Since harps are typically at a price point over $2000, buying one is not a task to be taken lightly, You can certainly find harps that are less expensive, but you need to balance three criteria: cheap, playable, beautiful. There are no harps that meet all three.
- Cheap and playable: These are going to be great harps to start learning with, and good for casual learners. If you plan on being a dedicated harpist for any length of time, it is recommended that you save longer and get a better harp that will please you long-term.
- Cheap and beautiful: Notice that "playable" has been left out here. These are called orphan harps, because they look great, but they haven't been designed well acoustically. This might mean it has loose pins and doesn't stay in tune, or the shape of the soundbox is so that it sounds dull or hollow when played. You will not be satisfied with this purchase. Always, always play your harp in-person before purchasing. Also see our article on Pakistani harps.
- Playable and beautiful: This applies to the majority of harps in the marketplace. The sticker shock can be a little daunting, but these harps are works of art and have unsurpassed sound quality. You will not be disappointed with this purchase. Should you decide that harping is no longer for you, these harps will also re-sell well.
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Questions to Ask
- Weight & Portability. Speak about the weight and portability of the harp. Does it fit in your car? Is it easy to carry? Do you take this harp a lot of places? What is the most exotic locale you've had your harp? Is this harp comfortable to play; i.e. does it balance well when leaned against your shoulder?
- Legs. Does it have detachable legs? Are the legs easy to install and remove? Is the harp stable without its legs?
- Strings. Does the harp have high or low string tension? Would you recommend it for a child, elderly or people with small hands? Is this a harp intended for professionals? What kinds of strings does the harp come with? Can other strings be used? Is the string spacing comparable to a pedal harp or do they have narrower placement?
- Tuning & Levers. How is the fit of the tuning pins (tight or loose?) Does the harp keep its tune for long periods of time? How does the harp react to climate changes? What kind of levers does the harp come with? Is the action of the levers smooth and gentle on the strings? Do the levers provide consistent half-step tuning? Have you ever had to replace a lever? If it is a pedal harp, do the pedals provide smooth action? How is the craftmanship and durability of the pedals?
- Sound. How does the harp sound? Do the notes sound crisp and brilliant, or mellow and soft? Do the plucked notes ring and sustain for a good length of time? Does the harp have a deep, rich bass sound? Here is a list of words to help describe the sound of the harp:
- Crisp, clear, brilliant, metallic, ringing, good sustain
- Muddy, woody, thick, hollow
- Mellow, soft, plucky
- Deep, rich, big
- Ownership & Craftmanship. How long have you owned the harp? How is the craftmanship of the harp? Do the pieces of wood join together perfectly? Have you noticed any warping/bowing in the column, neck, body or soundboard of the harp? Do you like the design/aesthetic of the harp?
- Cross-Strung, Double, and Triple Harps. Questions about the craftmanship of these kinds of harps is especially important because they have twice or thrice as many strings as other harps. More strings = more tension. Extra tension presents a unique design challenge for the luthier; and they need to pay special attention to reinforcement of the neck and harmonic curve. Ask about the life-span of a harp they've built in the past, and also how many design iterations they've made to improve the strength and durability of the instrument.
- General. Finally sign off with your overall impression of the harp. Was it a good value? Any general words of wisdom for buyers of this harp? Would you have gotten a different harp if you had to do it over? Why or why not? What made you choose this particular model of harp from the manufacturer over another model they offer?