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Tuning Your Harp

We all love tuning, right? Wrong! Even so, you must admit your harp sounds way better when it's in tune. Here are some tricks to making tuning easier and faster for you.

The Tuner
The first step in beginning your tuning adventure is to get an electronic tuner that is going to work for you. It only takes a little time to “get used” to a tuner, and that always makes the task easier.

Prices for tuners range from under $25 to well over $100. The larger the array of lights, the finer your tuning can be. You can see just how far off you are and turn the tuning pin the appropriate amount. Needle tuners are usually too jumpy for me, but the combination of the lights and the needle available in the Korg CA-1($25) to the left works well. The more expensive tuners last longer than the less expensive tuners and they are rated for a larger note range. If your tuner doesn't pick up the high notes, sometimes attaching the mic clip (see next paragraph) directly to the tuning pin will allow the tuner to pick it up. Below are the DT-4 ($25) and the TM-50 metronome/tuner ($30).

 

Mic Clip

A mic clip is an essential item. It clips onto the instrument and plugs into the tuner. It allows the tuner to hear the note more clearly and keeps it from hearing extraneous noises, especially when tuning in workshop groups. ($15, Only $10 when bought with a tuner)

 

 

 

 

Tuning your harp
If you have a mic clip, find a place on your harp like the T-brace in front or a sound hole in the back to clip it to. (see photos below). It won’t hurt the finish on your harp because it’s padded. Place your tuner on a chair, your music stand or on the floor. I often see people trying to tune holding their tuner in their left hand. Nope! Don’t do this, it will hinder the speed at which you can tune.
I tune with the levers down. Especially in the wound strings, if you tune with a lever up, one of the windings may get caught so that when you lower your lever, you won’t have a true pitch anymore.

Mic Clip on the T-brace or in soundhole

Tuner on the floor

 

I start at the bottom and move up by placing 3 fingers on the lowest 3 strings with the 3rd finger of my left hand. If that is a C on your harp, then you would be on C, D, E, (thumb on E). For the first string only pluck with your 3rd finger to tune. From then on it will be your 2nd finger. Your 3rd finger and thumb will serve to dampen the adjacent notes which will keep the overtones in check, and they will hold your place on the strings so you don’t have to guess which string it was you were tuning. Then you just walk up the strings as each string is tuned, moving your thumb up one string and following with the other 2 fingers.

 


 

Now for your right hand and the tuning key. I would suggest that you never leave your tuning key on the tuning peg without your hand on it. If it should fall off, you could have a big dent in your soundboard. I have seen very experienced harp players do this and I cringe every time. I also advocate the black rubber handle tuning keys, because, should they fall on your soundboard (not because you left it on the tuning peg, of course, but because you just out and out dropped it, ooops!), it will probably only leave a little black mark on the soundboard which will come off easily. I have done this (ooops!), so I know!
Once you have the tuning key on the lowest tuning peg, don’t let your hand leave the harp neck. When it’s time to “walk” up the neck with your 3 fingers, feel for the next tuning peg with your right hand thumb. Fit the tuning key onto that peg. You should be able to do this without looking. That way you can keep your eyes on the tuner. Even if most of your harp is perfectly in tune, when you get to that one string that’s off, your tuning key will be in place, and you won’t have to try to figure out which tuning peg tunes which string. You will already be there, because you have followed up the neck moving your right hand and tuning key each time you plucked a new string with your left hand. However, if you are turning the tuning pin and nothing seems to be happening, STOP and check to make sure you haven’t gotten out of line with the string. It still can happen.


The lights and/or needle will give you a clue as to how far out of tune you are. Usually the “dead center” light will be a different color, say green and the sharp or flat lights will be red. If the green light is on, but so is one of the red lights to the left (or if the needle is just to the left of center), then you know you are just a hair flat. Turn the key to sharpen the string just a little tiny bit. If the green light is on with a red light to the right (or if the needle is just to the right of center), then you’re a hair sharp, and sometimes pulling on the string a little bit will bring you right in. If not back off the tuning peg just a hair. You may then have to tune up again as you may have fallen below pitch. If only red lights to the left or right are on, then you know you can turn the tuning peg a bit sharper or flatter to get you closer. Getting a feel for how much to turn the tuning peg takes some practice. It’ll get easier and faster the more you do it.


Occasionally a tuner will be stubborn and not register a note. It picked it up yesterday, but today it’s on strike against that note. I try a few different things at this point, I pluck louder, I pluck on a different part of the string, I quiet all the strings on the harp by damping them with my arm (especially the bass wires), or I as I mentioned at the beginning, move the mic clip.The most successful place to move the mic clip is right onto the tuning pin of that string. I also might tune that string by ear to the same note in the octave below. I have gotten quite good at that with practice although I tend to tune them a tad sharp. This also works easiest in the highest octave but once you are good at that, the lower octaves become easier too.


Most tuners will indicate which note the harp string is sounding. Make sure you are tuning to the correct note. Sometimes your tuner might register one of the overtones of that string. So if you’re trying to tune an E, it might show up as a B on the tuner. It is obviously not a B because you can hear it, right? You actually can tune to that overtone and just get the B to come up to pitch. Or again you can pluck louder, on a different part of the string, quiet the harp, move the mic clip right on to the tuning peg for that string or tune by ear using octaves.


I hope this helps you to tune your harp quicker, easier and more accurately. Your harp will thank you, your audience will thank you and your harpbuilder will thank you.

For further and more extensive tuning instructions and harp care you can check out Steve Moss's videos at:

How to Tune Your Harp, Part 1
How to Tune Your Harp, Part 2
How to Clean Your Harp
All About Harp Strings

 

Some suggestions on string tying and trouble shooting, back to the strings page or on to the page About Harps.

Thormahlen Harps | 1876 SW Brooklane Corvallis, Oregon 97333 | (541) 753-4334 | harps@thorharp.com