Gut strings: high maintenance vs nylon (and fluorocarbon)?

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    drkatt on #188084

    This is my first post here (although I’ve been reading as a guest!) and wondering if anyone has advice. I recently sold my old 36-string Markwood harp (nylon strung) I had for several years. I liked it well enough in terms of sound but I’m about to move back to the US from Europe and I have wanted a new harp for years, so I figured it was time to rehome that one and make way for the new. I expect to be in the market for the new harp in two to three months once settled in the new home, and so I’m looking around at different models. So far I have a serious Internet crush on the Dusty Strings Boulevard Classic from the few sound samples I have heard, and am leaning toward that one. I suspect what I like about the sound so much is the gut strings.

    What’s giving me pause, however, is that I have been reading that you should expect to replace gut strings every year or two(?), and that they are more fragile and break more frequently than nylon strings? As a reference, I never had any major problems with strings with my old Markwood harp. Maybe there were one or two strings breaking each year that I had it, and I think there were some that I never replaced a single time in the whole 15 years or so I owned it, so gut strings sound like a lot of trouble to me if what I read is true. I’m going to be starting a medical residency and don’t expect to have large amounts of time to play for the next couple of years, just maybe a half hour here and there a couple of times a week, and I don’t want to be dealing with ordering replacement strings all the time and then having to wait for them to stretch out and hold tune. Can anyone with more experience in this area enlighten me as to how big of a difference in terms of maintenance there is between nylon and gut? Is it really that big of a deal?

    An alternate I have in mind is maybe the R-harps Merlin if “fluorocarbon” strings are more durable as I have read to be the case, so comments on those would also be appreciated if it is indeed true that gut strings are so tricky. I like the sound samples of the Merlin too, but it doesn’t get me as excited as the Boulevard for various reasons. I am planning to try to see a few models in person before deciding but I won’t be in a region with lots of stores to choose from that stock harps, so it may end up being an Internet purchase regardless.

    Thanks in advance for advice!

    Alyson Webber on #188086

    How do you feel about the sound of other pedal gut strung lever harps such as Lyon and Healy Ogden or Troubador, Salvi Egan, Camac Korrigan? If those harps speak to you, too, perhaps you like the sound of the strings.

    I have never had a nylon-strung harp, but of the two pedal gut strung I had, one broke three strings in 2 years, and the other breaks strings constantly. Sure, the gut will break more, but how much may depend on the instrument.

    Tacye on #188087

    Replacing all your strings every couple of years would be a faff, but if you were happy with the sound of 15 year old nylons (some people change them by the calendar too) I would expect you also to be happy with the sound of 15 year old guts, especially the thicker ones. I find I am more likely to want to change a high string because it isn’t sounding good to my ears any more, or my wound wires.

    balfour-knight on #188088

    I have found that gut strings can last and still sound good for many years. They also stretch and hold their pitch faster than nylons. The upper ones are indeed the ones that break occasionally, but the replacement string sets usually will have enough length so that one string can actually make two replacements, if carefully put on the harp without much waste. (Do NOT use one string to make two different notes, however! Put on only the gage specified by the harp maker.) I buy them in octave sets so that they are cheaper, and please do remember to check out Burgundy gut. It sounds just as good as the regular Bow brand, with slight visual imperfections which certainly makes no difference to me.

    I have not had the pleasure of playing the Dusty Boulevard, but I LOVE my Ravenna 34! I do not have gut strings on the Ravenna, but my other two harps have them and to me, there is nothing else that equals the sound of gut–it is much superior! The Ravenna can be strung with gut–check Dusty’s website. Of course, it would be Lever Gut, slightly thinner and lower tension than Pedal Gut. Hope this helps!

    My best to you,

    Sid Humphreys on #188091

    I am another pedal harpist weighing in here. I’ve never used fluorocarbon but do use nylon and gut on my harp. I find that the nylon is higher maintenance. While I rarely have a break in nylon, they lose tone and wear out faster than gut in the top 2-3 octaves. Those of you that have nylon that have been on for over a year, try this: tune your harp in flats. Now, put it in natural position and check the tuning. Now put it in sharps and check the tuning. If you’re getting different readings it’s probably because the nylons are worn where the disc pins contact the harp (lever blades can cause the same thing). Changing the nylons every 6 months has worked well for me in this, keeping the regulation even. When the guts start to wear out in this manner, they simply break. Nylons are also a pain to tune! They take forever to hold a pitch and they don’t require as much turning when tuning (I don’t know how to word this, sometimes it takes a few minutes to BARELY turn the pin as the difference between being 4 cents sharp and in tune is literally a breath!)
    I use nylon in the top 3 octaves (00G- 3F) because they carry better. I do like the sound of gut in the upper register, but in the case of my harp the sound wasn’t carrying through the orchestra.
    All strings should be replaced after a period. They all eventually loose quality as they age even though they may or may not break.

    emma-graham on #188092

    I agree with everything already said re wear/tuning etc. However, I have played both the Ravenna 34 and the Boulevard. I was so excited when the Boulevard first came out as I really like the Ravenna but I’m a fan of gut. I thought it would sound amazing. I was incredibly disappointed when I tried it. I wasn’t a patch on the Ravenna in my opinion. I tried it first in Sydney at the WHC, then again, back in the UK, when a pupil asked me to come and help her choose a new harp. I still wasn’t blown away and preferred the Ravenna. The pupil already owns a gut strung harp but, interestingly, she wasn’t keen on the boulevard either and decided on the Ravenna. (I didn’t give my opinion before she tried them. I just played them for her and let her choose.)

    Tacye on #188093

    I have never got on with the Ravenna, but really like the Boulevard. That is me playing it – I will happily listen to other people playing Ravennas. So if you can take a trip to try the harp you plan to buy, or ask if anyone near you has one I think it would be a good idea.

    Noone has yet mentioned the maintenance of fluorocarbon – I only have one string of this type as I wanted a little more bite on my 5th A and it took forever to stretch, I even had to unwind it and pull more through the pin a couple of days after I put it on.

    balfour-knight on #188094

    I have enjoyed reading all the posts–very interesting! My question now is “has anyone played a Ravenna 34 strung with lever gut?”

    My Ravenna sounds so good with nylon and wire that I have really never considered restringing her with gut, even though I prefer gut on my other harps. Also, I gig with Ravenna much more than I do with the other two, so nylon seems to be the most durable in changing climates. We have high humidity in the summer and low humidity in the winter, so I am constantly dealing with that when I take a harp out.

    Another point to consider is the individual harp. All Ravennas are not equal! I found that out on my recent trip to the Atlanta Harp Center. Mine is superior to all the other Ravennas that I have played. Did I just get lucky or something? Tacye, maybe that is the problem–the Ravennas you have played are not as special as mine! The day I found Ravenna, the harpist for the Atlanta Symphony was in the shop. I got her to play my Ravenna so that I could hear someone else play her before the final purchase. The Atlanta pedal harpist was so impressed with my harp that she told the store manager that she would buy this harp herself if I decided not to!

    So, drkatt, I hope you can actually pick out your future harp and really “test drive” it a while before you decide. All harps are very individual!

    My best to everyone,

    wil-weten on #188095

    As I love to complicate things… in the posts above there is no mentioning of ‘nylgut’. Maybe this could be a reasonable alternative when one lives in an extremely dry area.

    Beware, one needs to make a difference between nylgut of Camac and nylgut of Aquila/also sold as silkgut. The Camac nylgut is meant for harps with classic tension, while the silkgut is meant for harps with celtic tension.

    Biagio on #188096

    There are so many variables when it comes to non-pedal harps…the type of string is only one of many that affect the tone. For example, both harps mentioned – the Merlin and Boulevard – have an aircraft grade laminate soundboard: 5 plies per 3mm. That sounds different after a few years from a spruce or cedar board. Pedal harps are a different world as they are at far higher tension than the Merlin and frankly I would bet the Boulevard is not as high as some concert instruments.

    Now that that is off my chest LOL…here are a few generalities, some fact some just opinion; staying with lever harps:

    Nylon and fluorocarbon – both Savarez Allianceand Acquila Nylgut – stretch more than gut. Savarez in particular takes forEVER to stretch in. Once stretched in, in my Pacific Northwest climate they hold pitch much better than gut. How long these last depends not only on tension but climate, string angle, type of peg, pin and lever, how they are played. All are physically more durable than gut – usually!

    If you like the gut tone but live in a humid environment, Acquila Nylgut or Savarez Alliance is probably your best bet. I have nylon on the first octave and SA down to about 5th C on one of mine, wound strings below that. That harp is very nearly at concert harp tension and I replace or break those nylon trebles much more often.

    Hope that helps!


    Biagio on #188097

    Senior moment…I should also have said that there is not law that you cannot put gut on a nylon strung harp or vice versa – IF either you or a professional string maker makes the necessary analysis. I have even seen a few lap harps designed for nylon changed over to brass. Honest.

    I love that deep cello-like bass in the Merlin but find the range a bit monochromatic. Dusty makes lovely harps and personally when a begginner asks what to get for their first I always suggest (after a teacher) the Ravenna 34. On the other hand some very beautiful lever harps are made by smaller shops – Sligo (Rick Kemper), Timothy Harps (Tim Habinski), Harps of Lorien, Fisher, Lewis Creek,David Thormahlen and that’s just the US….some of these folk will build to spec at little more cost than their standard models.

    I’d say look around if you have the time and do not neglect the used harp market. For example, one member here got a brass strung clarsach recently at a wonderful price; I recently saw a lovely Triplett Eclipse for about half price. I currently have a gorgeous Clark Model A I would LOVE to find a home for – grin. And so on.

    Too many harps too little time, huh?


    balfour-knight on #188098

    Well, Biagio, I am having more and more of those “senior moments” now, too! Good advice, as usual. I hoped you would reply about the fluorocarbon strings, as I have had no experience with them. I agree about the fact that I have to replace my nylons more often than the guts because they go false and sound tinny after a while. It has been ages since I had a false gut string–they always break before they go false, and in the middle of the night, ha, ha! We get awake and say to each other “wonder which harp-princess broke that string?” ha, ha!

    Best to all of you,

    carl-swanson on #188099

    I would not recommend fluorocarbon strings on any instrument, and I wouldn’t use them on any instrument. In addition, if anyone uses them on a harp where I’ve replace the board or neck, then that breaks the warranty. The tension of those strings is MUCH higher than gut, which is already MUCH higher than nylon. There is a limit to how much tension the neck and soundboard can take, and the carbon strings will drastically shorten the life of both.

    Biagio on #188101

    Carl I beg to differ. I did say: consult the maker. however, relevant issues here are hardnss, tensile strength, and density. Measurable.
    Densitylb/in^2 T lb/in^3
    Nylon .0385 44360
    Gut .0469 52000
    FC .0562 60000

    How they sound and how they behave in one’s hands is a different issue. Yes they are higher density and therefore tension that gun but UI have to wonder why ANYONE would just swap strings without doing the trivial math to maintain equivalent tension?

    I have heard purests say the only old growth spruce will do for the SB on a quality instrument wood and that the only way to play a clarsach is if it was hand carved from a bog willow. I have also heard purest say that only Salvedo style ( what ever that is!) will work.

    Try playing Salzedo style some time on a clarsach or Paraguayan. But I digress.

    Sorry but I really really get annoyed when I read one sided viewpoints from the pedal world that start from this premise: pedal harps are the epitome.

    Nope, the end and a sorry one IMO. more machine than instrument – much as I admire you who play them! But I challenge anyone on this forum to design and build a double, triple or a cross who will then say “One thing is better than anything else.”

    You cannot compare one style of design with another without understanding that design. A pedal harp is not more comparable to a South American harp than an Appalalachian dulcimer is to a violin.

    Sorry if I affront.


    Gretchen Cover on #188102

    Biagio, Carl Swanson is a respected builder/restorer of both pedal AND lever harps. What is the point you are trying to make in your post above?

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