Thursday, January 6, 2011


We are pleased to welcome harp technician and guest author Steve Moss of The Harp Herald who will present a series of informative articles to our blog about harp care.  You may read more about Steve on our Tech Info Page.

What better way to begin the New Year than with a discussion about strings! In today's article, Steve explains the differences between nylon and gut and what may be best for you and your harp.

When you purchased your new pedal harp, chances are it was strung with gut strings from the second through the fifth octave. When the time came to replace some strings, you might have noticed an option to buy nylon strings, which cost only a fraction of what gut strings cost. So, should you spend the big bucks for gut strings, or will nylon strings work just as well? The answer is, “it depends.”

Not all lever harps can be strung with gut strings, especially pedal-tension gut strings. If you play a lever harp, make sure to check with the manufacturer before using any type of strings other than the ones that came on the harp. Some harps can be damaged if you switch from nylon to gut strings. However, pedal harps are designed to handle either gut or nylon strings.
So, which one should you choose?

In general, pedal gut harp strings have a clearer, cleaner tone and better projection than pedal nylon strings. Other differences are less apparent in the higher octaves and gradually become more noticeable in the lower strings.

Pedal nylon strings are standard in the top octave of every new pedal harp that is made. Since first octave strings are so short, they can’t produce a rich tone no matter what they’re made of. Some harpists prefer to string this octave in pedal gut, others tend to stay with the standard pedal nylon, but most people do not hear a difference in tone quality with either string type. Since nylon strings tend to be a bit more durable, and of course cost less, they are generally the best option in the first octave.

The second octave is a bit more difficult to determine. There is a difference in tone quality between pedal gut and pedal nylon strings in this octave, but it is less obvious than in lower octaves. In addition, I have talked to a number of orchestral harpists who feel that pedal nylon strings in the second octave have a brighter, punchier sound than pedal gut and do a better job of cutting through and being heard in an ensemble situation. If you have pedal gut in your second octave, you may want to try switching to nylon. Depending on your playing needs, pedal nylon could be a better choice for you.

However, bear in mind that it is more difficult to control your intonation with pedal nylon strings. Since nylon stretches more than gut, the pitch produced by nylon can vary depending on how strongly you play the string. Playing nylon strings strongly can cause them to sound flat. It is also more difficult for your harp technician to regulate nylon strings to sound in tune in all pedal positions.

If you are a stickler for proper intonation, think twice before trying nylon strings. If you would like to try nylon, it’s best to switch just before a regulation so your harp technician can adjust the harp’s mechanism to compensate for the change in the new string’s diameter.

The third through fifth octaves are a bit more clear-cut. In this all-important mid-range of the harp, I strongly recommend that you stick with pedal gut strings. The loss of tone and volume with pedal nylon strings in this range can be significant. Third octave pedal nylon strings sound plunky and wavery, at best. By the time you reach the fifth octave, pedal nylon can sound little better than stringing your harp with rubber bands. I know that pedal gut strings are more expensive than nylon, but trust me, you get what you pay for.  Stay with pedal gut in these octaves.

Here are the “Cliff Notes” versions to the question of which type of strings to use on your harp:
Lever Harps: Use what the harp came strung with and always ask the manufacturer if you are interested in changing to something else.
Pedal Harps: Octave 1 - Nylon is cool. Octave 2 - Feel free to experiment. Octaves 3-5 - Stick with gut.
Happy Playing!
Learn more than you ever thought possible about strings by visiting Steve's additional discussions on this topic at  "The Harp Herald".

Photo: (above left)Andrea Puente, left, Alison Bjorkedal and Allison Allport perform Cage's "Postcard From Heaven"Image by Ann Johansson.
Photo: (above right): Pierre Boulez conducting "Sur Incises" at the Ojai Festival in 2003 with
Ellie Choate, left, Susan Allen and Phala Tracy, the same players who 
performed it in San Diego, 2010. Image by Ricardo DeAratanha

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