Buy a Jew's harp - a cheap and unusual musical instrument

The Jew's harp is an ancient instrument

The Jew's harp is a very ancient musical instrument and is also known as a jaw harp, and Ozark harp and a trump. If you are looking to get an unusual and cheap instrument perhaps this could be what you are looking for?

I first came upon the sound of the Jew's harp whilst listening to the late great John Peel's show on BBC Radio 1 way back in 1971 when he had the two-man band Medicine Head on as guests. Peter-Hope Evans of the band played either a Jew's harp or a harmonica, whilst John Fiddler played guitar and drums and sang. I was instantly hooked by their sound.

Bard of Ely demonstrates the Jew's harp

Jew's harp photo

Jew's harp from the Civil War
Jew's harp from the Civil War

To play a Jew's harp

I became a fan of Medicine Head and went to see the band performing live on many occasions. I also got my first Jew's harp from a music shop in town. But then I had to learn to play it. There is a knack to doing so but it is quite easy to learn. You can hear me playing a Jew's harp here on my song Superhero.

The Jew's harp consists of a lyre-shaped metal frame made of cast iron or steel with a metallic tongue in the middle that can be vibrated or twanged. This part rests between two arms of the surrounding frame.

You hold the harp with one hand and use your other to twang the vibrating tongue once you have it positioned correctly in your mouth. You need to press the topmost of these arms firmly against your upper row of teeth but allowing space for the tongue of the instrument below and your bottom row of teeth. You are using your mouth as a resonating chamber and also to control the notes and sounds you are making.

The idea is to have the right amount of pressure of the frame on the teeth but allowing space for the metal tongue to be twanged but without hitting your teeth with it. Some people think that you hold the harp between the teeth but this is not the right way to play it, although it can be played this way. Once you have managed to get a successful twanging "boing, boing" sound out of it you will swiftly move on to find how to play it. You will have mastered the knack of how to hold it. The more you practice the better you will get at Jew's harp playing.

By moving the mouth and breathing in and out harder and softer produces variations in the sound and it can be made to be louder or quieter. You need to play around with it and be careful to hold it just right so you don't hit yourself with the tongue part.

The Jew's harp has been often played in Country and Western and Bluegrass bands as well as by acts such as Medicine Head. It's sound is unique and adds a certain flavour to any piece of music in which it is used.

How to play a Jew's harp

About the Jew's harp

Jew's harps are known to be a very ancient instrument because it can be seen being played in a Chinese drawing from the 4th Century BC. Although it is called a Jew's harp it has nothing in particular to do with followers of Judaism and its origins are believed to have been in Asia. Turkish tribal people have used the Jew's harp as a traditional instrument and they refer to it as a "temir komuz."

It has been thought that its common name of Jew's harp is a corruption of "jaw harp" or possibly of "juice harp" due to all the saliva ("juice") in the mouth of a player.

Strictly speaking a Jew's harp is a lamellophone, which is an instrument with a tongue that vibrates to produce the musical sounds.

Jew's harps come in a range of designs and sizes and you will find that some types make a much better sound than others. I have had many in my time and of the three I have now I much prefer a model made in Italy.

Jew's harps can be bought easily in music shops and online. Many models are cheap and they make a very novel instrument to purchase and play, either for your own personal fun or professionally to make music.

Medicine Head play One and One is One

© 2010 Steve Andrews

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Comments 41 comments

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 5 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

Being a bluegrass musician I am familiar with a Jew Harp. I bought my youngest son one many years ago and recently found it in a drawer. Although I never mastered it I can appreciate the addition to music of one well played.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for posting, Fiddleman! I think the quality of the instrument is an important factor. I have seen almost unplayable Jew's harps on sale. They are simply too rigid and won't produce much sound. I hope you haven't been trying to learn on a bad instrument because that will discourage you. I bought one in a shop here in a box and sold as Blue Grass Jaw Harp. It was made in the USA but is useless and if I hadn't played good models before I would have thought I wasn't doing something right.


Wendy Krick profile image

Wendy Krick 5 years ago from Maryland

Very interesting instrument. I never heard of it. Thanks for sharing.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for posting, Wendy!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Yes, they are great fun to play, but they need to be well made, with only a small clearance between the tongue and the frame, so that you can get that rushing air sound through the gap. Nice hub!


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Totally agree, Paraglider, and as I have already commented unless you get a good model you can end up thinking you are unable to play the instrument when it is actually the state of the model you have not your ability.


LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 5 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

Bard of Ely, thank you for this informative Hub. Always looking for ways to have fun and cut the rug a little, I always wondered by didn't want to ask. Thank you! :0)


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank YOU, LillyGrillzit!


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 5 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Hello my dear friend, yes this is something new for me to learn about, you are always sharing new and exciting hubs. Thank you for thie fab hub and I rate this up, I enjoyed this...love & peace darski


SteveoMc profile image

SteveoMc 5 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

I loved all of this, especially medicine head! I gotta go get one of these, the kids at my school would probably enjoy it and I can show them yet another option to rap.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for your posts, Darski and SteveoMc! BTW SteveoMc, the type I recommend is the sort in the eBay add labelled Vintage (last ad)- I have one like that made in Italy and it's great, one I bought in a box is rubbish! See what they have - they usually have them displayed under the glass display cases.


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

I'm glad I read the hub and viewed the video about how to play the jew's harp before I viewed the video with medicine head, cause i would have wondered what that guy was doing and what he was on! I could barely see or hear the jew's harp, but could see him making odd movements! Anyway. interesting hub. thanks so much for passing on some interesting info.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Kim, there's another Medicine Head video I found later that has more Jew's harp sound by Peter than that one but it worked as a live performance even when you couldn't hear it because of when it did come through and for the visual impact with his mass of hair! lol Listen to my song Superhero (2nd para) to hear some clear playing!


Sophia Angelique 5 years ago

Now there's an instrument I would never have thought of buying! :)


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I am glad you know about it now!


Russell-D profile image

Russell-D 5 years ago from Southern Ca.

Bard, it's also the fore-runner of every instrument that makes a musical sound by vibrating. Even thugh I've also read its derviation being in Asia and Middle Asia, I think it does go back to what are referred to as "Biblical Days", during which tribes migrated both East and West. It would be interesting to research. What was your source? Maybe it can lead to other information. Good site, as usual. David Russell


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for posting, David! Wikipedia was my main source but it matters not to me where it was from!


bettybarnesb 5 years ago

Enjoyed your hub. I can tell you really love music. So do I. All (4) of my children play an instrument.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

I’ve heard about the Jew’s harp before but have never heard it played. What an interesting sound! Thanks for the information and the videos.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you, bettybarnesb and AliciaC!


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

Much better! I like it in your song much better. I'm listening to your other music now. Thanks... a lot.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you, Kim! I am glad you like my recording!


MoneyCreator24 profile image

MoneyCreator24 5 years ago

What a wonderful instrument. I want to have one. :) voted up


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you! well why not get one?


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

I had heard of the Jew's Harp but am not sure I have ever seen one up close. It sure does look interesting! I enjoyed listening to "Superhero."


Lee B profile image

Lee B 5 years ago from New Mexico

I actually got pretty good playing a jew's harp (a looooooooooog time ago) but whacked my teeth one too many times with it! Caution!

Sure enjoyed reading this! Hadn't thought about those days for a while.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for your comments, Mysterylady and Lee!


moderncollector profile image

moderncollector 5 years ago from Georgia

I love the jew harp! I have 3 (2 that works). It is a really fun instrument to play.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I agree! Thanks for posting!


anonball 5 years ago

Very interesting blog. I do not know much about this instrument. I will listen to the other videos. Thanks!


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

You are welcome! I hope you like the sounds!


Malc 5 years ago

Bard of Ely, this was just exactly the info I was looking for. Bought a jaw-harp in a box from USA and I was very disappointed; my wife was most unimpressed when I went to give my first demonstration!


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Yes, there are some useless ones on sale and excellent ones too and the price you pay is no guarantee of quality in my experience.


rick a. findley 5 years ago

I bought a Jew's harp at a pawn shop´about 40 yrs ago after watching an ol' western movie...the guy in jail was playing one. I loved it and amazed myself at how versatile I could be with one. It turns out it was an Andrea Bugari flat style aluminum closed frame piece. I have never been as happy with any other than that one ever since and I have owned several--different sizes, etc. ANYONE, please--where can I buy at least one of these nowadays?? Rick (without one my finger always winds up in my nose)


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for your feedback,Rick! Good luck finding one!


Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 5 years ago from India

Hi Bard - we have a Britisher here who plays it - and plays it so well! It's such an amazing instrument!


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Yes, it is an amazing instrument I agree!


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Have heard these played before but never really thought about what they were. I went to YouTube and just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your videos and this hub as well.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for checking out my videos and enjoying this hub!


aj rajbhandari 2 years ago

hello sir ,

i am nepali jewsharp maker and seller . its good to visit your website and get more information about the jewsharp . are you maker , seller or musician of jewsharp ? where are you from ?

nice job

best regards


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 2 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I am originally from Wales but currently in Tenerife and I am a musician. You can see me playing the Jew's harp in the video.

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