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I'm considering the purchase of a harp for a first-time harpist with a high level of competency playing the piano and recorder, as well as composition. What factors should I consider?

A few more specific questions:

  • What's the principal difference between pedal harps, lever harps or Celtic harps? What is likely to be best for a competent musician who hasn't played one before.
  • Are there any buyer beware factors to avoid while buying a harp.
  • Can you recommend a buying guide which could provide some in-depth information about it?
  • Consider learning on a borrowed harp for a while before buying one. It's an expensive investment to make, especially if you stop enjoying it – Aric Aug 18 '17 at 14:31
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    @AricFowler While I completely agree with that advice (for any instrument), the context is that it's a surprise gift, so not entirely practical. – AJFaraday Aug 18 '17 at 14:36
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    A pedal harp is going to be at least $25000. Good quality lever or Celtic harps are still going to be several thousand dollars. This seems impractical as a surprise gift. If you're spending that much money, you're gonna want to know what they want. – MattPutnam Aug 18 '17 at 15:35
  • If a pedal harp (or a Welsh harp) is a serious option on your list given the cost, consider whether the recipient has any means of transporting it, or even enough house-room to keep it at all without permanently disrupting the rest of their lives. Full size harps are big - about 6ft x 4ft x 2ft deep - and weigh 80 pounds or more. – user19146 Aug 18 '17 at 18:32
  • Just a thought - we are all assuming the OP actually means "a harp" (as in an instrument with plucked strings), and not "a harmonica" (which is often called a "blues harp"). – user19146 Aug 21 '17 at 3:43
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Pedal harps are big and expensive. You'll need a big enough vehicle if you ever want to take it anywhere, and the prices will be in the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" range - perhaps US$10000 at the very bottom, and going up way beyond that for a concert harp. On the plus side, they tend to have more strings, so more range at the bass end. Pedal harps are the only ones allowing you to both sharp and flat strings. That gives more flexibility to fit in with orchestras. It also means you can do a better sounding glissando, by avoiding adjacent notes that don't sound good together.

Lever harps tend to be smaller (perhaps 26 to 34 strings), and priced a lot more affordably (say, US$2000 and up). They are more portable, especially the smaller ones. They are likely to be quieter. The levers only allow you to sharp or flat a string. A fully levered harp allows you to select all the common major keys, but clever stuff may (a) result in you having to flip levers mid-tune, (b) need you to re-tune the harp, or (c) be unplayable with that harp.

Celtic harps are generally just the same as lever harps, but without the levers. This means you can only tune them to one key. Anything else means getting the tuning key out, and re-tuning the thing. They may be slightly cheaper.

Buying suggestions:

  • Avoid partly-levered harps. There's no point, and you'll just keep finding things you can't play.
  • There are some good-looking but really cheap harps around. It's real pot-luck what you will get. You might get a good one, or you might get one that self-destructs after a few months under the strain of the strings. If you want more certainty, go for a reputable European, US or Japanese manufacturer.
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Since this is a huge purchase, with so many options for size, style, tone quality, etc., I am not sure it's something one person can choose for someone else.

But since people who want to buy harps for other people should never be discouraged (LOL), here are some suggestions: 1. Rental?: A six month rental would be a fabulous gift. Contact your local chapter of American Harp Society (if you are in the USA), or other harp institutions or harp university programs to find out who rents in your area. 2. Harp Column magazine (online or print) has harp ads, occasional articles about harp purchase. Makes a great gift too. 3. www.harpspectrum.org Has articles about harps.

While used harps are often a great option, you need to have an experienced harpist look at it. I and many harp teachers I know will evaluate a used harp with you to look for structural flaws, string condition, and other possible conditions affecting its value. Unlike most other instruments, harps sound better and better for about 70-100 years, then they explode or need costly "rebuild" services.

Don't buy the cheap "Pakistani" harps you see online; they are garbage.

Choose between lever and pedal depending on the preferred genre of music that will mostly be played.

With lever harps, get full levers and make sure you get one that takes the kind of strings you like (nylon vs. gut vs. synthetic). I know, this is one of those "how can you pick for someone else?" situations, but at least know that there are vastly different kinds of strings.

You are a very nice person! Good luck!

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