How to Play the Saw

“You know how to play that thing?” asks an elderly hardware-store employee in a blue apron. Bianca Lara has taken a brand-new carpenter’s saw from a display, propped the handle against her leg, and is gently bending the blade into a lazy curve. She makes a fist and raps up and down the spine of the blade with a knuckle, producing wobbly sci-fi sounds that draw a small crowd. “That saw must be made outta some kind of good steel,” says a bystander.

“I’m on a mission to become San Diego’s finest musical sawist.” It is a word of Bianca Lara’s making, sawist. A petite 30-ish singer in the Gypsy-jazz tradition based in Oceanside, Lara performs at the Mediterranean Café in Carlsbad on Friday nights. “Guitarist, pianist, why not sawist?” But the playing of a musical saw is not a perfect art, and it takes a good deal of time before one is able to achieve pitch. Lara’s been practicing three hours a night since spring, she says.

It is not known who was the first to unlock the music within a carpenter’s saw by applying a fiddle bow to it, but academics believe it happened sometime during the 19th Century in the rural Appalachian Mountains. Others claim the musical saw came from Russia, or even South America. Lara’s vision was to play saw in her Gypsy-jazz band in place of a violin, but that ended when she learned of the musical saw’s slow reflexes.

“What I didn’t know is that the saw can’t be played quickly. Gypsy jazz is really fast music.”

The first time she sawed at a public gig, she accidentally cut through her fishnet stockings. Less dangerous, perhaps, are the saws made specifically for music. They have no teeth. They date back to 1919 when a Wisconsin enthusiast named Clarence Mussehl began manufacturing toothless musical saws capable of rendering as many as 20 notes. During his best year in business, Mussehl sold 25,000 of them. Musical saws are made with thinner steel that is easier to bend, says Lara, and bending is what makes the notes. “Basically, what happens is you’re trying to make an S curve with the saw blade so the saw can sing.” She demonstrates. To change the pitch of the note, she increases or reduces the amount of flexion.

“People are amazed when they hear it. It probably doesn’t matter whether I play it well or not. Most people have never seen or heard a saw player.”

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The hot jazz band mentioned is Gypsy Groove. :-)

Just a few corrections... Saw playing started 300 years ago (and not in the 19th century). It was started by lumberjacks residing in many different countries (not just Russia and South America) without one knowing of the other at that point. Also - not all saws made for music are toothless. Clarence Mussehl's saws were never toothless. If you want to learn more about the history of the musical saw - there is a Musical Saw Festival every summer in New York City where one can take a workshop and learn all about this art form: Here is a video from the festival:


You are absolutely correct on both points. The saw I'm hold in the picture is a musical saw with teeth. But I have another on order without. :-) ~b.

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