In a geographical region dominated by 6-string rhythm guitars, I encounter quite a lot of confusion about my harp. Why is it so finicky? Why am I opposed to amplification? Of course it’s just like a guitar, it has strings! Read on.
- My harp has 36 strings, made of nylon monofilament, nylon-wound-nylon, and wire-wound-wire. Each type of string reacts differently to the environment. A guitar has anywhere from 6 to 12 strings, generally made of the same material (steel wound with bronze, or nylon).
- The strings on a harp are arranged perpendicularly to the soundboard and roughly parallel with the neck, and exert about 1500 pounds of force on the instrument. This perpendicular arrangement of the strings relative to the soundboard is the defining characteristic of the harp family of instruments. The guitar belongs to the lute family: its strings are arranged parallel to the sound board and exert around 150 pounds of pressure on the body of the instrument (for a 6-string guitar).
- Most harps are larger than guitars, and contain more wood. Therefore, there is a greater overall effect of wood expansion/contraction due to changes in environment, which affects the tuning and health of the instrument. This is why I arrive an hour early for every gig (it gives the harp time to acclimate before tuning), and why I must tune in the same room — ideally, the same spot — in which I will be playing.
- My harp has 36 strings, which are strung on through-pins and tuned with a separate tuning key; approximate tuning time, depending on conditions, is 7-12 minutes. A guitar has 6 strings, which are strung on integrated mechanical tuners; approximate tuning time is 90-180 seconds.1
- The harp is a non-fretted instrument: I can only get one pitch when I pluck a string. If it’s out of tune, there’s nothing I can do until the piece is over; and that’s why I won’t play without carefully tuning first. The guitar is a fretted instrument: a skilled player can adjust for a slightly flat or sharp string on the fly.
- The strings on my harp are arranged over the course of 36 inches. Because of this, an full-sized amplified harp requires at least three internal pickups, four are better, and best is a series of individual piezo-electric pickups installed on each string. A single microphone never works well. The strings of a (6-string) guitar are arranged over the course of less than two inches, and require only one pickup. Also, most guitars nowadays come set up to plug and play; if a harper wants an amplified harp, she must usually get it custom-fitted with pickups after purchase.
- Both harps and guitars are polyphonic instruments (they can play more than one note at a time). A harp is traditionally used for melodic and harmonic playing.2 Strummed guitar is pitched rhythm. The purpose of pitched rhythm instruments is different from the purpose of melodic/harmonic instruments.
- A harp’s volume is naturally soft. Even large concert grand harps (CGs) are easily drowned out by other instruments, and I play a small lever harp. A guitar is naturally louder, and holds up much better to other instruments.
- The tone of a harp is clean, round, and quiet. It leaves space for breath, heartbeat, and thoughts of its audience. The tone of a strummed guitar is noisier (contains more sounds) and more raucous. It is designed to take over the breath, heartbeat and mind of its audience.
- I have only been able to find one harp repair shop in the Twinstate area, and I had a bad experience with them with a prior harp; the nearest one I will consider using for my performance instrument is The Harp Connection in Boston. On the other hand, there are several guitar dealers in the Upper Valley area alone. It’s much easier to get a guitar repaired than a harp. This is why I won’t leave my instrument alone, and why I require a roped-off space in which to play.
Harps and guitars have very little in common beyond their most basic identities as stringed instruments. They should be used according to their designs, purposes, and strengths, and not shoe-horned into ill-fitting assumptions.
My harp performs best in an intimate space with a small audience; or in a quiet, high-ceiling church; or in a shady spot at a Farmers’ Market, where people can pause in their shopping to listen. It performs best as an acoustic instrument, sometimes accompanied by my un-amplified voice. Although I can play blues, jazz and even rock on it, it is not natively a rock instrument: it cannot generate that much sound, nor is it simple to amplify. Because of its fundamental design, it requires time to adjust to a new place, and time and quiet in which to tune.
Not all music needs to overtake your body and mind; not all music must be loud or noisy. A harp is not a guitar, but why can’t that be a good thing? Music is more than just one instrument has to offer!
1 Aside from the sheer number of strings, there are some very technical details involved in tuning a 5-octave range on a fixed-string instrument. It has to do with the way we divide our musical scale and the compromises we make between thirds and fifths. Even when each string registers perfectly on an electronic tuner, the harp can still sound out of tune, so in a performance situation I always tune by ear. It takes longer to do it this way, but results in a much more pleasing sound. I start by tuning the middle tenth of the instrument using a tuner, then “sweeten” that tenth (make small adjustments by ear), then tune down and up the harp in octaves using harmonics.
2 It can also act as a rhythm instrument via guitar-like strumming, slaps to the body of the instrument, and certain other techniques.