THE HARP COLUMN November/December 1996

Don't know what to ask Santa for? How about a new set of strings?
- By Mike Lewis

I had just settled down with a bottle of home brew and propped my feet on the coffee table, ready to contemplate the need for more seriousness in my columns, when the phone rang.
"Yeah, Santa, what can I do for you?"
It was Mr. Claus himself, wondering what he should give harpists for Christmas.
"Santa my man, here are my top five suggestions: 1. New strings. 2. New strings. 3. New strings. 4. New strings. 5. New strings."
Santa knows that strings are expensive and wants to know why I so emphatically chose new ones as the gift of choice for harpists. "Well, Santa," I said, "I'm going to tell you about String Diseases, all of which affect the harp's tonal qualities and regulation.

1. Pitting at the disc contact area (see fig. 1)

Most harpists tune with the natural discs engaged. This means that the flat pitch will not be in tune when the string hangs up in this pitted area and stretches out in a non-uniform manner. For your added annoyance, this pitting and the resulting non-uniform stretching causes the pitch to vary (generally flatter and flatter and flatter) as you play loud passages.

2. Thinning at the finger contact area (see fig. 2)
The parts of the strings that you play the most are, as you might imagine, the parts of the strings that wear most quickly. As the strings wear away and become thinner in these areas, they will not sound as true or clear as new, uniformly constructed strings.
Thinning strings also present regulation problems. Harps are regulated to the mass and diameter of the strings, so if your harp is regulated to a thinning string and you change that string a month later, your regulation will be out of whack.

3. Hairy or frayed strings (see fig. 3)
Once your strings start fraying or looking hairy, they'll start sounding that way. While you can clip the hairy areas, I recommend just changing the string.

4. False strings (see figs. 4 and 5)
Each note you play contains many "overtones." Each overtone is above (or over) what we techies call the "fundamental." The fundamental determines the name of the note, for example "5th octave C." The overtones add life and character to the sound of the note. But, when the overtones are out of tune with the fundamental or with each other - which is what happens when the string goes false - life and character quickly turn into chaos and cacophony.

Want to see if a bizarre-sounding string is false and provide your friends and family with hours of fun and entertainment? Place hour harp in front of your TV set, turn the TV on to any channel, and dim the lights. Now pay that 5th octave C string and, looking directly at the string with the TV in the background, watch how it moves! Pretty cool, huh? If your string moves in a uniform sine pattern (see fig. 5), it's in good shape. However, if it moves around in a jumpy, jagged way, it's false.

5. Old strings
"My 4th and 5th octave strings have been on my harp for five years, I think, or maybe eight." In terms of harp string life expectancy, five years is ancient!
The minute you purchase strings, their life expectancy clock begins ticking. Harp strings, like food, have a shelf life. In my humble opinion, the shelf life for strings is one year for gut, five years for nylon, one year for wires. Even well packaged strings dry out, rust, lose their resiliency, and, as a result, lose the tonal qualities gained by replacing an old string with a new one.
"Once they're on my harp, how long will the strings last?" Until one of these six string diseases gets to them. "How long is that?" Until one of these six string diseases gets to them. If you play your harp with any regularity, the strings will generally succumb to one of the other five diseases before they succumb to age (the only exception being bass wires).

6. Broken or dead strings
I know harpists who believe that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it. Their strings are like old friends; they never really notice them growing old or see their faults. You need to take a new look at an old friend! These friends have a way of letting you know at the worst possible time. When a string has succumbed to one of the diseases listed above - change it!
I encourage every harpist to keep a string log. This log should include the date you received a new string, the date you placed the string on the harp, the reason for placing string on the harp (i.e., which disease killed the previous string), and the type of string (gut, nylon, or bass wire). This way, you know exactly when each string was replaced, and you and your technician can identify any string breakage patterns.
So make sure you put harp strings at the top of your Christmas wish list, and resolve to put them on your harp to welcome in the New Year!

THE HARP COLUMN November/December 1996