Harp for playing around a campfire?

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    jacobpewitt on #194146

    Hi everyone! My apologies in advance for yet another “which harp should I get” thread.

    I’m relatively new to harp. I took lessons for about 4 months, then stopped due to a combination of factors. I wanted to play an instrument that was suitable for playing around a campfire, including on backpacking trips, and at the time I just couldn’t find a harp that was portable enough and had good enough sound to work in that regard. I was also quite intimidated at the high price tag of full sized harps, even level harps.

    I switched to mountain dulcimer for a while, which was much more suitable for backpacking trips. But it’s just not as musically fulfilling for me as the harp was, and I want to go back.

    Instead of renting one as I did last time, I want to buy one this time. I really want to buy one that I can take with me on camping trips, even if only on car camping trips (though backpacking trips would be awesome too!). I’m having a hard time balancing all of these following factors:

    • Price: I’d like to be around $1000. I could do more, but the closer I get to $2000 the less comfortable I am.
    • Portability: both weight and dimensions. I drive a Hyundai Sonata for what it’s worth.
    • Strings: I’m particularly worried that a harp that only goes to the C below middle C will be really limiting in terms of what I can play. How much of a difference would going down to the A, G, or even F below that make in terms of repertoire?
    • Sound: I don’t expect an amazing sounding harp in this price range, but I don’t want it to sound like a toy either.
    • Levers: Obviously I want more for versatility’s sake, but the cost adds up quickly.

    I feel like there are two different directions I could go here. I could focus primarily on portability over versatility, with the plan of getting a full sized harp at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future. Or I could focus on a larger, more versatile harp that is just-portable-enough for my purposes.

    Some of the harps I’ve been looking at include the Fullsicle Special Edition, the Camac Bardic, the MusicMakers SmartWood and the Stoney End Even Song or Briar Rose. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.

    My intended uses include playing at home for personal pleasure, playing for friends around a campfire, playing accompaniment for my singing, and playing accompaniment for storytelling (medieval bard style).

    Any suggestions? I appreciate the help.

    Alyson Webber on #194148

    Someone on the Virtual Harp Circle just posted about Hayden Harps. They are carbon fiber and flat (soundboard goes vertically instead of horizontally), specifically designed for travel. Price is $2200 (Canadian). I don’t know where you are, but the exchange rate could be in your favor. They are going to be exhibitors at a few of the harp festivals this summer. Here’s my attempt at posting a link…


    This would be a great option for a portable harp, but at 24 strings, probably not the most versatile. I would be reticent to bring any harp (besides carbon fiber) backpacking. Car camping would be bad enough if it gets hot, even though you can get it out of the rain…

    jacobpewitt on #194150

    Wow, that sounds much better than I would have expected for a carbon fiber harp. I’m in Florida, so it would be around $1700 usd. On the high end of what I’m willing to spend, but not undoable.

    Do you think the fact that it only goes one octave below middle C would be excessively limiting? Any thoughts on the Loveland levers that it includes?

    Biagio on #194152

    Hi Jacob,

    Here are a few thoughts based on what you have written:

    1 – “What should I get” questions are always welcome to harp enthusiasts!
    2 – Size is the limiting factor with that C-below-middle-C limitation. If a harp is to have good tone the lower you go the longer the strings must be.
    3- For back packing then you will be looking for something at most the size of Dusty Strings 26 – which fits in a case made for back packing. So you might consider the Ravenna 26.
    4 Such uses can be hard on a harp, so you probably don’t want something that you mind getting dinged once in awhile. That suggests to me the Ravenna or one of the Harpsicles – or a small used harp.
    5 – Lovelands are fine levers but they can get knocked out of alignment more easily than Truitts or Camacs.
    6 – Given some of your intended uses besides outings, consider the traditional bard’s harp – a wire strung. Some come with sharping blades rather than levers; most people just tune to G or C, transposing or retuning if needed.

    I started briefly with a pedal harp, decided I preferred a lever one and have graduated to the wire strung, so there’s a bit of bias there. Sort of a historical reversal LOL. A more traditional instrument as I said, and the nature of wire is such that they have a lower frequency than nylon or gut for a given vibrating length.

    I have two at the moment, and two lever harps – I don’t find the lack of levers limiting on the wire strungs. Actually I would be willing to sell one of them and the price is right (about $600), but it may be a bit taller than you would want (about 36 inches). It will fit in a DS 26 case though.

    Getting back to my “lower frequency” observation as an example: the lowest string on that is a G2 (97.99 Hz). If I strung it with gut or nylon that low string would have to be be a full octave higher (G3/196 Hz).

    Another possibility would be the Music Maker Limerick kit. It can be strung with nylon or steel – or if you want to really go trad. with brass or bronze several steps lower. The Limerick is a bit heavier than it might be, but many bardic types like it for it’s size.

    Hope that helps!


    duckspeaks on #194159

    Dear Jacob,

    There is a Tasmanian Harp builder Andrew Thom who builds harps with aluminium (yes you heard me). they are ver robust and stand well to abuse (Alice Giles brought one to the Antartics).

    From memory some models offers lower notes without even being 30 something strings and may be u can discuss your low notes requirements with him further.


    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #194332

    I’m guessing a carbon-fiber harp could melt, and don’t let a wooden harp get too close or it could scorch or dry out and crack. It’s probably a bad idea. Someone might not like what you are playing and throw it in the fire or accidentally knock it in, or be tempted to put marshmallows between the strings. Definitely do not play after eating s’mores.

    Elettaria on #194867

    In case you get keen on the dulcimer again, my partner has a travel dulcimer from Pete Staehling of Feather Dulcimer.  He has a chromatic Sparrow model, tuned to GDGG, and loves it to bits.  Having the chromatic frets opens up a lot more possibilities, and he’s playing as much or more than his Ron Ewing full-size dulcimer.  It took him a while to figure out what to do with the dulcimer, since they’re little-played in the UK and he had to teach himself (including doing some online music theory courses along the way), but now he finds it a very versatile and expressive instrument.  Pete’s dulcimers are designed as backpacking instruments, with features such as zither pins that make them more compact, but they still sound lovely.  It also holds its tuning very well, and arrived in tune with itself and only a semitone flat even though it came to us from the US in early spring.  It’s built in cherry with a sinker cypress top and maple fretboard, and is a lovely little thing.  There’s a huge amount you can do with mountain dulcimers.

    With regard to wire-strung harps, they are smaller due to closer string spacing and there is repertoire for even the 19 string ones, but they require tuning every day, probably more often.  A friend lent me one, and I couldn’t work out how to get it to hold its tune.  A chap from the luthier told me that it should be tuned four times a day to begin with, and tuned twice each time.  I couldn’t keep up with the tuning schedule and it’s going back to my friend.

    I’m still not sure a harp is a natural backpacking-and-campfire instrument, but carbon fibre ones have a reputation for surviving that sort of thing better, and some string types may work better for you as well.

    When I mentioned on Facebook that I was thinking of taking up the harp again, another pair of friends lent me their harp.  25 strings, bigger than you’d expect (no way could you travel with it), crap levers (the bottom one fell off), soundbox splits, all sorts of problems.  I was enjoying messing around with it anyway, but the range was horribly limiting, and I couldn’t really get anywhere until I started renting a decent student harp, the Camac Hermine.  I’m about to change that over for a Starfish Glencoe while I wait for my own harp to be built, since the Camac has too low a string tension for me.  People frequently complain about the range being limiting on smaller harps – you’re often advised to learn on a 34 string and then figure out if you can manage a smaller one and what you plan to do with it – and many people don’t get on well with a partially-levered harp either.

    Biagio on #194869

    Elletaria, A chromatic dulcimer is a wonderful idea!

    But ( you did know there would be a “but”)…..

    No offense,  I disagree with your comments re: wire strungs.  First wrt to tuning, my wire harps tend to stay in tune better than my nylon or gut ones although I agree that is relative to things like climate.  It is also true that an out of tune string is more noticeable due to the far greater sustain but a very small touch will bring it back.

    About size though: not all wire harps have that small spacing between strings, only those that try to replicate historical instruments.  The main reasons they are typically smaller than nylon or gut harps is that you really very rarely need or want large sustained chords or arpeggios – that gets very muddy on a wire harp. So you need fewer strings for effective harmony.  Secondly (or maybe firstly) brass/bronze strings will be much shorter for a given frequency than nylon/gut.

    Further, the soundboard is hardwood which makes a large wire harp very heavy; so only a few are more than about 3 1/2 octaves.  You can play the entire Gaelic repertoire on 3 1/2 octaves and a good deal of pop, American folk, and etc.

    When I go to arrange a piece originally  arranged for lever harp the first things I grab are my pen and white out:-)



    Allison Stevick on #194873

    In regards to versatility on a small harp, I LOVE the magic that the likes of Cynthia Cathcart, Bill Taylor, Karen Marshalsay, and several others can do with 19, 22, or 25 strings.

    In regards to campfires, I take my harps camping a lot! One is carbon fiber, so being in the car doesn’t hurt it. The other is wood so it needs to be kept comfortable, but it is small. Easy to stash in the camper (or in the shade near the tent) to help it stay cool on hot days.

    To Jacob–

    This is not exactly what you described in your requirements above, but I can actually recommend the  little lap harps with cardboard sound boxes– I’m serious, they don’t sound like toys, they’re quite cheap (about $140US, I believe), you can paint/decorate and waterproof, and if the soundbox gets damaged, I think it’s only about $10 to replace. I played a 19-string Waring harp for a year, and it was great. They’re not even flimsy and mine held its tuning quite well. Backyard harps have a 22-string model that can accommodate levers if wanted.

    Anyway, I’m late to this discussion, but I think any harp small/light enough to move is a great campfire harp. Have you found one that suits you?


    Gretchen Cover on #194875

    I listened to the harpists listed above. Amazing what they can do with a small harp!  BTW, Harp’s North West has a month long teaching video series on youtube to learn “Tracey’s Wriggly Jig.”  Go to youtube and type in:  Newvember Challenge – Teaching Videos.  You will  have something to play around the campfire.

    Elettaria on #194878

    Bingo – I’m really surprised to hear you find that wire harps keep their tuning better, since I’ve always been told the opposite!  Where in the world are you, what are the temperature and humidity conditions like there, and which harp(s) are you playing?

    I’m in Scotland, which doesn’t get particularly warm and does get rather humid, although in the winter it will be dry indoors due to the central heating.  I have a 19 string brass-strung Ardival Kilcoy on loan from a friend.  Ardival is a Scottish maker of historical-style harps, very well respected.  When I rang Ardival to ask why I was having to keep retuning, and why it wasn’t even holding its tune through a tuning session, Bill Taylor told me that wire harps need to be tuned daily, preferably more than once, and at first will need to be tuned four times a day.  He also mentioned that you have to heavy-tune and then light-tune each time you tune, i.e. go through it twice or more.  Again, he is very well respected as a wire harper and teacher, and as far as I know, what he says about this is standard.  I’ve met other people who said they tried wire harping but gave up because of the amount of tuning needed.  I’ve just had a look at Triplett’s page on wire harps, to see what a US wire harp maker had to say in case it was a regional climate thing, and they say that they are “more temperamental” and “not recommended for beginner harp players unless you are going to work closely with an accomplished wire harp teacher”.  Anyway, I have posted in a wire harp group to find out what other people find on this topic, as I’m curious now.

    When I was considering whether to borrow this harp, I was told by several people from harp professions that it’s a completely different animal from lever or pedal harp.  The strings are different in so many ways – composition, sustain, spacing – and the technique is very different, leading to a different (and smaller) repertoire.  Wire harps don’t have levers (one reason why the string spacing can be smaller), although a small minority of them may have partial or full sharping blades, and that makes a big difference as to what you can play.  There is a strong tradition of playing them with long fingernails, and while the history of this is disputed and some people prefer fingerpads, again that’s a reason why the string spacing tends to be narrower.  I’m 4’11 so I have small hands, and I still found the string spacing to be challengingly narrow, probably because I was playing with my fingerpads.

    I’ve just realised another problem with a wire harp as a campsite instrument: you need good lighting to play it.  Instead of the nice obvious difference between string colours you get with other types of harp, wire harps are strung with the same colour of metal all the way through, perhaps changing to silver in the bass wires if you have a larger and more expensive model (out of your budget, from the ones I know).  You have to paint the Cs and the Fs, and they still don’t show up that well.  When I had a lesson with Bill Taylor, the first thing he sorted out was lighting, and when practising at home I found that I needed very strong lighting, very close to the harp, and still had trouble seeing the strings.  Playing a wire harp in low light conditions would mean that you wouldn’t be able to see which string is which.  Obviously some people are fine with this, there have been blind harpers, but it’s harder and definitely worth bearing in mind.

    The main thing that’s striking me about Jacob is that he wants to a) Do All The Things, b) have a small instrument, and c) have a budget instrument.  It’s hard to reconcile all three of those with harps.  Levers add versatility, I wouldn’t be without mine, but they also add weight and cost. If he is worried that a harp that only goes down to the C below Middle C won’t have a big enough range, well, most lap harps don’t even go that far down!  I get the feeling he’d be better served by having a 34 string fully-levered harp at home, and then either compromising on a lap harp that he won’t be able to do as much with for travel, or getting to know the full capabilities of a mountain dulcimer for travel.  Because you can do all those three things with a dulcimer, you can play it in low light conditions, and it’s generally much more travel-friendly.

    Elettaria on #194879

    Here are the lap harps I know of which you may want to consider:

    Fullsicle – 26 strings, goes down to the C below middle C, fully levered within budget.  A lot of people complain that the string tension is way too low and that it’s like playing rubber bands.  Quite a basic-looking harp.  Very popular as a budget lap harp.

    Blevins – make a variety of lap harps including some very compact models, but way above budget.  I had a chat with Cindy Blevins, who is quite delightful, when I was vaguely contemplating getting a cross-strung harp.  She talked me out of it, explaining the very good reasons why they are so little played, and also mentioned that she doesn’t have a lap harp because she finds them too restrictive.  She’s a useful person to talk to.

    Noteworthy County Kerry – 24 strings, goes down to C below middle C, partially levered within budget, fully levered outside budget (though double check that, I’m having trouble finding prices and suspect the place I looked at was a lot more expensive than buying from the luthier).  This has a very good reputation, and I think a better string tension.  It’s fairly compact as harps with that range go, as well, and looks more like a traditional harp.

    Stoney End – these are higher pitched harps, and you’re going to run into budget issues if you want levers (and you sound like you do), though possibly not if you’re happy to build it from a kit.  Popular wee harps, more basic quality I think.

    Triplett Christina – 25 strings, a lot more expensive.

    Heartland Infinity – 36 strings, carbon fibre body, surprisingly small and portable, but way, way, way over budget!  Interesting in terms of showing you what can be done.

    If you are really sure that you want a lap harp, I’d probably look at the County Kerry and the Fullsicle.  I have the County Kerry at the back of  my mind in case I ever want a lap harp, as it seems to be a good one, but I always end up concluding that the smaller number of strings would only frustrate me.

    I’m wondering what it is about the mountain dulcimer that put you off?  A lot of people play it at a fairly basic level, it’s a popular folk instrument, so I’m wondering if you have had a chance to see what a dulcimer can really do when played with more skill.  My partner recommends listening to Bing Futch in particular, Jean Ritchie, Joanie Mitchell, and the videos people put up on the Mountain Dulcimer Players Facebook group, as they’re good.

    If you play a 34 string lever harp, there will be a huge amount of music you can play without having to rearrange it.  If you play a lap harp, there is some music around, usually the more elementary stuff, but in general you will be rearranging everything.  This may work out well if you like folk music and are happy to work out arrangements yourself.

    With dulcimer, it’s pretty much all working it out yourself, and heavily folk-oriented.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t play all sorts of things – my partner plays some metal, for instance, he[s been doing a version of a Chopin waltz, and his most popular piece when busking is the Game of Thrones theme.  The travel dulcimer in particular is lovely for being able to pick up and play any time, for instance keeping it on his lap when he’s working at the computer.  He’s just wandered in and started playing the Hitchhiker theme on it.

    A diatonic dulcimer is easier to learn on, the chords fit neatly into it, and a chromatic gives you a lot more musical possibilities but is harder.  Of course, with the price of dulcimers, you can build up a stable of them, and most dulcimer players do.  I’d be playing one like a shot were I not disabled in a way that makes it painful for me to play fretted instruments.  I’m not good at improvising, which is one reason why I haven’t gone for lap harp, I’d find it a chore to be<span style=”font-size: 16px; line-height: 1.5;”>figuring out all my music. </span>

    Another harp vs. dulcimer for travel thing: dulcimers have four strings, in general, and hold their tuning a lot better.  If you’re going to be merrily subjecting the instrument to changes in temperature and humidity, and probably jolts as well, you’ll be spending a lot more time tuning a harp than you will a dulcimer.

    I am still trying to figure out how on earth a harp is an instrument you could go backpacking with! They’re huge!  And rather expensive for subjecting to the risks of travel!  The cardboard ones might work if you don’t mind its being small and unlevered, they have a surprisingly good reputation and are dirt cheap.

    When you were learning harp before, what sort of music were you playing?  Were you improvising and arranging music yourself?  Did you get a chance to figure out what sort of range you would need, and how much you use the levers?  I play classical music, so I am all over the levers, especially with things like Bach preludes.

    (Apologies if I have any weird typos, by the way. I’ve just had to do a factory reset on my Android tablet, and now it’s doing all sorts of weird autocorrecting even when I use the external keyboard, and I can’t figure out how to stop it doing that.)

    Biagio on #194880

    Elletaria, this is an interesting topic but I don’t want to get too sidetracked so let’s start with Jacob’s question….

    Yep, I do agree that he might be happier with a decent, small nylon strung harp, especially perhaps a double strung, rather than a wire strung.  That for reasons of weight and as you mention being able to see the strings.  That being said, as one gets used to a particular harp, what ever it may be, one increasingly plays by feel, rather than by sight.  That does take time and practice – a camp fire milieu is probably not the best place to practice (grin).

    There are some wonderful little harps out there wire or nylon and one imagines that camping there will be singing as well as other instruments – in which case the harper will be more likely accompanying rather than leading most of the time so we are talking chords, or perhaps the melody mainly in the right hand – or maybe not, I don’t really know what Jacob has in mind, LOL.  That said, one can do much more on a small harp than many might think if one has mostly experienced classical harp training and music on larger ones.  Harper Tasche (also classically trained) is one of the best known proponents of them – check out his series of compositions written for the 26 string. They are definitely not elementary arrangements (mostly ha ha).  Ray Pool would another name to drop wrt to small lever harps….

    This is a good segue.

    I’ll be going to an outdoor concert later today with Tasche; we live in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.  Climate here is somewhat comparable to Brittany and some parts of Scotland (but not usually as cold, thank goodness!).  Tasche will be playing his Dusty 36 and will probably pause to tune ever 30 minutes or so.  If I took my wire strung it might be about the same.  The thing to consider is that a wire harp goes out as the wood shrinks and swells and the pluck slightly alters the string length – so you have that to contend with.   That happens on a nylon strung too PLUS nylon absorbs moisture which of course metal does not.  It’s all relative – you know the saying about harpists spending 20% playing and 80% tuning…..

    Bill Taylor is certainly correct and who am I to disagree?  I think though he was commenting mainly in regard to a fairly new harp with the frequency of reaching for your tuning wrench.  Bear in mind also that the Ardival bodies are built from a single carved block of wood, they use small #4 pegs, and the joints are loose mortise and tenon – all of which make them more sensitive to changes than a glued up  three part construction such as the Tripletts Witchers and Caswells.

    You asked about my harps – I played a Caswell and now mostly my own wire strung designss and they all have different “personalities”.  One is a rock maple 26 (which is the best at holding tune), another a sapele 22 and the last a “thrown together” 19.

    I had some spare wood sitting around and wanted a small “camp fire” type harp so I made the 19 for that purpose – sure didn’t want to lug around an expensive 14 lb. maple thing plus a stand:-)  The alternative would have been to make yet another nylon double 23 but ya gotta draw the line somewhere LOL.  Did I mention that I got into harping by making the things?  So my comments originate from that perspective.

    I hope that addresses your thoughtful comments.  In fact, before harps I made mountain dulcimers and think those are perhaps a better thing to take camping than a harp – or heck even just pack along a nice little lyre!

    Have fun!


    Elettaria on #194881

    It wasn’t a new harp!  My friend had owned it for years, and reluctantly given up due to not having the space (she lives on a narrowboat) and injuries.  It seemed to be in good condition as far as the body of the harp was concerned, though it needed a couple of new strings put on.  I really wish it had worked out, it is a lovely little thing and would solve the problem of not having a harp when I’m at my partner’s for the weekend, but I cannot keep up with that much tuning, and I was having a rough time seeing the strings due to eye problems.  For comparison, I’m currently renting a 34 string fluorocarbon Camac Hermine, which can get away with being tuned once a week, and that’s being swapped for a rental Starfish Glencoe soon.

    I did wonder if differences in harp construction were a reason why you were reporting such differences in how a wire harp keeps its tuning.  Your harps sound lovely, especially the clarsach you’re selling (which I have sternly had to remind myself would Not Be A Good Idea, especially since my partner has suddenly been given notice to quit as his landlord is selling the flat, and we have no idea whether a harp will fit wherever he lives next).  I’ve just had a look at your photos and am drooling over them.  How on earth do you keep up with tuning so many of them, though?

    In terms of playing with others, which keys do you find it most useful to have?  It was something we took into consideration when ordering my partner’s travel dulcimer.  His main one is DADD, which a lot of dulcimer players prefer if they’re playing with other dulcimers, only we don’t know any other dulcimer players around here.  We got the Sparrow built in GDGG, which suits its size nicely and should also fit well with other instruments – I’m dying to hear it recorded with the banjo, for instance.  Of course, since Pete put a high enough fretboard on it to use a capo, and since it is chromatic anyway, he could easily play in other keys as well.  You’d want at least a few levers on a harp for playing with other people, wouldn’t you.

    Biagio on #194885

    Thank you Elletaria!  Hah, yes having lots of harps can mean lots of tuning, no kidding.  From nine, at one time, I’m down to five and hope to go even further on a diet soon.  Usually they are reasonably in tune so (blush) if not TOO bad I don’t worry about it at home.  Outside or with other people that’s a different story.

    Some harps for some reason just will hold tune better than others – I had a Dusty FH26 for a while that just would not stay where it was supposed to be.   Which is odd since they make very good harps.  It also makes a difference I think where you tune – some lever harps are designed for open Eb, others for C major and of course a pedal harp for Cb.  Just a guess there though.

    Wire players get adept at transposing, rapid tuning, and “gap playing” (omitting sharps or flats) when playing with others.   Among ourselves we are usually in G or C major and some of us have sharping blades (though not the purists).  I have C and F blades on some of them – the nylon strungs are all fully levered.

    I do lust after an Ardival Rose and would give my eye teeth for a Caswell Gwydion.  Heck, as long as I’m dreaming would just love a Triplett Eclipse or Salvi Egan!

    Sigh.  Too many harps too little time:-)


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