THE SAW

What is a saw?

What is its history?

Can I play, too?

What is a saw?

THEM:  "So you're a musician, eh? What instrument do you play?"
ME:  "I play the saw."
THEM:  "The what??"
ME:  "The saw."
THEM: (puzzled) "What is that?"
ME:  "You know...a saw! What some people use to cut wood ."
(makes sawing motion with hand)
THEM:  "Oh!...a SAW!"
ME:  "Yes!...a saw."
THEM:  "Now I see what you saw!"

The Saw Defined

The saw is a musical instrument. Perhaps the most ubiquitous musical instrument in the world aside from the human voice. It is more likely that a household possesses a handsaw than a piano, violin, or trumpet. Some people would have you believe that the saw is merely the tool of carpenters and woodcutters. But those ill-informed who espouse such a secondary usage should be relegated to the ranks of extremists, alarmists, and proselytes. For the saw's true beauty is not derived from its capacity to crosscut lumber or to rip through timber, but rather from its ability to cut across the boundaries and limitations of preconceptions.

Saws, like people, come in all shapes and sizes; and at least as far as saws are concerned, size does matter. The ordinary handsaw found in most hardware stores and households has a bladelength of 26 inches. Longer saws, including some specially-made "musical saws", may be 28, 30, or even 36 inches in length. The additional length tends to lower the tone of the saw, in effect creating a tenor, baritone, or bass saw, while increasing the pitch range (tessatura.) Saws shorter than 26 inches tend to have a higher pitch and a shorter pitch range.

Equally varied from saw to saw is the quality of the steel, its gauge, and temper. (It's interesting to note that the verb "temper" can also mean "to tune"; how appropriate for the saw.) The number of points per inch defines the saw's "point"; i.e., an 8-point saw has 8 points (but 7 teeth) per inch; a 10-point saw would have 10 points (but 9 teeth) per inch, etc. The French even have an edentulous version of the musical saw called la lame sonore (trans. sonorous blade), in effect a "zero-point saw." Obviously it can be used only for music since it would not be able to cut anything except soft butter.

What is its history?

No one knows with any certainty who first had the novel idea of producing a musical note with a saw. Perhaps the most comprehensive history was penned by Jim Leonard in his book Scratch My Back--A Pictorial History of the Musical Saw and How to Play It (Kaleidoscope Press 1989). In his research Mr. Leonard encountered claims that it began with 19th-century roots in the Ozark Mountains of the U.S.; others stated the Appalachians; and still others suggested Scandinavian or South American woodcutters, African slaves, and so on. I doubt that credit (or blame) should fall on the shoulders of any one of these places. It's most probable that the idea's origin was multicentric --originating in multiple regions of the globe simultaneously-- which makes sense considering the fact that saws had been available in most parts of the world. In addition, it's likely that the first note to be heard was accidental, as a worker tossed or dropped a saw, or another tool happened to strike it. Even a saw waved rapidly and playfully back and forth in the air like a sword can produce an audible note, which a budding saw-musician might have noticed and set out to tame.

But regardless of the origin, there can be no doubt that it's popularity soared in the early 20th century thanks to a trio of musicians from the Ozarks, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, who used the saw in their popular vaudeville act, touring the U.S. and Europe. By chance their act was seen by Clarence Mussehl, and in 1921 Mussehl & Westphal,the world's first professional musical saw company, was established. According to Jim Leonard's book, sales of 30,000 musical saws per year were common in the 1920's and 1930's at the peak of the saw's popularity. Then came the Depression, and sales plummeted to virtually none. Then shortage of steel during World War II finally forced the company to close its doors, but fortunately it reopened in the mid-1950's and continues selling musical saws today. In addition, other companies manufacture musical saws, such as Charlie Blacklock in California, Sandvik in Sweden, Parkstone in England, Feldmann in Germany, as well as the toothless blade, la lame sonore, in France.

Can I play, too?

You most certainly can! But first you need to find yourself a proper saw. The important thing to remember when you look for a musical saw is to get one with a blade length (measured along the teeth) of no less than 26-inch or 28-inch. The standard hardware-type saw is 26" long (although lately saws have been getting shorter and shorter. ) Professional "musical saws" are often 28", with a few being 26", although even longer saws are available for special musical effects.

For someone who is beginning, I suggest that a hardware-store saw is the most economical way to start, especially if they end up giving it up, which is pretty common. Plus, they may already have one at home. You can learn the basics at least and decide if you want to pursue things, and it's not uncommon to find a saw that works well. However, it needs to be the most flexible one you can find, but at least 26" long; i.e., that usually means the cheapest, flimsiest one, since it will bend easier. A stiff heavy-duty saw like your grandfather had or the higher-end hardware store saws likely will be too difficult to bend and will produce only a handful of notes. I bought a couple of good limber hardware store saws for around $12-14 each, with a range of almost two octaves. Then if you're convinced sawplaying is for you, you might then want to invest in a "musical saw" at some point, although you can do this from the start if you're having trouble finding a proper hardware-store saw.

A professional musical saw is typically 28" long. The two main manufacturers in the USA are Mussehl & Westphal and Charlie Blacklock. Longer saws are available for specialty purposes (baritone, bass, etc.), but I don't recommend them for a beginner. The basics should first be well-learned on the standard size, which is also the most versatile.

  More to come as time permits. In the meantime, write me as robertf --at-- REMOVE THIStheremin-saw.com and I can send you some info on buying saws and getting started.

Copyright © 1997-2009 Robert N. Froehner
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