If the harp under consideration is a new instrument or if it is one with a new soundboard, it will, to some degree, open up and become more responsive with time. However, time and playing will not turn a harp that sounds dead and unresponsive when new into an excellent instrument. If the harp does not offer good sustain and a very good sound when new, it will seldom improve enough to be more than a mediocre instrument.
If you are considering a used harp, there are several important items to check. The checklist used in the Author’s shop for evaluating harps arriving for repair may be a useful guide for evaluating the physical condition of any harp.
Remember that a pedal harp sustains a static load of about one ton of string tension. Well-made harps will last over 30 years without major component replacement. Depending on how frequently they are moved and the care they receive, many last much longer. Eventually the wooden structure that supports this load will deform and fail. A careful inspection during the selection process will minimize the chances of an unexpected repair expense.
Start by looking at the general appearance of the harp, paying attention to the condition of the finish, the gilding if it is a gold harp, and to the overall shape. Become attentive to details. Is the column straight? Are there any obvious repairs? Is the finish crazed? Has the gold been painted over?
Examine the neck from behind the harp. If there is significant warping it is easy to see as one sights down the neck to the straight column. If there is obvious warping, put the “C” pedal in sharp and see how the 5th octave C# engages the string. There should be a minimum of 1/8 in between the string and the end of the disk pins. Less engagement results in regulation problems.
Examine the back of the soundbox for evidence of glue failure at the top and bottom body blocks on L&H style harps. Look for signs of de-lamination of the soundbox shell on all harps.
Use a business card to check for glue failure where the soundboard attaches to the internal rails. While glue failure along the edge of the soundboard is common, and is not necessarily indicative of imminent soundboard failure, it does indicate that the useful life of the soundboard is limited. The screw heads will imbed into the soft spruce soundboard, allowing a pronounced belly to develop. Eventually the belly will increase until the soundboard reaches its elastic limit and it will break.
Check the area where the front of the soundbox meets the top of the base of the harp to see if there is a gap resulting from base frame failure. If a triangular gap is present, look inside the soundbox with a flashlight and see if a visible line shows how much the base frame has moved with respect to the soundboard. Any movement over 1/8 inch indicates that the harp will need a base frame repair in the foreseeable future.
Examine the base and feet carefully. The base, while not part of the load sustaining structure, does take a beating when the harp is moved. Look for signs of finish and wood damage, especially to the front feet. Check to see that all four feet are firmly attached to the base, and that there is no sign of glue failure or de-lamination from being wet.
Check the mechanism for wear and noise by exercising the pedals. Listen closely for clicks or other noise as you move the pedals from flat to sharp and back to flat. Instruments used by jazz musicians often show more wear on the B-chain, other harps see the most wear on the F and C chains.
Once you have decided on a harp, take the time to explore the warranty. Manufacturers usually guarantee new harps for five (5) years from the date of purchase, but the guarantee may not cover everything that it should. This is not the time to be shy. If the salesperson has assured you that an intonation problem is simply a matter of regulation, have that added to the guarantee. If the seller is unwilling to make a written commitment of his assurances a heavy dose of skepticism is in order.
Even if you are purchasing a used harp from a private seller, insist on some sort of guarantee. It is easy to overlook some problem that becomes obvious once the instrument is home. One should insist on the right to return the instrument for a full refund if any structural or mechanical problem occurs within a reasonable time. A week should be enough time to get to know the harp and to discover anything important that may have been missed during the initial inspection. Most dealers in pedal harps are honest, and most harpists selling a used instrument are also, but these are complex instruments and it is easy for even a technically competent person to miss something.