I play harp, and I love my harps. Unfortunately I'm not very good at it. I'm better at cooking than harping, thank heaven! But it's still something I love.
I own a Blevin's Bouree 26 string "lap" harp, which, since I am 5'2" and the harp is nearly 3' tall, it's really more of a "lappish" harp for me, LOL! I've had this harp since about 2004 and I love it still. It has a great sound for such a small(ish) harp.
The other harp I own is a Merlin made by Rick Rubarth of R-harps. Apparently the Merlin has become so popular that Rick is no longer making his smaller models, at least for now.
The Merlin is nothing short of amazing. It is strung through the middle range with flourocarbon strings, which are partially responsible for the wonderful sound of this harp. The Merlin is only 4'6" tall (amazingly a full 8" shorter than me) yet has the sound and projection of a much larger harp. The performance in the bass range is astounding. If played confidently on a tile or wood floor it can have a big booming voice - but the sound is controllable so you don't have to worry about ticked off neighbors, LOL!
This harp was a gift from my father just before he died in June of 2009. I still miss him.
BUYING A CELTIC STYLE or LEVER HARP
If you're looking for a lever harp, there are many affordable options. However, let me state clearly and emphatically, anything made by MidEast Manufacturers is NOT a viable option. They're cheap, and that's the only remotely positive thing that can be said about them. They make 16 models that I know of, all of which you should assiduously avoid. These are:
8 or 12 strings - Baby, Lily, or Parisian
19 strings - Pixie or Fiona
22 strings - Balladeer, Parisian, Hailey, or Heather
24 strings - Rosa
26 strings - Woodlands
29 strings - Minstrel
31 strings - Ashley
36 strings - Meghan or Alyssa
38 strings - Christel
These harps come with cheaply made sharping levers which are never properly installed or regulated. This means if you try to engage a sharping lever, they will either miss the string entirely, or will engage it incorrectly so you get the wrong note or a dead sound or a lot of buzzing - most likely all three. These harps won't hold a tune. The strings are heavy and inappropriate for a musical instrument. They often have structural problems resulting in cracked soundboards or separation between the neck and the pillar. There are very few of these harps that last more than 5 years. I'm told they have a 1 year warranty but every time I have contacted Mideast Manufacturing to try to get the details on this alleged warranty, they have never once returned contact.
There is a LOT of discussion about these on the forums at harpcolumn.com. This is only one example of the overwhelming negative review these things get.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING
- DON'T BUY A MIDEAST HARP-SHAPED OBJECT! By the time you "upgrade" strings, correct and possibly replace levers, and possibly pay for repairs when they delaminate or separate, you haven't saved a penny and you've probably spent more than you would have if you'd just bought a real harp to start with. Also, these things weigh a ton. This adversely affects the tone because these heavy instruments don't resonate well. Just avoid avoid avoid.
- Try not to judge a harp based on looks first. A harpsicle is a plain-looking instrument but it's head and shoulders above even the prettiest of the Mideast harp-shaped objects. Don't get caught up in the "romance" of the harp - it's all about the sound. I promise you will ultimately be happier with a harp that sounds good over one that only looks good.
- Beginner harp players usually find it easier to learn on a floor harp than a lap harp. This may seem counterintuitive, but with a lap harp, not only are you trying to learn proper hand placement, position, and technique, you've got the added burden of trying to position the harp and keep it from sliding off your lap. I'm not saying it can't be done, but if you can manage it, a floor harp will make your life easier. Some luthiers make a pull-out stand or removable legs for some of their smaller harps. You might want to consider this if you're a beginning harperist. Otherwise, try some of that rubbermaid shelf liner that looks kind of like rubber burlap. It seems to work well to stabilize a lap harp for many people.
- Buy a harp with as many strings you can afford. If your choice is between a fully levered harp with fewer strings and a partially levered harp with more strings, the harp with more strings is likely to be more useful to you. With few exceptions (which I will note as we go along), you can always have additional levers added later.
- All harps do not sound alike. All harps from the same manufacturer do not sound alike. All harps of the same model made by the same luthier do not sound alike. In short, do your level best to hear the harp you want to buy before you buy it. I know this is often not possible. If nothing else ask the luthier to play the harp for you over a landline. Good quality sound clips can help you to decide also. Attend a harp conference if at all possible and play everything you can get your hands on.
- If you're down to trying to decide on a harp from say, Dusty Strings versus one from Thormahlen, or Blevins, or any of the reputable manufacturers, you really can't make a "wrong" choice. These and the other reputable manufacturers out there all make high quality instruments. Just go by what you like best, what sounds best to you. Some people prefer one manufacturer over another not because of a difference in quality, but because there's a particular sound they want. I've noticed that many people who prefer Dusty Strings don't like Blevins, and those who like Blevins harps tend not to be very enthusiastic about Dusty Strings. This is a difference in voice that has nothing to do with quality of manufacture and everything to do with personal preference.
- With a small harp of 26 strings or less, levers are not necessarily required. If you decide to get levers, F and C levers will give you a wide range of keys from which to choose. F, C and B gives you a little more flexibility. It is my opinion that there is no real reason to fully lever a small harp of 26 strings or fewer. My harp is fully levered and I seldom even use the F, C and B levers, let alone the rest of them. My recommendation would be to get F and C levers if you can afford them, adding the B levers if you can afford that. But if you can't afford a levered harp, you can get quite far playing with an unlevered harp of 26 strings or fewer, such as the Harpsicle. I wouldn't let a lack of levers stop me from buying a harp altogether.
- Remember to include levers, shipping and a case in the full cost when shopping for a harp. Base price usually does not include all of these expenses.
- Don't forget to check the warranty! This may vary from as little as one year to as much as 7 years. Even for the same luthier, the length of the warranty may vary depending on the particular model, and/or whether the harp is used or new.
- No matter who makes the harp, you will not get the same sound out of a small harp that you can get out of a larger harp. That's not to say that the smaller harps are bad - they just have different strengths. Compare small harps only to other small harps - it's just not fair to compare a Harpsicle to a Thormahlen Swan with 36 strings and four or five times the volume in the soundbox. Very small harps, under 20 strings or so, are going to sound different even from just slightly larger harps, say 24 string harps. That's ok - if you like the sound. That's the only thing that matters (given issues of quality being approximately equal, which they by and large are if we take the MidEast harps out of the equation).
- Go to the "Harps and Accessories" forum at harpcolumns.com and ask questions. The folks there are always happy to help.
$600ish and under range:
- Harpsicle @ $370
- Noteworthy County Kerry @ $615
- Anything you can find in this price range on the Blevin's Discount Pages
- Merlin R-Harp. I recommend this harp even over other harps costing more.
- Any Blevin's harp in this price range, whether on their main pages or on the discount pages
ULTRA CHEAP HARPS (NOT MidEast):
I am not recommending any of these harps because I do not have direct experience with any of these luthiers. However, I will list them here just for the sake of information. The only thing I can say about them for sure is that they are undoubtedly better than the harp-shaped objects Mideast sells.
$129 - The Waring Harp - 19 strings starting at G below middle C
This is a kit harp. It is constructed using heavy duty cardboard for the soundboard. The maker claims it is nearly waterproof if painted. Painting and decorating it would surely be a fun project for a child. The maker also states that if the cardboard soundboard is damaged, it can be replaced for a "nominal fee". I have never seen one of these and I suspect they're probably only one step up from toys, but they for sure are cheap. I have heard from owners who say they are adequate harps. My feeling is that at $129, they are not the first - or even second or third - harp that I would suggest, but they're better than the Mideast harps. $129 is not an unreasonable expense for something that will at least give you an idea of whether or not you want to plunk down more money for a "real" harp. My first suggestion for a cheap harp is still the Harpsicle (see below), but if you're so strapped for cash that you can't even come up with the money for a Harpsicle, then I'd still put this way above a Mideast Harp.
From Caswell Harps
$109 or $159 - Fairy Soprano or Alto - 13 strings - unlevered and can never have levers added
$339 - Sweet Harp - 22 strings - unlevered but could add levers for an extra charge or later at some time in the future
I don't know anything about these harps but have heard good things about the maker's more expensive harps from people who own them. There are videos of some of his more expensive harps on youtube. The Fairy harps are probably toy harps, but probably pretty good for a toy harp. The Sweet Harp is probably a bit better than that. I have no direct information on these harps. My opinion is that if you must buy an ultracheap harp, even cheaper than a Harpsicle, these would still be better than anything from Mideast. Again, I recommend that any prospective harp buyer go to the "Harps and Accessories" forum at harpcolumns.com and ask questions. If I get more information on these or if I ever have the chance to see one in person, I'll update this entry.
From Silvershell Musical Instruments
$125 Robin - 12 strings
$175 Bluebird - 16 strings
$225 Lark - 19 strings
All are unlevered. The maker states he can add levers for an additional cost. Again, I do not know anything about these harps and have heard from only one owner of a Silvershell harp, and that was a larger instrument (25 strings). I am not recommending either for or against these harps. I still feel that if you need a cheap harp, the cheapest harp I would consider is the Harpsicle. But if you truly believe your only choice is a Mideast harp, please consider one of these instead. When you get down into these sizes - particularly the 12 and 16 string harps - they are little more than toys, in my opinion. But if you really want a teensy weensy harp, these are probably as good as anything, and better than a Mideast harp if for no other reason than the fact that the luthier who makes them is right here in the US. Well, and he's an actual luthier instead of a carpenter working in primitive conditions out of a shed in Pakistan. That said, the one person I know of who owns a Silvershell harp stated that she had the opportunity to play 2 of them before she bought hers, and of the two one was very good (which she bought) and the other was dull and plunky. There may be issues of varying quality. Again, it's important to listen to a harp before you buy.
Harpsicle - 26 strings starting at C below middle C
$370, sometimes cheaper at Musician's Friend. These harps are not levered and can never have levers added. However I don't feel this is a huge concern - on a harp this size it's not that hard to re-tune the 3 or 4 strings you might need for a key change. Kind of a pain but if you really can't come up with the extra $150 for a partially levered harp, this is still a good alternative. They come in a variety of bright colors, Cherry Red, Yellow, Orange, etc. They also come in natural (plain wood) if you don't care for a jujube colored harp, LOL!
- they are small, lightweight, well constructed. Very very portable. These are the smallest, most affordable "real" harps available on the market. If you want a "walkin' around" harp or something to schlep around at the beach or take camping, this is probably at the top of the list of harps suitable for that sort of thing.
- I also feel that one of its weaknesses (lack of projection) is actually a plus in a situation such as playing at a hospital or in a hospice situation, where the last thing you want to do is blast the room with a big sound.
- Price - $370, sometimes cheaper at Musician's Friend
- Goes to C below middle C. Hard to find in a harp this size and greatly expands the number of pieces you can find to play on it.
- They generally hold their value well - if you want to sell and "move up" to a different harp, you can usually sell them for close to what you paid for them.
- because they are so small, they don't necessarily have the greatest tone or a lot of projection.
- They are lightly strung, which bothers some people who are used to "concert" tension in a harp. This is unlikely to be of concern to someone who is looking for a first harp or who plays primarily on Celtic style harps.
- They are unlevered and levers can never be added at a later date.
The Harpsicle also comes in partially levered models such as the Sharpsicle ($520), the Flatsicle ($560), and the fully levered Fullsicle ($760). However, as the price increases I suggest looking at other harps of better quality, especially if this is to be your first or only harp. The Harpsicle and its kin are, again, excellent harps in some specific situations, for when portability is an issue or in hospice or hospital settings, but if you have $600 or $700 to spend, there are other harps you might want to consider.
This is the County Kerry, a 24 string harp starting at the C below middle C made by Jeff Gaynor. Jeff Gaynor makes some truly beautiful harps using burled or other exotic woods. The owner of Folknotes has in the past been willing to e-mail pictures of the harps he currently has in stock, and is willing to order Noteworthy harps in other sizes. I have heard from people who own these harps and are very happy with them. Some people do not prefer them because they feel they lack projection. Again, the way a harp sounds is a very personal thing. I have never heard the craftsmanship of these harps faulted. I feel these are a good entry in the $600 range. They are often seen at fairs as a walking-around harp. You can hear (sort of, under the talking) a County Kerry harp in this youtube video.
The other harps Jeff Gaynor makes are:
- 22 strings - County Clare starting at G below middle C (a walkin' around harp)
- 24 strings - County Kerry starting at C below middle C (pictured above, a walkin' around harp)
- 26 strings - County Cork starting at B 2 octaves below middle C
- 30 strings - County Mayo
- 36 strings - County Wexford starting at B 3 octaves below middle C
Also check the Blevins discount pages. Blevins makes many affordable harps of high quality which become even more affordable if you are fortunate enough to find one on their discount pages. Usually these harps are new with some minor blemish. For instance, my Bouree was steeply discounted due to a stripe of dark color on the back of the soundboard, where it isn't even visible. Besides, in my opinion, it is in the nature of wood to be variable in coloration and I don't count this as a blemish. Blevins has several smaller models under $1000 on their main pages, which are occasionally available for even less on their discount pages.
Dusty Strings now makes an affordable 26-string harp, the Ravenna. It is priced at $695 unlevered, $845 with C and F levers, and $1095 fully levered. Compare to Blevins and Noteworthy harps in the same price ranges.
Magical Strings makes several models of harps, two of which, are priced under $600. The Tristy is priced at $460 and the Oladion at $560. Both are 24 string harps starting at C below middle C. These are unlevered but you could add levers in the future or have them added when you order the harp at about $15 per lever.
If you're handy, MusicMakers has several kit harps available starting at under $600 for a 22 string lap harp and going up to $1750 for a 34 string floor harp. They guarantee on their web page that you will be able to finish your harp and promise to provide support to that end. I've heard from people who have done this successfully but I'm not handy enough to try it myself.
Moving into larger and generally more expensive harps:
Blevins really shines these days with its most affordable models being the larger, floor models. They have many larger models under $2000. Their largest harp is the 40 string Tempest currently listing at $3280.00, fully levered. When looking for a full-sized lever harp their prices are very competitive with makers such as Dusty Strings and Thormahlen.
Most of the following luthiers make harps in the $2000 to $6000 range, some a little less, some a little more. All are high quality. These are the manufacturers (in addition to Blevins and R-harp) with which I am most familiar. Some of the previously listed luthiers also make larger harps, but I don't have personal knowledge of all of those luthiers. As always, check on the Harpcolumn.com forums before you buy for more information from people who may own these and other harps.
Triplett - has some harps under $2000
Stoney End - has some harps for under $1000, as well as kits
I'm not very familiar with any of the following luthiers but have heard from at least one satisfied owner. Again, not recommending for or against these luthiers, please check on the harpcolumns forums before making a purchase.
James Jones - range $1000 to $3000 base price
Timothy Harps in Canada
Stanley & Stanley in Canada
Denwar Harps are in Australia