Monday, September 18, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the harps)

I'll start by saying that because of the work I have to put into staying on top of my game as a guitar slinger I am not as good a harper as I would be if that's all I did. But, when a harp is called for, nothing else will do. There's no faking the harp. There's also that whole thing of telling somebody you play the harp and then having to expain to them that "No, not the harmonica, the angel axe." Also people instantly assume that a guy that plays the harp is gay. This used to really piss me off. Then I realized that flying under the radar can be very beneficial. There have been more than a few women who went home feeling that they had totally "converted" me.

Most of the harp work I do is on Celtic style harps. These are smaller than the big, guilded concert harps with pedals for bringing accidentals into the equation. So let's start with the most basic harp I have. It's the one that's pictured here up in corner. Dark Wraith used the photograph to use in the logo on the masthead.

There are some things about that little harp that make it different and glorious. The first is that I built it. From scratch. I had been in Ireland visiting my family and I heard a woman playing the traditional Irish Harp. It's a small thing, sometimes called a "lap harp." 28 strings is what you get to work with, and the strings are brass. All brass. Traditional players grow their fingernails long enough to pluck the strings with them. I can't because that would screw up my left hand for playing my other instruments. So I make due with having longer fingernails on my right hand for doing the melody lines. The brass strings give the harp a brilliant and chiming sound. It sounds like angels. The reason I had to build it is that a modern harp made for the nylon strings wouldn't be sturdy enough to stand the tension produced by the brass strings. I checked around trying to buy one and was told that there wasn't enough demand for them to make it feasible for somebody to have them as a steady product. Anyway, I found the plans through a musicologist at Trinity College in Dublin. The wood is solid cherry. Playing it is different from the other harps because the strings have to be constantly damped. When I play chords or fast lines it can get pretty wild. With a chord there's a whole thing of sympathetic vibration that starts to happen. If I hit a C and a G in the bass tones, chances are all the other C's and G's on the harp will start to vibrate along with them. That sounds really nice, until it's time to switch to an F or a B. Luckily most of the older Irish stuff kind of takes that into account. They stay pretty much in the C, F, G, Am zone of things. Another drawback to the brass strings is that there is not a very good method for sharping a string to allow you to play in other keys. Regular Celtic harps use a lever up by the tuning peg that will raise the pitch of a string one half step. Without those you are restricted to an instrument which is voiced like a piano with only white keys. I figure what the hell. When I need to do that stuff I have other harps. For the older, simpler, more modal things, this is the baby I go for. I also use it for outdoor weddings. It is loud enough without amplification to carry the day.

Another Celtic Harp that I have is also a small one. 28 strings again. It's called a luteback harp. The body of the harp is a bowl shape. Even when I play it sitting down I have to use a strap over my shoulders to keep it in position. The upside of this is that I can also play it standing or walking. The volume produced by the shape of the body also is amazing. For a little harp this puppy kicks out some sound. The tone is mellow and gentle, but very rich. Sharping levers allow me to change keys with ease. This is a great little harp for taking to smaller venues to accompany singers and stuff.

For studio harp I have an old (1848) French Gothic Harp. It has 48 strings, nylon on the bottom and brass on the top 8. It's tall and slender. Very austere and simple in its lines. There's not a lot of frou-frou decoration and stuff. The sound on this harp is big and rich. The longer, deeper toned bass strings really boom. It also has levers for sharping to change key or play an accidental.

Then there's the big girl. It's not a full on concert harp. It's made by a company that builds them and it's called "The Daphne." It has the full set of strings which give it the same range as a piano. At the base of the harp there are seven three position pedals. This controls each tone of the scale. The top position is sharp, the middle is natural tone, and the bottom position is flatted. Using these takes a lot of practice, but you can achieve every style from jazz to reggae because of the variance you can get out of your strings. I have a friend in L.A. who can play Scott Joplin and Chopin transcriptions for the harp. I'm not that good, I don't practice enough. Usually if the full on concert harp is needed for a gig, I'll drop everything else long enough to bring my chops into line. I have the Daphne at home mainly to be able to practice setting and changing the levers. A concert harp is like a piano. If they want you to play it the venue usually has one there. Although I show up with my wrench and my strobe tuner long before the gig to bring the instrument into pitch.

I really love my harps. I wish I was a better player than I am. They deserve better than me.


Blogger BadTux said...

Hmm. Harp as girl magnet. Never thought of that one. Guess the gals are tired of scruffy guitarists :-).

But I'm still not giving up my guitar!

-- Badtux the "Hmm..." Penguin

10:57 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

it's true. i am constantly telling my fellow guitar slingers that the harp is the surest bet i've found. if they assume that you're gay, so what? they can leave thinking they've changed your life. the men folk leave you a clear tack to sail because they assume that you're "safe." i'm not giving up my guitars either, can't afford to do so. i've also had them assume at church's that i'm christian even when they know that i'm there because i'm getting paid union scale. still, even without the women factor, i would be a harper. there's a primal thing in human beings that the harp reaches. i love them.

3:56 PM  

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