THE HARP COLUMN January/February 1997

Santa suggests you make a new year's resolution - to change your strings!
- By Mike Lewis

Santa stopped by recently on his Coal Run to deliver my holiday present and bum some milk and cookies off me.
"So, Santa," I said as he downed the sweets, "I bet you delivered a lot of harp strings this season."
"Yes, as a matter of fact I did," he answered, patting his belly contentedly and tossing me a couple lumps of coal. "I was quite pleased to hear that all those harpists out there are realizing how important it is to change their strings regularly. The sheer weight of the bass wires and gut and nylon strings I delivered this year was truly difficult on my sled's shock absorbers. There's just one thing I'm worried about, and, if you'll help me with this, I'll make sure I stop by your house next year on my 'Computer Games and Other Electronic Toys' Run rather than the Coal Run."
"It's as good as done," I answered with great interest, visions of Marathon Version 4 dancing in my head.
"Once people have their new strings, they need to put them on their harps - correctly - and there are several different ways of correctly installing strings, depending on string type," Santa said, starting to shove himself up the chimney and apparently deciding the front door was a better choice after milk and cookies. "Could you take care of letting all the good folks know how to change their strings?"
Not a problem! Changing strings isn't difficult; you just need to know the best way to change each type of string: the wires, found in the bass area; the gut strings, found in the middle portion of the harp; and the nylon strings, found on the highest notes. (Note: This is how new harps are strung. Some people may change to all nylon or all gut in both the middle and upper portions of the harp, depending on their tonal preferences and their budgets.)

1. The first step is to remove the wire string currently on your harp.
(Alert: Wear safety glasses! A bass wire in the eye is not pleasant.) To do this, pull on the center of the wire as you unwrap it. Stop one the wire looks like figure 1 (above).
2. Then, firmly gripping the center of the wire, jerk the wire out of the tuning pin hole by moving your hand away from the plane of the strings as rapidly as possible (see figure 2). Make sure you hang on to the harp with your other hand or the harp will move very quickly toward you!

3. Once the wire is out of the tuning pin, cut it off about six inches above the soundboard.
4. Pull the wire stub out through one of the sound holes in the back of your harp.
5. Push the new wire in through the same sound hole and into the empty wire hole in the soundboard, then up into the wire hole in the tuning pin.
6. Your goal in wrapping the bass wire is to achieve "The Good" look (as opposed to "The Bad" or "The Ugly") pictured in figure 3. You need to leave some slack in the bass wires to achieve the wraps pictured in "The Good."

Generally, leave about an octave and a fifth's worth of slack. This can be checked by using your left hand to hang on to the end of the wire (the part above the tuning pin) and your right hand to hang on to the wire's body (the part you'll soon be playing) and stretching it up an octave and a fifth (see figure 4).

7. Once you have this slack, bend the string end over at the top of the tuning pin so that the string end is now parallel with the floor ("crimping," in other words). This is to prevent the string from moving after you have measured it. Sometimes, to get the correct angle, you need to measure more than an octave and a fifth, sometimes less. Call Mr. Trial and Mr. Error for advice on this one.
8. Holding the string end in the palm of your hand and pushing in with your thumb so that the string wraps align to the inside of the tuning pin's wire hole, turn the tuning pin counterclockwise as you face the disc side of the harp.
9. After bringing the wire up to pitch, clip the excess wire close to the tuning pin. This will help prevent the wire from eating its way through your harp cover.

1. Note in your string log (you have a string log, right?) the reason for replacing the string and the date.
2. Unwind the old string and pull it through the soundboard string holes, then through one of the sound holes. (If it's a fifth-octave string, save it and cut it into 1.25- to 1.5-inch string ties to use for upper octave string changes.)
3. Place an end of the new string through the eyelet on top of the soundboard and pull it out through a sound hole in the back of the body.
4. Bend the string at about 1.5 inches (see figure 5) then make another bend about one inch further up the string. Continue bending every quarter of an inch for another 1.5 inches (this is to add flexibility for the next step).

5. Loop the flexible part over the string tie you made with your first two bends. Place the other end of the string through the tuning pin and start to turn. No extra slack is needed.
6. However, if you're changing a fourth-octave string, make sure you achieve an overlapping of the string on the tuning pin. Refer to figure 6 on how to do this.

7. As in figure 6B, tuck the string end in behind the string. Start turning the tuning pin while pulling on the string end, as illustrated in figure 6C. Continue to turn the tuning pin, with your thumb pushing in on the body of the string as you grip the end of the string in the palm of your hand. This forces the string to track to the inside of the string hole and the string to wrap in towards the neck. Continue winding the string until it is up to pitch, making sure that it winds to the inside of the tuning pin as illustrated in figure 6F.

Here is where you'll use those 1.25-1.5-inch leftovers of fifth-octave gut strings as string ties. I have seen harpists use everything from nails to paper logs to cotton balls as string ties, and I realize that string ties can be a somewhat sacred issue. I will not be sacrilegious; I have only three requirements for string ties:
They must be small - the more stuff you put back there, the more stuff there is to buzz.
They must be firm - if, every time you play the string, the string tie compresses, this will deaden the sound.
They must be light - as a general rule, the less mass your soundboard has, the less energy you have to exert to get a sound. String ties are, in essence, part of the soundboard once they are installed.
1. Note in your string log (you do have one by now, don't you?) the reason for changing the string and the date.
2. Using the method described above to remove fourth- and fifth-octave strings, remove the old string and put in the new one through the eyelet, then pull the end out of the sound hole.
3. Referring to figure 7:
a. Break the lacquer in the first 3.5 inches of the string end.
b. With the softened section, tie a half granny knot.
c. Make a loop next to the half granny knot.
d. Bring your string tie from the outside to the inside to the outside again.
e. Gently pull it snug so that you don't damage the playing area of the string.

4. Refer to steps 6 and 7 in How to Change a Fourth- or Fifth-Octave String to complete.
No problem, right? Hey, changing strings isn't the most fun you'll ever have, but when you consider the fact that good strings solve many everyday buzzing and tonal problems, it's not so bad.
Now that I've fulfilled my part of the bargain, I wonder if Santa will let me have next year's present a little early...

THE HARP COLUMN January/February 1997