Have you ever wondered what makes the beautiful sound of the harp? A huge part of the gorgeous sound comes from all those strings. But have you ever stopped to wonder what are harp strings made of?
“In the past, harp makers and string makers used whatever they could find,” says Sue Raimond, one of the string makers at Robinson’s Harp Shop in Laguna, California. “Harp makers used cactus sinew, veggie braids, and gut sinews from cows (not cats).”
Today, far fewer animals and vegetables are sacrificed for strings. String makers today use modern materials including nylon, soft copper, and phosphor bronze.
A HARP IN EVERY COUNTRY
“Every country has a traditional harp for that country,” Sue says. “Every country has a different culture of sound that their people expect to hear, and that’s what they want to hear.”
Unlike with many other instruments (such as guitars, violins, and even pedal harps), there isn’t a standard set of strings for the lever harp. Although this gives the makers the ability to precisely tailor the size, sound and feel of each harp they design, it also means that harp strings are not easily interchangeable from one harp model to another.
COLOR CODED FOR EASY PLAYING
If you look closely at a harp, you will usually see three colors of strings: blue, red and white/clear. “Continental Stringing” means that red strings are the note C, blue strings are Fs, and the white strings are D, E, G, A, B. This makes is easy for the harper/harpist to see quickly where the notes are on the harp.
“But Paraguayan harps have the colors reversed, so that the note F is red, and the note C is blue. Alternatively, you might see a Paraguayan harp with red D strings and blue A strings,” Sue says. “But string colors vary by country and area.”
WHAT GOES INTO A STRING?
In the United States, the lower bass strings are made of two parts: a central core string, which is then wrapped with another material. The strings might have a nylon core with a nylon wrapping, which is common on Dusty Strings harps. Other wrapped strings might have phosphor bronze core, wrapped with nylon. The bottom strings might be a steel core and a soft copper wrapping.
The upper strings do not need a wrapper in order to sound correct, and these strings are referred to as “monofilament” strings.
In other countries, string makers may use different ways to manufacture strings, in order to achieve the cultural sound that they want. In Ireland, for example, string makers there will use a plant fiber core, wrapped with nylon or soft copper.
HOW STRINGS ARE MADE
To make a fiber core, wrapped string, Sue and her team start with fibers that are .002 of an inch thick, about the same diameter as a human hair. These strands of fiber are then stretched across two hooks (think of a tiny, super-tight hammock), back and forth, about 10 times, until the desired total thickness of the core material is created.
The fiber is then stretched even further, nearly to the breaking point. Then the wrapper string is hand-tied with six knots on one end (no glue!), and the wrapper is spun onto the core string. Once the wrapper is in place, 12 more hand-tied knots secure the wrapper in place. The wrapper material is cut, and the tension on the string is released. The string relaxes like a spring at rest.
THE PET PEEVES OF STRING MAKERS
Like every industry professional, there are things that string makers wish their customers knew. Here are a few:
Every single harp is unique. Every. Single. One. So please don’t call Sue and say, “I need an A string.” All harps have lots of A strings on them. You need to know which string you need to have Sue make for you. She can’t read your mind nor your harp’s mind.
Get a string chart for your harp. Your harp manufacturer usually has them available on their websites, or you can call and ask them to send you one. Then you can call Sue and tell her exactly what you need.
Learn how your harp manufacturer numbers the strings. On my Salvi Egan electro-acoustic, the very top, tiny string is No. 3. So if I’m ordering from Sue, I would count my strings starting at the top, and starting with No. 3. The string numbers on all my other harps is different, too.
If you are ordering custom strings, be sure to measure your string length from the soundboard to the BRIDGE PIN (not the tuning pin). If you are not sure where your bridge pins are located, you can contact me or Sue to help you. DO NOT give the measurement from the soundboard to the tuning pin because you won’t get the right string.
HAND-MADE, ONE AT A TIME, WITH LOVE
In a world where so much is mass-produced, Sue and her team make harp strings by hand, one at a time: “Because every harp is unique, we don’t just turn around and take strings off the shelf. We make individual strings for individual harps.”
Robinson’s Harp Shop