An Introduction to the Musical Saw
For Absolute Beginners
If you just want to get a note out of a saw, here's part of the
article I wrote for Brian Carusella's
Bizarre Stuff You Can Make in Your Kitchen:
Get a normal wood saw, the longer and more flexible the
better. Sit down on a fairly straight-backed chair, and clamp
the saw handle between your knees.
Grip the tip of the saw with your thumb over the top, fingers
underneath. Bend the saw down with your thumb, and while doing
this, bend the blade into a slight S-bend with your fingers.
Now tap the saw at the centre of the bend. You should get a
ringing sound. Bend the saw a little further down, and the
note gets higher. It takes practice to get repeatable tones,
so stick with it.
Okay, so now you can get a note out of a saw. You can either
give up and get on with your life, or read on.
Moving on (without spending any money)
The longer and more flexible the handsaw, the better range it
is likely to have.
If you are going to play the saw by tapping it, you want
something light and fairly soft. A capped BiC® pen will
do for starters.
If the back (smooth) edge of the saw is clean and free of
grease, a clean dowelling rod can be used as a bow. You won't
need rosin, but you may need to sand the rod to roughen the
A straight-backed chair really helps tone and sustain.
Don't over bend the saw; you get just as much sustain (with
much less effort) if you bend it slightly.
Vibrato can be achieved by moving the knee that's holding the
top of the saw handle. This also helps with sustain.
If you're tired, you'll play flat, and tunes won't happen.
Getting more serious (financial outlay involved)
A cello bow is generally reckoned to have the best balance of
robustness and agility for playing the saw. I find a violin
bow (though longer than a cello bow) to be a little too light
to hit notes reliably.
Good rosin makes a huge difference to how quickly you can
strike a note, and how long it will sustain. Rosin for solo
playing seems to be best; I use "Kaplan Art Craft Dark No.7".
A thin glove (like a golf glove or driving glove) on the blade
hand can prevent the discomfort of the blade digging in to
A purpose-made musical saw will have a much larger range than
most wood saws. They're more expensive, though, and don't
expect to be able to do carpentry with them. I play a Mussehl
& Westphal tenor saw.
Musical Saw Suppliers
Three manufacturers (there are more) that I know of are:
Mussehl & Westphal have been making musical saws
in Wisconsin since 1921, and sell their tenor saw kit for around
US $70. Contact details are on
Sandvik make the baritone Sandvik 296
"Stradivarius". You should be able to order it from
any Sandvik dealer (but expect strange looks from the sales
clerk); Mussehl & Westphal also sell it. I've been quoted
UK £76 for it; prices vary.
Charlie Blacklock from California sells a range of
C. Blacklock Specials.
On Sawing: Books, Articles & Movies
Jim "Supersaw" Leonard and Janet Graebner's Scratch My
Back (published 1989 by Kaleidoscope Press, Santa Ana,
CA, USA; ISBN 0-9620882-0-X) is a well researched history of
the saw, complete with player profiles and playing
tips. Rather heavy on weak puns, but probably the only book
(in English) on sawing.
Jay Hardwig's piece
Stanley's Stradivarius in the Austin Chronicle is a short
history of the bowed saw, and interviews some players.
Délicatessen, written and directed by
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, France, 1990. Dominique
Pinon and Marie-Laure Dougnac's duet on lame sonore and
cello was my first introduction to the instrument. The film's
a grotesque little gem; see it. Score by Carlos D'Alessio.
Bowed Saw Recordings
Far from being a novelty instrument, the saw gets some serious
exposure on some of my favourite CDs:
Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over
The Sea (Elephant Six/Blue Rose, 1998). Julian Koster
backs up this raucous folky lo-fi classic.
Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs (V2
Records, 1998). Sawyer: Joel Eckhouse (of The Blue Sky
They Might Be Giants - Factory
Showroom (Electra, 1996): Track 11: James K. Polk. Sawyer:
Saw Sounds: Mussehl & Westphal's Demo Disc
Around 1929, Mussehl & Westphal supplied a record of the saw
accompanied by piano. The players are Clarence Mussehl and
Marion Westphal. Thanks to Jim Supersaw Leonard for
Side 1: RealAudio 3.0 (175584 bytes) or
MP3 (702580 bytes): 1' 28".
Wild Irish Rose.
Side 2: RealAudio 3.0 (131104 bytes) or
MP3 (524107 bytes): 1' 6".
Swannee River (The Old Folks At Home); sounds like a saw duet.
Apologies for the sound quality; the record's about 70 years
old. Thanks to MAC for taping the original
The Inevitable Links
Not many; I haven't found many good web sites devoted to the
Musical Saw Home Page
-- well written (in English, French & German) but
unmaintained for the last few years. A good site for
MAC's record collection has an
example of the
Mussehl & Westphal demo disk from the late 1920s.
Stefan Schernthaner plays saw for
The Stratton Mountain Boys.
There are samples of him playing on the site.
Homepage for Musical Saw players has a message board for
meeting up with fellow players.
Folklife Festival has an interview with Homer Ledford,
saw player and instrument maker.
Bowed Saw Tips from Julian Koster
Julian (of The Elephant 6 Recording company, which includes
Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control & Music
Tapes) sent me some useful tips on technique:
This is how I hold the saw (with two fingers - my index on
top of the saw and my thumb on its face). You don't have to
press too hard, or tense up your hand this way. I do think
it does get easier to do it for long periods over time...
One thing I didn't realize before running into a string
player is, you've got to rosin up pretty
hard. I had always been too gentle with the
rosin, and didn't know you had to sort of break in, or dent
the rosin's surface before you are even started. Once really
saturating the bow, it seems to last for quite a while.
I play a Mussehl & Westphal tenor saw... and have found
it to be the best sounding saw that offers a full range
(2½ octaves or so). I also have some sweet sounding old
carpentry saws that all have great distinctive voices, though
a more limited range.
(All lyrics/samples/artwork copyright © the original
artists. Reproduced for review/promotional purposes only.)
Stewart C. Russell,