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Tips on buying a used nyckelharpa

by Matt Fichtenbaum and Bart Brashers

Occasionally a used nyckelharpa appears on the market. To someone who is contemplating starting to play, or perhaps trading up to a better instrument, a used harpa can be tempting. It’s already on this side of the Atlantic, it has had time to settle in, and it may cost less than a new instrument.

We know people who play instruments they bought used and are happy with them. But we’ve also seen nyckelharpas offered for sale at prices beyond what seems reasonable. How can the prospective buyer make an informed decision?

Successfully purchasing a used instrument requires two things:

  • A good assessment of the quality of the harpa as an instrument.
  • Knowledge of the market for new nyckelharpas, to know what you can buy new for a given amount of money.

Assessing an instrument

Some of the dimensions by which one judges an instrument are:

  • Playability. The keys should slide easily and fall back of their own weight, but without excess free play or wobble. There should not be springs or foam installed to help the keys fall back from the strings, as these make the harpa harder to play and often cover up deeper problems. The “action” – the distance the key travels before its tangent touches the string – should be consistent on all the keys. The key heads should form a smooth contour, and their size and shape should feel comfortable to your hand.
  • Tone. A satisfying sound in low, middle and high ranges, pleasingly mellow and pleasingly bright. The sound should be even over the full range, with no notes that give unpleasant sounds or are unwilling to play. The instrument should “speak” from its innards, not just from the top.
  • Craftsmanship. Nicely made details, smooth edges, tuning pegs and fine tuners that work well, a general appearance of being made by someone who cares.
  • Structural integrity. The top should not show any signs of caving in, and the bass bar should be well attached. The sound post should be in the right place and be made with quality. The tailpiece should show no signs of cracking, and it should be reinforced with extra wood (a dowel or slab) near the ‘corner’ to provide extra strength. The bridge should not curve towards the pegbox or let any of the strings sit too low; if it does, it needs replacing and the cost of that should be taken off the price of the harpa. The harpa should not be excessively heavy — good harpas weigh about 2 kg (4.5 pounds).

If you already have a harpa and have some experience playing, you’re in a good position to look for a new instrument and these points might help you organize your search. If you’re just starting out, a more experienced player can really help, both in judging instruments and in defining the “ideal” harpa you seek. In fact, having another player along is a good idea anyway: instruments sound different from a few feet away, and another person’s observations can’t hurt. If you don’t know any nyckelharpa players, check the ANA’s email list.

What’s out there?

A first question is, what’s out there for new instruments, and what do these cost? Answers to these will help define the arena for purchasing a used harpa.

Leif Alpsjö is a purveyor of at least three different makers’ harpas, and he is responsible for many of the instruments that have reached ANA territory. Björn Björn is another seller of nyckelharpas – both modern and older style – and kits. ANA President Bart Brashers has helped place a number, by Åke Ahlstrand and other makers. Various ANA members have written articles for Nyckel Notes in which they describe how they met and acquired their current instruments. And people who have some nyckelharpa contacts in Sweden can usually find leads to reasonable instruments. Check the ANA web site for a listing of some of the more popular makers and their more-or-less current prices. If you don’t have web access, call or write one of the board members and we’ll print the page and mail it to you.

But there’s this used harpa for sale…

Circumstances have conspired to place an available instrument in your vicinity. A touring Swedish group has an instrument to sell, or someone places an ad in Nyckel Notes or brings a harpa to your neighborhood. For example, there were two instruments offered for sale at Scandinavian Week (at Buffalo Gap) this summer.

You need to answer two questions to your own satisfaction:

  • Is this an instrument you would enjoy owning? If you are a beginner, is this an instrument you will continue to enjoy as your playing develops?
  • Is it offered at a reasonable price?

“A reasonable price” really means “compared to what you might pay for another instrument of similar quality.” These days, it’s quite easy to find a new nyckelharpa to buy, and used instruments should be judged accordingly.

If the instrument for sale is by a known maker, find out what his or her new instruments cost. Builders develop their approaches and technique over time, and a harpa that’s several years old may not measure up to the same builder’s current art. Be sure that the asking price takes this into consideration, and note that even a well-respected maker can have an “off day” and produce an instrument that isn’t quite as good as his/her others. Nonetheless, it’s always worthwhile looking closely at, and listening closely to, any instrument, used or new.

The art of building nyckelharpas has advanced greatly in the last 20 years, and significant design refinements have happened even in the last ten. There’s been a strong effort in Sweden to improve the overall quality of nyckelharpa making, including short Master Courses and maker’s competitions with specific feedback from the judges about improvements. The point is that used nyckelharpas may not reflect the last decade’s advances in building technique.

On the other hand, a good instrument can be timeless. There’s a nyckelharpa in Seattle that was built in the 1970s but is as good as the best ones being built today. Just remember when you’re starting negotiations to start meaningfully below the new price of an equivalent instrument, unless the used instrument is itself almost new.

But the more important question is, “Will you enjoy owning this instrument?” If you play and can meet the instrument in person, it’s easy. If you don’t play, take along somebody who does. If the instrument is in another part of the country, try to find someone in its vicinity who plays, and impose on that person to go meet it and give you an opinion. If the seller is selling to upgrade to a better instrument, ask what it is about the first instrument that made him or her want something better.

It’s not common, but it has happened that Swedes have taken advantage of the nyckelharpa’s rarity in America and sold a harpa for much more money than it would be worth in Sweden where there’s more competition. We Americans aren’t likely to know what a given harpa is worth, and can’t always compare it to others nearby. Just this year someone from Skåne approached Bart about selling his instruments and sent Bart one. It was the worst harpa he’d ever seen, yet the maker was asking 10,000 SEK (about $1200) for it. It was worth maybe $300, as an entry-level harpa that would need upgrading within 6 months. And beware of used harpas for under $400. As they say in Sweden, if it costs less then about $400 it’s probably not worth $10. We refer to these harpas as “väggharpor” — wall harpas. They are only good for hanging on the wall and looking at.

You can always e-mail or call one of the American Nyckelharpa Association board member and ask for an opinion. Among the bunch of us, we’re likely to be familiar with the better-known makers and have some impressions or advice.

Good luck hunting!