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Making a Gothic Harp

Making a Gothic Harp

by Shaun Newman

Originally published in American Lutherie #103, 2010

When my daughter asked me to build a harp, “the sort that angels play,” how could I resist? As a maker of guitars, I knew little of the Gothic or Renaissance harp, but became fascinated as I learned more. The original would have had a soundbox hollowed from a tree trunk, two sides of solid wood, and gut strings — simple but practical. These harps were common in 12th-century Europe onward, but sadly, no original instruments survive.

My first task was to find a drawing of the proper size. Mine came from Luthiers’ Supplies, an English firm, and though it provided a guide for construction, it contained critical errors that forced me to remake my first effort. It is not difficult to design your own, but beware of making the top string too short; if you keep that string at least 5 1/2" long, all should go well. Gothic harps can have sixteen to thirty-two strings, with an appropriately sized frame. The one I built, shown in Photo 1, is 32" tall with twenty-six strings. A larger harp is more versatile, but less portable and more costly. Since the instrument is not chromatic and many of the strings are used as drones, much of the upper range is seldom used; some players prefer no more than nineteen strings.

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