Stewart playing the saw - oh dear...

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)

Getting more serious (financial outlay involved)

Musical Saw Suppliers

Three manufacturers (there are more) that I know of are:

  1. 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 New Classics.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over The Sea (Elephant Six/Blue Rose, 1998). Julian Koster backs up this raucous folky lo-fi classic.
  2. Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs (V2 Records, 1998). Sawyer: Joel Eckhouse (of The Blue Sky Serenaders).
  3. They Might Be Giants - Factory Showroom (Electra, 1996): Track 11: James K. Polk. Sawyer: Julian Koster.

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 clarifying this.

  1. Side 1: RealAudio 3.0 (175584 bytes) or MP3 (702580 bytes): 1' 28".
    Wild Irish Rose.
  2. 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 78rpm record.

The Inevitable Links

Not many; I haven't found many good web sites devoted to the saw.

  1. Isabelle Garnier's Musical Saw Home Page -- well written (in English, French & German) but unmaintained for the last few years. A good site for historical information.
  2. MAC's record collection has an example of the Mussehl & Westphal demo disk from the late 1920s.
  3. Stefan Schernthaner plays saw for The Stratton Mountain Boys. There are samples of him playing on the site.
  4. The 'Official' Homepage for Musical Saw players has a message board for meeting up with fellow players.
  5. Kentucky Folklife Festival has an interview with Homer Ledford, saw player and instrument maker.

Self Portrait, By Julian

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:

(All lyrics/samples/artwork copyright © the original artists. Reproduced for review/promotional purposes only.)


Stewart C. Russell, Kirkintilloch, Scotland