What Type of Harp Should I Get?
Pedal or Lever? Cost Style of Music You Want to Play
Starter/Beginner Harps (Harp Blog Q&A) Cheap Harps: Buyer Beware!
Also see our other sections: Kinds of Harps / How Are Harps Tuned? / Buying a Harp
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So you've decided that you'd really like to play the harp. Perhaps you've been fascinated since childhood, and now you have the chance. Or maybe you're just curious. Now the big decision looms before you - what type of harp should you get? Should you rent first, or bite the bullet and buy a brand new harp?
First of all, beware of any claim that one style of harp is "better" than another. That's kind of like saying a guitar is "better" than a clarinet. It really comes down to what your interests are, what style(s) of music you like, and what kind of budget you have. A little 19-string Gothic harp is just as "real" and valid an instrument as a big 90-pound gold-painted pedal harp. To be sure, some harps make more of a visual impact than others, but this has nothing to do with their quality or effectiveness.
A number of different factors should come into play when you're making the BIG DECISION. I've tried to cover some of the main ones below, but if you have any more questions after reading this, feel free to fire them off to email@example.com
Pedal or Lever?
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I constantly get asked the question, should I get a pedal harp or lever harp? Is one better than the other? This is partly due to a common misconception that a lap harp or other kind of lever harp is like a "baby" harp, or merely a first step towards getting a "real" harp. (See above for the guitar-clarinet analogy - similar to "apples and oranges"). I find this attitude particularly vexing, because it may lead some people to give up altogether on the idea of playing harp, since it may be completely impractical for them to try and purchase a pedal harp. Also, some people with a lever harp may try to take lessons with a pedal harp teacher, who then tries to convince them that their little harp is somehow inferior, and that they must learn a classical technique or none at all. This is not a slight to pedal harp teachers, of whom I'm sure the majority are wonderful people (I took some lessons from two pedal-harp players, and they were both great, very helpful and not at all condescending). But I have heard numerous tales of discouragement and frustration resulting from the "pedal harps are better" attitude. They are not better or worse - nor are all pedal harp players snobs (another misconception, which only adds to the rift that sometimes occurs between folk and classical players). In fact, nowadays you'll find many people that play both the pedal and lever harp!
There are many different types of harps out there (see Kinds of Harps for examples). In fact, you may be surprised to learn that pedal harps and levered Celtic-style harps are only two types in a world that includes Paraguayan, medieval-style, gothic, cross-strung, double-strung and triple-strung harps, just to name a few! And each type of harp has its own techniques to draw on. Some people include in their decision, what kind of teacher is near them. Pedal harp teachers will generally teach a classical technique, typically either Grandjany, Salzedo, or a variation thereon. Folk harp teachers may teach a blended technique that draws on both classical and folk tradition. For a wire or cross-strung harp, you need a different technique altogether. None of these is better or worse than the other - they are each simply suited to certain types of harp or certain musical styles. (See Style of Music, below).
So, the questions you really need to ask are: What type of music do I want to play? And how much can I afford to spend on a harp? Other things, like physical limitations, may also come into play - see "Tips for Beginners" and "Finding a Harp Teacher" for more info. Another thing to consider is what kind of range and/or keys you will need - see "How Are Harps Tuned?" for more info.
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Click here for a sample comparison list of prices.
One big factor, unfortunately for the dreamer in all of us, is cost. Generally, the smaller harps cost less. There are some exceptions - say, if you're getting a one-of-a-kind replica Celtic lap harp with custom carvings and inlay, it may cost more than a larger standard-model student harp with plywood soundboard. Usually, though, the most affordable harp for a beginner will be one of the smaller folk harps, in the 22-29 string range. Harps are not inexpensive instruments, so beware of cheap low-quality harps. If it seems to good to be true, then it probably is! (see our "Buying a Harp" section for advice on what to look for in a harp). This isn't to say that those with a limited budget can never own a harp - you just have to be careful and do your research. See below for a detailed warning about "cheap harps". Many people choose to rent first until they decide if they really want to play the harp; you can also find used harps (make sure you have some way of finding out what kind of shape the harp is in), click here for our Used Harps section.
Important Note: Cost does not always reflect quality. Some harps are over-priced, and even a harp that appears to be well-made structurally, may still not have a tone you like. Anyone who has been to one of the "harp tastings" at Somerset (annual harp conference in NJ), will be able to tell you that some of the more expensive brand-name harps had inferior tone to some of the less expensive, or less well-known harps.
From the absolute bottom of the scale cost-wise, you can get a harp from the cardboard harp guy, Waring Harps (www.waringmusic.com) - wooden frame, cardboard soundbox - and the kit will only cost you around $130 USD. It looks a bit clunky (IMHO), and the tone is fairly quiet - but for the cost of a couple of months rental, you have a pleasant-sounding harp that you can keep (plus you can customize the soundbox in neat colours). Also in the under $400 category, are the all wood "Harpsicles" from Wm. Rees
(http://harpsicleharps.com - and yes they come in a variety of "flavours", i.e. colours). (See price list below for more examples).
I'll skip the cheap mass-produced harps (see warning below), and jump to the next level, that of travel and student model harps. Travel harps (small, light harps designed for maximum portability) are sometimes just meant for practice while you travel (for those who already own a harp), and may not have a proper soundbox. To properly learn how to play with differences in volume and tone, you're probably better off getting a harp with a full soundbox. Some companies may refer to "therapy harps", which simply means they are designed to be portable and light, for those who may want to use them to play for people in hospitals and other care facilities. Travel harps may come with a shoulder strap, and may require a pick-up if you want to play for other people. Student models usually have a square back, and may be smaller and/or made of a less expensive wood than the same company's professional model(s).
"Extras", such as a case, levers, carvings or engravings, or a staved back (which some claim improves the sound, and is usually more comfortable, especially for women), will increase the cost. Independent harp makers often sell without a case, or the case will cost extra; you can also usually specify how many levers you want on what strings. Big harp companies may include a case in the cost of the harp, and/or a full set of levers. Cases aren't that hard to make , with the right instructions and/or examples to draw on (I've made three, and I'm no expert sewer!); however making one is time-consuming, especially if you've never done it before.
"Professional" Model harps are usually made with more focus towards excellent tone, comfort, range, and good looks. They are usually made with a higher-quality wood than the student models (e.g. spruce instead of plywood for the soundboard). This is the section in which you will usually find the larger lever harps, floor models with 34-38 strings (for single-course harps).
Kits are also available from some companies, for those with a decent set of tools and at least some minimal wood-working skills. These will be cheaper than finished harps, and come in a variety of stages - from raw blueprints, to easy kits (pre-cut wood, hardware, strings and instructions), to harps that come already put-together but require you to apply your own finish to the wood. See our "Cases and Accessories" section for companies that sell kits.
Finally, some companies have rent-to-own or harp financing programs, which may help if you can't afford to pay the full amount all at once. Rent-to-own programs apply the fees you paid for rental towards the final price of the harp (this is ideal if you want to rent initially, and know exactly what model of harp you want); while financing programs are similar to getting a loan from a bank, in that you pay interest, and pay in monthly installments.
Examples of Harp Prices, as of 2011 - NB: This is a small sampling only (exact prices may have changed), and does not reflect an endorsement of any harps listed. For links to other harp makers, and for many more examples, see our "Buying a Harp" section.
Lever Harps - Small Harps (30 strings or less); Student, Therapy, & Travel models (as of 2011; contact the companies directly for current prices)
Waring Cardboard Harp, 19 strings, $129.99 US (kit) or $189.99 US (finished), no levers. (Two of my students have made the Waring kits and had a blast, decorating the finished harp with paint and stickers. A great project for kids and amateur instrument builders of all ages. These harps are quiet but pleasant sounding. - T.H., ed.)
Harpsicle, 26 strings, 4.5 lbs, $399 US (incl. electronic tuner, booklet and warranty). "Sharpsicle" with levers on F's & C's: $560. "Flatsicle" with levers on F,C,B: $599. "Fullsicle" with complete levers: $799. (all prices USD)
Random Sound 26 String "Novice" harp, 8 lbs, Maple Neck & Post, Birch laminate soundboard. Mahogany, Walnut, Cherry or Maple sides. Levers extra. $475 (CAD)
Blevins Harps Ivy 22, $920 USD., incl. levers on C,F,B
Stoney End Evensong, 26 strings (nylon), 11 lbs, $799 US; levers extra
Stanley & Stanley Florence model, 26 strings (lighter model, strap included): $1245 CDN partial levers or $1460 full (prices for Loveland levers). Anne 29 string: $2250 CDN (full set of Loveland levers). (I have a 29-string Anne model which has stood me well for many years; I use it with my students and at Celtic jams, ren fairs and the like. Tat's harps are generally light-weight and compact, somewhat high tensioned with a bright tone. The 29-string size is by far the most popular with students and those with small cars, and gives you a full four octaves incl. one octave below middle C. - T.H., ed.)
Timothy Harps Abhainn (Aven) 29 string Student Harp (birch, range G-G), $1250 ($CAD) with Camac levers on F&C
Dusty Strings Allegro, 26 strings, with full levers and removable legs, $1495 USD (I recently bought a Dusty Strings Allegro, and am having great fun with it; it's got really good sound for its size, and the removable legs are incredibly handy; they fit into a special fitted pocket in the case, and make for great portability without being overly tippy; highly recommended - T.H. (ed.)
Lever Harps - Floor Models (as of 2011; contact the companies directly for current prices)
Dusty Strings Crescendo, 32 strings, $2375.00 USD partial levers, $2675 full levers.
Fisher Harps F34 Sun, Moon & Stars, 34 strings, staved back, $4,655 CDN; package includes full levers, soft case, extra string set, tuning key, & owner's manual. (Still one of his most popular models, this is a great harp; I play my friend's Fisher F34 at almost every choir practice; it's compact, with good volume, even tone and nice resonance, and the woodworking is impeccable. - T.H., ed.)
Kortier Professional 36 string (with feet), staved back, $4100 US - includes full levers & travel case. This harp can be built with pickups on each string to make it Acoustic/Electric.The price for this setup, including an internal Fishman preamp, is $4,600.
Gerhard Wanney 36 string Celtic harp, incl. full set of Loveland levers, extra set of strings, and a tuning wrench. Black Walnut, Sugar Maple, or Black Cherry. $5,400 CDN. Custom carving optional. (I got one of Gerhard's custom harps about ten years ago when he was specializing in a 34-string model, with removable base. It is still my favourite harp and has stood the test of time. It has been played outdoors in all sorts of conditions, carted everywhere, bashed and banged and knocked over, and it still sounds and looks lovely. - T.H., ed.)
Heartland Harps 38-String DragonHeart. $4,500 USD, incl. Full Truitt Levers, Deluxe Case and Soundboard Artwork. (This model has the most amazing volume and deep bass of any lever harp I've ever tried - T.H., ed.)
Wire, Double, Cross-Strung & Historical/Replica Harps (as of 2011; contact the companies directly for current prices)
Argent FoxNew Brother Maynard wire-strung harp, 22 strings, 7-9 lbs, $600 US
Argent Fox Phosphor Bronze Double Strung Lap Harp, 2 rows of 24 phosphor bronze wire strings, 8- 10 pounds, $900
Stoney End Esabelle Cross-strung, $879 USD, finished (kit version: $479). (I have two Stoney End harps, the double and cross models; Stoney End has a great rent-to-own program for those on a budget, and the harps are very portable, durable, and sweet. Neither one is especially loud, but they both have a good clear tone. - T.H., ed.)
Stoney End Double-strung Anne harp (26 nylon strings per side), $1159 US (finished) (Note: 2004 price; contact Stoney End for current pricing).
Lynne Lewandowski Romanesque 22 with gut strings, $1,720.00 USD. Package of Harp + Case: $1,950.00. NB: this was a personal quote given to me so is an approximation only. Always contact the harp maker directly for up-to-date prices. (Lynne's historical harps are a joy to play and have a lovely sound; I wish I had one of my own! - T.H., ed.)
Witcher W1. Trinity College Style (from Harp & Dragon website) 34" tall, 29 strings, $2200 USD
Pedal Harps (as of 2011; contact the companies directly for current prices)
Venus Prodigy pedal harp, 44 Strings (student/chamber model) $10,750 USD
Lyon & Healy pedal harp, full concert grand (47 strings), Style 85-CG: $18,500 USD / Electro-acoustic concert grand (47 strings, Style 2000 CG): $22,500 US
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Style of Music You Want to Play
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This may be the most important factor in what type of harp you get, providing you're relatively flexible financially. Any type of music at all can be played on a Celtic (folk, lever) harp, especially if you have a full set of levers. However, there are limitations, and some circumstances in which other types of harps would be more appropriate. Please note that the following is a guide only, there are always exceptions to every situation.
If your main interest is in classical music, and you will only rarely play folk music, then a pedal harp (or a chromatic harp, such as a cross-strung) may be your ultimate goal - especially if you want to play with a symphony orchestra (which usually requires the range, volume, and tighter tension of a pedal harp). However, if your budget (or storage space) is limited, you can play a great deal of classical music on lever harps (single and multi-course). There is quite a bit of "lever-harp-friendly" repertoire out there, if you know where to look, and your teacher may be able to help you modify some of the trickier arrangements (you will have to learn how to flip levers while playing - this is less daunting with the help of a teacher, but may intimidate some people).
If your main interest is jazz, you can aim for either a pedal or cross-strung harp (although you do have other options if you're creative - Alan Stivelle and Rudiger Opperman both manage to be very jazzy on their custom-built modified electronic lever harps). There are far more teachers, books, and harp-makers for the pedal harp than for the cross-strung. However, the cross-strung technically gives you the most freedom in terms of accidentals and key changes. On a pedal harp, depressing a pedal puts accidentals on every octave of one note - e.g. you depress the A pedal, all the A's will either become sharp, natural or flat. Whereas on a cross-strung harp, any accidental is available at any given time. The cross-strung can also come in many different sizes, thus potentially being both more portable and less expensive. A skilled player can play fully chromatic music on either instrument, it's mainly a matter of technique - both require mastery of certain hand positions, and the pedal harp requires you to be able to coordinate hand and foot movement at the same time.
If your main love is folk, Celtic or other roots music, then a Celtic (lever, folk) harp is probably the type for you. The clarion ring of wire strings, the sweet mellow sound of gut, the ringing resonant tones of a large nylon-strung harp, or the bright soprano notes of a lap harp - all these are wonderfully suited to Celtic and other folk music (which, to me, tends to sound a bit stilted and dry on the tighter-strung pedal harps). Whether you feel that country music falls into this category or Pop (below), it will generally fit quite nicely on a lever harp (a pedal harp is a bit of over-kill in my opinion, but to each their own!)
If you're interested in early music (e.g. medieval & renaissance), a Celtic harp (wire, gut or nylon, with or without levers) will work fine - but you may want to look at a replica medieval or gothic harp for more authenticity. While small, some replica harps may still be expensive, due to the lower demand and the extra research, etc. that goes into making them. Early music shops will often offer medieval and other period-style harps.
Popular music (rock, pop, new-age) can really be played on any type of harp, it just depends on what you like, and what kind of range and key flexibility you need. Vegas-style pop music may be more suited to a pedal harp. New-age sounds great on a Celtic harp, but if it's the more classical variety you may have to flip levers a lot. Rock and blues are maybe the least commonly played on a harp, but there are electric harps out there that can bend tones, wail as loud as you want, and even create feedback with the best of them, so you really have no limitations! (Check out the likes of Alan Stivelle and Rudiger Opperman if you want to hear what an electric harp can do - ideal also for those who love to fuse different styles, such as rock/Celtic/jazz).
Finally, you may find you become particularly interested in music from a specific culture, in which case you may want to adopt the harp that is central to that type of music - for instance, the Paraguayan harp, or the Chinese harp. These are a little harder to come by in North America, but the internet is a great search tool!
One last note - If you are interested in many different types of music, be sure to give yourself some flexibility; i.e. if you want to play classical and Celtic and medieval and improv (like me), then make sure you have a full set of levers, and ultimately you might even want to aim for more than one harp. Beware: once you get going, harp lust will strike, and it's hard to resist!
Cheap Harps: Buyer Beware!
If it's cheap (and yes, this is a relative term), it's probably more of a toy harp than a serious instrument. Still, for those who are really hurting for cash, it may be an avenue into owning a harp, with the idea of saving up later for a better instrument. And of course, there's a big distinction between "cheap" and "inexpensive" - for example, Stoney End, Wm Reese ("Tasty Harp" Division), Waring Harps and other companies make inexpensive models that are still decent quality (see examples, above). As long as you can pluck the strings and the harp stays in tune, you can learn how to play it. However, you may find you grow out of your cheap harp rather quickly, and find yourself longing for something with a more consistent, clear musical tone. If you find a harp on Ebay that costs around $200-$300, you may very well be looking at one of the common mass-produced harps, many of which originate at a company that alternately goes under Mid-East Mfg. or Ethnical Musical Instruments (they sell to lots of retail stores, so you may not recognize the brand name, but they all universally have carving and/or inlay on them and are made of rosewood). There are many stories of harps like this not staying in tune, or needing new strings the instant you get them, or having structural problems. These are some of the issues you may run into buying a cheap harp, regardless of the manufacturer. However, you might luck out and get a decent model, on which you can learn the basics. I bought a "cheap harp" as my very first harp purchase, and played it for three years before getting a bigger, better quality harp; I then sold it to a student who had an extremely limited budget. The strongest advice I can give is, to TRY IT OUT FIRST before buying. If you aren't able to try it out in person, ask for opinions from experienced harp buyers, particularly those who have a harp from the maker you're interested in. I tried mine in a music store, and found it to have a quiet but pleasant tone, and no structural problems. However, later I ran into several models by the same company, and they had everything from separating joints, to shoddily done inlay, and some of them wouldn't even keep a proper scale! This is not meant as a slam on any one particular company; it's just that a harp is really not a good instrument to get a "cheap" version of (regardless of source), if you want to play it for a long time - there are simply too many important structural components in play (the constant stress on the soundboard from the strings pulling up, the joints holding neck and pillar and box together, resonance of the soundboard, etc.). And while it's advisable to think carefully before buying harps on E-bay, there's no reason to rule it out as an option - just be sure to research the brand of harp being sold, get good pictures (from both sides, front and back), and preferably some kind of sound clip of the instrument being played.
For tips on what to look for in a harp (to avoid a bad quality instrument), see our "Buying a Harp" section (advice courtesy of Muma Harps).
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