Mouthing Off
with Wayland Harman #1

Wayland Harman, instrument inventor, fine wood-worker, JawHarpist, and former emcee of the NAJHF, examines the essense of mouth cavity instruments in this running series.

This article begins a series on jew's harps and other mouth instruments. While my expertise is more in the "other instruments" column, I am a dedicated harpist and love the instrument. I can't promise you reams of facts and history, however, I can provide a little insight into the jew's harp, how it works, and how I play it. I hope it is helpful.


Take a steel rod and bend it into a key hole shape: add a strip of spring steel down the middle. Basically, that's a steel jew's harp. By holding this device to your teeth and plucking the springy part, you can make sound. This sound is altered by manipulating mouth size and airflow. With practice, these variations are controllable. This oversimplification is basically how you go about building and playing this ancient instrument. The underlying subtlety to each of these steps dictates quality of sound and even if the instrument can be played. This column will discuss some of these steps in detail.

The steel rod, which forms the keyhole shaped frame, is commonly made of 1/4" square steel rod. Some manufacturers forge this, some just bend it and others cast their frames. Although specific shape varies, two important items are fairly consistent. The two ends form a narrow space for the spring steel reed to pass through and a channel is cut at the opposite end to connect this reed. While this connection is usually a crimped fit, screws are sometimes used. This connection must be very secure or the instrument will buzz and rattle, rendering it "unplayable",

When the reed is plucked, it moves back and forth through the space between frame ends. The speed at which the reed moves back and forth is its frequency, and determines the instrument's pitch. The mass and stiffness of the reed are the two factors that can be adjusted to tune instrument to a desired pitch. Removing metal from the reed near the connection to the frame will reduce the stiffness and lower the pitch. Removing metal at the other end reduces mass and increases the pitch.

The spaces between the reed and frame should be as thin as possible. Too thin and the reed will hit the frame when plucked. Too wide and the harp looses volume and overall "playability". Thinner spaces are much more influenced by air blown or drawn across the reed. This space may be as thin as a couple of sheets of newsprint.

The end of the reed is bent to one side and a small loop or hook bent at the very tip. This is where the reed is plucked with the finger. The pluck can either be pushing in or pulling out or may alternate. Multiple fingers are often employed and I have seen many different hand positions. Like many aspects of the jew's harp, most players do what feels best to them.

Many of the world's harps are not made of steel, and are of different designs. Some elements remain the same; most notable, the thin spaces between reed and frame. The method of supplying energy to the reed can vary greatly, as does the sound of individual instruments.

Building a jew's harp that plays well is a labor of love and truly fine instruments require years of practice. Many aspects of the construction must be balanced, each doing exactly what is needed and no more. My hat is off to the masters of this art.

Next time I will concentrate on the playing of a steel harp. Future articles will discuss not only other aspects of this wonderful device, but some related instruments such as mouth bow, didjeridu, nose whistle and my own invention, the Clackamore.

Thanks for stopping by and please check back.



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