Strings for a better tone

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    MallyG on #185112

    I want to try to improve the sound of my old beginner’s 29-string lever harp. I have noticed that the bottom 4 or five strings are of very low gauge and hence low tension. This makes their sound weak, and playing them is not good for my technique, as they are not at concert tension. The advice is to replace like with like, but would I be able to fit, say, metal wound strings or nylon wound strings or just ‘thicker’ strings, to give a higher tension and better sound? Or will that just break the soundboard? I thought I might try one string at a time and see what effect it has. Any ideas?

    charles-nix on #185115

    What is the harp model? What pitch is the low (or high) note? Lever harps vary greatly in design and strength, and have to be matched with their string tension.

    There are several very good string companies who can do an analysis of the string stress and advise, and who may have had experience with your model before.

    Yes, you absolutely can break the soundboard, or the neck. The harp may well be strong enough for some increase, though it would be really unusual if it would go to concert tension and stay in one piece.

    And I’m not discouraging you at all. I greatly changed both compass and tension on my first lever harp, and it is a much improved instrument.

    Charles Nix

    Biagio on #185121

    I second Charles, absolutely. From the description, none of your strings are wound and I would also presume on a “beginner’s harp” they are nylon and the board probably a ply, not solid wood. High quality ply boards (better known as aircraft grade laminate) can take higher tension at the same thickness than solid wood ones. But without knowing these details I’d hesitate say anything more than a general “Yes, you can with AFTER analyzing it.”

    Certainly playing round with tension is one way to look at it, but in the low range there is a trade-off between tension, diameter, material; and by extension stiffness. A string with a thick diameter may well sound worse than a thinner one even if both are at the same tension. Definitely consult with a professional string maker.

    MallyG on #185139

    Thanks for the quick, informative and measured replies. The harp is of Pakistani origin, very cheap! A present from my wife, ‘cus I’d been harping on about getting one. The strings are indeed nylon, and of poor quality (like $75/£50 a set). None are wound and the soundboard is laminated (three sections). The range is C1 to C5. I think your advice is to proceed, but slowly and cautiously, perhaps with a thicker string to start with, before trying nylon wound…..
    Thanks again

    Biagio on #185140

    Honestly – and I really hope this is not too discouraging or disparaging – I don’t think that harp’s tone can be improved very much. The material used for the soundboard is simply too thick to respond well and of inferior quality no matter what is put on it. So I’d not spend much on wound strings or higher quality/higher density ones (gut, Nylgut, fluorocarbon).

    The largest diameter Tynex nylon commonly available is 0.060″/1.52mm so maybe give that a try for the lowest two or three and see if there’s any improvement. There’s also no harm in asking a string maker what they would suggest. Quite possibly they will have worked on your harp model and have the specs on file. Here in the US the two I use are Robinson’s Harp/Vermont Strings and Markwood; in the UK I understand a good source is Salopian strings.

    Good luck with it!

    MallyG on #185600

    I just thought I would offer an update. I have tried various strings to achieve a better tone and tension, most have failed! However, some worked…..
    1) I was able to replace the C5 and D5 with wire wound strings, without the harp cracking up – and they sound great, tone and tension much better. I used guitar A strings, as I didn’t want to waste too much money on just an experiment.
    2) The E5 (D guitar string) kept snapping no matter what kind I used (low tension, hard tension etc). So
    3) I replaced the E5 and F4 with hard nylon harp strings, and there is a noticeable improvement.
    I have found the bottom line to be that, as you suggested, it’s worth having a go, BUT, the final limitation is the woodwork, and I can do nothing about that!

    balfour-knight on #185628

    I’m glad those strings worked to make your harp sound better! It was good to experiment carefully so the harp did not pull apart. Biagio really knows a lot about this sort of thing.

    Biagio on #185637

    Thank you Balfour and congratulations Mally! Judicious experimenting sometimes pays off better than going all techie. Here’s an interesting example: a friend bought one of those new bowed dulcimers but didn’t like the tone. (There are only two makers at the moment and both use steel strings – Ken Bloom and Nic Hambas if anyone is interested).

    So she went to her friends at Dusty Strings and got some cut-offs from their new gut strung Boulevard. Sounds great!


    balfour-knight on #185650

    Hi, Mally & Biagio,

    Neat about the gut strings on the bowed dulcimer! That sounds like what happened to me when I decided to add some lever gut strings to my Musicmaker’s Large Gothic 36. Jerry Brown, the builder, had installed some lever guts on one of his other models, the five strings in the 5th octave (pedal harp numbering system) a-b-c-d-e. The lowest 5 strings (6th octave) are metal, and have full, super tone c-d-e-f-g.

    Jerry’s scaling already sounded good, with 5th octave a and b being nylon wrapped over metal, then going to solid nylon on c (.060) and on up to the top c with solid nylon, various sizes.

    Anyway, Jerry mentioned to me that the lever gut gave that part of the harp a very warm, full tone, and so I experimented with it. I ordered the 5th octave set, and also the 4th octave set. I installed all of them on the harp, and just in a few days, the top gut string, e, broke! An expensive string, yes! I replaced it with nylon, and in a few more days, the next highest gut string broke, followed by two more. (I should have researched their breaking points, I know!)

    To make a long story short, the length of those particular strings is too long to accommodate the tension required to put the guts in tune. So, what works very well on this particular harp is to have 8 gut strings, a–a, a beautiful-sounding octave, which does, in my humble opinion, make this harp sound perfect! If I had never experimented, I would not know this, so I say EXPERIMENT, by all means, Mally.

    My best wishes,

    Biagio on #185698

    I agree very much Balfour. There’s a lot to like about Music Makers. As a kit maker their standard models are pretty good just as they are, but the nicest thing IMO is that they can be easily upgraded to really fine harps, which says a lot about the care they take in the design.

    Both the Regency and the Voyageur, fitted with a solid wood sound board and better strings are excellent concert harps; the Limerick with phosphor bronze strings dropped a couple of steps and a hardwood board is a very nice wire strung.

    I think it is a shame that they discontinued the 22 string Shepherd, which with a few tweaks (stronger SB, thicker neck) would make a great little double…and so on. I can’t speak too highly of their service!


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