Allan Shiers has over 30 years’ experience as a harp-maker and repair specialist – there’s not much he hasn’t seen! Here are some of the questions he gets asked most frequently:
Q: People talk about the sound of the harp and how important it is. What do I listen for?
A: Each harp has its own sound, which is a combination of the original design and manufacture, the natural ageing process and how well the harp has been cared for. Some of the most unlikely looking harps give out the most wonderful, warm sound. Good harps sing!
As a rule of thumb, listen for evenness across the entire range of the harp. Some harps “boom” at the bottom and “tinkle” at the top. Some harps can be great at each end and flat in the middle. If you are looking for a harp, try as many as you can and remember to get someone else to play while you listen from a distance – harps sound very different from across a room. The most important thing is that you love the sound and that the instrument responds to the way you play.
Q: What is a twisted neck?
A: The neck is the curved part of the harp that runs from the top of the column to the top of the sound box. It’s where the tops of the strings are held and where any semi-tone devices sit. There is incredible tension in the harp (nearly one tonne) so the neck and soundboard naturally want to meet to relieve this tension and it is the harp-maker’s challenge to make sure this never happens.
Because the strings are attached to the side of the neck (rather than through the centre of the neck as in the case of Paraguayan harps) it can begin to move over time. This can ruin the mechanism that runs through the neck of pedal harps, and eventually means that the semi-tone mechanism no longer makes contact with the strings. In the most extreme case, the neck will give up its unequal struggle and collapse into the harp. Early warning signs tend to appear in the middle of the neck (around middle F/G on a concert harp).
Q: Why does my harp buzz?
A: Every harp can be susceptible to buzzes and rattles – they are large instruments with many moving parts and built to be resonant. A buzz or rattle can be as simple as a wayward knot or a worn string, but it could also be a sign of other problems. These simple checks will help you get to the bottom of it:
- Semi-tone forks/levers/blades – check these are not loose and are providing adequate displacement on the string to give a clear sound
- Bridge pins – these are the pins that sit under the tuning pin and above the semi-tone devices. Check these are screwed tight to the neck
- Strings – sometimes the strings don’t quite fit the bridge pin or the knotted end can buzz against the soundboard. Check each string to make sure it isn’t frayed or starting to look hairy – this will impede the sound
- Pedals – make sure the pedal caps are fixed tight and that the felt is in a good state
- Feet and castors – check the wheels at the bottom aren’t loose
Q: I see lots of old Erards for sale, they just need restringing – are they a good buy?
A: Be very cautious – if a harp hasn’t been strung or kept in tune for some time, the chances are that it won’t withstand restringing now. Always buy a harp from someone who can give you a good idea of the history, how it has been played, where it is kept, how it has been transported, who serviced it. Asking these questions can avoid costly mistakes.