My harps - a short introduction
Celtic harps

The Celtic harp is what most people think of when they think of a folk harp.  It is a very ancient instrument; harps of one sort or another have been in constant use since about 1500 BC.  The Romans are thought to have introduced the harp to Britain in around 50 BC, and by around 400 AD the harp had spread across the British Isles in a variety of forms which are recognisably the forerunners of the modern Celtic harp.

All Celtic harps have certain features in common.  Firstly, they are tuned diatonically, in other words the strings sound the same as the white notes of a piano.  This is fine until you want to play in a key other than C major or A minor, when you need the semitones - the ‘black notes’.  This is the second feature common to Celtic harps; they all have some way of raising the pitch of individual strings to the next highest semitone.  If you raise all the F strings so that they sound F sharp, for instance, you can play in G major and E minor.  In theory it would be possible simply to retune, but in practice it would take far too long to do this, and in any case many tunes use ‘out-of-scale’ notes, or accidentals, right in the middle of a passage.

The solution is to fit sharping levers.  They sit just below the bridge pin on each string, and when raised each lever raises the pitch of its string by exactly the right amount.  The levers that I fit to my harps are solid brass.  They are made by hand in the workshop to a design worked out over many years by my father.  I normally fit a lever to every string, as this gives the maximum possible flexibility to the instrument.

Triple harps
The Garth
Sharping levers on a  Telyneg
Larger than lifesize if viewed at 800x600

The triple harp is a uniquely Welsh instrument with a rippling, shimmering sound unlike any other harp.  The earliest known triple harps date from the seventeenth century.  They have three rows of strings, the outer two being tuned diatonically in unison, rather like two of the harps described above!  The third row is located between the first two, offset horizontally by half the distance between adjacent strings in the outer sets.  This central row is tuned a semitone higher than the outer rows, and so the semitone intervals are always accessible by reaching in, with either hand, between the outer strings.  This obviates the need for sharping levers.  The photograph (left) is a close-up showing the arrangement where the strings leave the soundboard.

The traditional design of the triple harp had significant weaknesses, and because of them very few of the original instruments are still playable today.  The neck was carved from a single piece of wood, usually walnut or sycamore.  Pierced by over ninety holes and subjected to three times more pull than the neck of an ordinary harp, it had to be strengthened with an iron band.  Even then, the torque applied by all those strings pulling on one side of it was often too much, and the neck would frequently twist badly out of line.

A perpendicular triple harp
A Triple in light veneer

In response to these weaknesses, my father and I developed the Perpendicular Triple Harp (above right).  The neck is made from a sandwich of permali and laminate, and is enormously strong.  It is veneered in a wood of the client’s choice.  Our most significant innovation is the installation of a brass channel under the neck which carries bridge pins for the outer rows and tuning pins for the semitones.  The thrust on the two sides of the neck is equalised, and all twisting is entirely eliminated.  The photograph (left) shows the arrangement as if you were resting the harp on your left shoulder.  The top row of tuners is for the strings on this side, the second row passes through the neck and tunes the strings on the other side, and the bottom row tunes the middle row of strings, which descend from the centre of the neck.  The chimney is fixed firmly to my house, and is not part of the deal!