Top questions about the harp

The harp at the Big Chill. On a truck. Oh, the glamour.

(Shamelessly tarted up, rewritten and reposted from my old Myspace blog)

I get asked the same questions all the time when I turn up somewhere with my harp in tow. So here’s a first pass at a “Harps and Harpists” FAQ.

How do you get it around the place?
Using a combination of a wheely trolley, brute strength and fluttering my eyelashes at burly men.  It also has wheels on the bottom of the instrument itself so I can push it around on stage.

The wheely trolley is brilliant, and it can climb up and down stairs with ease. A word to the wise – don’t try and get a harp up a spiral staircase. It’s messy.

Isn’t it really heavy?
Yup.  I had to have the neck (the curvy bit across the top) replaced a while ago and now it feels like it weighs twice as much. Pulled muscles and backache are my way of life.

Apparently the new neck is made of Panzer Holz (translated as ‘panther wood’), which claims to be “damped sandwiched bullet-proof wood”.  So I’ll be safe in case of any gigs turning nasty. Especially useful, given that I live in Hackney in an area charmingly nicknamed “Murder Mile”.

Do you get blisters?
Yes, but only when I’m not playing often enough. Or if I’m playing too much.  My callouses are coming along nicely now, and my fingertips have the texture of shoe-leather. When I go away on holiday and don’t play (or do too much washing-up) the tips of my finger start dying and I start chewing on them. It’s not a pretty sight.

As an aside, one of the highlights of my musical life was Jarvis Cocker fondling my callouses at the Hammersmith Apollo

How many strings has it got?
Ooh, loads. 45? Something like that- it depends on the make and model of harp. And yes, you do have to tune every single one. I have no sympathy for the guitarists in my life, and even less for bassists.   An electric tuner is a harpist’s best friend, and I live in fear of the day I turn up to a gig without mine or it dies on me. It’s getting pretty old now – it’s at least 15 (which is about 80 in electronics-years) – perhaps I should get a new one.

Why are they different colours?
The red ones are Cs, the black or blue ones are Fs. It helps me to navigate round. If you want to piss off a harpist, shine red light on them while they’re playing- they can’t work out where they are at all. I’m looking at YOU, lighting engineers I have known and hated… We’re not asking for no red lights just to be prissy.

What do the pedals do?
Accelerator, brake, clutch, reverse, raspberry slush-puppie dispenser, autotune and heat-seeking missile launcher.

(At this point I normally ask the questioner if they know anything about music…)

They change the pitch of the notes, meaning you can play in different keys. There are seven pedals on a harp, each corresponding to the seven notes of the scale (A,B,C,D,E,F and G). The harp has seven strings per octave (A,B,C… you get the idea). Each pedal has three positions, so you can play a flat, natural or sharp on any of the seven notes.

So, in theory, you can play in pretty much any key, and you can put in accidentals and stuff like that, and play in major or minor keys.  If you watch a classical harpist playing, you’ll see their feet moving almost as fast as their hands.  Luckily for me, most of the stuff I play stays in the same key. This is good, because I’m lazy.

How do you transport a harp?
I have an estate car. It fits just fine.  You can also get a harp in an Austin Metro. You can’t get anything else in there as well, but it just about fits.  Ask me how I know…

I know for a fact mine goes in the back of a Renault 19, but it’s annoying to get in and out. And you can fit two concert harps in the back of an old VW Passat. The harp has also been carted around on the back of a flat bed truck at the Big Chill 2006. I got to ride with it, like some evil carnival queen, waving at my minions. It was brilliant.

Aren’t they really expensive?
Yes, if you have an expensive harp.  I was lucky that my parents bought me a reasonably cheap secondhand one when my Granny died about fifteen years ago.  Sometimes I think my Mum still wishes she had got a conservatory instead.

What make is it?
Mine’s a Salvi Orchestra. It’s quite small, and not a big concert harp with a fat bottom and gold wiggly bits because I can’t afford one (though if anyone from Salvi or Lyon & Healy is reading this…)

How do you amplify it?
I currently have an Accusound pickup stuck up the inside of it, and I use an LR Baggs para-acoustic DI. After many years of buying pickups, DIs, preamps etc etc etc and discarding it for being crap, I believe this is the dream combo.  I get a really loud, clean sound through most PAs, from a tiny pub to a massive club like KOKO.

Does it have a name?
Hmm, not really. I know that a lot of harpists name theirs, and I name pretty much everything else I have except my musical instruments. It would probably be called “Nutty” if anything, as it’s got a walnut veneer. That’s not a particularly classy name though.

Can you play “Angels” by Robbie Williams?
No. On second thoughts, maybe if you paid me enough.

What about LFO/Stevie Wonder/Thriller…
See answer above…

Are you an angel?
No. Please find a more original pick-up line.

It looks like a giant oven glove!
Gosh, aren’t you observant…

Are you alright with that? Can I give you a hand?
Errrm, actually it’s a lot easier if I put the harp in the car and lug it about. For a start, if anyone drops it, it’s going to be me (so I won’t end up on a murder charge for killing the careless MoFo who damages it…) and also I know exactly how to put it in the car, and how it balances. Thanks for offering though.

Don’t you wish you played the flute? Hahahaha
Yes. Yes I do.  Now leave me alone.

(Edited to add in extra questions from the forumites)

4 responses to “Top questions about the harp

  1. Very educational, thank you 🙂

  2. No time for guitarists or bassists huh? What about 3-string Appalachian dulcimer players? I made just such an instrument in high school…almost…course ended before getting the strings on!

    • I have sympathy with anyone with more strings than me, a heavier instrument that me, or drummers who take longer to set up 🙂

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