Picking out a jawharp can seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually quite simple. There are a few factors involved in your jawharp decision, and the impact they have on the instrument is described below. However, in the end personal preference is the most important factor, so the surest way is to try out a couple different types and see how they feel.
The three main materials jawharps are constructed from are steel, brass, and wood. Brass is certainly the prettiest material, and it’s also the most expensive. Since brass is a softer metal than steel, it’s easier to play, and can be much more comfortable for individuals with very sensitive teeth. Wood is the cheapest material, and also the least durable. It’s pretty easy to break a wood jawharp, and they should be considered as disposable, temporary instruments. However, an interesting thing about wooden jawharps is that they are played against the lips instead of the teeth. This results in a slightly different sort of sound, and is considered easier to play for beginners. Steel is the final material. It is very durable and strong, with its price falling between brass and wood.
Stiffer reeds are easier to play fast, but more unforgiving. If your lip placement is wrong you could receive a pretty nasty pinch. Softer reeds are considered to be easier to play for beginners, and won’t hurt as much if you pinch yourself. Personal taste is key though, so try both out and see which you prefer.
First the term untuned is a bit of a misnomer. The instrument still has a tune, but this tune does not correspond exactly to any note on the western scale. Tuned instruments are usually more expensive since the craftsmen will have to take extra time to work on the instrument until it matches the desired musical key, while untuned jawharps can just be made and they’ll have whatever tuning come’s from their natural shape. If you plan to play your jawharp in a band with other tuned instruments, get a jawharp that is tuned to whatever key most of your songs are in. The untuned jawharp can be considered a bit more of a solo instrument, or to be played with light percussive background. Because the jawharp is not tuned to the western scale, it can clash and cause dissonance when played with other instruments that are tuned.
Avoid Snoopy brand harps (usually costing $1 - $5) that are popular on eBay and Amazon. They are very poorly manufactured. In fact they are so bad that now the company is trying to avoid their bad reputation by rebranding, and selling their jawharps under different names. To be safe, stay away from jawharps in this price range, because after all you can get a pretty decent jawharp for just a few dollars more.
My recommended store for US buyers is Mouth Music. The store offers numerous different kinds of jawharps from all over the world made of a variety of materials, both tuned and untuned. Even more useful there are sound recordings for every one of their products, so you can see if the harp has the sound you want before you order. Additionally, the staff are very friendly and willing to answer questions to help you find the right jawharp for you.
Hold the jaw harp on the side opposite the trigger. You can play either right or left handed, try both sides to see which one feels most comfortable. Hold firm enough that the harp won’t shake when you pluck the trigger, but not hard enough to keep the tongue from vibrating.
Raise the harp to your mouth, and rest it gently against your teeth (don’t bite down on it). Curl your lips slightly around the frame. See the top image for more info.
Before you start plucking, make sure there is enough room for the tongue of the harp to go back and forth between your teeth. Gently push it in and out of your mouth using the trigger, and make sure it isn’t scraping against your teeth or hitting your lip . Adjust your harp placement and mouth position until the harp no longer hits anything. If it does hit your tooth when playing it will sound bad, it will hurt, and you could possible damage your tooth.
Pluck the trigger back and forth to play. You can use your index finger, your thumb, or even your whole hand, whatever is most comfortable for you. Plucking away from you will create a stronger sound with more emphasis, and plucking toward you will result in a softer sound. The harder you pluck the louder the sound will be.
Change the shape of your mouth and your tongue position to make different sounds with the harp. The key to this is experimenting until you have an intuitive sense of how to make each different sound. It’s like learning to speak a different language, and the various basic sounds are the letters which you can combine together to make sentences (songs).
Practice mouthing vowel sounds (a e i o u). Vowel sounds are the easiest to do because you already know them by heart, and they don’t require you to close your mouth. After this you can try doing similar vowel sounds from other languages, and indeed any sounds which don’t require you to close your mouth.
Practice variations in breath tone. Breathing out while playing makes a loud buzzy sound, breathing in makes a softer buzz. For normal play, breath in and out with your nose.
Practice how different mouth shapes affect your sound. A more open mouth will produce a lower, darker tone, and a more closed mouth will produce a higher, brighter sound. Making the trademark bonging type sound is something many beginners want to do. To do it, just oscillate your tongue back and forth, and stretch your mouth in and out. Different speeds will produce different pitch sounds.
Expand your repertoire of sounds. Seek out jaw harp recordings, and experiment with your mouth until you can recreate that sound. Practice until you can do it on command. There are many YouTube channels dedicated to jawharping that you could take inspiration from. I recommend the hankplow and JonnyMcBoingBoing channels.
Practice plucking the trigger at different speeds and levels of force. Longer sounds will require more force on the trigger to keep the harp reverberating. For shorter, faster playing alternate plucking inward and outward.
Play what’s in your heart.
Eventually you will get an intuitive sense of how your mouth position will affect the sound, as well as the rhythmic dexterity to make your harp sing. Until that time keep practicing.
Store your jawharp in a dry environment. If you live in a humid area, then keep a packet of desiccating silica gel (usually comes in packets saying DO NOT EAT).
To protect the trigger, pack the harp in foam, or a wooden block with a notch cut out when not in use.
After playing be sure to always dry the jawharp thoroughly.
Wash often using water and soap. Avoid using alcohol based cleaners as these can ruin the finish. And of course, always dry it afterwards.
Never leave it wet, as this can lead to oxidation of the harp, which will decrease the sound quality and make the harp easier to break.
Copyright © 2013 - 2016 Nate Craun. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.