If you just stepped onto the harp scene, we may as well tell you now — you’re in for some exciting surprises. The harp is undoubtedly quite a remarkable instrument. Not only does it have a unique shape and structure, but it produces a one-of-a-kind sound that no other instrument can match.
To top it all off, harps come in a diverse range of types, shapes, and sizes. Indeed, as a beginner harpist, the different types of harps that exist can quickly become overwhelming. Not to worry, we’ll break it all down in this blog post.
Are you an instrument enthusiast looking to learn all you can about the harp? Or perhaps you’re considering learning the harp and want to gather some information about it. Whichever the case may be, you’re in the right place. Keep reading to discover the types of harps that exist today.
What are the Different Types of Harps?
Interestingly, although there are a variety of harp types, they share a relatively similar playing technique. But there is an exception — some specific harps have special mechanisms that help them produce specific tones. However, all harps have plucking as their style-of-play. That said, let us explore the various types of harps we have today.
1) Pedal Harps
First on our list is the pedal harp, arguably the most famous type of harp today. Indeed, If you have ever watched a professional symphony or orchestra, then you’ve probably seen a pedal in action. So if you were to describe a modern-day harp, the pedal harp is what typically comes to mind.
The harp is a large, beautiful instrument with gut and steel strings, usually in combination with nylon strings. Furthermore, the pedal harp has one of the largest arrays of strings, usually having an average of 40 to 47 strings on it. This makes it the biggest type of harp.
But, the truly distinctive of the pedal harp is its built-in pedals (you may have guessed this from its name). But, what is the significance of the pedals on this harp? The pedals on the pedal harp are what allows the harpist to play sharps and flats of music. This characteristic is what makes the pedal harp one of the more-preferred types.
While playing a pedal harp, the harpist will press the pedals with their feet to make the desired tone changes. The harps have seven pedals in all, and each of them corresponds to a note between A and G. From left to right, the pedals have a D-C-B-E-F-G-A order.
Furthermore, each pedal on the harp has three slots — sharp, natural, and flat. So, if the harpist puts, say, the D pedal in the flat slot, every D string on the harp will play a D-flat.
Here is how it works. The pedals on the pedal harp connect upwards to a rod that connects them to the harp’s column. This then comments each string to an intricate array of the mechanisms responsible for changing their pitch. This complex setup of pedals is arguably what makes the pedal harp so expensive.
2) Lever Harps
Next on our list are the lever harps. These are significantly smaller and considerably more portable than pedal harps. However, unlike pedal harps, the lever does have pedals. As such, it cannot hit sharps or flats in music unless you re-tune it. This is where its levers come into play.
The lever harp uses its levers to adjust the tension in its strings such that it can produce sharps and flats. Each string has an assigned lever, which raises its tone by one semitone. But, this means that the lever harp has a limited number of keys.
However, there is a drawback. The harpist must use their left to change levers when playing. This means that the musical arrangement for a lever harp must have some space for the harpist to do a lever change.
Interestingly, if you tune a fully levered harp to E-flat major and let all its levers down, you can play the more popular keys ranging from three flats all the way to four sharps without re-tuning the instrument.
But, despite its limitations, the lever harp has some advantages. For one, lever harps are relatively small, which makes them very portable. Moreover, depending on the tuning, the harp can produce sounds that are either more classical or more Celtic.
3) Wire Harps
Here’s a fun fact for you — historically, wire harps (or Clarsachs) are a variation of folk harps that only feature all-metal string sets. This makes the sounds they produce unique different from every other type of harp — a bell-like sound. Depending on the model you acquire, your wire harp may either be a lap-size or a floor-size.
However, a traditional wire cannot play flats and sharps in music. But, some wire harps may have built-in blades, which enable them to produce flats and sharps.
Today, wire harps are not nearly as possible as they used to be. But, they seem to be making their way back to the spotlight. Indeed, many harp-making companies now have production lines for wire harps. There are even new books on how to play the wire harp!
In terms of their construction, wire harps have a generally sturdier body. This perhaps to withstand the tension that comes with its metal wire strings. The Trinity College harp is one example.
The technique for playing a wire-strung harp is considerably different from other harps. Many may also say it is more difficult. You see, playing a wire harp requires a complex system when you damp some strings while you let other strings ring.
Most traditional wire harpists play with their fingernails, while others may use finger pads while playing. Another point worth mentioning is that the wire harp is more suited to Irish and Celtic music due to its characteristic bell-like tone.
4) Cross-Strung Harps
The cross-strung harp gets its name from having two sets of strings across each other. But, they are not in contact. Instead, each one goes over the other. Interestingly, cross-strung harps can play sharp and flats without using pedals or levers.
The dual rows of strings on a cross-strung harp are at an angle such that the harpist can reach the row of their choice at every point. One row of the strings has all its natural tones while the other (usually in black or blue color)
is where you have the sharps and flats of the instrument.
But, perhaps the most interesting feature of the cross-strung harp is that it is fully chromatic.
5) Double Harp
The Double Harp is another type of harp that is certainly worth mentioning. Like the cross-strung harp, the double harp has two parallel diatonic rows of strings. This means that both strings share the same pitch. Also, some double harps have built-in levers while others do not.
When playing a double harp, your plucking actions create vibrations that bounce off each row of strings creating splendid harmonics. With the double harp, you can create various special sound effects and unique tunes relatively easily, making them quite popular in some circles.
6) Triple Harp
Triple harps are one of the less common types of harps out there. With the Welsh triple harp, both outer rows of strings have a diatonic tuning (like the lever harp), while its third row (in the middle) provides the sharps and flats. The best thing about having a triple harp is that it offers exciting sound effects that other harps do not. However, it has to undergo re-tuning to switch between keys.
7) Chromatic-strung & Cross-strung Chromatic Harps
A chromatic-strung harp describes a harp that features additional strings on its frame to attain notes that aren’t on their diatonic home scale. In other words, they do not require pedals or levers.
On the other hand, a cross-strung harp features a row of diatonic strings across one row of chromatic notes, in an “X” pattern. So, while playing a cross-strung harp, the row you play at the top with your right will fall to your left hand at the lower section, and vice versa.
8) Paraguayan and Latin-American Harps
Considerably fewer people can say that they have listened, or even seen, a Paraguayan harp in action. Moreover, there is not a whole lot of information out there on this type of harp. But, we can tell you right now — the harp is an absolute beauty to behold or even hear.
Like other harps with a Latin-American origin, the Paraguayan harp has a straight pillar, unlike the traditional curved shape. Also, they have a unique tone, which often finds itself playing highly rhythmic music.
9) Aeolian or Wind Harp
The wind harp is exactly what it sounds like — a harp that air or wind controls. If you think this is impossible, here’s something you can try by yourself. Find a windy corridor and tie a few strings across an area, making sure to keep them taut. Then, wait for a strong wind.
You’ll find that the strings will provide weird siren-like tones. Like that, you’ve essentially made an aeolian harp! If you want to have fun with the pitches, vary the length of the strings.
Aeolian or wind harps do not always have soundboards, and they have sizes from large models to lap models.
Many wind harpists who have tried playing have noticed the effect of the wind on their instruments. In case you’re wondering, it adds an eerie touch to the sounds they produce. While this may be desirable during a harp music session around a campfire, it can be rather startling during an outdoor wedding procession music.
Wind harps are arguably the reason for the myths and campfire tales about harps that played themselves.
10) Electric Harp
Today, it is clear the electric harp is gaining so much popularity. Indeed, it is easily one of the more sought-after by harpists globally. However, it hasn’t made as big a name for itself on the general instrument scene.
While electric harps typically follow the same playing technique as acoustic, they have an added perk of having a sophisticated amplification system. However, that is not the best part. You see, you’d expect the harp to have a general sound pick-up system, but that’s not the case.
Each string on an electric harp uses an individual sensor (low profile RMC string sensor) that detects its vibrations and captures them. Then, it goes through a high-performance mixer and the preamp before becoming a stereo sound output. The makes the sound from the amplifier an accurate representation of the electric harp’s tones.
Asides from the fact that the sounds from an electric harp are incredibly detailed and projected, there’s more. You see, each string having its sensor leads to a ‘moving sound’ effect in the stereo output. This can be very useful in some scenarios.
11) Bell Harp
Here, the umbrella term ‘harp’ is not an accurate description. But the word ‘Bell Harp‘ has become so popular, we decided to add it to the list.
Originally known as the English harp, the bell harp is actually closer to a psaltery and bears a close resemblance to a zither. It consists of at least eight strings across the span of a soundboard.
Traditionally, the bell harp players hold the instrument uprightly between both hands and pluck the strings while swinging the instrument to create undulating variations in its sounds.
12) Harp Guitar
Finally, on our list of the types of harps, we have the harp guitar.
The harp guitar (or harp-lute) is a 19th-century invention that combines the qualities of a harp and a guitar to make one instrument.
As you can already guess, such a harp will undoubtedly produce a uniquely different sound.
Many people claim that the harp guitar sounds like a bass guitar, a steel-string guitar, and a wire harp, all at once.
If you stuck with us until the end, you’re the real MVP! More importantly, you likely know more types of harps than you started this article knowing. If you’re just starting on your harp journey, do not allow the variety of harps to overwhelm you. When it gets down to the core, they all share a similar playing technique.
So, stay calm and enjoy the learning process. You’ll find the harp is a truly fantastic instrument to play!