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Jan Muyllaert ; The Irish harp is one version of a group of “ celtic harps “. Simular instruments are made in Wales , Scotland , England ,France , Italy and Japan .The ones from the Brittish Isles , Normandy and Bittany having a common Celtic heritage . The true Irish made harp has however a distinctive feel , sound and weight . Many of the imported versions have increased string tension and will require adult assistance ( in case of a minor player) when moving about for classes or performances . Some are in fact small concert- harps and no longer represent the Irish and Celtic character in appearance or sound .Wood used can be sycamore, walnut or cherry on all harps. Sound board can be cedar or spruce .
I was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1947. Qualified as a draughtsman and worked in industry.I moved to Ireland in 1972 and started making guitars and became a full time instrument-maker.
I make a range of instruments in my workshop, these include harps, guitars, violins, violas, cellos, mandolas and mandolins.
Below is a brief description about the history, innovations and designing of my harps.
A few words on my involvement in the evolution of the Irish Harp over the last 40 + years.
I met with Charles Guard, a harpist from the Isle of Man at a local concert. Up until then I had made guitars and mandolins.
The first Irish Harps of which there are some at the National Museum, were very different to today’s. Due to the brass wire strings. They were very tall instruments, the height was needed for the bass notes. The wire strings had a long vibrating length to get the low bass. Nothing was known about winding strings so in order to have a good tension, the string being a single wire, had to be very long.
Developments in string making led to wrapping a wire around a core thus making the string heavier, this meant a shorter string could be used to produce a low note with a good tension. This technique was then applied to gut and silk for concert harps and all other instruments went through a revolution. Harpsichords evolved into today’s pianos, violins could be tuned to modern concert pitch etc. On a guitar for example, all strings are of equal length and approx. equal tension, the different notes are due to different thickness and winding with metal such as silver.
If a string is too tight, it won’t vibrate properly and if it is too loose you get the same result. Only by getting the tension correct for a certain note can the diameter and length be determined. This means you can then design a harmonic curve. This is the top part of the harp, you can also see a similar curve on a hammered dulcimer and a grand piano.
Fitted on the curve are the tuning pins. They are usually made of steel with a square end for the tuning key. The pins are usually located on the right-hand side of the harp when the harp is against the shoulder. They are tapered and self-tightening in a cone shaped hole. I make my pins from stainless steel so they do not lose their sheen. This method of tuning is also used in dulcimers, violins and pianos.
The small brass pin below the tuning pins on the left of the curve is called the bridge pin. It has a V-shaped groove and guides the strings to place them all in the same field of play.
The string vibrates between the bridge pin and the bridge – on the soundboard. I fit a small rosewood plug with a round edged hole in the bridge strip. It gives a clear start for the strings and prevents damage. If either the groove on the bridge pin or the bridge strip contact isn’t clean the sound will be fuzzy or muffled.
A fitting was added to the neo-Irish harp to allow players to change key without having to retune individual strings. Semitone levers come in all shapes and sizes and are the cause of many grey hairs to harp makers worldwide. At one stage I designed my own at great cost, but now I use Loveland levers, made in Colorado USA. They don’t interfere with the spacing or the playing field. This means that all distances remain constant for the performer.
When developing a harp I set four criteria;
With my experience as a draftsman and technical knowledge in the early 70’s I designed my first harp. Talking to professional players I concluded that even spacing was needed. Previously strings went closer together as the notes went higher. Imagine your piano – keyboard with wide keys for the bass notes and narrower keys for the high notes, you would soon lose your position.
I also increased the number of strings from around 30 to 34 by starting with 5th octave C to in Alto A.
Both innovations were soon copied by other makers and are now standard procedure.
I do of course make smaller harps when needed for theatre or as travel companion.
I also noticed that the main joint at the top of the curve was a mortice & tenon. The fore pillar continued into the curve, this had a certain charm and looks nice, but with all the tension bearing on the left invariably this joint would suffer and the curve ended twisted. In lots of cases the strings leaned over so much that the semi-tone levers became in/operable. I therefore changed the joint so it was in line with the force, namely the string. This resulted in forming one homogeneous piece of wood, the curve continuing into the fore pillar. This in turn led to different curves being possible and a new look.
Another problem was the unplayable top strings. The reason was there was not enough room for the players thumb to reach the string, the shoulder wasn’t back enough. I therefore extended the curve upwards and back so the room became available. Access was now easy and it also looked more pleasing.
I also placed the bridge strip off center at the shoulder so this compensated for the distance of the V groove in the bridge pin from the harmonic curve .Thus the strings are all level when viewed from a playing position.
The soundboard used to be made from Swiss Pine, however I noticed that even though it is very good for sound, it didn’t seem to take to kindly to the stress of the harp strings. Often cracks would appear or joints would open up. When you consider a sound board tapers in thickness from about 6mm to 1.5mm and the average pressure is about 7 Kg per string you can see why this part suffers from stress.
I started using cedar wood, quarter cut and found it has a lovely mellow tone and will grow in volume with time. For strength reasons it has to be left slightly heavier than pine.
In the early seventies I introduced the ‘student’ model. This was to provide a cheaper harp for beginners. It proved so popular 80% of my production was taken up by it. This meant a lot of time producing the same item, virtually removing all need for creativity so it became very boring.
I discontinued that harp and replaced it by a better, if more expensive, standard model. This involves more satisfaction for me, the maker, and a nicer instrument for the client. They also have a better re-sale value!
I further introduced semi-pro and pro models at the request of different customers. I try and deliver a personal harp to each buyer and it gives me great pleasure to see the delight when they collect their instrument, as nobody else will have an identical one. All details are discussed before ordering and carving drawings are shown before they are executed on the wood. As you probably will only buy one harp it is very important to get it right.
I hope these few words of introduction have thrown some light on your queries regarding harps and maybe you’ll contact me when you are looking for the instrument you’ve dreamed off.