First harp help!

Posted In: How To Play

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    Tess Kendall on #230034

    Hello all!

    I desperately want to play the harp, with a preference towards folk music. For my own pleasure, not professionally or for performing in any way.

    I’ve been leafing through the forum for a few days and realise this is going to be a really contentious issue, please don’t hate me… I wear false nails and can’t not wear them. It’s not just an aesthetic issue (although they do a considerable amount for my self-esteem), I have a problem with my nails that causes them to peel and split horribly and it’s painful to touch without false ones covering them.

    I’ve managed to find some info about playing a wire harp with nails, but not much. It’s proven even more tricky to find a wire lap/celtic harp in the UK.

    Can any of you lovely people offer any advice to help me achieve my dream?


    charles-nix on #230035

    For nylon/gut strung harp, it will be challenging to find a hand position that allows you to play with the pads of the finger and not brush the nail by the string (which will make a horrible sound).

    For wire strung, you may be all set–and I’m sure someone with wire harp experience will join the discussion. But wire strung and nylon/gut are very different technique and sound.

    False nails, per se, wouldn’t be a problem–it would be the amount of overhang of the nails, whether false or real, that would be the problem. I have bony fingers, and have to keep the amount of white showing past the nail bed to a bare sliver, and trim every week. More than 1.5 mm and I _will_ hit the string on the way by. So, if you wanted to trim the false nails to just barely covering, that could work.

    Tacye on #230038

    Look up Karen Marshalsay, she uses nails on gut and nylon strings – as well as finger pads. Latin American harp may also interest you, nails are used on the right hand there. So, yes it can be done. However, it will give a different sound. More significantly it will require a very different technique which will mean fewer teachers available to you and a lot of resources won’t be relevant. But first I suggest you listen to the different nail played harps and decide if you like the sound and which you prefer!

    If you are interested in wire harp, Simon Chadwick maintains a set of webpages which is a good place to start, particularly if your interest is historical.

    charles-nix on #230039

    Listening first is great advice. Go in person to recitals. Visit a harp shop and ask there who plays different kinds of harps. See if you can make contact and set up a visit.

    I would expect most harpists to be quite open and helpful to talking with you in person about their instrument and music.

    carl-swanson on #230042

    Maybe I misunderstand, but do you have to wear false nails really long? Can you wear them so they look like normal short nails? If you can, then there shouldn’t be a problem. We harpists-men and women alike- have to wear our nails really short to play without the nail catching the string.

    Biagio on #230080

    There are a number of fine wire strung harp makers in Europe the most frequently mentioned being Ardival, in the UK:

    You would also do well to thoroughly explore the Wire Strung Harp resource, here:

    Ardival makes their wire harps in the traditional way, with a hollowed out block for the box and narrow string spacing (about 11mm) for which nails are virtually a requirement to play at all! Some current and former harp makers in the US make/made their harps with somewhat wider spacing (James Keen, Steve Triplett, Chris Caswell). Used wire harps turn up on the market from time to time.

    Strictly speaking: yes, traditional wire harp technique is very different from gut/nylon. But plenty of people who play just for fun do not get so dedicated tradition and in point of fact, some well known nylon players use their nails instead of their finger pads. So don’t let that stop you. Personally I have two that I made, one with narrow spacing and the other with wider; since I just play for fun the nails thing is not an issue for me.

    Bear in mind that the clarsach has a very long sustain so chords are not complex but damping technique is important and the clarsachs are typically rather small: 19-26 strings.

    Here’s one thought before you spend a bundle on an expensive purpose-built wire harp like an Ardival Kilcoy: look instead for a small tightly strung nylon harp to explore playing.

    Here’s another: some small nylon harps like the Musicmakers Limerick can be re-strung with brass – if you find one that looks interesting, ask an experienced harp maker to analyze it for conversion.

    Best wishes and enjoy the harp adventure!

    emma-graham on #230093

    If you learn a non classical harp technique then you could play with your nails. Yes, Some celtic harpists – especially wire string players use the nails and some specialists in early harp do the same. I’m thinking of double or triple strung early harps (not the modern levered kind of double harps). Take a look at Andrew Lawrence-King who is a leading expert in early harps and the traditional techniques that were used to play them. Finding a teacher may prove tricky but perhaps there is a Skype option out there? The World Harp Congress in Cardiff next summer may well be a really good place to visit as hopefully it will showcase some the diverse harps that exist.

    duckspeaks on #230109

    Hi Tess,

    I think Carl’s suggestion leaves most options open.

    Rather than being limited to the types of harp you will be left to choose from, you will be better off choosing any and all types of harp you may come to love. So please see if short nails is something you can accommodate.


    Tess Kendall on #230124

    Thank you all for your kind advice!

    The problem (one of many) with false nails is that they need to be quite thick to have integrity, when very short you notice how thick they are and it does look quite unsightly, not something my work would find acceptable and many technicians won’t do it. I don’t wear them very long by a non-harpers standard, 3 – 5mm over the finger tip, but realise that’s much too long for harp, fiddle, or any other instruments that I’m drawn to. My fruitless search for an alternative protection for my crippled nails continues *sigh*

    I’ve got some really good places to continue searching, which is great because I had been getting myself turned around in circles with all of the info out there in the wild.

    I’m based in Jersey and there are no harp shops here and not many who play, so visiting shops etc will require flights and holidays so that’ll slow me down a bit… Looks like Andrew Lawrence-King is from our neighbour island Guernsey though and it’s easy to get there, so here’s hoping he still lives there!

    Thanks again all 🙂

    emma-graham on #230126

    I nearly mentioned that Andrew Lawrence King was based in Guernsey but didn’t know where you were so thought it was irrelevant. 🤪 I really hope you can make contact!

    wil-weten on #230127

    There are different kind of fake nails. Lots of guitarists need them. Read about their experiences in the discussion threads on the Delcamp classical guitar forum which you find after you google:
    fake nails

    As to the relationship with playing the harp, you’d best read especially about the kind of solutions people have found for the left hand (where the nails should be very short).

    Biagio on #230138

    “I don’t wear them very long by a non-harpers standard, 3 – 5mm over the finger tip, but realise that’s much too long for harp”…

    Not really, although it’s true that many instructions just assume shorter nails which may have given you that impression. I play both wire and nylon harps with no problem and my nails are about that long. From Cynthia Cathcart’s book Pathways: “between two and five millimeters is a rough guide for most player’s fingernails.”

    Cynthia is of course discussing the wire strung but as noted above there are excellent nylon strung players who use their nails.

    I’ve been assuming you’re looking at wire strung harps but let’s get back to the basic question ignoring the nail length issue: are you ready to buy a harp or at least give the harp a try?

    If so and renting one is not an option, I’d suggest something like the Flatsicle (be sure to order it with the bass string upgrade) or if you can spend a little more a Dusty Ravenna 26. There is a ready second market for both.

    Understand that it will take some time just adjusting your hands to harp technique and that will go more easily with a teacher.

    Best wishes,

    wil-weten on #230151

    By googling at:
    splitting nails

    you will find lots of threads with the solution classical guitar players use for splitting nails. Perhaps you find something that would suit your nails and your dream of playing the harp as well.

    Of course, you could find ways to play the harp with your nails, but beware that you would sound quite different. It may be a question of taste, but I don’t like nylon or gut strung harps played with nails. Playing wire harp with nails is quite a different question. Actually, I like that.

    Biagio on #230209

    Just a few more remarks for what they are worth:

    -I really would not suggest using nails on gut, which is relatively soft compared to nylon…using the nails will result in much shorter string life!

    -Wil’s suggestion is a very good one; some people have found that adding flax seeds to their diet will strengthen their nails.

    -WRT to technique: the admonition to “close the fingers all the way in to the palm” is commonly made and it is a good one for strength and volume – on a nylon or gut harp. On wire one just brushes the string; the former technique would make a very harsh sound and likely break a wire string. But if you are playing just for yourself, no reason not to use the wire method.

    -If this interests you Cynthia Cathcart has several beginner level videos on Youtube, so take a look at those before abandoning your dream. Here’s the first of her series:


    JackieHarpFan on #230256

    If I understood correctly that you live in New Jersey, the Virginia Harp Center has a location in Haddonfield. It might be worth your time to plan a visit. In my opinion, the more harpists in the world, the better. 🙂

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