Identifying a well-built Instrument
The instrument each player selects will reflect their budget, tastes, prejudices, the kind of music the play, and the sound they want to create. Fortunately builders are fairly diverse and most work hard to satisfy a wide range of tastes. This page strives to outline the prominent challenges of the harp builder’s trade, to identify areas where a lazy or shoddy builder may be tempted to cut corners.
When I evaluate my own work or other builder’s instruments, I examine the harp’s sound, aesthetics, construction and finish. I evaluate the instruments ergonomics and try to figure out what the builder has done to ensure the harps longevity.
Is the volume and general tone even across the instrument’s range? Building a nice sounding mid-range is easy compared to balancing the bass and treble ends. Pluck a nice fat bass chord then play a few notes at the top range. Does one drown the other out? How is the sustain after a note is plucked? Play a fast tune then a slow air. Does the mid-range get muddy? Do those left hand chords last too long, or do they die out too fast?
Try playing a familiar tune loudly then soft. Play it an octave higher than you normally do. Then an octave lower. Any surprises? Sounds you like? Things you don’t like?
Some of what you are hearing can be affected by the room you are playing in. A harp is going to sound different in your practice room than it will in church or a noisy pub session. Try to select an instrument that fits your practicing and performing environments.
Does the harp respond predictably when you pluck lightly and then progressively harder? Younger or weaker hands may delight in an instrument that produces nice loud notes with moderate plucking pressure, while an aspiring or veteran pedal harpist may want something that provides more resistance to a forceful technique.
Does the harp have a pleasing shape? At one time, the harp was an object of delicacy and grace. More and more harp builders are attaching two planks of thick hardwood to each other, and bolting the resulting armature to skinny coffin-box. Does the result look like a finely crafted instrument?
Austere vs. Elegant - there is a reason economy harps and inexpensive kits look pretty much the same. With four simple-to-make parts, it is the cheapest, and fastest way to build a harp. Complex shapes, carving, inlays & bindings, or a smooth transition from knee block to the sound box require more planning, precision, skill, and effort. Challenge convenient acoustic theories that builders offer to justify designs they can build with minimal effort or planning.
For hundreds of years, skilled artisans have taken the time and effort to learn how to sculpt wood into the sinuous curves and planes that have defined the harp’s magical appeal. With modern materials and tools, all of these refinements are easier than ever to execute. Find a harp that embodies the builder’s best efforts to enchant the ears AND the eyes. You should demand both.
Construction & Finish
Sight along the edges of the neck and Pillar. Do they sweep in smooth, graceful curves, or do they meander, with odd high spots and hollows? Study the glue seams where parts are joined to each other. Are they nice and tight? Look at the lines of bridge pins and tuning pins (on both sides of the neck). Do they fall in a pleasing curve? Are there splinters missing around the holes where a frenzied drill press operator rammed the bits through the neck?
Are the sound holes neat and symmetrical? Usually the neck, pillar and sound box are made from the same species of hardwood. Did the builder select premium stock, match the grain and layout parts so they showcase the beauty of the wood? Are there a lot of dings and dents from careless assembly work?
Shiny, high gloss paint jobs can easily double the labor of finishing. The harp has to be sanded to a finer grit. The grain has to be filled and buffed, 6-12 coats of finish must be evenly applied, followed by many hours of careful polishing. Anyone that has ever tried to maintain a polished marble counter top or the flawless finish on a new car can also testify that the mirror finish will also show every ding, scratch and smudge on it. Many harpers prefer a semi-gloss finish, or a finish that shows a hint of the underlying wood grain.
Either finish will require several hours of careful sanding and/or scraping. Look at the finish from multiple vantage points, under a good strong light, at a low angle. Does the finish have a nice even luster and sheen? Are there obvious drips, brush marks or holidays? Light, hazy areas or spots where the builder didn’t clean up the glue? Are there coarse grit sanding scratches under the finish? Dust motes or rough spots that should have been fixed?
I’ve always admired Larry Fisher’s stunning finish work. His gloss finishes rival any showroom Steinway. Photos, courtesy of Fisher Harps
Ask the builder how hard it is to repair the finish if it is chipped or scratched. Will the oil from your skin gum up the finish on the edge of the sound board and sound box where the arms rest while playing?
Are the strings terminated neatly inside the sound box and onto the tuning pins? Are the levers accurately regulated? A good builder will not skimp on hardware or the time it takes to install it neatly. He should be able to tell you who supplies his hardware, why he choose it, and whether it will look this good five or ten years from now.
As you play the harp, does it have an even feel, or are there areas where the strings change abruptly form stiff to floppy? Are there strings that trip you up? check the spacing. When you lean the harp back, does it lean to one side or the other? To the back feet have a wide, stable stance that will keep the harp from tipping when you are playing aggressively?
It is hard to make a harp that provides enough access for the hand in the top octave. Is there enough space? A narrow sound box or offset string rib will reduce the angle the harp player has to bend their right wrist to reach those strings.
Few harpers will complain their harp is too light, and builders are getting a lot more disciplined and putting their instruments on a weight reduction plan. Is the harp unreasonably heavy for its size and tension? Are there places the builder could have eliminated weight without compromising the harp’s sound or structural integrity?
Take a critical look at the harp head on. Is the neck leaning away from the strings, is it perpendicular, or has it begun to capsize towards the strings? Is the joint between the neck and the pillar stable or are their joints beginning to open up? A good stiff pillar, a sound neck-to-pillar joint and securely fastened knee block will insure the neck stays vertical and will minimize the need for regulation and bridge pin adjustments down the road.
How is the soundboard fastened to the sound box? Did the builder rely solely on glue, or does he use mechanical fasteners too? The builder should be able to tell you what fastening system he is using and his track record with it – beyond the warranty period too.
If the builder is vague or reluctant to discuss the number of blown boards he has had to replace using this fastening system, it should tell you something. Some builders build harps with a lot of belly, and that is not a bad sign. Look inside the sound box, and inspect the liners at the bass end. Are they cracking away from the sides of the sound box or the sound board?
Take a look at the joint between the neck and the sound box. Are there big gaps at the front or back? What has the builder done to reinforce the neck and keep it from cracking along the grain through the pins and screw holes at the treble end? What remedies will be available to the customer if the neck breaks?
These may seem like a lot of nitty gritty details. There are a lot of questions to ask and things to ponder when it you purchase an instrument you will be spending hundreds of hours with over the coming years. I hope these criteria will help you carefully evaluate the tradeoffs builder face when they make a harp, and will help you get better value for the pile of money you trade for a fine instrument.