much without a good clear tone, a solid, reliable frame, and a shape and size that suits you, the player.
That said, there are certain things that you can look for, which can significantly reduce the price of a harp without sacrificing sound quality and durability.
1. Square vs. Staved Back – Student models (and some pro models) may have a square back, which while potentially slightly less comfortable (mostly for women) and sometimes less pretty, has little effect on the sound of a good quality harp. In fact there is some controversy as to what shape is the best for sound projection. Almost all wire harps (clarsachs) have square backs; listen to a recording of one some time, and you’ll see that small harps really can make a surprisingly big sound. It’s all in the workmanship.
2. Partial levers instead of full – Levers on F, C, G and B will give you a good range of keys (1 flat through to three sharps), that can cover many different styles of music. Some harp models will offer levers on just the F & C strings, which is still better than none. There is music out there for harps without levers (check your local or online harp store, it’s usually under music for small/lap harps), but it does mean that there will be limitations on what you can play, especially for a beginner who hasn’t yet learned the skills of transposing and arranging (although investing in a good theory book can help on that front).
3. Used harps & seconds – Harps that are gently used can give you a sizeable discount in cost, and will have already settled into their individual tone, without that “raw” sound that brand new harps can have. Be sure to get all the specs as well as pictures from every angle, and try the harp in person if at all possible. Seconds are harps that are perfectly fine, but that the luthiers have discounted due to aesthetic blemishes (flaws in the wood grain, scratches or dents that don’t affect the structural integrity, etc.).
4. Birch laminate soundboard instead of spruce – Lots of smaller harps have a non-spruce soundboard, and still sound lovely. As always however, it’s good to try the instrument out in person if you can, as preference for tone and general sound quality varies greatly from person to person.
5. Rent-to-own and Leasing options – Rent-to-own is a great way to get a new harp for people with a small but reliable monthly income. Unlike layaway programs, you can take the harp home right away, and all your rental fees will go towards the purchase of the harp. You will have to pay a deposit up front, but after that you just pay by the month until the harp is paid off. Leasing programs are usually offered for larger, more expensive models and pedal harps. The disadvantage to leasing is having to pay interest, which doesn’t apply in most rent-to-own programs. However, it can be a means of getting an otherwise prohibitively expensive harp (full size pedal harps, for instance, can cost as much as a small compact car).
6. Home-made case – If the harp doesn’t come with a case, or the harp-plus-case package cost is prohibitive, it’s not that hard to make your own. It just takes the right materials and patience, and can even (in a pinch) be done without a sewing machine. One of the quickest ways to put together a basic case in a hurry is to find an old sleeping bag, some thread and a good strong sewing needle. In order that the harp doesn’t slide around, it helps to modify the bag to suit the size and shape of your harp. Hand-sewing works just as well as machine sewing, it just takes longer! You can also replace the zipper with velcro closures, or add a soft inner covering to protect your harp from metal zippers. Other additions can include fitted pieces of foam to provide extra padding. Handles can be made from the kind of basic webbing you might find in an outfitter store; fabric stores will carry it as well, usually on rolls, so you can cut it to whatever length you want.
7. Build your own! – Yes, it does require things like workshop space, time, and at least some basic woodworking skills. However, making your own harp is not necessarily as hard as it sounds. There are a variety of different kit harps available for the adventurous do-it-yourself types, requiring varying levels of skill from beginner to advanced. For anyone who already has mad woodworking skills (say, the cabinet makers and contractors out there), you can also get blueprints and hardware to start you on the road to making one from scratch. The CHP has a list of companies that sell kits, blueprints, hardware and strings here.
This page will likely expand as I think of more things to add. If you have a tip or idea that isn’t on the list, or a question not covered in Parts 1 & 2, let me know in the comments below. You can also visit the Celtic Harp Page FAQ for more info on buying harps, beginner tips, lessons, and other harp-related stuff.