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Tuning (placement) of nyckelharpa strings

From Nyckel Notes #4, July 1996
by Bart Brashers

Need to know about the size (gauge) of the understrings?

There are at least two common methods nyckelharpa players use to assign which note each resonance string get tuned to. The most common is to start with G# (the lowest string) and proceed up the chromatic scale to G (the highest string). This is schematically indicated in the top portion of the figure. By far, most nyckelharpa players use this method.

In Jan Ling’s book Nyckelharpan there are references to another common scheme. I’ve heard that Eric Sahlström either used or developed it, but that may just be folklore. The idea is to place the strings that are tuned to the most commonly played notes near the center of the bridge. That is, the C, G, D and A strings surround the third playing string (the G) and the G# and C# are placed further from the center of the bridge.

(The following diagram is availalbe as a PDF)

The most common placement of resonance strings

When I was in Sweden in February 1996, I asked Esbjörn Hogmark (an extremely sought-after maker) what method he used, and why. I was surprised when he told me he uses the most common method, not Eric’s method. He didn’t think there was much to be gained from Eric’s relatively complicated method.

There are several other possible tunings, including this one used by (among others) Sören Åhker and Lars Hallengren, also attributed to Eric Sahlström:

  – C (4th String) – G (3rd) – C (2nd) – A (1st)
Note name  G#  B  Bb  A  D  G  C#  C  F#  E  Eb  F
Press key  G1  G4  G3  G2  C2  C7  C1  C0  C6  C4  C3  C5

Note that this scheme has a high G resonance string (G7) rather than one the same note as the open G(3rd) string. This means that it must be a plain string, not a wound one, as the latter would surely break. I’ve also seen harpas where the G# resonance string is tuned to the upper octave (C8) rather than the lower octave (G1), again with a plain string. If you feel your nyckelharpa has too strong an open G(3rd) string, go out and buy a string of the right gauge (thickness) and replace your low resonance G with a high resonance G. The same goes for G#, which is much more likely to sound weak due to it being so far up the neck on a relatively thick string. I’ve always felt a bit odd tuning the lowest resonance string to a low G#, since I’ve yet to learn a tune that uses that note (and I’ve been playing since 1976, though only very seriously since 1987).

Conversely, If you feel your nyckelharpa has a weak G(3rd) string you can try another variation of the Most Common scheme: tune the lowest resonance string down a half-step to a G, and the highest resonance string up a half-step to a G#. The lowest two resonance strings will then be one whole step apart (G to A) as will the highest two (F# to G#). Doing so will make the low G resonance string resonate along with the low G a lot better than a G tuned an octave higher. My particular nyckelharpa has a strong low G (playing) string, and so doesn’t need the added push of a low G resonance string. If you use amplification a lot when you play gigs, you might want to avoid this scheme, since most amplification systems tend to "boom" that note. Olov Johansson (of Väsen) always makes the sound person cut the response at about 200 Hertz by using the equalizer, to avoid the "booming" of the G playing string.

Another popular way to strengthen the sound of a weak G(3rd) is to tune all your understrings down by 1/2 step. That is, tune them from low G to high F#, rather than from low G# to high G. This also has the benefit of lowering the overall tension on the bridge which lets the nyckelharpa ring out more, giving better tone and volume.

So how should you tune your understrings? I hereby give you free license to experiment, with the understanding you’ll have proper respect for tradition, and realize there’s probably a reason why most harpa players do things the way they do: because it works. It’s part of the tradition that nyckelharpa design has been constantly (but slowly) changing in response to the changing demands of the players. Modern violins are very similar to those made 200 years ago, but the nyckelharpa has undergone two major design changes in that time. So feel free to innovate!