The Jew’s harp is the instrument that goes doingggg doingg doingg–or boiiing boiing or sproiiiing, depending on your particular device. Its sound is well-suited for cartoon soundtracks, like when Pluto bounces on a pogo stick or Bugs Bunny jumps off a diving board. The Jew’s harp isn’t just a sound effect, though. In the animated world, Snoopy plays the Jew’s harp, and he’s good at it, too, showing off his talents in the song “Snoopy, Come Home,” the title track from the 1972 film of the same name.
Jew’s harps come in varying shapes, sizes, and materials, such as metal, bamboo, or bone. In North America the instrument is traditionally a piece of metal, often outlining the shape of a door key. There’s an additional flexible strip called the tongue or twanger which runs through its centre, jutting out on an angle at the end. It’s a 2-to-6-inch instrument that children, adults, and even cartoon characters can enjoy.
The Jew’s harp is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. Why it’s called that is a mystery, since there’s no association between the harp and Jews or Judaism. Rabbis don’t carry them around or even bring them out on special occasions like circumcisions and bar mitzvahs. Also known as the jaw harp or the mouth harp, the Jew’s harp has its origins in Asia, and made its way to Europe in the 13th century. Musicians worldwide play varying types of mouth harps–in India it’s a morsing, in Hungary it’s the doromb, and in Vietnam it’s a dan moi. In Siberian and Mongolian cultures the Jew’s harp has associations with magic or shamanism, because its droning noise is said to induce a trance-like state.
In the 18th century, Austrian musician/composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, who taught Beethoven a thing or two about music, composed concertos for Jew’s harp, mandora (a lute-like instrument), and orchestra. They’re typical of that era’s Western classical music in terms of structure, aesthetic, and tonality, but since the instrumentation is unorthodox, the pieces sound satirical, like someone’s added that boingggg-ing sound to mock the squareness, rigidity, and formality of such traditional pieces. Albrechtsberger wasn’t a comedian, though. It’s not like he was Peter Schickele, who satirizes classical tunes under the pseudonym P.D.Q. Bach, as in “Erotica” Variations for Banned Instruments and Piano.
As for America, the Jew’s harp is most common there in country and bluegrass music. In Scruggs and Flatt’s Foggy Mountain Boys country ditty “Wildwood Flower,” there’s a nice interplay between guitar, lap steel guitar, bass and fiddle, with a Jew’s harp solo coming in around the one-minute mark. Leonard Cohen likes the Jew’s harp, too, as is evident from such tunes as “Tonight Will Be Fine.” Straying from the folk/roots/country spectrum, the Jew’s harp doinnngggs throughout the entirety of the Who’s 1972 single “Join Together.” The video shows Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey playing Jew’s harps, but in the actual recording the sound’s coming from a synthesizer.
Didn’t think you’d hear Jew’s harp in funk music? On Parliament’s 1970 debut album Osmium, the ridiculous funk-meets-country tune “Little Ole Country Boy” is doused in George Clinton’s preaching/screaming/singing, plus yodelling and Jew’s harp. In 2003 Daniel Higgs maximized the instrument’s potential by recording Magic Alphabet, a whole album of mouth harp improvisations. After a while, the songs start to sound Martianesque.
Phil Villeneuve doesn’t just DJ three monthly parties in Toronto, dance in public spaces, sing, play the washboard, and edit fab magazine. He also plays the Jew’s harp in a bluegrass/folk/gospel band called North of Queen. At the start of his playing career, he casually doingged it with the now-defunct I Love You Toos (see the 2:55 mark). Although he’s only been playing the Jew’s harp for two years, his instrument has been around for far longer–it originally belonged to his great-grandfather. Learning to play it was challenging for him, since he feared breaking his teeth or mangling his tongue, but after a bit of practice, he became comfortable with the technique.
Villeneuve loves making people smile with the “backwoods twang” of the Jew’s harp. It’s always in his back pocket, so it’s on hand for any emergency situation. Villeneueve wants to acquire a collection of Jew’s harps, saying, “I would love to have a fanny pack full of them.”
How to Play the Jew’s Harp
If stressed out when attempting to play the Jew’s harp, you might chip a tooth, so to avoid a pricey and painful trip to the dentist, take a deep breath before you begin. Once relaxed, place the outer parts of the Jew’s harp against your front teeth, resting your lips on the metal frame. Your upper and lower teeth should be about 3/8” apart and the twanger should fit between them. With your finger, pluck the twanger, pulling it towards you, then letting it go. Caution: keep your tongue away from the twanger–you don’t want to get it to get squished. The inside of your mouth acts as a soundbox or resonator for the instrument. To change the volume, pitch, and sound, move your tongue around and breathe through the harp. In Robert Liberty’s lesson, he plays different songs, then says, “The problem is it sounds like I’m playing the same goddamn song over and over again, but I’m not. They just sound the same with these Jew’s harps.” Basically, if the Jew’s harp is doinngg-ing, you’ll know you’re doing a good job.
Phil Villeneuve will be playing Jew’s harp and washboard with North of Queen at the Roncy Rocks! street festival (June 16).
Shari Kasman’s writing has appeared on paper, on computer screens, and on many, many Post-it Notes. Follow her on Twitter at @smkasman.