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What Is an Electric Harp?

Musicians can plug an electric harp into an amplifier or PA system via a quarter-inch jack using a traditional instrument cable.
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  • Written By: Erik J.J. Goserud
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 11 December 2014
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The harp, or harpsichord, is a multistringed instrument that stands vertically on the performance stage. The electric harp is modeled after its original acoustic model, but it is customized to amplify the sound. Musicians can plug the instrument into an amplifier or PA system via a quarter-inch jack using a traditional instrument cable. Unlike an acoustic instrument, the electric harp often has no hollow sound box, which is the reason the harp gives off minimal noise when it is played unamplified, much like an electric guitar.

Plans for the electric harp began in the late 1950s but didn’t become officially constructed until the 1970s. The first electric harp that made successful commercial sales was made by Camac. Each string had a piezo pickup built in at its base. Today, many electric harps have shoulder straps to enhance musicians’ mobility onstage. Clear, see-through models are also available for an extra lightweight feel.

There are two main types of electric harps: lever harps and pedal harps. Lever harps are the more traditional model and mostly amplified via microphone. They usually have solid bodies, are more expensive, and are also referred to as electric harps. These harps mix more easily on a soundboard, and sound engineers may need to do less sonic tweaking. A harp in this sense should not be confused with a harmonica, which is sometimes referred to as a harp too.

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For most players, the cheaper and most practical option is to go with a pedal harp, which is acoustic-electric, and harpists can play them through an amp or on their own. These harps include built-in preamps with volume and EQ controls on the instruments. This allows the user a great deal of control of the sound onstage.

Harpists, or harpers, are also able to use effects pedals with their electric harps. Running one instrument cable to the pedal board and another to the amplifier, the musician can alter and diversify the sounds of the harpsichord. Similar to the electric guitar, a harp's distortion pedal will bold the tone and add density to the sound. A chorus pedal can make the instrument fuller and more plentiful, as if there are multiple harpsichords playing at once. While based in folk and classical music, musicians use the electric harp in a wide variety of genres — it is commonly used in Latin jazz and some rock music.

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