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The Jew's Harp, the fool of instruments - a personal view
by Michael Wright
(article published in full here with extra notes)


What a wonderful traditional musical instrument the Jew's harp is. Full of variety, melodic and rhythmic, it is capable of spectacular punctuation and subtle variation. It is an instrument with a long tradition and is played throughout the world. Variously described as a rudimentary horseshoe, bottle opener or lyre shaped instrument with a metal tongue that is ‘struck’, ‘twitched’ or ‘twanged’, it is often thought of as a novel children’s toy for making various abstract sounds rather than for any melodic qualities. Made these days of bamboo or metal, it is a basic reed instrument that requires direct human involvement in order to make a sound, with the mouth cavity used as a sound box. I have heard it likened to a didgeridoo, which detracts from both instruments. Arguments continue as to whether the Jew’s harp is a chromatic or percussion instrument.

There are considerable hang-ups regarding the name. Its origins are obscure, with one theory that it was a common item of Jewish peddlers, although there is no evidence that the Jewish race either invented it or use it as part of their culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 1543 is the earliest recorded date. They quote from Rates of Customs which mentions "Iues trounks the gross" - "trounks" being a spelling of "trumps", the name by which the instrument was known prior to the end of the 16th century, and still is in Ireland and Scotland. This would seem to give credence to the peddler story. There is, however, another possibility. In the Northeast of England it is called a ‘gew-gaw’. "This could be related to the Swedish munngiga and the German (Saar region) maulgeig. Gewgaw also means a cheap bauble’ the Norwegian equivalent being jugil. Phonetically, the Northumbrian pronunciations of gewgaw’ and Jew’s harp’ are not far removed" . Basically, nobody knows. There are suggestions that the instrument should be repackaged in the English language under its original name of "Trump".

My own involvement in playing the instrument began some 25 years ago when my brother, John Wright, (acknowledged as one of the great living players), bought three Jew's harps, all in the same key, and gave two of them and a cassette tape of tunes he had recorded to my younger brother, David, and myself. Practicing in the garden - like any new instrument, there is a tendency to drive parents ‘up the wall’ when you are first learning ­ David and I gradually began to mimic what we heard on the tape. A year later, when John returned, and much to his astonishment and delight, we were both playing sufficiently well enough for all three of us to perform together. In 1972 David and I were invited to record with John on the "Lark in the Clear Air" album for Topic and there it ended. John, living in Paris, has continued to work and perform throughout the world. David and I developed our careers outside the music sphere. I performed intermittently in local clubs, but nothing serious, until a number of unrelated circumstances came together in 1993. Personal changes made me realise that there was something missing in my life and John again persuaded David and I to perform with him for the first time in twenty years at a festival in Paris. Since then I have become increasingly interested in mastering the instrument and playing in public.

Why the Jew's harp? I have tried other instruments and I am basically all ‘fingers and thumbs’. The Jew's harp enables me to learn and play tunes relatively quickly. This is not, though, a fashionable instrument. A plaything for children may be, to be laughed at as a converted bottle opener or used as a novelty sound for a group, but not usually considered something to be taken too seriously.

One of the biggest problems in encouraging the use of the Jew’s harp by other musicians is that it is difficult to find decent instruments in specific keys. This is mainly due to a general reluctance to pay anything but a few pounds for an instrument resulting in harps with a low specification. There are fine makers in Europe of harps that would be available here if there were a market. With costs from £8 (which still isn’t that much) to £60 per instrument, it is possible to purchase both relatively cheap, good harps and hand crafted musical instruments. The Norwegians in particular consistently produce the best Jew’s harps in Northern Europe and Scandinavia at this time.

Another problem, as I see it, lies in the nature of the instrument. While it is initially easy to produce a sound, it is extremely difficult to master and has some fairly daunting constraints. The first thing to realise is that you need Jew's harps in different keys. When I point out, as I often do, that, like whistles, each instrument has a specific key, this information is usually received with astonishment. When you pluck the tongue of a Jew's harp you provide the drone around which you use the harmonics of your mouth to achieve the tune. The drone is constant and directly linked to the length of the metal spring. In principle, the shorter the spring, the higher the drone note. You have to listen to the drone. It is very easy, believe me, to get the drone wrong and play a tune in the wrong key. I usually start off by only playing the drone for the first few seconds, which helps me move into the tune more smoothly. It also has the added advantage of drawing the audiencesı attention to what you are doing.

The second thing to look for is choosing the right harp for the right tune. Because other instruments normally use a key of D, for instance, this does not mean it is the ideal key for the Jew's harp. You can join in and make an interesting contribution by leaping octaves, but this is restricting. Playing solo you have to experiment to find out which key particularly suits the tune and the instrument. I have had some very frustrating moments in the past hearing and learning a new tune and not being able to play it because I did not have a harp in the right key Jew’s harp. My first Norwegian harp was in F. This has a wide range and I can get two octaves with which I can play tunes such as ‘Murphyıs Hornpipe’, the ‘Trumpet Hornpipe’, or the jigs ‘Banish Misfortune’ and ‘Foxhunters’, and reels like ‘Statton Island’, ‘Christmas Eve’, ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Craigıs Pipes’. I quickly found that other tunes were far too high or low.

Since early this year, when I purchased Norwegian G and D harps, I have generally found that the G is good for quick, sharp tunes, such as ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’, and ‘Father O Flynn’. The D has opened up the possibility of set dances, airs and Scottish MSF’s (march, Strathspey and reels). It also appears to be compatible with my voice, enabling the combination of the two. My next Norwegian harp will be in A, which I anticipate will open up new possibilities.

Other instruments have come back into fashion, but not, seemingly, the Jew's harp. One reason might be to do with the nature of folk music in Britain today. Musicians improve and are encouraged by playing with other musicians, and you can find a session just about anywhere in the country. For the player of a Jew's harp there are two problems. Firstly, it is a delicate and subtle instrument. The wall of sound emanating from massed accordions, concertinas and fiddles, not to mention bodhrans, is usually overwhelming and even amplifiers don’t always help. Part of the technique of playing the harp is to breathe through the instrument. There is a tendency in sessions to compensate for the quiet nature of the harp by breathing heavily through the tongue of the harp to create a louder sound. The result is a rhythmic drone that kills any idea of subtlety and a dry throat, the latter being relatively easy to resolve.

The second problem is that most musicians in sessions play in D, G, A or E flat. If you play a Jew's harp in a non-harmonious key it sounds awful. When was the last time you went into a music shop and asked for a D Jew's harp? Replies are unprintable and usually accompanied with mirth and "I thought they just went twang!" For session work I use the instruments of a German maker, Schlutter, who specialise in producing all keys. They cost around £8 to £10 and can only be purchased by mail order or at selected European festivals.

Playing in clubs has other problems. Some listeners simply cannot hear the tune. While that sometimes has something to do with the player being nervous and breathing too heavily, it also appears that some people simply cannot hear beyond the drone. It may be that listeners have to become attuned to the sound. You also find people who are horrified at the idea of putting a piece of iron on to teeth and 'twanging' a metal spring into the mouth. To them I can only say that it is perfectly safe when used properly and, no, I do not have any complaints from the dentist.

For club and concert performances I use Norwegian instruments. The Norwegians produce the 'Wheatstone' of Jew's harp. Comparing a Norwegian instrument with those we can readily buy here is like comparing a Porsche with a post-war van. Itıs not surprising musicians give up. The cost of a Norwegian harp reflects their quality. You can pay anything from £40 to £60 for a good make, but "you pays your money and you takes your choice".

Getting decent recordings of UK masters too is woeful. Until earlier this year, John's last recordings were in the 1970's. The player that inspired him was Angus Lawrie of Oban, now deceased, who he describes as, "The greatest Jew's harp player I have ever heard". There are recordings of his playing held in archive, but not available on general release.

Over the last few years there has been a decided increase of activity in Europe and America. Phons Bakx, the Dutch Jew’s harpist, has recently brought out a CD "A Song for the Jew’s Harp" with musicians from around the world, while from North America you can purchase the "North America Jew’s Harp Festival 1997 Highlights" CD and from Austria there is "Maultrommel Molln". Dr. Frederick Crane, President of The Jew’s Harp Guild lists 12 CDs on the Guild’s web site ( A performance of
Johann Albrechtsberger's Concerto for Jew's Harp and Orchestra was featured on BBC Radio 3 and ‘Pick of the Week’ a couple of years ago, with the recording of concerto's D and F available on CD. You will also find the Jew's harp used at regular intervals by various singers including Leonard Cohen, and musical groups; mainly I would suggest, for novelty reasons. And that's about it.

Live performances in the UK are rare. Two years ago the National Festival invited players of the Jew's harp from England, Scotland and Ireland to perform at Kegworth. There were four of us. It was there that I met John Campbell, who is one of the few melodic players I know combining, as he does, the Jew’s harp with the ‘diddling’ of Len Graham. Again there are interesting events happening abroad. For the past five years there has been a Jew's harp festival held in Norway, north of Oslo at Fargoness, attended by over 80 players, young and old many of them fine players of a high standard. Not only are there concerts but talks on a variety of topics, an opportunity to meet makers of instruments and an evening of Norwegian country dancing. When I was there I was riveted for three hours as dancers moved to the lilt of the music played only on the Jew's harp, players' taking over from each other as each became tired. There is also the Internationales Maultrommel Festival held in Molln, and the North America Jew’s Harp Festival, neither which I have been to yet.

One of the masters of the various techniques of instruments used throughout the world, is Tran Quang Hai of the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris. Anyone who saw his lecture on diphonic singing at Saint Chartier this year could not be other than bowled over by the audacity of his playing and the incredible variety of sound achieved.

So, I play a traditional musical instrument called a Jew's harp. The definition is important. Repeatedly I am approached after a performance by people who say they have never heard tunes played on the Jew's harp before. This is a complex instrument with potential as yet unexplored by us here in the UK. There are other instruments that have a low profile, such as the harmonica. Given the reception of Will Atkinson's harmonica playing at both the National Festival and Whitby Folk Week and with festivals encouraging workshops, which is excellent, there does appear to be a core of genuine interest to promote it, so maybe its time the Jew’s harp got the same treatment.

If we expect to pay only nominal sums for an instrument, manufacturers will continue to produce low specification harps with the end result that there will be a continuation of the present situation. There must be better harps available here if there is any real hope of a revival, but like anything else, only a demand will encourage even the specialist shops to acquire the stock.

The basic technique of playing is relatively easy to learn, but, as with any instrument, to produce music requires serious study and practice. Until we recognise the quality players from around the world, we shall remain in splendid isolation. A demand for the publishing of archive recordings and the bringing to Britain of masters from all over Europe and Scandinavia, let alone the World, is the only way those with a serious interest in developing their skills are going to improve.

On a personal front, the only way I can achieve more interest is to play wherever and whenever possible and to tell people about it, hence this article. There are a few projects in the pipeline that, hopefully, will prove the versatility of the instrument and raise its profile. I am grateful that John gave David and I those harps all those years ago and I firmly believe that the Jew's harp will come back into favour here, as a traditional musical instrument.

By Michael Wright



The Jew's harp is a basic reed instrument and relatively easy to produce a sound with, once certain rules have been recognised. The first problem is to buy a decent instrument. Given that the only ones available here leave a lot to be desired, there are certain principles that help in choosing a playable instrument. There are two parts to a European Jew's harp - the frame and the tongue. The frame is rigid and has two sections - two parallel bars that make the sound and a part to grip. The tongue is one piece and needs to spring. The first thing to check is that the two bars and the tongue are indeed parallels (Fig. 1). The principle of the harp is that the passing in close proximity of the springy tongue between the rigid bars causes a sound. The more accurate the distance between all three, the clearer the note. So, hold the instrument up against the light and check the gap between the two bars and the central spring. They should not only be parallel along the complete length, but also allow the tongue to flex through the gap. In these days when we are conscious of whoıs been putting instruments in their mouth, shops tend to frown upon playing them before purchase. You can, however, put the harp next to your ear and pluck the tongue. You are listening for the sharpest note possible. This note, incidentally, is the instruments key. If there is a "clunk", a fuzzy note or no sound at all, try another.

The next critical point is the join between the instrumentıs tongue and the frame. These instruments take a fair amount of stress during play so, while it is unlikely that the tongue will be loose, it is well worth checking the joint. Also look at the spring. Any hairline fracture will increase during play and the tongue will snap. One subtlety not available in the standard Austrian harps, is the flattening or thinning of the tongue close to the joint. This means that the tongue has a more exaggerated bend near the joint with the result that the playing end passes between the parallel bars of the playing section flatter. The note achieved is sharper.


The principle of playing the instrument is quite simple, with a few basic rules. The harp creates the sound and the playerıs mouth cavity is the sound box. By making the mouth sound box larger or smaller with your tongue, you can change the note. The critical point, therefore, is the connection between the instrument and the sound box. The objective is to hold the instrument with one hand and pluck the tongue with the other. Place the instrument with the plucking part of the tongue facing outwards. Put your thumb on the grip end of the harp -that is on the joint between the frame and the tongue - with your first and second fingers on the flat surface of the frame either side of the parallel bars (Fig. 2). The aim is to hold the instrument firmly without putting any pressure on the critically aligned playing section as this could pinch the frame together. The tongue of the instrument must always be allowed to run freely through the frame. Now bring the instrument to your mouth.

Next, there needs to be a gap between your teeth to allow the instrumentıs tongue to move freely inside your mouth. Press the two outer bars firmly against your teeth. DO NOT BITE. You need to provide a stable contact between instrument and sound box. Now gently place your lips on the two outer bars, still ensuring that the instrumentıs tongue flexes freely inside your mouth. Pull the instrumentıs tongue back and let go. If you get a buzzing sensation, you are not holding the instrument firmly enough against your teeth. If there is a "clunk" your teeth are not far enough apart or you are biting the frame bars together (Fig. 3). Some musicianıs push the metal tongue forward. I have never favoured this technique for two reasons. First, you are pulling the harp away from the critical point of contact with your teeth and, second, I find I have less control of the tongue. Plucking the tongue to the rhythm of the tune has pleasing qualities. With a jig, for instance, you can pluck on beats one and two, leaving three, keeps the energy of the tune moving. I find this is more difficult pulling the tongue outwards. Another technique is to pluck the tongue for every note, which may well require both pulling and pushing the tongue to achieve quicker responses from the instrument. Go with whatever suits your style.

Now breath very gently through the instrument while plucking the metal tongue. Too heavy breathing accentuates the drone (not desirable), while no breathing at all does not project the sound. By moving your own tongue up and down, while still allowing the instrumentıs tongue to spring freely, not only can you change the notes and make a tune, but create some amazing sound effects. Opening the back of your throat, for instance, gives an echoing sound, while placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth creates a buzzing sound.


Having established the basics, which with a new player can take about fifteen minutes, the teacher has a problem. How do you demonstrate what is going on inside your mouth? I have been involved in two workshops. The first was at the International Jew's Harp Festival in Norway. John ran it and I assisted. Thirty people turned up, all with different instruments. Unless all the harps are in the same key there is a problem. John went around listening to each harp in order to assess the full extent of the problem, which was pretty big and resulting in a cacophony of sound. Eventually we divided them into those who had never played and those with minimal or some experience. I took on the novices and explained the basic principles. These turned out to be mainly Norwegian girls in the their late teens, so it was relatively entertaining. John found sufficient harps in the same key to work with the other groups and it all went off pretty well. The second workshop was on my own at the Cleckheaton Folk Festival in 1998. Learning from the Norwegian experience I took 10 harps in the same key - all Schlutter. After descriptions, anecdotes and demonstrations, most of the participants had got the basics and we tried a few tunes. The fact is, however, that the only way to improve at first is to go away into some quiet secluded place, with an example tune played in the key of your instrument and try it out.


Discovering the history of the Jew's harp is a bit like being a detective in a mystery novel, piecing together the evidence from geographic similarities, discovered artefacts and literary and visual sources.

There is little specific evidence prior to the Middle Ages. There are tantalising snatches of written comments from around that period, discovered archaeological objects - obviously Jew's harps - found in Gallo-Roman sites and coincidental similarities between Far Eastern instrument known to have existed for centuries. All are open to interpretation. The most fascinating is the link between the Far Eastern bamboo Jew's harps and the free reed 'harmonica's' of the same area. Recently I visited Jeremy Montagu, ex-curator of the Bate Collection and Hon. Secretary of the Fellowship of Makers & Researchers of Historical Instruments, whose collection in Oxford includes several bamboo free reed instruments. I was struck by the similarity of shapes, though of a different scale, between the free reed cut into the bamboo or created out of thin metal and the shape of the tongue of bamboo Jew's harps. You can still purchase bamboo instruments in craft shops or oriental stores. Buy a cheap harmonica and take it apart and you can immediately see the connection.

So, the theory goes that the earliest Jew's harps were made of bamboo in the Far East where the method is established. They evolve into metal instruments and are brought across to Europe via the Indian trade routes during the Roman or Post-Roman period. The theory goes on to suggest that, because they were small and easy to carry, they became the stock in trade of peddlers. If the peddlers were Jewish, it does not take much of a leap of imagination to associate the seller with the product, hence the name.

From the point of view of artefacts, copper alloy and iron frames (the tongues long gone) have been found on sites in various parts of Europe. There is some discussion as to whether they are from the period of the sites or coincidentally discarded later. At the Gallo-Roman site near Rouen, for instance, a number of instruments were found and the original inclination was to believe they were of that period. The shape, however, is close to other mediaeval instruments. Either the shape did not change for centuries, or they were abandoned in the ruins during the later period. You can see how disagreements arise. Iron instruments have, though, been found in the Hikawa shrine in Japan, from the Heian period (9th-10th century) similar in shape to specimens in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris and in the Finnish National Collection.

The earliest visual representation is on a Swiss coat of arms dated 1353. The best example of a carving is on a Mediaeval Northampton church, where a figure definitely looks like he is playing a Jew's harp. Another carving at Exeter Cathedral was originally thought to show an angel in a similar pose, but on closer inspection reveals the positioning of two fingers around what is left of a broken trumpet. The most well known illustrations are from Hans Burgkmair's "Triumph of Maximilian I" (first published in 1526) and Bruegel's drawings of peddlers (c1550/1560), the latter appearing to give weight to the peddler theory.

In written documentation the name 'trump' to 'Jew's trump' to 'Jew's harp' can be clearly traced. Scotland and Ireland still use the original name of 'trump' and it is only in England, that there is widespread association with the "Jew's" as a name. The earliest definite written mention of the instrument is not until the mid. 16th century. Before then things are a bit
confused because the name 'trump' is also used for a trumpet. The only way to differentiate between them is to put them in context. Chaucer, for instance, writes in 1380 "Of hem that maken blody soun in trumpe, beth, and claryoun" in his 'House of Fame'. Given that the instruments are playing loud, it's unlikely to be a Jew's harp. An anonymous piece, 'The Tournament
of Tottenham', written around 1450, however, describes, "There hopped Hawkiyn, Ther daunced Dawkin, There trumped Tomkyn;, And all were trewe drynkers" and could more realistically be describing a Jew's harp. From
Scotland around 1550 there are two interesting descriptions - " The trid (shepherd) playit on are trump " and "Šthe first hed ane drone bag pipe, the nyxt hed ane pipe maid of ane bleddir and ane reid, the thrid playit on ane trump, the feyrd on ane corne pipeŠ" The clearest link between 'trump' and 'Jew's trump' comes from a piece written in 'News from Scotland' (1591)-
"Geillis DuncanŠ did goe before them playing this reill or daunce uppon a small trompe called a Jewes trump, until they entred into the Kirk of the North BarrickŠ the kingŠ sent for the saide Geillis Duncan, who upon the trump did play the saide daunce before the kinges majestie." (Oxford English Dictionary). Even Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott use variations of an
old Scottish proverb, "You have lost the Tongue of the Trump", either to attack political opponents, in the case of Burns, or to emphasise whom has the power in a given situation. In Scott's 'Redgauntlet' (1824), for instance, we read, "'It's very like may be, for he is the tongue of the trump to the whole squad of them,' said the Provost."

The association with 'Jew's' is first noted in the 1545 'Rates and Customs' with "Iues trounks the gross", whilst by 1583 they are described as "Iewes trumps the gross". In Henry Chettle's satire on then current abuses, "Hind-Heartes Dreame" (1592), he says, "There is another Iugler, that beeing well skild in the Iewes Trumpe, takes vpon him to bee a dealer in Musicke:
especiall good at mending Instruments: Š" Ben Johnson uses the name as a derogatory Jewish metaphor in 'Eastward Hoe' (1605) with, "What will not an vsurous knave be, so he may bee riche? O 'tis a notable Iewes trump!". Generally the Jew's trump/harp gets a bad press from English writers, being used either in a derogatory or dismissive manner or as an anti-Semitic
devise. 'Jew's trump' appears to continue to be used up to the mid. 18th century and a little later in the North of England.

The term 'Jew's harp' first appears in 1593 in 'Hukluyts Voyages', when Robert Duddley, Earl of Leicester is quoted as saying, "If they would bring him hatchets, kniues, and Iewes harps, he bid then assure me. He's would trade with me". While a year later Sir Walter Raleigh is quoted with, " Wee should send them Iewes harpes, for they would give for every one two hennes". The association of trade and the Jew's harp is very strong, from its mass production for barter and its continued sale by peddlers. In the mid. 18th century, Horace Walpole wrote a letter expressing his disgust that, "This very morning I found that part of the purchase of Maryland from the savage proprietors (for we do not massacre, we are such good Christians
as only to cheat) was a quantity of vermillion and a parcel of Jew's Harps". Many years ago John and I met a descendant of the founder of Bolton Brothers in the West Midlands. He told us a family story of Jew's harps manufactured in Dudley in the 19th century and transported by foot, canal and river to Bristol for use as barter by traders. Examples of indigenous populations
adapting and using the instrument can be found in places such as West and South Africa. Finally, I am indebted to Vincent Giles for a remarkable transcript from the 18th century entitled, "ROGER GILES, - Surgin, Parish Clark & Skulemaster, GROSER & HUNDERTAKER". Amongst the many diverse, and sometimes dubious, of his activities he announces that he sells, "Joesharpes, penny wissels, brass kanelsticks, frying pans, and other moozikal hinstrumints hat grately redooced figers".

Studies go on. Some twenty-five years ago John catalogued 137 different types of Jew's harp for the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Their collection of instruments has been amassed from all over the globe - from Norway to Thailand and Bali, Austria to Siberia. They are made of iron, brass, bamboo and ivory. In parts of Indonesia, bamboo Jew's harps are used in courting rituals, with lovers devising their own language so that they can converse secretly with each other at night. In Ukutia, Siberia, they are considered to be the most effective teaching tool when introducing children to the principles of music. The Ukutians produce instruments as fine as the Norwegians and hold competitions in the skill of making new harps using the latest metals. What next, I wonder, the carbon fibre Jew's harp? There are double tongued variants, players who need to be ambidextrous in order to play two or more instruments and mechanical devices for clamping instruments together. Further investigation will, I'm sure, reveal more fascinating insights into an ancient world instrument.

I am grateful to John, Jeremy Montagu and Fred Crane for help and guidance in producing this section.

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