Mouthing Off
Wayland Harman

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

Selecting a Jew's Harp

When I was reintroduced to the Jew's harp about six years ago, it was with a Bilyeu harp. A year later I had the opportunity to look through a large batch of Tom Bilyeu's product and chose several "good ones". One was a chromed harp similar to the one I had as a kid. Tom said it won't last and that's why he stopped chroming them. Well, he was right and that harp broke about a year later. I was devastated, my best harp was gone. My treasure was now trash. The best that harp ever sounded was right before it broke. Then it happened, the pitch started dropping and about three plucks later I was picking the reed up off the floor. If you play Jew's harp long enough, you'll probably experience the same thing. Then, go get another harp and keep on playing.

Selecting a harp is as much a matter of chance as knowledge. If you could choose from all the harps currently manufactured, laid out side by side, you couldn't choose just one. Unfortunately this is never the case and you will most likely play the instruments that come to you. These days we are lucky to find one for sale, let alone a nice selection, and many commercially available instruments are of limited quality. Much of the problem stems from the machine production of an instrument which does not lend itself to these methods. Making a fine harp takes individual attention; small adjustments recognized by the hand of an experienced maker. Some mass produced harps do play better than others, and individual playing characteristics vary from one instrument to the next. This is one reason why serious players have so many harps in their collections, and are always looking for more.


Jew's harp collectors buy harps for their looks and tuning (if they are tuned) but most of all for their playability. Some aspects of an instrument's quality can be visually discerned, though playing is the only way to really know how good an instrument it is. Often this is not possible and we all end up with a few duds. Purchasing from someone who makes and sells their own harps will usually get you a much better instrument than you can buy at the music store, if you can find a store that still carries them. Plan on spending at least $20 for a hand made harp. If all you can find is a $5 music store harp, ask to try them all and select the best one or two. These harps will not be tuned to a standard pitch; which is a very nice feature when playing with other instruments. I get a kick out of pulling out a chromatic set of harps and asking the guitarist, "What key?". Often they respond, "I didn't know they were even tuned.". If they have ever played along with a harp that was not tuned, they will appreciate the difference. To me, this is one of the most important aspects of a good Jew's harp.


Jew's Harps are subtle instruments and need to be well crafted to maximize volume and tone. The harp should hum audibly when plucked without a resonance chamber. The longer this hum lasts, the better. Don't expect much volume, just a soft hum. This is one way to test a group of harps if the salesperson won't let you try them with your mouth.

I've been framed

The best visual clue as to a harp's quality are the gaps between the reed and frame. The closer and more parallel, the better, as long as the reed doesn't hit the frame when plucked. Close tolerances are more influenced by air, play louder, and have better high harmonics. Look for equal spaces on both sides of the reed which are consistently about as wide as a few sheets of paper. The frame can be carefully bent to improve the "set up" of a harp. This is something the maker does unless he's just a machine. Mass produced harps are rarely set up well. As a player gets better at plucking straight and true, they can stand to have a tighter tolerance. Stiff reeds can be set up tighter than thin flexible reeds as they vibrate a little truer. When purchasing handmade harps, it might help to indicate your experience to the maker, so they know how best to set up your harps.

Reeding Lesson

The reed must be securely fastened to the frame at the crimp. If any looseness exists, the reed will sound with an unpleasant buzz. Sometimes this connection can be improved with a few taps from a punch and hammer. A harp whose reed has slowly worked loose may also be mended this way. Set the harp, crimp up, on a solid surface such as an anvil and, starting with light blows, drive the steel down at the original crimps. Make sure the reed stays centered in the frame and that the frame is not being bent. Fairly heavy blows may be required to fully set the reed and, in some cases, the process will not work and can ruin the harp. Consider this before you start beating on your harps. A handmade harp should be returned to the maker for this correction. With factory harps, you are on your own.


Some harps have a full loop at the reed end and others don't. This loop keeps the finger from getting stuck as it plucks, especially when plucking both in and out. This is a matter of personal preference and taking what you get. If you want to loop a reed with a straight end, use a torch to heat the reed's tip before bending or it might break off. This would alter the pitch of the harp (higher) and there may not be enough metal left to try again. Avoid getting the flex area too hot or the temper of the reed may be altered.

Schematic of a Trump

The embouchure of this harp is where you play. This section of the reed is the most resonant and the most affected by air. Every other aspect of the harp is brought to focus here.

The reed's thickness varies depending on what pitch and size the instrument is. Lower pitched harps usually have thinner reeds. This stiffness greatly affects the feel of the harp, but it more a matter of necessity than quality. Learning to adjust is important.

Judgement Day

Judging a harp's quality takes experience and is best done after you know how to play. For those who have struggled with inferior or improperly set up instruments, I empathize. Much of the Jew's harp's beauty is inherent in the harp and the player must find the way to expose it. Starting with a good harp helps a lot and will allow a player to appreciate a really fine harp when the chance comes.

I hope this helps you find good Jew's harps. Remember, even a poor harp is better than no harp. Every serious collection I've seen has a $5.00 harp in it somewhere.

There are some very fine instruments being made if you wish to seek them out. Our guild store is a good place to start, though a comprehensive search would take you world wide.
Wayland Harman ***


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