We (the harp community) are so glad you are considering buying a harp!
Welcome to the ultimate guide to buying a harp. At the end of this article, you will know everything you need to make a buyer-savvy decision on which harp is right for you. The article is broken into three sections:
- A Harp Comparison Chart
- Questions to Ask Yourself
- Harp Design and Craftmanship
If this is your first harp, you are probably a little overwhelmed about the differences between harps, and how those differences should influence your buying decision. If this is not your first harp, you probably know a lot about what to expect in terms of sound quality, which should make your decision easier. It’s still nice to have all the facets lined up next to each other for easy comparison.
First: A Harp Comparison Chart
The matrix below only includes harps offered from four harp manufacturers so far, but I continually add to it as I find time. If you would like to contribute information to the gaps highlighted in blue, or offer an opinion about one of these harps, please leave a comment below! Also, let me know if I’ve forgotten a criteria for selecting a harp.
To see this chart in a LARGER and SORTABLE format, click here!
Second: Questions to Ask Yourself
How far do you plan on taking your harp career?
- The Hobbyist If playing the harp is something that you want to do for fun and you don’t have much prior music instruction, it might be wise to start on the small side. Fewer strings usually means a smaller and less expensive harp. If you decide that you are really liking the harp, you can always sell your first instrument and upgrade to one with more strings, and therefore more range. Some manufacturers allow levers to be an optional add-on, but I strongly urge you to start with them on the harp. This will allow you flexibility to play in other keys, play lots more music, and accompany other musicians. Plus, should you decide that it’s time to upgrade, having levers will be a strong selling point.
Sort by: Lower cost, Fewer Strings, Loveland Levers, Light String Tension, Select Fewer Accessory Upgrades, Laminate Wood
- The Music Lover If you see yourself taking the harp to any level over “just a hobby”–even if you don’t plan on being a professional musician–you may want to consider spending a little extra up front and getting a mid-range harp. If your child displays an aptitude for music, they are also a good candidate for a mid-range harp. Definitely get as many strings as you can afford, with levers. Narrow down your options further by considering the questions that follow.
Sort by: Floor Harps, 29-36 Strings, Truitt Levers
- The Professional If you are on the professional track, there’s one thing to keep in the back of your mind: you are most likely going to end up buying a pedal harp someday. It may not need to be now, especially if you are a young or beginner student. However, you will want to find one that is most similar to the standard pedal harp string spacing, and tension. When you are ready to make the switch, it will be more seamless.
Sort by: String Spacing, String Tension
Are you on a tight budget?
Let’s face it. Harps are notorious for being expensive and unattainable. This is simply not the case though. There are harps that fall in price ranges between $300 all the way to a whopping $189,000! Somewhere in there is a harp that is right for you. If you responded to the previous questions with a serious and earnest interest in pursuing musicianship, don’t settle for the cheapest harp you can get. Save a little bit longer to get the best harp you can afford.
- Used Harps Used harps are always a good way to knock a few hundred bucks off the total price. Before you buy a used harp, however, read up on what to look for. Read: Buying a Used Harp
- Handy Men & Women Do you have a family member that is handy in the woodshop? You could potentially buy a harp kit and assemble it at home–it’s like IKEA for harps!
- Renting a Harp You could find a place that will rent you a harp. In some cases, the rent money is going toward ultimately purchasing the harp. Renting gives you a chance to really get to know what a harp sounds like, so that next time you sit behind a different harp, you have a basis of comparison in sound quality. Should you decide to move on to a different harp, you will not have paid full-price for the first harp, and you will ultimately get exactly the right harp.
Sort by: Price, Finance/Rental Programs, Do-It-Yourself
Are you willing to pay some pretty big shipping costs?
Related to the budget question above, your choices may be limited by geography, as harp manufacturers are flung far and wide across the globe. Since you will probably want to play the harp before you buy it, limit your search to places you can visit.
Alternatively, a big-city music store might be willing to work with you to order a harp for you to try. I have once asked a local music store to bring in a model of harp from a line they already were stocking–a Lyon and Healy Ogden. They accepted, I tried the harp, but I did not end up buying it. I have no idea what kind of reaction you might get from a music store on an “unsecured” purchase of a big-ticket item, but I suppose it never hurts to ask. Please let me know if you have had any experience with this and how it went.
Finally, another good way to test drive a far-away harp is to make a pilgrimage to one of the many harp festivals across the nation. These events usually have formal “harp tasting” events for prospective buyers.
I suppose it’s not unheard of to buy an unplayed harp, but I would be wary doing it since they are so expensive. Personally, a music clip of the harp being played is simply not enough. However, if you know for SURE a distant harp is the harp you want, be prepared to spend quite a bit on having it shipped to you.
Sort by: Harp Manufacturers & Vendors
Are you going to play harp in a band or with other people?
The harp can be a soft-spoken instrument instrument. First off, you should probably get a harp that has high string tension. Clive Morely says that “Harp strings are like bicycle gears: the harder you have to work, the more you get out.” He continues, “In other words, the more force you have to apply to pluck the string, the louder and more resonant the resulting sound.” If you’re playing with a band, a tighter string tension will give a seasoned harpist the ability to be heard.
In addition to string tension, consider buying an acoustic harp that has a pickup installed. Electric harps are also a possibility as well.
Sort by: String Tension, Upgrades (Pickup Installation), Style (Electric Harp)
Do you want to play a specific genre of music?
Keep in mind that lots of music is accessible on a lever harp. There are plenty of music books that have arrangements specifically written for lever harps.
Now, if you have a love for jazz, blues, or new age music, you are at the very least going to need a full set of levers on your harp. However, if you’d like to unfetter your hands from having to make lever changes while you play, consider a chromatic or cross-strung harp. If you’re already an experienced harp player, you may even think about upgrading to a pedal harp.
Additionally, you may want to play true traditional Irish or Scottish harp music, which would require you to look for a wire-strung harp. You can, of course play Irish and Scottish music on a harp with nylon strings, but purists opt for wire-strung at some point.
Sort by: Chromatic/Cross-Strung, Pedal, Wire Strings
Are you going to bring your harp anywhere (or everywhere)?
Harps can get quite large! Be sure to consider the size of your transport vehicle. I know for a fact that a pedal harp will NOT fit in a Toyota Corolla no matter how much you rearrange things. So if you have a compact car, be sure to think ahead on some of the larger floor harps. Measure your trunk and back seat. Take note that some harp manufacturers have stands or legs that detach from the harp and make them shorter.
Finally, if you are interested in music therapy or teaching music classes for schoolchildren, you will want a harp that is portable, lightweight and sturdy. As a nice bonus to yourself, you might think about getting a double harp as you can play melody and harmony on each row of strings, not to mention also acheiving some really impressive unique sounds!
Sort by: Travel Size, Weight, Review Height/Width/Depth of Harps, Double Harps
Do you have any physical limitations in your hands?
It could be that you are buying for a child (who have small hands) and need narrower string spacing and lighter tension. Or possibly you yourself have small hands or are using the harp as physical therapy. Lighter tension will make it easier for a beginner to learn to play with fewer blisters. For more information on string spacing and tension, read this great article: All About String Spacing and Tension.
Sort by: String Spacing, String Tension
Do you plan on playing harp for long stretches of time in a single session?
You may want to consider getting a harp that has a staved back. The argument for staved back usually centers around comfort, as the angle inward prevents the harp from digging into your shoulder. So, when you go try your harp, keep that sensation in the back of your mind. Then after you’ve played for a minute or two, multiply the sensation in your mind as if you have played the harp for three hours. Read: Square or Staved Back. Whether or not you get a staved back is entirely up to you. It looks like there’s some debate in the harp-making community over whether or not a staved back actually hinders the acoustic quality of the harp, so there’s that to consider as well. Read: Myth #3 Staved or Round Backs
Sort by: Staved Back
Third: Harp Design and Craftmanship
Much ado about levers!
There are only a few major manufacturers of harp levers. These levers come at various price points and functionality. All of them are great quality, but the real difference lies in how the “feel” when they are used, and how they effect the strings: some “clamp” the string, and others “lift” it up. The lifting action puts less stress on the string than clamping. The type of lever shouldn’t influence your decision as much as the sound or overall craftmanship of the harp. I just thought I’d list your options so you can go into the harp store with an educated opinion in case there’s a choice to make. Here are the most common levers from (in my opinion) best to basic: Truitt, Camac, Loveland, Jordan, Universal. Read: Full List of Lever Styles
Does the type of wood matter?
Short answer is “yes.” And not only does type of wood matter, it also matters whether the harp is crafted with laminate wood or solid wood in the body and soundboard. However, based on your other needs, you may not have much choice on which wood your harp is made out of. It’s a good idea to be educated on the options though, just in case you get to make a choice!
Harp manufacturers are looking for the strength, density and grain of the wood. Read this well-written article on types of wood: Read: Woods. I thought I’d point out here that I’m not an expert on how much or if the type of wood really affects the sound or tone of the harp. The descriptive words that these harp manufacturers provide in the article are subjective opinions, however they are the experts, and have built hundreds of harps. If anyone would know, it would be them!
All harps are made of solid wood in the neck, arch, and forepillar. Some manufacturers have chosen laminate wood over solid wood for the sound board and body of the harp. Which is better? To kick off the laminate vs. solid debate, I’ll offer my subjective opinion first. I’ve played a few harps made of solid pieces, and they have always sounded richer, more responsive, and boast better note sustainability. I personally prefer the sound of harps made with solid pieces. However, there are pros and cons of using both materials. Take a look at this article: Read: The Great Plywood Debate.
Design and Craftmanship of the Harp
After you’ve filtered your results based on what you really NEED, there could be a few options left for you. In this situation, I would select a harp that you think is the prettiest. Since I’m a designer, I find that I have strong opinions about the design of the various harps offered in the marketplace. This is why I have offered my subjective opinion on the aesthetic appeal of each of the harps in this list. Maybe it could help you narrow your choice to one! The rating scale is 1-5 (one is the worst, five is the best). The values for each are: Bad, Okay, Good, Great, Industry’s Best. Most of these opinions are based only on the picture, as I’ve only seen a handful of these harps in person. These are also based on the class of harp. I wouldn’t try to compare a lap harp against a pedal harp–they really are apples and oranges.
Emily is a student and friend of Stephanie’s, and helps with occasional harping/blogging enthusiasm.
Stephanie Claussen teaches harp lessons out of her home in St. Paul, Minnesota. She strives to ingrain in each student not only correct hand position, rhythm and a sense of musicality, but also a love for making music. You might enjoy reading her article Why I Didn’t Choose the Flute.