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Wire Harp vs. Nylon/Gut Harps

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Henry VIII playing harp

Wikipedia CommonsWill Somers, Henry VIII’s fool and Henry playing the harp; from Henry’s psalter British Museum

I often think of the wire-strung harp as a non-identical twin to the folk harp – it’s comprised of the same basic genetic material (e.g., it has all the components of a harp) but the two are completely unique instruments, different in their physicality and personality. Some wire-strung harp players say that one can’t play both a wire-strung and a nylon-strung harp successfully because they are TOO different. But is that really true? Let’s take a closer look at the similarities, differences, myths, and mythbusters.

Wire-strung and nylon (or gut)-strung harps sometimes seem to inhabit different and even alien worlds. I often think of the wire-strung harp as a non-identical twin to the folk harp – it’s comprised of the same basic genetic material (e.g., it has all the components of a harp) but the two are completely unique instruments, different in their physicality and personality.  Some wire-strung harp players say that one can’t play both a wire-strung and a nylon-strung harp successfully because they are TOO different. But is that really true? Let’s take a closer look at the similarities, differences, myths, and mythbusters.

Similarities Edit

First off, what are the similarities between the two types of harps? Both types of harps:

  • Come in various sizes, from smaller lap harps to standing floor harps
  • Have rich historical traditions. The wire-strung harp is often associated with the Celtic clarsach whereas the nylon or gut-strung harp derives from the medieval and gothic harps, including the clarsach.
  • Are similar in their construction, consisting of a soundbox, neck, column/support, pegs, strings, and soundholes
  • Support a range of octaves in their tone
  •  Are made of wood (although nylon/gut-strung harps are now also made of carbon fiber)

Differences Edit

As for differences:

Wire Strung Harps usually: Nylon/Gut Strung Harps usually:
Have narrower string spacing Have wider string spacing
Are played with the fingernails Are played with the fingerpads
Have strings are of bronze, brass, gold, and silver Have strings of nylon, gut, and, where metal strings are used, steel
Have greater string tension Have less string tension
Have fewer strings (19-29 on average) Have more strings (19-36 on average)
May or may not have blades (similar to levers) so changing pitch is often done manually Often have levers installed for quicker pitch changes without the need to re-tune manually
Have a long, ringing sustain Have a shorter, muted sustain
Require gentle plucking Can withstand firm plucking
Are played best with hands positioned as though holding a cup (fingertips loosely together) Are played best with hands positioned as though about to perform a handshake (fingers extended forward and thumb upward

Wire Strung Myths Edit

So, we can see that the two instruments have some commonalities, as well as some differences.  What about all the scary “rules” one often hears in connection with the wire-strung harp? Like one must play with long fingernails and on the left shoulder or not at all?    Are these “rules” really intrinsic to playing the wire-strung harp or are they really myths? Let’s investigate further:

  • Myth: Must play with fingernails | Truth: It is fine to play with fingerpads. The sound will be more muted, however, and the narrower string spacing on smaller wire-strung harps can make it somewhat harder to move fingers as easily.
  • Myth: Fingernails must be long | Truth: Shorter nails are fine. Even a little bit of nail is enough to strike the strings. Most players who choose to play with fingernails find the length and shape that suits them best through trial and error.
  • Myth: Not as loud as other harps | Truth: This depends entirely on how strongly the strings are plucked. It takes very little to produce a sound from a wire string.
  • Myth: Long fingernails will wreck the wire strings and/or gut or nylon strings. | Truth: Not so. As long as the fingernail is used properly (e.g., gentle striking, not forceful plucking), it can be used on both wire-strung and gut/nylon harps. Longer nails may get in the way of fingerpad placement on a nylon/gut harp depending on how they are shaped. Some people find that filing the nails assymetrically, so the nail is pointed away from the part of the finger closest to the string, allows for easier playing on both nylon/gut and wire.
  • Myth: Must play on left shoulder | Truth: Many wire-strung harp players who strive for historical accuracy believe that the harp must be played on the left shoulder, because many historical Celtic players did so. However, it is not known for sure that this was the norm or a tradition belonging to a certain period in the history of the clarsach. Paintings and carvings of harp players from the medieval period forward show harps being played on both right or left shoulders. Even Celtic harpers began to switch to the right shoulder as early as the mid-1700s. With that in mind, play on whichever shoulder feels most comfortable and natural.
  • Myth: Harder to play | Truth: How hard an instrument is to play is relative to one’s experience with other instruments. It is true that a different technique is used for striking the strings and positioning the hands. And, because the strings are closer together, less hand or finger stretch is needed to reach notes. But what is harder for one person is easier for another.
  • Myth: Can’t be played without levers, pedals, or blades | Truth: This is entirely dependent upon the construction of the harp itself. Wire-strung harps CAN have blades installed (but not pedals – the pedal harp is a different creature altogether). However, traditionally folk harps, including the wire-strung harp, did not use levers or blades. Changing pitch was done by retuning, or by manual techniques such as fretting, playing a consonant but different note, and so on. Depending on the type of music played, it’s very possible that only occasional retuning is needed.
  • Myth: Must change strings through small sound holes in the front of the sound box | Truth: Some wire-strung harps, particularly historical reproductions, do have solid backs, making it necessary to change the strings from the front. Some wire-strung harps, however, do have larger sound holes in the back through which the strings can be changed, just like nylon/gut strung harps. In addition, many modern wire-strung harps with “front-loading” sound-holes also have string holes large enough to accept the toggles without too much difficulty.

Crossover Techniques and Methods Edit

It’s clear that there are some very real differences between the two kinds of harps in terms of how they sound and how they are played. But do these differences really mean that one must choose between playing one or the other?  Not necessarily. There are, in fact, cross-over techniques for those intrepid souls willing to give the learning process a try.

  • Advance Placement.  One of the things we learn in playing the harp is to be aware, in advance, of notes to come.  Gut/nylon players often strive to place fingers directly on the strings in advance, but wire-strung players tend to “hover” the fingers above the proper strings so as not to interfere with the ringing.
  • Practicing Both Hands Independently.  Another thing that crosses over is practicing both hands independently while learning a new tune, even if using the “coupled hands” technique.
  • Carry-through. Because it takes less effort to produce a sound on wire strings, it is tempting to not bring fingers into the palms.  However, doing this (gently of course – no wild plucking!) helps to produce a clearer tone on the wire harp, just as it does on the gut/nylon harp.
  • Nails versus Pads.  Both or either can be used. Smaller harps tend to have narrower string spacing making it more natural to play with the nails, but pads can be used, particularly if the string spacing is wider, as on larger wire harps. Playing with pads will produce a more muted sound on the wire harp. The thing to remember is to be firm, but gentle, with the wire harp. Wire strings cannot withstand the strong plucking of nylon or gut.  Nails can also be used on gut or nylon strung harps with no ill effect, producing a slightly crisper sound.
  • Damping.  Damping only for wire harps you say? Not necessarily so.  There are probably many times you are already using damping on the gut/nylon harp without being aware of it.  Got a big bass note that wants to go on and on? A soft touch to the strings tones it down, and that is what damping essentially is.

Final Thoughts Edit

A few other things to think about when venturing into the realm of both wire-strung and gut/nylon strung harp playing are, in the words of James Skeen of FolcHarp, to “emphasize the similarities and avoid the extremes of the differences when choosing an instrument and a technique of playing. That is, choose a wire harp with wider than average strings spacing and a nylon harp with smaller than average string spacing. Also don’t obsess about someone’s perception of historical technique on the wire harp or contort one’s hands to the strict pedal harp gestures but rather adopt a method (and nail length, if any) that is suited to both.”  Well said!

So, what’s the verdict?   Do the wire-strung harp and the gut/nylon-strung harp really exist in two separate universes where never the twain shall meet?  I don’t think so.  If you love the sound or history or musical tradition of the wire-strung harp, I say, “go for it”.  You may, like me, discover that you prefer some traits over others (such as wider string spacing and upright stability of a floor harp or narrower strings and flexible positioning of a lap harp), but both wire and nylon-strung harps come in a variety of flavors, so there’s bound to be something just right for you.

References Edit

Note about this article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!

Special thanks to Nan who posed these questions awhile back on WireHarp:

  • What are your favorite (or least favorite) myths about wire-strung harps and playing them?
  • If you play both nylon and wire-strung harps, what techniques do you find cross over from wire to nylon in unexpected and/or cool ways? (For example, coupled hands, using modes, fun things to do with damping, anything you’ve discovered for yourself.)

And, to the folks on WireHarp who responded with a very lively discussion, some of which formed the basis for this article.

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