The Jaw Harp is a unique instrument that originated thousands of years ago. This instrument also goes by the names “Mouth Harp” and “Jew’s Harp” and is incredibly fun to play. If you have recently acquired a Jaw Harp, you may be wondering how to start playing it.
Today we will be examining the correct techniques for playing the Jaw Harp as well as providing tips for purchasing a good quality one.
What is a Jaw Harp?
A Jaw’s Harp is a small musical instrument played using the mouth. It consists of a thin “tongue” portion made from wood or metal. This tongue is attached at the base of a two-pronged frame.
Jaw’s Harp players play this instrument by holding the frame in their mouth, forming a “resonance cavity” and then plucking the tongue with their finger. This plucking action produces a sound while the player’s mouth resonates the sound.
How to Choose a Jaw Harp
If you are interested in learning how to play the Jaw Harp, it is vital to choose the right one for the job. Depending on where you live, your local music store may have a wide range of Jaw Harps available.
You might think that you need to spend a fair amount of money to get a good Jaw Harp. However, these instruments are quite cheap, and it’s not uncommon to find a great quality one for under $20.
When choosing your first Jaw Harp, you should ensure the instrument isn’t overly stiff or heavy. Some Jaw Harps sold at novelty stores feature thick metal frames and reeds which add to the instrument’s weight. These thick reeds can also be quite dangerous when used incorrectly. If you accidentally let go of the reed while playing, it may swing back and hit your teeth with a lot of force. This can cause damage to your lip or even a chipped tooth in extreme cases. For this reason, you should avoid metal Jaw Harps that are overly thick.
Another consideration to keep in mind when choosing a Jaw Harp is loudness. The Jaw Harp is a small instrument that doesn’t get very loud. In addition to this, stiff Jaw Harps made from poor quality materials tend to be even quieter. For this reason, you should avoid stiff Jaw Harps and test them out in-store purchasing them.
So in conclusion, you should opt for a light Jaw Harp with a thin reed as your first purchase. This Jaw Harp will produce a great sound and will also be safer to play.
How to Play Jaw Harp
Once you have purchased a suitable Jaw Harp to learn on, you can follow the steps below to get started with playing it.
1. Hold the Jaw Harp Correctly
As with learning any instrument, the first step is to learn how to hold it correctly. Learning how to hold a Jaw Harp properly can seem tricky at first. A grip style that works for one Jaw Harp may not necessarily work for another. This is because these instruments come in many different shapes, sizes, and configurations. However, each Jaw Harp still operates on the principle of a reed vibrating between the bars of the inner frame.
You should keep in mind that a good grip will allow you to hold the harp against your teeth securely, but without collapsing the inner frame bars. Some common grips include:
The Pinch Grip works well for regular-sized Jaw Harps. This grip involves using your middle-finger and thumb to pinch the bottom rod of the harp’s base. You can then place your index finger on the top rod for stabilization. Note that the index finger should not be pressing down or pushing weight on the top rod.
An alternate form of the Pinch Grip can be used for Jaw Harps with thick frames such as Bass Jaw Harps. This grip involves using your thumb and forefinger to hold the harp’s upper rod at the base. You can then stabilize the harp using your lips or teeth. This grip tends to be less stable than the other ones, but it allows you to use your middle finger to mute the instrument as needed while playing.
The Cradle Grip is suitable for Jaw Harps with an extremely wide base. This grip involves curling or “cradling” your index and thumb around the haro’s base. Again, you should ensure you aren’t squeezing the top and bottom rods of the harp together.
2. Place the Jaw Harp Against Your Mouth
Once you have understood how to grip your Jaw Harp, the next step is to place it against your mouth. Open your mouth and lightly clench the harp’s narrower frame portion between your teeth. You should remember that your mouth is simply serving as a counterpoint for the harp and that you aren’t biting down on the instrument too hard.
You’ll know the ideal pressure to apply when you notice that the harp isn’t rattling while it is being played. If your jaw is starting to strain, you are likely applying too much pressure.
3. Create a Seal With Your Lips
The next step is to create a proper seal using your lips. This seal is needed because it helps channel the sound towards your mouth and uses it as a resonance chamber. A poor seal won’t allow you to play loudly, making the Jaw Harp useless for live performances.
Your lips should be pressing down on the Jaw Harp’s top edge lightly. This loose seal lets you capture the reed’s vibrations and create sounds.
4. Strike the Trigger Properly
Now that you have your Jaw Harp in position, you can begin striking the trigger. You should note that there is no perfect method for doing this. Some people prefer striking it with their index finger and by moving their wrist. Others may prefer to use other fingers along with moving their entire arm. The trick is to find a striking technique that you are comfortable with and that you can repeat without straining yourself.
5. Alter the Sound With Your Tongue
Striking the trigger should produce some sound, but you will need to utilize your tongue to modulate this sound. Consider moving your tongue to different positions of your mouth to see how the sound changes. You can also change the shape of your mouth from saying “Ah” to “Ee” and note how the pitch changes. Different vowel sounds will impact the Jaw Harp’s expressions, so play around to learn how to make your desired sound.
The above guide should be useful in helping you get started with playing the Jaw Harp. This unique instrument can produce some amazing sounds, so be sure to practice using the techniques mentioned above.
As with any instrument, you should remember to pace yourself while practicing. The Jaw Harp may be small, but it is quite easy to hurt your lips or teeth if you play it improperly.
Once you have become proficient with the basic techniques, you may try moving onto more advanced ones such as rolling your tongue or double striking. You can find plenty of video resources on Youtube to learn these advanced techniques. For example, here’s a great video that shows off special breathing techniques for creating some catchy rhythms with the Jaw Harp.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.