Help: Lever harp types and strings

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    Djan on #224923

    Hello all,
    I’m an amateur beginner/intermediate harpist and I have been playing on the Pilgrim Clarsach for nearly 3.5 years with few classes. I really like playing blues, jazz & pop music over folk but I’m not looking to venture onto a pedal harp. So after much research, I’m considering buying a 34 string lever harp. I have narrowed my options to Camac Hermine, Ravenna 34 and Salvi Mia due to budget limitations of upto £2500. I’m not very keen on second hand harps.
    I’m new to this forum but aware that there are so many posts with very useful information however I’m not sure of few aspects.
    How does fluorocarbon (Alliance) strings compare with nylon/ silkgut and gut? As I have practised in gut strings with my Clarsach, how is the transition to lower string tension & spacing with small hands?
    Also could someone share their experience with these models with different music genre?
    I’m from UK and may have the opportunity to try couple harp models this weekend while I’m travelling, so any help and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

    naisha on #224925

    Hello! I am more or less in the same situation. I am also wondering the difference in feel and sound of those type of strings. I think the best way to know for sure which one is for you is just trying them. No matter how many videos you watch and how many reviews and opinions you read, an instrument is different for everyone. I am also intetested in Camac Hermine with FC strings and Camac Melusine (celtic) with nylon, and after a couple of months of research I have to say I couldn’t come to a conclusion. Nylon is cheaper but as I read it can be less durable and loses the fine tone more easily, some say it sounds brighter than FC, some say the opposite. FC are more expensive but less sensitive to humidity and weather changes, and new strings have to be tuned a lot until they settle. Some people say they’re too thin gor their fingers, but sound better than nylon. So yeah, no conclusion until I test them with my own hands and ears and see which one is for me.

    wil-weten on #224926

    Hi Djanani, I know the Pilgrim Clarsach of about 30 years ago. Has your harp been strung with Bow Brand Pedal Gut Light strings?
    Why would you like another harp?

    I have experience with fluorocarbon strings, both of Savarez Alliance and of Kürschner. I have also experience wit standard pedal gut strings.

    You’d like to play blues, jazz and pop music. Therefore, if you really want to stick to a lever harp, you would best choose a harp with Camac levers, as one can flip these very quickly and silently. But, even so, a lever harp is basically a diatonic instrument… So chromatic playing will require a lot of heavy flipping. And even so, some pieces would need a lot of adaptation if you want to play them on a lever harp.

    An alternative would be an X-harp, also called a cross harp, or a chromatic harp with crossed strings. There are two main models of them: a 7/5 and an 6/6. But these harps would require a very different technique. One could even say, they are different instruments. These X-harps give you plenty of chromatic possibilities. Like:
    And no, you wouldn’t be able to play this kind of chromatism on a lever harp

    Now, for the kind of music you’d like to play, why would you want another lever harp? Is is because of the levers on your Pilgrim? Perhaps you want them regulated to be a bit less stif? Or because of its rather heavy string tension? Or because of its sound?

    In the latter case, have you heard the difference in sound between intermediate and low string tension in general. And yes, sound has also a lot to do with the kind of strings, the soundboard and model of the harp and the kind of wood used to build it.

    The Pilgrim Clarsach is an all wood handbuilt quality harp. I really wonder whether you would choose for an entry level harp like a Salvi Mia or a Dusty Ravenna (with a soundbox built of quality plywood which is covered with vinyl).

    Also, I think you may have a lot more possibilities for a really nice harp if you want to save a bit longer. As to Camac harps, the Camac Hermine is rather nice but has rather low tension, but I think you may also like the medium tension Camac Celtic Isolde (with Savarez Alliance carbon) and the Telenn (the new Telenns are strung with folk lever gut).

    You probably won’t even notice the difference in string distance between the Pilgrim and the other harps you mention.

    So, tell me a bit more, and I might be able to give you a few extra suggestions.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by wil-weten. Reason: I changed 'soundboard' into soundbox in" (with a soundbox built of quality plywood which is covered with vinyl'
    charles-nix on #224928

    Just saying fluorocarbon, gut, or nylon will tell you nothing about the sound of the harp without information on tension, diameter, soundboard construction, and string length.

    Gut is said to be warmer–and the nature of the material is to have a more “fuzzy” overtone content–but it can still be bright if scaling and tension are light. Today, though, most people experience gut on high pedal tension, with large diameters.

    Likewise, fluorocarbon is said to be always thinner. This is true only when comparing changing over a given instrument with set tension and string lengths. It has to be scaled thinner for only one reason–so that the overall tension will not break the harp–because it is a denser material than gut. (Nylon is much less dense than gut, so it is a larger diameter _given a set string length and tension_ If one took identical harps, one strung with gut, and then modified the other to reduce the string lengths, one could string it with fluorocarbon of the exact same diameter.

    String materials do respond differently to humidity changes. Each material has a vastly different propensity to absorb water vapor from the air, which changes its density, which makes the pitch change. Nylon (somewhat surprisingly) absorbs a _lot_ of water, making it the most subject to going out of tune. Gut absorbs much less–but gut strings do weaken at high humidity, which can lead to breakage at high tensions. Fluorocarbon absorbs little moisture. Metal strings absorb near zero. I don’t know the absorption on silkgut/nylgut.

    Pop/jazz covers a lot of territory–but I second wil-weten–playing that genre on levers will take a lot of flipping, and some creative arranging. You will likely have to do most of the arranging yourself.

    Biagio on #224929

    On the question of string types in particular: it is important to understand than one type may be substituted for another if the tension for which it is designed is maintained. As to tone…a harder material will sound brighter than a softer one – in order of hardness nylon (hardest), fluorocarbon, then gut. A denser material string will give more tension: fluorocarbon denser, than gut then nylon. Longer strings usually provide more sustain than shorter ones. Bearing all these in mind, it is also possible to change the range to some degree – I think it is best to consult a professional string maker if thinking of making any changes.

    wil-weten on #224930

    Hi Biagio, as to substitution of one kind of string for another, as the diameters from the several kind of strings would vary, in the best case the levers would need to be regulated.

    The point with Camac levers, and I believe also with the new Salvi levers is that one would need to replace several levers with levers meant for a different diameter. Some other kind of levers will be more forgiving at this point, but then, one would not be able to flip them as easily.

    If one wants a Camac harp with a different kind of strings, one would have to buy that as a special order. I asked Camac France about this, and that’s what they told me. They also said that the harp would sound best with the original strings on it, as the harp model was optimized for that kind of string.

    Until several years ago, there were several strings options for every harp model (nylon or gut), but now there is only one option, with the exception of the Camac Isolde, which can be bought with carbon strings with celtic or classic tension, but when even then, when one would like to go from celtic to classic tension, one would need to have several different sizes of levers placed on the harp and this would be rather pricey.

    Biagio on #224932

    Hi Wil, what you write is of course true. One cannot be more specific without knowing the harp in question but between our three comments (yours, mine, and Charles) I think we provide a start on the question of tone. As to levers in particular, some are more forgiving than others regarding acceptable diameters. If the harper does not know this stuff it is best to consult a harp luthier and/or string maker.

    As a baritone I personally like a deeper bass and more sustain than one often finds (e.g. I’ll give up some tenor strings to get a bass A instead of a bass C). I’d also offer the thought that for jazz especially one might prefer a fairly high tension and levers one can flip rapidly. Or a double strung for that matter.

    The field is wide!


    wil-weten on #224933

    Hi Biagio, I’ve got a soprano voice and just like you, I like to have some bass strings that go lower than two octaves below middle C, in my case both my current Camac Excalibur and my L&H Prelude go down to the A below the two octaves below middle C. Even when I seldom pluck them, they resonate with certain higher strings I do pluck and so they give the harp a richer sound.

    I agree with you that for jazz music one would prefer a fairly high tension. Otherwise, perhaps, the music would tend to sound muddy unless one would diligently damp the strings, but that would be troublesome when one also needs to flip many levers in a short time. Or did you have other considerations when thinking of a fairly high tension for jazz?

    Biagio on #224934

    Hi Wil,

    Yep, damping what I was thinking of – and related special techniques that work better with higher tension. That’s advanced stuff, mostly: sliding the finger on the string, using the back of the nail for a “rattle” and so on.


    Tacye on #224935

    Why have you narrowed your choice down to those three and not other harps in your price range? Pilgrim Skylark, Teifi Siff Saff? Starfish student is only just out of your range. If you know and don’t want these that is something to guide you.

    If you are anywhere near Edinburgh or Caernarfon there are harp festivals coming up where you can try lots of harps.

    Djan on #224940

    Wow, thank you all for the detailed responses. My apologies for not clarifying that I have been borrowing a friend’s Clarsach thus far and yes it has been strung with bow brand light gut. The lever stiffness and response to humidity have been a bit challenging and while I like the sound of this harp, I loved listening to Camac Excalibur. Hence my curiosity on fluorocarbon strings.

    I also appreciate your feedback on the sounboard type. The only reason I was looking into the Ravenna 34 was because of its bright sound, damping response and longevity of nylon strings.

    While the possibilities are endless with cross harps and change of strings, I prefer sticking to the original harp style and strings as I’m not experienced and would like to keep the options open to trade in future or even contribute to a pedal harp upgrade.

    Agree that for jazz music, higher tension works better. So are gut strung harps naturally better with damping? Also from your suggestions how are the tensions of Camac Hermine, Telenn and Celtic Isolde in comparison? Is one better suited?

    wil-weten on #224941

    One of my harps is a Camac Excalibur. It has Kürschner carbon strings with a tension somewhere between celtic and classic. These Kürschner strings are a little bit warmer than Savarez carbon strings and they keep their red and black colour just fine (The colour of Savarez carbon strings fades after some time. I also have a harp with partly Savarez carbon strings and, apart from the fact that I like their sound too, a nice thing about them is that they can be had in thicker gauges than Kürschner carbon strings).

    I’ve got the Excalibur for a little bit more than 1 year now and in that time only one string got broken (the D immediately above middle C).

    I know the Excalibur is significantly pricier than the Ravenna, but I do think the Excalibur is worth the extra cost. It sounds clear with a little bit of warmth over the whole range and has a great balance of sound. If the Excalibur is really out of your price range, you may like to try the Isolde Classic and Celtic because of their clear and balanced sound. As you will try the Ravenna, please listen well if you mind the difference in feel and sound between the wound strings and the nylon strings.

    If you think of buying pedal harp in the future. You may like to try harps with pedal gut tension. Think of the L&H Ogden, which is almost in your price range. There is also the Salvi Gaia with pedal gut tension.
    Here: a harp teacher plays both of these harps next to each other and then she also plays a pedal harp.
    When pedal gut is not practical, you may think of stringing it with the very much cheaper Camac Nylgut (which, like other nylgut, is made by Aquila). For the prices of nylgut for pedal harps and for pedal tension stringed lever harps, see:
    I’ve got a L&H Prelude as well and, as you mentioned small hands, I must say that it is much easier for me to grasp a decim on the Camac Excalibur than on the L&H Prelude or on a L&H Ogden which have more distance between the lower strings. I like the rich sound of the L&H’s but they do require a good classic technique to play them. The Excalibur is much easier to play, but then, it has a quite different, much more bright sound.

    The Camac Hermine has a rather low tension, the Telenn a middle tension and so does the Isolde Celtic. The Isolde Classic has a classic tension. I love the Excalibur with its tension between celtic and classic.

    If the Excalibur is too much out of your price range, I would try both the Isoldes. The Isolde harps, especially the celtic strung ones, are also very popular, so it would be easy to sell it later on.

    Camac also has harps for rent. They may have a nice scheme for you to hire a certain harp e.g. with the possibility of buying it within a half year with the costs of hiring subtracted from the harp (or maybe in the UK they’ve got other interesting schemes, I really don’t know about that). This may be a great way to find out whether a harp really suits you or not.

    As to damping, low tension strings, especially the longer ones, need more damping than high tension strings. This has not to do with the kind of material.

    I just wonder: which other harps you may have a look at next weekend?

    Edit: I don’t know why you would skip looking at 2nd hand harps. If you buy one from a reputable harp shop with, let’s say a guarantee of a year (like I got on both 2nd hand harps), you get a fine harp with lot of bang for your buck! I was also offered the option of trading it in within three months for another 2nd hand harp without any extra costs. But then, I don’t know about harp selling policies in the UK.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by wil-weten.
    Biagio on #224945

    A note on the Dusty Ravenna and similar harps:

    It is something of a misnomer to describe their sound boards as “plywood” and to thus infer that they are poorer quality than harps with solid wood boards. Different tone and easier to build certainly but….

    For a long time harp makers used spruce almost exclusively partly because many of them came from the violin tradition. Totally different instrument in terms of dynamics. I might add that both violin and concert harp makers tend to be bound by tradition.

    With the explosion of interest in “folk” instruments during the seventies, “folk” harp makers began to experiment with almost every aspect of design. In fact, you can thank Chris Caswell and Rick Rubarth among others for the introduction of fluorocarbon strings – which were (and in some cases still are) Japanese fishing line. Savarez came up with some patented variations on the formula, but some of us still prefer the original for reasons I won’t go into here.

    Such experimentation also led to different sound board materials and means of construction (you will probably not see a board covered with a thin hardwood veneer on harps 20 or more years old). Cypress, cedar, redwood, some species of pine are all used on folk harps today. Along the way some bright spark discovered aircraft grade laminates, which you now find on harps such as the Ravennas, Rubarth Merlin, Boulding Oran Mor, and all the Musicmakers (among others). This is NOT plywood in the sense of outer hardwood surfaces covering softwood inner layers. The laminates are entirely hardwood – typically birch – with each about 0.6mm thick (or, rather thin).

    As such these react rather more like a very thin hardwood than the softwood boards but are very impervious to shrinking/swelling. Savvy makers can tune the instrument by making the the vibrating surface wider, tension higher, and tuning the sound chamber. They will not develop more color over time as will a spruce board but on the other hand they sound fine right out of the box and are a good choice if you are not intending to play in concert – or even so if you intend to play outdoors – and if you are economically constrained. Some pros in fact like them for tours – Mark Harmer and Harper Tasche for instance.

    Incidentally, when Wil refers to “Dusty Ravenna…quality plywood which is covered with vinyl” she is referring to the sound box. The board is aircraft grade laminate, the box is vinyl covered baltic birch ply. They cost less partly because the materials cost less than hard woods and softwoods (as with the FH series), partly because the construction is much faster, and partly because of the market perception/preference of traditional materials.


    wil-weten on #224947

    Agree with Biagio, and indeed, when I wrote ‘sound board’ I meant the sound box and so I just corrected my message above.

    All the same, the Pilgrim Clarsach the OP has been playing on for a few years, is a carefully hand-built harp with a sound box of full walnut and, unless things have changed since I last saw one many moons ago, a solid wood sound board.

    And so, I was initially surprised the OP thought of buying an entry level harp. No bad word about the Dusty Ravenna from me: I think it offers great value for money. Yet, I think the OP would be looking for a different harp.

    Biagio on #224950

    I’m moving away from the original thread a little so apologies. But I can’t resist one more comment:

    Ray Mooers over at Dusty is in my opinion and many others one of the smartest harp makers in the business. Ray perceived that the Ravennas could be viewed as lower quality entry level and also (I’d bet) was concerned about them cannabalizing FH sales. Hence the Allegro and Crescendo – hardwood box, laminate board.

    Ain’t it fun?


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