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Musical saw

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Musical saw

Playing a musical saw

A musical saw, also called a singing saw, is a hand saw used as a musical instrument. Capable of glissando, the sound creates an ethereal tone, very similar to the theremin. The musical saw is classified as a friction idiophone with direct friction (131.22) under the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification.


A performer

The saw is generally played seated with the handle squeezed between the 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, or with the handle under the chin (like a violin). 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 for added comfort. To sound a note, a sawist first bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade that are curved are damped from vibration, and do not sound. At the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This section, the "sweet spot", can vibrate across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch: the wider the section of blade, the lower the sound. Sound is usually created by drawing a bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or sometimes by striking the sweet spot with a mallet. The sawist controls the pitch by adjusting the S-curve, making the sweet spot travel up the blade (toward a thinner width) for a higher pitch, or toward the handle for a lower pitch. Harmonics can be created by playing at varying distances on either side of the sweet spot. Sawists can add vibrato by shaking one of their legs or by wobbling the hand that holds the tip of the blade. Once a sound is produced, it will sustain for quite a while, and can be carried through several notes of a phrase. On occasion the Musical Saw is called for in orchestral music, but orchestral percussionists are seldom also sawists. If a note outside of the saw's range is called for, an electric guitar with a slide can be substituted.[1]


Sawists often use standard wood-cutting saws, although special musical saws are also made. As compared with wood-cutting saws, the blades of musical saws are generally wider, for range, and longer, for finer control. They do not have set or sharpened teeth, and may have grain running parallel to the back edge of the saw, rather than parallel to the teeth. 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. A saw will generally produce about two octaves, regardless of length. A bass saw may be 6 inches at the handle and produce about two-and-a-half octaves. Two-person saws, also called "misery whips", can also be played, though with less virtuosity, and they produce an octave or less of range.

Most sawists use cello or violin bows, using violin rosin, but some may use improvised home-made bows, such as a wooden dowel.


Musical saws have been produced for over a century, primarily in the United States, though there are some producers in other countries.

United States

In the early 1900s, there were at least ten companies in the United States manufacturing musical saws.[2] These saws ranged from the familiar steel variety to gold-plated masterpieces worth hundreds of dollars. However, with the start of World War II the demand for metals made the manufacture of saws too expensive[3] and many of these companies went out of business. By the year 2000, only three companies in the United States — Mussehl & Westphal,[4] Charlie Blacklock,[5] and Wentworth[6] — were making saws. In 2012, a company called Index Drums started producing a saw that had a built-in transducer in the handle, called the "JackSaw".[7]

Outside the United States

Outside the United States, makers of musical saws include Bahco, makers of the limited edition Stradivarius,[8] Alexis in France,[9] which produces a toothless saw, "La Lame Sonore", with a range of three and a half octaves (Patent: N° E31975), and Thomas Flinn & Company in the United Kingdom,[10] based in Sheffield, who produce three different sized musical saws, as well as accessories.

Events and world records

The International Musical Saw Association (IMSA) produces an annual International Musical Saw Festival (including a "Saw-Off" competition every August in Santa Cruz and Felton, California. An International Musical Saw Festival is held every other summer in New York City, produced by Natalia Paruz. Paruz also produced a musical saw festival in Israel.[11] There are also annual saw festivals in Japan and China.

A [12]


This is a list of people notable for playing the musical saw.

  • Washington Post had Paruz as a question: Down 5 - Instrument played by Natalia Paruz
  • David Coulter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and music supervisor; ex-member of Test Dept and The Pogues, has played musical saw on numerous albums and live with: Damon Albarn, Gorillaz, Tom Waits, Hal Willner, Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Marianne Faithfull, Tim Robbins, The Tiger Lillies. He has played on many film scores, including Is Anybody There? (2008,) directed by John Crowley and starring Michael Caine, score composed by Joby Talbot; It's a Boy Girl Thing (2006), directed by Nick Hurran, score composed by Christian Henson and has featured on TV soundtrack and themes tunes, most recently for Psychoville, composed by Joby Talbot and episodes of Wallander, composed by Ruth Barrett.
  • Bonnie Paine, singer and multi-instrumentalist from Talequah, Oklahoma, co-founder of Colorado folk-rock group Elephant Revival has performed on the musical saw as a member of the band.
  • Quinta (a.k.a. Kath Mann), London-based multi-instrumentalist and composer, has collaborated with many artists on the musical saw, including Bat for Lashes,[13] Radiohead's Philip Selway,[14] and The Paper Cinema.[15]
  • Kev Hopper, formerly the bass guitarist in the 1980s band Stump, made an album titled Saurus in 2003 featuring six original saw tunes.
  • Charles Hindmarsh, known as The Yorkshire Musical Saw Player, has played the musical saw throughout the UK.
  • Elly Deliou was regarded as one of the best soloists of the musical saw. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1935, she learned to play the saw at the age of seven, with Polish-Austrian Anton Stein. She moved to Greece in 1956, and worked as a professional saw musician. She died in April 2012.
  • Janeen Rae Heller played the saw in four television guest appearances: The Tracey Ullman Show (1989),[16] Quantum Leap (1990),[16] and Home Improvement (1992[16][17] and 1999). She has also performed on albums such as Michael Hedges' The Road to Return in 1994 and Rickie Lee Jones's Ghostyhead in 1997.
  • Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel played the singing saw, along with other instruments, in the band and currently plays the saw in his solo project, The Music Tapes. In 2008, he released The Singing Saw at Christmastime.
  • Armand Quoidbach, is a Belgian saw player who has played the saw since 1997. In 1999 he played on the national Belgian TV (RTBF2) . In August 2000 he won the first prize at the contest for bands of the 25th "Plinn festival" in Bourbriac (Brittany) with the band "Le Bûcheron Mélomane et les Nains de la Forêt" (The Music-loving Lumberjack and the Dwarfs of the Forest). In 2002 he played on a CD Music Drama of the band "My Little Cheap Dictaphone" La Médiatheque de Belgique. He performed with numerous musicians in Belgium and in France.
  • Thomas Jefferson Scribner was a familiar figure on the streets of Santa Cruz, California during the 1970s playing the musical saw. He performed on a variety of recordings[18] and appeared in folk music festivals in the United States and Canada during the 1970s.[19] His work as labour organizer and member of the Industrial Workers of the World is documented in the 1979 film The Wobblies.[20] Canadian composer/saw player Robert Minden pays tribute to him on his Web site.[21] Musician/songwriter, Utah Phillips has recorded a song referencing Scribner, "The Saw Playing Musician" on the album Fellow Workers with Ani DiFranco. Artist Marghe McMahon was inspired in 1978 to create a bronze statue of Tom playing the musical saw which sits in downtown Santa Cruz.[22]
  • Marlene Dietrich played the saw on the Berlin stage and later used it to entertain troops during World War II.[3][23]
  • Victor Victoria of the dark cabaret comedy duo EastEnd Cabaret plays the musical saw as part of their live show, amongst other instruments.[24]
  • Ali Luminescent plays the musical saw at festivals around the United States, concerts with Kai Altair and in Cynthia von Buhler's play, "Speakeasy Dollhouse", currently running for the last year and a half in New York City.
  • Dwight Sojournier Hawkins plays saw in Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks, a ragtime/jug band based in North Carolina. He has also played the saw with the Crow Quill Night Owls, Hackensaw Boys, and Carolina Chocolate Drops.
  • Mr. Liming Chen was born in a family deeply rooted in musical tradition in China. He learned cello at a tender age and learned how to play the musical saw from his father. He became one of the most outstanding musical saw performers in the world and received the "0-1" award from the American Guild of Musical Artists. In addition, he was also the winner of the "Outstanding Talent" Award from the U.S.A. Association of Musicians. His first graduate students won the first four prizes in the teen division of the Musical Saw Contest in California, held in July 2011. Mr. Liming Chen is currently a Board Member of the Shanghai Association Musician's in from China and continues his legacy in the city of New York.
  • Martin Gardner, author of a famous recreational mathematics column in Scientific American, was an accomplished player of the musical saw.

In fiction


Some artists have composed music specifically for the musical saw. The composer Œdipe to express the death of the sphinx killed by Oedipus. Michael A. Levine composed Divination By Mirrors for musical saw soloist and two string ensembles tuned a quarter tone apart, taking advantage of the saws ability to play in both tunings.[26] The composer Chaya Czernowin included a musical saw soloist in her opera Pnima....Ins Innere. In 1975, film composer Jack Nitzsche used the musical saw for dramatic effect in the score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.[27] Perhaps the most prolific composer for the musical saw is Scott Munson, who wrote many contemporary pieces for musical saw, as well as music for theater plays, film and television using the instrument.


See also


  1. ^ Karl Peinkofer and Fritz Tannigel, Handbook of Percussion Instruments, (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1976), 75.
  2. ^ "[1]", SawLady - Musical Saw manufacturers.
  3. ^ a b Grove-White, will (September 25, 2005). "Music: Cutting-edge sounds". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 10 March 2009. 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "The JackSaw" Index Drums
  8. ^ "Sandvik Stradivarius Musical Saw",
  9. ^ Fabrication de Scie Musicale (French)
  10. ^ "Musical Saws and Accessories", Thomas Flinn & Co..
  11. ^ - Israeli news paperHaaretzArticle in (Hebrew)
  12. ^ "Guinness World Record", NYC Musical Saw Festival.
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c Janeen Rae Heller at the Internet Movie Database.
  17. ^ "Home Improvement: Stereo-Typical episode summary,
  18. ^ http://articles/Hawks_%26_Doves
  19. ^ "1979", Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
  20. ^ "The Wobblies (1979)",
  21. ^ "Robert Minden Duo contact",
  22. ^ "Thomas Jefferson Scribner - Musician Statues",
  23. ^ Flint, Peter B. (May 7, 1992). "Marlene Dietrich, 90, Symbol of Glamour, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 10 March 2009. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ see for example: "Serenade" from The Boy Who Wanted To Talk To Whales, "Epilogue" from Long Journey Home: "Catalogue: Otter Bay Productions",
  26. ^ "Dale, sawist", Full review at E. Haig (Oct 17, 2003). "Varied Program Highlights New Century Premier",
  27. ^ The Guardian, Hey, what's that sound: Musical saw

External links

  • The annual NYC Musical Saw Festival
  • History of the musical saw, saws made for music, poetry mentioning musical saw, movies with musical saw, etc.
  • French musical saw website and forum (French)
  • Brief History
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