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Can I replace my nylon harp strings with gut?

August 17, 2016
Posted by
Gut harp strings wound around tuning pins

The short answer is yes, you probably can, but there are some important things to take into consideration so that you don’t hurt your harp. There’s also a lot of mystery surrounding harp strings and string tension, so we’d like to explain some of the basic concepts and hopefully clear up a few common misconceptions.

The Basics: Harp construction and string tension

Pedal harps in general are more heavily-built and reinforced than lever harps are. We’re not going to get into all the reasons why, but when talking about strings, it helps to understand that a pedal harp’s design and materials are what allow it to support high-tension pedal harp strings. Though you see mostly wood from the outside, many actually have metal ribs on the inside that are helping to keep the body from collapsing under the pull of the strings on the soundboard. Lever harps are often lighter (both in terms of weight and degree of reinforcement), and are designed for medium- or light-tension strings that don’t need to be pulled as hard to make a sound. As such, they have lighter wooden bracing and thinner soundboards.

(There are exceptions! Some lever harps, like the Lyon and Healy Prelude and Troubadour, are built to sound and feel more like pedal harps, and thus have the same heavily-reinforced construction and high-tension strings. For the purposes of this piece, though, when we say “lever harp,” we mean the more lightly-built type and not the pre-pedal type.)

String tension is felt by the harp player in terms of how hard a string needs to be pulled in order to produce a good sound, or alternatively, how much pull a string can take before it starts to sound distorted. String tension is felt by the harp itself in terms of how much pull there is on the neck and the soundboard, and this is the really important piece to be aware of in order to keep your harp safe. If you take a set of strings intended for a pedal harp and you put them on a lever harp, you could cause serious damage to the harp. It is simply not designed to withstand so much tension, and the strings could quite literally pull the harp apart. If you take a set of strings designed for a lever harp and you put them on a pedal harp, you probably won’t get much sound out of the harp. Because it has a more heavily-braced soundboard, it requires more string power to move the soundboard and produce sound.

Misconception #1: Pedal harp strings are fundamentally different from lever harp strings

Actually, the difference between pedal harp strings and lever harp strings, whether gut or nylon, is not as mysterious as it seems. As Biagio Sancetta put it so eloquently in a Harp Column discussion, “Farmers do not raise ‘pedal harp cows’ in one pasture and ‘lever harp cows’ in another.” The strings are the same materials; the difference in tension comes from which diameters of strings you put in which positions on the harp.

Let’s take the 4th octave D (or the D above middle C) for an example. Assuming that you have a lever harp and a pedal harp with the same string lengths and that both are strung with their respective gut sets, the D string on the lever harp is going to be thinner than the same note on the pedal harp. This means it doesn’t have to be pulled as tight to get up to pitch, and the tension is therefore lower.

If you were in a pinch, you could probably find a clear string from higher up in a pedal gut set (maybe the 3rd octave G) and use it in the 4th octave D position on your lever harp because it would be the diameter you need. Make sense? Pedal harp and lever harp strings can be interchangeable as long as you pay close attention to the diameter and material and not to the note the string is labeled with. (In practicality, this is difficult because most pedal harp strings are only labeled by octave and note, so it takes extra research to find out the actual diameter. Also, to be clear, we’re not talking about any of the wound strings here, because there are other layers of complication involved with those!)

Misconception #2: Gut strings are higher tension than nylon strings

We often hear people say as a blanket statement that you can’t replace the nylon strings on your lever harp with gut strings because the tension will be too high, but this is misleading. If you replace your lever nylon strings with thicker pedal gut strings, then yes, the tension will be too high. But you can replace nylon with gut and keep the tension the same as long as you are choosing the correct diameters of gut strings. (On a side note, gut strings do tend to be stiffer than nylon, which can give the player the impression of higher tension even when it’s actually very similar.)

So what’s important to account for when changing from nylon to gut?

The absolute most important thing is to make sure you are not putting more tension on the harp than it was designed to withstand. Even if you are very careful to replace your nylon strings with gut strings that are the exact same diameter, gut is slightly more dense than nylon, so you’ll still have to pull the strings a little bit tighter. Depending on the harp, this might be fine or it might not. If you put on gut strings (or nylon strings, for that matter) that are thicker than the standard strings, you will add quite a bit of tension and definitely risk damaging the harp. Most harp makers’ warranties are void if the stock strings are replaced with ones the harp wasn’t designed for.

We can illustrate this using some data about a Dusty Strings 34-string harp. With the normal nylon string set that the harp was designed for, there are about 1230 pounds of string tension on the harp. If we replace the middle 18 strings with gut strings of similar diameters, we add about 8 pounds of tension due to the extra density of the gut. But if we were to use a pedal gut string set (which has thicker strings in each position, remember?), we’d be adding somewhere around 150 pounds of tension.

We’ve done extensive testing on our own harps, and we know that 8 extra pounds of tension is ok and 150 is risky, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same is true for your harp! If you can’t contact your harp maker to ask for a recommendation, the safest route is to choose gut strings that are slightly thinner than the nylon strings the harp was designed for. That way, you don’t risk any additional tension.

However, there are some potential lever complications to be aware of when putting on thinner strings. Most sharping levers are made in a bunch of different configurations, and each of these has a narrow range of string diameters it will grip well. If you put on a thinner string than a particular lever is meant for, the lever may not be able to grip the string tightly enough, and you are likely to get a buzz or a plinky sound with the lever engaged. We’ve experienced this on both the Camac and Loveland levers that we use.

For years, we recommended the Bow Brand folk gut sets for Dusty Strings harps because they were easily available and we knew the tension was safe. A couple of Loveland levers needed to be changed, but it’s relatively easy to switch out the lever handle on a Loveland lever without a lot of specialized tools or experience. However, when we started installing Camac levers more often, we found that the Bow Brand strings were a little too thin for those lever tolerances, and sometimes up to 10 levers had to be replaced with different sizes in order to keep the gut strings from buzzing.

To simplify things so that gut and nylon would be easily interchangeable on Dusty harps, we designed our own custom set of gut strings in 2014 and also started using a new Camac lever configuration. This means that if your Dusty harp has Loveland levers (any age), or if it has Camac levers and was built after mid-2014, you can use our gut string set without any lever changes. If you have an older Camac-levered Dusty and you’d like to switch to gut, give us a call and we’ll discuss what that would involve.

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