It looks like as if the Jew’s harp or jaw harp is a very easy to play Instrument. That’s because of the simplicity of construction. Yes, it looks very simple. However, it is not so easy when it comes to choosing, when you try to find one among whole bunch of them looking through a catalog. Or even worse, when you see a variety of different shapes and sizes displayed at an exhibition. So, which one to choose? That is the question. First of all, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that the appearance of the Jew’s harp has nothing to do with the sound. Simply speaking, neither the size nor the shape or color, or material, or a method of manufacturing does not affect the sound of the instrument. To be precise, the size and shape have an impact only in combination with other factors. It makes no sense to consider them separately.
There is an exception. The type of frame material should not be made out of wood. It cannot provide the necessary accuracy and stability of the structure. To put it simply, harp should be made out of metal, and it does not really matter which metal it is.
Types of Jew’s harps
The main thing that determines the very essence of playing the instrument that can’t be seen is the material of the reed. For example, if all the parameters are kept equal a long reed would provide lower sound than a short one. But if the long reed is made of hard metal, the sound will be higher, shorter and softer. Thus, we should not try to determine acoustic and mechanical properties taking into consideration only the appearance of the instrument. By the way, on this occasion, there are many speculations and myths, that made the choosing process even more difficult. One of the most common is the «forged harp» myth. Many believe that it is a guarantee of quality. Forging, as well as other methods of manufacturing of the musical instrument body, do not affect the sound at all. Similarly, the country of origin, by and large, is not related to the quality of the Jew’s harps. In some regions, there are strong traditions concerning one or more aspects of the design, but they should be considered only as exceptions. A more correct level of generalization is the artisan that manufactured the harp. Quality depends on the person more than the region, but this can be true only when the artisan manufactures only one type of the instrument. But there are those who produce dozens of different varieties («of models»), that are not similar to each other. Ideally, every Jew’s harp should be considered on an individual basis.
Here are some basic properties of the Jew’s harp that are of practical importance on the basis of which we can divide them into several different types.
- The height of the sound. The Jew’s Harps can be both very low, bass, and very high, up to a squeak. Each has a reed vibration base frequency corresponding to the height of the lowest sound that the harp can make. If this frequency coincides with the frequency of a note, harp is tuned. Within a small range you can tune it by yourself. Typically, the lower the harp, the slower, and the more inert it is. The higher, the more it is suitable for fast playing. For a normal playing and for beginners it is better to stick to the middle. Besides, the lowest harps require special thoroughness of manufacturing to provide a wider range and they are very expensive. The simplest models are often limited in the upper frequencies and sound «muffled». On average, the lower the harp, the better it responds to deep breathing (open lungs — the greater the volume, the lower frequency resonance occurs); the higher, the better they react to micro articulation.
- Timbre. At any time, harp, like most musical instruments, other than the principal sound, makes a different set of sounds — overtones derived from the base, and each overtone sounds with its volume. This set of sounds is the “voice«of an instrument. Different Jew’s harps tuned to one note can sound differently; also the timbre of other instruments will sound differently too. There can be distinguished two opposite-looking types of harp sounds — crackling and smooth. The close to the first group seem more interesting and unusual, but the over-abundance of crackle may bother conscious control over the instrument. The «smooth» is demanding greater confidence on the part of the player but do not put obstacles in front of him and can look more poorly. Timbre, basically, is a matter of taste. That is the only thing that can be determined listening to the recorded sound examples.
- The rigidity of the reed. It affects the tactile feel of the playing, or to be exact — from the impact. Jew’s harps of different hardness are better suited for different purposes, but do not be guided by this parameter alone when choosing. The only thing that this figure can be useful for is knowing how tight to hold the instrument and how hard to pluck.
- Mechanics. The totality of material, size, shape of the reed determines its tendency to play at a certain speed. For example, some harps sound good when played slowly, relaxed and with weak strikes, some with fast, accurate. Mechanical properties include the ability to maintain a clean sound with strong, variable impacts, or impacts in different directions. This gives not only the possibility of making «machine-gun fire» sound, but also to use a separate insert-decorations in a leisurely play, like tremolo and mordents.
- Sensitivity. When plucking the tongue of various harps with the same force, sound volume can be different. Sensitivity determines the ratio between the volume and efforts made to produce it. The higher it is, the easier it is to produce a loud sound. Volume sensitivity can be combined with a sensitivity to the control commands — articulation, breathing. Using a high quality instrument, only a small movement is enough and the sound will distinctly change. But a low quality one requires more effort. As a rule, the higher the sensitivity, the easier and more enjoyable it is to play.
- Volume. Jew’s harps vary in volume. Usually it is associated with sensitivity and tone. The latter is even more important when playing in a noisy environment. A harp that has a different tone than surrounding noise can be heard better than the one that merges with it. When playing at home alone volume virtually isn’t important. But an opportunity is better than no opportunity.
- Construction type. From practically used nowadays the most memorable are two types — bow-shaped (the most common) and lamellate. The fundamental difference between them is that they are being held differently. The bow-shaped Jew’s Harps have to be held against the teeth; the lamellate held by the hand, and only slightly grasped with the lips for optimum volume. All other options can be called exotic. Since metal lamellate trumps are made only by one workshop at the moment, any generalizations are not to be made. Let’s consider that these common features are the manufacturers’ merits.
How to choose?
If you have not played the instrument yet, firstly you should decide why you need to buy a Jew’s harp: just to indulge, making unusual sounds, or you want to learn how to play it. In the first case, the quality of the instrument will only affect the amount of received pleasure — the better the harp, the more enjoyable it is. And if comfort can be neglected for the sake of, for example, cost or design, for a of full value instruction, the quality of instrument determines what you can get from it.
And, if the instrument is just for momentary pleasure, the choosing of the harp can and should be done in the same manner — just like «I want it here and now». But a more serious approach you can have only when you know how to play and choosing guided by animal instincts cannot apply. Unfortunately, the most common advice is «listen to you heart». But, when you do, in most cases, it leads you to make bad decisions and you choose bad instrument which puts an end to any future musical development. There’s only one option left — trust professionals, who can really play and went through a long way of changing different instruments and see how it works with others. And you have the possibility of choice because of subjective and objective qualities.
An experienced dealer will always offer several models, any of which can be safely used for practicing and playing, and he will hide away the ones that are tempting but not worth your attention because of their low quality.
It is worth it for holders of bow-shaped harps to try the Vietnamese lamellate dan moi, and even Chinese Kouxian (though, one does not disturb the other). These three instrument groups are most distant from each other and a set of models from each covers a very wide range of sound techniques, sounds and experiences. You can also experiment on pitch/rigidity, adding to the soft humming harp a one with rigid sound; finding a new timbre combining strong dynamic instrument with a delicate and sensitive. Interesting and extreme options are such models as Hungarian “Apocalypse”/”Daisy cutter”/”Choir” with a crazy sound and «Tibet», as one of the lowest Jew’s harps in the world.
Trying Jew’s harps
- Please do not pay attention to the ease of holding. If you are using an efficient universal grip you will get accustomed to any type. At first it will be uncomfortable — yes, we must learn 🙂
- Sound is not everything. It is more important how easily it can be produced. By «easily» we mean not ease of holding but the the power of plucking.
- Do not ask anyone their opinion on how it sounds when you play. You are the player not the listener 😉
- Do not ask anyone to play to listen to the sound yourself (see previous point).
- Try to play in different plucking directions and with different plucking force
- Try all sounds — vowels, consonants. Open and close the throat, move larynx.
- Do not fuss! Pay attention to every movement and its outcome!
- Listen to the sound in the middle of the room and closer to the wall or window. Very different components will emerge 😉