You are about to embark upon learning a musical instrument that is both melodic and rhythmical, an international instrument with an incredible variety of styles, rarely played, and even more rarely played well. Once hooked there is a serious danger of becoming an enthusiast, but be aware that you are putting metal against your teeth, pulling back a spring and letting go. If you have any doubts as to the suitability of the instrument for you, think before you try. Take care when reading these instructions and, if in doubt, talk to someone who knows what they are doing.
When someone says that playing the Jew’s harp is easy, they are doing the instrument a disservice. Whilst it is easy enough to get a sound from the Jew’s harp, it is as difficult to play well as any musical, melodic instrument. That sounds extreme, particularly as the basic principle of playing is relatively straightforward – but then again, so are most musical instruments, for when you put a tin whistle to your mouth, place your fingers over the holes and blow you get a note, but that doesn’t make it musical.
What makes the Jew’s harp difficult is the fact that, along with breathing and other techniques, you need to know where your tongue should be in order to produce a note, and no one can get inside your mouth to say, “Try this”!
Recognising that playing is difficult means you should realise that each new technique you develop is a positive step forward. Every time you discover a new sound or know where to find a particular note, you are gaining more knowledge that will help you develop a good presentational style. As Alistair Anderson put it, you need to be aware of the palette of sounds available.
In order to master this great and ancient musical instrument you need a high specification instrument, the skill to use the volume of your mouth, an understanding of breathing techniques, an agile tongue, the ability to tap into harmonics and be able to carry a rhythm.
Jew’s harps, as seen at festivals and music shops, are usually very cheap and, while they are very basic, you will need one in order to follow this booklet. Slightly more expensive, but better quality instruments can be purchased from one of the manufacturers listed at the end of this booklet, because, until there is a demand the quality of easily accessible Jew’s harps will not be supplied even by specialist music shops. To get to that position needs musicians who know what they are doing, what they want and are prepared to pay more for a higher specification instrument.
This webpage, along with the recordings and animations on the CD-ROM, will help you discover what you can do with your Jew’s harp. What makes this instrument so special is that because you are using your mouth cavity, like a singer, your voice can come through when playing, which makes the music you play particular to you.
So, learn, and enjoy!
The following is an updated version of two articles written for The Living Tradition magazine in 2000 and eds magazine in 2002. I would like to thank TLT and efdss along with the respective editors, Pete Haywood and Paul Davenport, for permission to re-publish.
Can the Jew’s harp be melodic?
Someone at the Whitby Festival once described the title of my workshop `The Melodic Jew’s harp’ as an oxymoron – mind you they had never heard me play and didn’t come to any of the sessions! This is, however, not untypical of the attitude towards the instrument, mainly because it is usually heard rhythmically in recordings.
Nevertheless, Albrechtsberger wrote concertos for the Jew’s harp, mandola and orchestra; there are recordings of Angus Lawrie playing march, strathspeys and reels in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library; John Wright plays Irish melodies, such as on `The Lark in the Clear Air’ (1974) and other recordings; and you can hear some fantastic European players using the instrument in the folk style of their areas – Sven Wested in Norway and various players from Romania, Sicily and Austria.
There is no doubt that it is difficult, but concentrating on achieving a musical scale based upon the following, will move you towards the ultimate goal of melodic playing. If you only want to play the instrument rhythmically, the advice will still be of use to you.
The principle of playing the Jew’s harp is quite simple, with a few basic rules. There are two parts to the instrument – the Jew’s harp and your mouth. The harp creates the sound and your mouth cavity is the sound box. By making the mouth sound box larger or smaller with your tongue, you can change the note. The critical point, therefore, is the connection between the instrument and the sound box. The objective is to hold the instrument with one hand and pluck the reed with the other.
The instrument we call a Jew’s harp is deceptively simple, being made up of two parts – the frame and the tongue. It is a single reed instrument working on the same principle as any other free reed instrument, such as a harmonica, concertina or melodeon, with the tongue passing through a confined space creating vibrations and a sound. While other free reed instruments are air driven, the Jew’s harp relies upon hand operation and the accentuation over overtones so that they are note obscured by air blowing through.
The frame can be divided into two sections – one for holding and two parallel bars through which the reed (also called lamella or tongue) passes. The accuracy with which the reed does this determines the quality of the sound produced – hence the cheapest instruments tend to produce a fuzzy sound. A critical point is the fixing of the reed to the frame as a loose or poor joint also affects the sound.
A good metal instrument needs to be engineered. The frame generally needs weight, with the end where the reed is fixed to the frame being the heaviest.
The reed is not a straightforward spring, but a shaped strip of metal softened or weakened at the fixed end so that the rest of it passes rigidly between the two static bars. I have seen various methods by which this is done. For example, a maker might beat the non-plucking end or notch it in the end of the reed, while other makers temper the metal. All the methods encourage the reed to bend more at the non-business end.
Place the instrument between your thumb and two fingers with the plucking part of the reed facing outwards. Put your thumb on the grip end of the harp – that is on the joint between the frame and the tongue – with your first and second fingers on the flat surface of the frame either side of the parallel bars.
The aim is to hold the instrument firmly without putting any pressure on the critically aligned playing section as this could pinch the frame together. The reed of the instrument must always be allowed to run freely through the frame.
Now bring the instrument to your mouth. There needs to be a gap between your teeth to allow the reed to move freely inside your mouth. Press the two outer bars firmly against your teeth. DO NOT BITE. You need to provide a stable contact between instrument and sound box. Now gently place your lips on the two parallel bars, still ensuring that the reed flexes freely inside your mouth.
Pull the reed back and let go. If you get a buzzing sensation, you are not holding the instrument firmly enough against your teeth.
If there is a “clunk” your teeth are not far enough apart or you are biting the frame bars together. Some musicians push the reed forward. I have never favoured this technique for two reasons. First, you are pulling the harp away from the critical point of contact with your teeth and, second, I find I have less control of the reed. Plucking the reed to the rhythm of the tune has pleasing qualities. With a jig, for instance, you can pluck on beats one and two, leaving beat three. This keeps the energy of the tune moving. I find this is more difficult pulling the reed outwards. Another technique is to pluck the reed for every note, which may well require both pulling and pushing the reed to achieve quicker responses from the instrument (see below). Go with whatever suits your style.
Now breathe very gently through the instrument while plucking the reed. Breathing too heavily accentuates the drone, while no breathing at all can, in certain circumstances produce a gong-like sound. By moving your own tongue up and down, while still allowing the reed to spring freely, not only can you change the notes and make a tune, but create some amazing sound effects. Using your stomach or diaphragm and breathing sharply induces a staccato effect, useful in tripling. With metal instruments your teeth are pretty important. I have seen someone play with false teeth, but he used a piece of mechanics even more complicated than the instrument itself. You need to stop the two sidebars trying to counter the vibration of the reed. Pressing them against your teeth achieves this, and also provides a static platform with the sound box or mouth cavity. With plucked bamboo or brass instruments you have sufficient weight in your hand to hold the frame steady, or you can more easily bear your hand against your face.
The mouth cavity is a sound box extraordinaire. The size and shape of your mouth directly affects the sounds you can make. The basic sound comes from the top of your mouth with the position of your tongue determining the size of the volume – the smaller the volume, the higher the note.
Placing your tongue at the top of the mouth creates a different, sharper sound from the volume under the tongue, while opening up the back creates a hollow sound. Your tongue can also be used to dampen the instrument’s spring.
Creating a rhythm
The final part is striking or activating the instrument’s reed, for this is, after all, a single reed instrument, with the sound created as the reed passes through the frame. Some people flick the reed outwards; some (myself included) inwards; some techniques require you to do both. It can be clipped with an independent finger, or with the fingers held together hinging from the knuckles.
You can use the striking of the reed to create the basic rhythm. For example, 2/4 or 4/4 time, such as marches, reels, and the like, tend to be straightforward, requiring a steady plucking motion emphasising beats as necessary. Jigs are more difficult because the emphasis is on two of the three beats, the third being held back to give the recognisable rhythm. Slow airs benefit from a harp with a softer spring allowing you to use your mouthing techniques to bring out the melody.
Each instrument has a specific key (or fundamental) determined by the length of the reed, and any tune requiring a single key is straightforward as it provides the drone. If you choose two tunes following on from one another in different keys, it is useful to clamp two instruments together. Some players hold a harp in each hand, swapping from one to the other, as necessary. This is also important if you choose to play a tune that needs to change key. Albrechtsberger`s Concerto in D for Jew’s harp and orchestra, for instance, needs at least five.
Apparently the Jew’s harp is not a true harmonic instrument, but uses harmonics all the same. I don’t claim to fully understand, but I do know it affects what you can do with the instrument. Smaller harps have a clearer sound, but a limited range, gradually reversing to a less distinct sound and a greater range as they get bigger. `F’ is the best compromise, but of limited use with other instruments.
For more in-depth information on harmonics, access John Wright’s article “Intonation” (or “Finding the Notes” on the Website.
Projecting the sound has always been a problem. The notes to Antique Musical Instruments and Their Players (Dover, 1964) puts the perceived problem succinctly, “It is essentially an instrument for the player’s pleasure, being hardly audible to anyone else.”
Various efforts have been made to enhance the sound. The Scottish player, Angus Lawrie, cupped his holding hand; but the prize for ingenuity goes to Trowman’s of Birmingham. Jeremy Montagu, the retired curator of the Bate Collection, has one of their instruments with a soldered trumpet attached, along with its original box. There are microphones, of course, and I have a small pick-up mic that can be very useful. Even without enhancement, though, you would be surprised how well the sound travels when well played.
The most consistent and good quality Jew’s harps at an affordable price are made by:
Traditionelle Volksmusik Intrumente
Tel: +49 36 8248 7049
To sum up
Combining these techniques of changing mouth shape, breathing, rhythmic hand movement along with choosing the right instrument, allows you to play simple and complex melodies, adding variety and depth to the performance.
Having one Jew’s harp will limit what you can play, so you need to find the right Jew’s harp for the specific tune. I play ‘Madam Bonaparte’, for instance, in ‘D’ and `Dornoch Links’ in ‘A’, but not the other way round. If you play with other instruments you might need to jump octaves or harmonise.
Key of ‘F’ – ‘Shepherd’s Hey’
Key of ‘D’ – ‘The Colleen Rue’
Key of ‘G’ – ‘Princess Royal’
So that’s it. All you need is an engineered instrument, knowledge of your cranial cavities, control of your breathing and a steady pluck. The ability to change harps in mid tune without shredding your lips is a useful additional skill!
Now tell me this is a simple, easy instrument to play. Perhaps we should not be surprised that only a few are brave (or daft?) enough to put a piece of vibrating metal in their mouth in the name of music!
‘How to Play’ practice pieces
Workshop practice piece (with David & Lucy Wright)
Dashing White Sergeant – complete
Dashing White Sergeant – main tune
Dashing White Sergeant – high harmony
Dashing White Sergeant – bass
Intonation (or “Finding the Notes’
by John Wright