Buying a Harp
So, you’ve decided you want to play the harp. Congratulations! It’s a beautiful instrument. However, you may feel a bit daunted about which instrument to buy.
Regardless of what you choose, I strongly recommend speaking to your harp teacher, whoever they may be, about what harp is right for you before making a decision. In this blog post I will try to outline some different options and recommendations, but this is based on harps I have experience with and/or have heard good reviews of from other harpists I trust. I have not been sponsored by any of these harpmakers and am also not trying to say that any of the following harps are better/worse than the other, just that each person will have their own preferences and goals for their instrument. This post is also from the perspective of a student in Canada, since that’s the situation of most of my students.
Now, let’s get to it!
To start off, there are two types of harps: pedal harps and lever harps (lever harps are also called folk harps and celtic harps). Pedal harps are the large ones you would see at the orchestra, and lever harps come in a range of sizes that are generally smaller than the pedal harps. Some folk harps may also come with no levers at all.
I would generally recommend a pedal harp to someone who is very serious about the harp and has either been playing for a long time and wants to play more advanced classical or jazz music, or someone who wishes to study harp at university. Lever harps are much more economical and are more suited to students who are playing casually and are pursuing harp as a hobby. That said, there are many professional harpists who also make their living on lever harps. The lever harp is not “less” of a harp than a pedal harp.
Renting a harp is a great idea if you’re not sure if you want to commit to the instrument yet, although a bit more limited than buying. In the past, in Canada, the music store Long & McQuade has rented out a basic harp called a Harpsicle. Please visit their website to get in contact with them to inquire.
I may have harps available to rent, so please inquire if you are interested.
In this section I will just talk about lever harps. If you’re more interested in buying a pedal harp, definitely bring that up with your teacher to go over your options.
If you want to buy a lever harp, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, the size. 22-26 strings is the smallest I would recommend. If you would like more range (more notes) in the bass (low end), something like 34-36 strings might be better.
Next is levers; levers allow you to play sharps and flats without retuning the harp, which means you can play more repertoire in more keys. You can get harps with no levers, levers on only a few strings, or a full set.
My recommendation is a harp with a minimum of 22 strings (preferably 26+), and as many levers as you can afford. If you want to play for a long time, you may outgrow a harp without levers and end up needing to buy another harp. It is possible to sell your first harp to upgrade, but it is my personal recommendation to go with something you’ll be able to use for a long time and skip the hassle, if you’re able to.
And then of course there is price. Larger harps and more levers are more expensive than harps that are smaller and/or have fewer levers.
The following are a few places you can look to buy harps:
You can look for used harps in your area; occasionally people will post ads on Kijiji or other classified websites.. There is also a used lever harp classified section on harpcolumn.com . Most of these are in the states and you would need to figure out shipping or driving to the seller, but it is an option.
When buying a used harp, also be careful of the condition; check for cracks, broken levers, any joints that may be pulling apart, and if the column is leaning to one side. Also ask about the age of the strings; old strings can easily be replaced, but will cost you money, time, and effort and may affect how much you want to pay for the harp. Buying a used pedal harp needs more consideration and will not be covered in this post.
Lyon & Healy is a well-respected harp company that makes lever harps as well (they are based in the US): https://www.lyonhealy.com/lever-ogden.htm
I have heard that the Ogden has very high string tension, but have never played one myself.
Salvi Harps is another reputable company and their harps can be ordered from Harp.ca based in Toronto.
The least expensive harps you can get are from Harpsicle Harps. The customer service is very good, the product is well made, and the strength of these harps are their affordability and portability. These harps are also suitable for beginners. If affordability and portability are very important to you in a harp, this may be the harp for you, but since the soundboard is made of plywood, and string tension is very low, there is a noticeable difference in sound between a Harpsicle and other larger harps.
I generally recommend that if you want a harp you can perform on for a long time and not grow out of, that you look into harps other than Harpsicles.
There are some additional options for ordering in Canada:
Long and McQuade, mentioned above, has in the past offered to order in harps from certain harpmakers. Get in contact with your local store to inquire with them.
Thormahlen harps is based in Ontario.
And there is also West Coast Harps, which sells harps from a number of harp makers. The owners are really nice and helpful, and they give quotes in Canadian dollars. Shipping prices are also reasonable. Harps made by Dusty Strings and Triplett, which you can order from West Coast Harps, will be good quality.
Heartland Harps (in the US) make carbon fiber harps, which in my opinion sound slightly different but just as nice as wooden harps, and are very light and great for the outdoors.
Camac lever harps also have a good reputation but can be tricky to order into Canada.
Now that you’ve gotten this far you probably have a bit more of an idea of what’s out there but might also be more confused! If you have more questions, get in touch with your teacher to discuss what’s right for you.