Harp Strings, from Guts to Gold
Compiled from many sources by Joyce Rice
photo by Joyce Rice. Used with permission.
You remember the old song, “Zing Went the Strings of My Harp”? I know, it was “my heart”, but what puts the zing into harp strings, anyway? Just what are they made of?
Daniel Larson at Gamut Music says,
“Legend has it that Apollo was the first string maker. When he came across the tortoise and had the inspiration to make the first lyre, he used the poor animal's own intestines for the strings. (See more from Daniel about gut below.)
“For thousands of years, the choices of musical string materials were few. Usually it was limited to some indigenous material that was either suitable or adapted to the task. If you lived in the East the logical choice would be silk where the fibers were processed, twisted and braided into musical purity. Horse-hair would be used if you lived in Scandinavia. In the more tropical regions plant fibers would be twisted and spun into a cord for use as a musical string. The European West chose an equally unlikely material for use as strings - animal intestine, or gut.” https://www.gamutmusic.com/new-page
Medieval harp specialist Cheryl Ann Fulton:
Documentary evidence suggests that many harps used in Europe during this period were gut strung. Metal strung harps, some with strings said to be made of gold, were associated with the Celtic countries, particularly Ireland and Scotland. Horsehair strings were used later on Welsh harps and could have been used earlier as well.
Let’s look at these materials:
For at least 2,000 years, until the Cultural Revolution, qin [a Chinese instrument] strings were always made of silk filaments that had been twisted into strands, the strands then combined into strings by twisting them together in various numbers depending on the thickness required; the silk was also cooked in glues made of various natural and chemical subtances. (http://www.silkqin.com/03qobj/silk.htm)
Wales has been well-known for centuries for its harpists. www.Clera.org says:
Harps (telyn) in Wales were usually made from wood (for the framework and pegs), animal skin (for wrapping the soundboard), bone (for making the tuning pegs), and twisted horse-hair (rhawn) for the strings. Harps with horse-hair strings were called ‘telyn rawn’…..http://www.clera.org/saesneg/harp.php (Both rhawn and rawn are accepted spellings.)
Hair is also mentioned in Welsh law, says Sally Harper:
Laws of Hywel Dda, supposedly first codified mid-10th century, but later embellished and surviving in mid-13th century versions: Welsh Laws: The Book of Colan nlw: Each chief harper should have from each young minstrel who wishes to learn the hair-strung harp, and who wishes to become a recognized minstrel and suppliant, 24(d) as his fee. [d is for “denarius”, Latin for penny.]
(Sally Harper, “Instrumental Music in Medieval Wales”, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Winter 2004, p. 26)
Sue Raimond, one of the string makers at Robinson’s Harp Shop, says,
“In the past, harp makers and string makers used whatever they could find. Harp makers used cactus sinew and veggie braids. She adds, tongue in cheek, “Today, far fewer animals and vegetables are sacrificed for strings.”https://rosalanimusic.net/what-are-harp-strings-made-of/
And from www.bushcraftuk.com: …properly made linen cordage is an amazing material. It's not all that hard to obtain either, and there are various other plants in the same family that will give cordage even from the dried winter 'skeletons'. The little garden border plant, lobellia, is very, very good, as is the weedy field flax. While you won't get the very long individual fibres of the cultivated flax from them you will get flax fibres, and if properly spun an excellent cord.
The first actual proof of the ancients’ use of gut strings came in 1823 when Burton discovered some of the earliest extant musical instruments in the tombs of Thebes. These harps had gut strings that, according to his account, still made a tone after some two thousand years in storage.
Tristan LeGovic, in his Harp Spectrum article “The Golden Lyre of Ur”, about recreating a 4500 year-old harp found in a tomb in present-day Iraq, posits:
“The fact that no string survived leads us to think that they were probably made of organic material – such as cow gut – rather than metal.”
Gut is still used for harp and for other stringed instruments, too. Not catgut, though. Daniel gives the steps:
Gut strings are made from the small intestines of sheep. The process can be broken down into four basic steps:
Ready for a little more?
Step one - The abattoir. It all begins at the abattoir. The intestine is also known as a casing and is referred to in the trade as a "set". The intestine must be pulled from the animal immediately after slaughter while the gut is still hot….
(See many more amazing/gruesome details at https://www.gamutmusic.com/new-page)
The wire-strung harp is often called the Irish or Scottish harp. It is an early musical instrument; the oldest extant wire strung harp dates from perhaps as early as the 14th century. (https://www.cynthiacathcart.com/wirestrungharp.html) Wire-strung harps are often played with the fingernails. Several metals are possible:
Brass Harpmaker David Kortier, from an email:
“The traditional stringing material has always been brass, so when I am faced with stringing a model of historical Irish harp that is new to me I will simply outfit it entirely with yellow brass wire, as a starting point. Historical wire harper Ann Heymann says that “mostly yellow brass with a few silver strings at the bottom” is a good starting point.”
Gold Kortier continues:
“Another option is gold, a huge favorite of Ann’s. There is no argument about how fantastic it makes a harp sound, but the price of the wire is prohibitive to most people. She cites precedent in the literature, and it works extremely well as a harp string material. Her personal small harp is entirely strung with gold, and it is amazing, a wonder to hear.
The take-away from all this is that stringing early Irish harps requires at least some knowledge of metallurgy. Drawing wire is an ancient technique, and wide spread in this part of the world at this time. It could even have been done by the harpist. I have done it in my shop on many occasions when a slightly different diameter was needed, and it is definitely not rocket science, or difficult to do.”
Bronze, steel, sterling silver, copper, and iron have also been used. See a lengthy article at
Rawhide? from an online forum at bushcraftuk.com:
Rawhide is a good primitive string material. Keep your eyes open for roadkilled squirrels as they provide a very tough, even thickness rawhide[!]
Rubber is the strangest material I’ve heard of. Arsalaan Fay, maker of the Dilling/Douglas harps, found a long mention in a 1933 publication called Syndicate, headlined “A Harp with Strings Made of Tire Cords”. They were made by the famous J. F. Buckwell, whose family had been making harps in New York City since 1838.
When he was asked if it would be possible to string a harp with motor-car tire cords, the veteran harp-maker ….was dubious. Metal or gut had been used for so long. However, he would like to try it. As [he] worked he found that the great strength and elasticity of the cord made such a new instrument entirely possible. He used single twist cords for the highest octaves, and then wound two, four, six and eight cords together to make strings for the lower register. Mr. Buckwell admitted his astonishment when the harp brought forth real music. Harpists and others…commented on the fidelity of tone and durability of the strings.
Gut and nylon These days it’s likely that most modern pedal or lever harps you see are strung with gut and/or nylon except for the wound-wire bass strings. (Wire-strung folk harp strings, as we’ve seen, can be of brass, bronze, gold, silver or steel.)
“In the United States, the lower bass strings are made of two parts: a central core string, which is then wrapped with another material. The strings might have a nylon core with a nylon wrapping, which is common on Dusty Strings harps. Other wrapped strings might have phosphor bronze core, wrapped with nylon. The bottom strings might be a steel core and a soft copper wrapping.
“In other countries, string makers may use different ways to manufacture strings, in order to achieve the cultural sound that they want. In Ireland, for example, string makers there will use a plant fiber core, wrapped with nylon or soft copper.” (rosalanimusic.net)
Concert harpists prefer gut and sometimes some nylon in the top strings, where the gut tend to break more often. Folk or lever harps are usually strung with nylon and sometimes some gut.
The long history of the harp certainly has seen a variety of materials used for strings. To be absolutely up-to-date, here are a couple more materials, as found at Harps and Harps https://www.harps.com.au/index.php/resources/harp-info
Fluorocarbon: In the last few years, a synthetic fluoro-polymer string has become popular with musicians, known as ‘synthetic gut’, fluorocarbon (polyvinylidene fluoride, PVDF) or just plain ‘carbon’ or “carbon fibre” with harpers. It was invented in 1970 by the Kureha Corporation, of Japan, as a UV resistant and waterproof fishing line. The high quality fluorocarbon strings for guitars, violins, lutes and harps were developed jointly with Savarez Strings, of France, and Savarez markets them under the name ‘Alliance KF’.
The Savarez strings are optically clear and smooth in upper reaches, while the midrange sizes have more the texture and look of gut. They are composed of numerous fibre strands, but are not ‘carbon fibre’, as that is a different material entirely, and is black in colour. Although often erroneously referred to as “synthetic gut” these string have tensions between nylon and gut and are not direct replacements for natural gut strings.
Because fluorocarbon does not dye well, the colours red and blue that Savarez dyes the strings with may tend to wear off after a bit of playing, especially in the thinner blues & reds in the upper octaves.
NylGut Another synthetic string, developed by the Aquila company, is NylGut or called SilkGut by Bow Brand for lever tension. It is a close substitute for natural gut strings and available in both pedal and lever tensions. NylGut is distinguishable by its milk-white colour, has a specific density and acoustical qualities nearly identical to that of gut, and is a true synthetic version of the natural product. NylGut is not nylon but a patented “secret” material most likely a polydactyl material.
"Laser strings" I probably shouldn’t leave out ‘laser strings’, which are nicely explained and demonstrated here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuM2Jw78u8Y. They’re not strings but laser beams that are interrupted by the hand passing through.
Like most instruments, the harp has gone through several evolutions, but I venture to say that the harp has had more than most. There are several places to learn more about harp history, including this Harp Spectrum website. I also suggest https://www.alisonvardy.com/harp-history.html
Bearded Harpists, detail from Sumerian tablet in the Temple of Sin in Khafage,
Mesopotamia (presently Iraq) c 3000 BC.
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