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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Musical Saw

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Musical Saw

Halloween came and went far too soon for our liking here at MI Pro HQ, so we thought we’d keep things spooky by finishing the week up with a look at an instrument that’s not only dangerously sharp, but also creates a sound you will now doubt have heard in numerous horror films.

Here is everything you need to know about the musical saw:

What is a musical saw?

The musical saw is a flexible hand saw, just like the one you’d use to cut wood. Instead of using it to craft a birdhouse, this saw can be played to create a spooky, ethereal sound.
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Also known as a singing saw, the instrument has a similar tone to something like a theremin. Those who play the musical saw are known as sawists. Some prefer to use a standard wood-cutting saw, while others use ones specially made for creating music.

Some musical saws are made with thinner metal, to increase flexibility, while others are made thicker, for a richer tone, longer sustain, and stronger harmonics.

A typical musical saw is 5 inches wide at the handle end and 1 inch wide at the tip. Such a saw will generally produce about two octaves, regardless of length.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

The most common way to play the saw is to sit with the handle squeezed between your legs, and the far end held with one hand. Some sawists play standing, either with the handle between the knees and the blade sticking out in front of them.

The saw is usually played with the serrated edge, or "teeth", facing the body, though some players face them away. Some saw players file down the teeth, which makes no discernable difference to the sound. Many – especially professional – saw players use a handle, called a Cheat, at the tip of the saw for easier bending and higher virtuosity.

To sound a note, a sawist bends the blade into an S-curve. At the centre of the S-curve is a "sweet spot", which can vibrate across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch. Sound is usually created by drawing a bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or by striking the sweet spot with a mallet.

Here are some of our favourite Musical Saw performances:

Why should I stock them?

If you’re the type of retailer who appeals to musicians looking for something different or unique, you can’t really go wrong with an instrument as intriguing as a musical saw. If you cater to those who work in sound production, foley or experimental musical projects, this could just be the thing they’re missing from their collection!

Who makes them?

Here’s a selection of some of the most prominent manufacturers out there still making musical saws:

Mussehl & Westphal
Charlie Blacklock
Index Drums
Thomas Flinn & Company

Check out all of our previous Anatomy of an Instrument features here.

Tags: Anatomy of an Instrument , Musical Saw

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