Alison Vardy   Solo Celtic Harpist  
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Celtic Harp FAQ - Just why is that?

I have added this information feature to the website as I am often performing in public and field numerous questions about the Celtic harp as it is the most attractive of instruments. The questions are generally not overly technical and neither are my answers. eMail me with your questions and I will answer them too.

Alison Vardy


  Celtic & Paraguayan Harp FAQ  

Is it difficult to play the Celtic harp?
The Celtic harp is a very forgiving instrument in that it sounds beautiful even when you are just learning. It takes time, patience and lots of repetition to learn a comfortable, effective hand position as well as playing techniques that get the best sound from your instrument.

Do I need to know how to read music?
The ability to read music is always an asset, but not a necessity when playing solo and by ear.

My child has shown an interest in playing the harp. What would be a good age to start?
No specific age but when the child is large enough to sit comfortably on a chair/stool with their feet on the floor, and can reach the strings .

What kind of harp should I get?
Lever harps (celtic harps) are usually less expensive as well as smaller and easier to transport than pedal harps. I recommend an instrument with a minimum of 29 - 30 strings that sits on the floor while you are on a chair or stool (or you can use risers for the harp).

Are you a harpoonist? (Yes it has been asked!)
I play the Celtic and Paraguayan harps and call myself a harpist or "harper".

Is that a real harp?
Harps come in all sounds, sizes and shapes. A Western harp constitutes a triangular frame with either an attached acoustic soundbox (as part of the frame) or with some electronic wizardry that can pick up the string vibration and be amplified elsewhere. Harps can vary from 6 to 48 strings when they have a single course (row) of strings. Double, triple and cross-strung harps can have over a hundred strings. Read more about these harps in harp history.

What are the different kinds of harp?
Many! Defined by:

Numbers of rows of strings: eg. single-course, double-strung, triple-strung (Welsh), cross-string

Type of strings - wire-strung, nylon-string (usually with wire only in bass), gut-strung

Mechanisms for semi-tones - eg. lev ers (lever harps), pedals (pedal harps), tacitos (paraguayan harps)

Ethnicity - eg. Kora of Africa, Koto of Japan, Valiha of Madagascar are all in the harp family.

Size - eg. lap harps, floor harps, troubadour harps, even huge wind harp (aeolian harps)

History - eg. medieval, baroque harps, arpa doppia of Italy, arpa de dos ordenes of Spain


Why are some of the strings coloured?
Coloured strings provide you with signposts for finding your way around the harp. On lever and pedal harps the red strings are C's and the black or blue strings are F's. On Paraguayan harps not so!

What are the strings made of?
Nylon, nylon wrapped on nylon, gut, carbon-fiber (synthetic gut), steel, bronze, brass, metal wound on silk, nylon wrapped on multi filament nylon.....etc.

Do you get sore fingers?  Do you have calluses?
If my fingers get sore, it has usually started in my neck & shoulders and I need to take regular breaks as well as warm-up with stretching before I start playing. Calluses are very slight when playing on nylon or gut-strung harps, some wire harp players can develop significant calluses if they use their finger pads. Most wire harp players prefer to use their fingernails, hence have no significant calluses.

What does a lever do?
Levers are devices for raising the pitch of a string by one semi-tone. This avoids re-tensioning the string to change a note. A lever effectively shortens a string by pinching it or deflecting it sideways by 1/18th of its length (just like a fret on a guitar does by pressing a finger). All wire-strung harps often have blades which deflect the string. Pedal harps have up to 1500 moving parts to accomplish pitch changes using pedals.




What is a Celtic harp made of?
Harps are usually made out of hardwoods and sound or tone woods. The majority of woods used in harp are exotic woods that impart a particular sound or quality to the harp. In North America maple, cherry, and mahogany are often used. The soundboard (where the strings come out of) is made of more a musical sounding tone wood, usually sitka spruce. My various harps are made of quilted maple (the Sandpiper below), Tasmanian acacia blackwood (the Paraguayan), oak (the Webby), mahogany, cherry and laminates (the Bresch). Laminates are essentially high quality plywoods made with hardwoods (ie: maple) and can sound very similar to a natural wood harp with the added benefit of increased durability and lower cost.



Sandpiper Nova Celtic - Bresch Celtic - Webby Celtic harp
- Alison's Paraguayan -


How often do you have to tune it?
Every time I perform and small tweaking's for practice at home.

Do strings break often?  Are they hard to replace?
Because of it's low string tension, the paraguayan harp has never broken a string (11 years old now!) but the strings still need replacing after a few years as they lose their "harmonics" and start to sound dull.

Nylon strings break more often and gut strings the most often. A lot depends on the stringband tension that the harpmaker has built the design of the harp around. The maximum string-breakage I've had is 6 per year per harp....even fewer as the harp "settles in".

What kind of harps are played in the symphony orchestra?
Pedal harps - 47 strings or 7 1/2 octaves, the same as a piano.

What does harp music look like on the page?
Very similar to piano music with a right hand (usually the melody) and a left hand (usually the harmony).

What does a Celtic harp cost?
Harps can be expensive! Good Western Canadian folk harps start at about CAD$2500 for a new beginner harp with a full set of levers and a case. One can easily spend CAD$6000 for a premium model. USA harpers substitute US for CAD and you will not be too far out. It is best to rent if you can for a while to determine if harping is a "fit" for you. You can also develop a bit of an ear this way thus choosing a harp to purchase becomes easier. Orchestral concert harps start at US$20,000 and the most expensive new harp I have found to date was UK£150,000 (US$260,000)



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eMail me with your questions and I will answer them too.  Alison

Alison Vardy - Solo Celtic Harpist
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