Shakuhachi Evolution

The Complicated Road to Simplicity

Shop Notes Blog

As many of you know I’ve been making a 1.8 wooden shakuhachi for many years, and I have received gratifyingly positive feedback about this design from players of all skill levels. And while I’m happy to take credit for the aesthetics of the design, the real secret of success can be chalked up to my having effectively copied a high-quality shakuhachi. I describe a bit of this process on the shakuhachi page of my website.

Some brief comments on shakuhachi styles taken from that section:

Traditionally there are two different types of shakuhachi: jinashi and jiari

Jinashi means “without paste” and in the context of these modern flutes indicates that the bore is “natural” and is not built up in the way that the jiari style are.

Jiari flutes have a bore profile that tapers down and flares out. With traditional, jiari-style bamboo instruments the makers used an urushi paste to shape the bore (hence the paste references) but when the flutes are made from wood this shape is created using special reamers to cut the bore profile.

A tapered bore allows for more precise upper octave tuning (which is necessary on flutes made with thick-walled Madake bamboo) and a distinct type of voice. Jiari flutes are more often the choice when playing in ensemble settings but many players choose them for their character.

This is a very simplified explanation that does not touch on the history and evolution of the shakuhachi. The scope of this blog doesn’t allow for me to include much back-story about shakuhachi bores or to explain in detail why the modern jiari style came about, but for those who want to learn more I highly recommend Monty Levenson’s splendid work: Stalking the Wild Bore.

So making a really high-quality wooden shakuhachi in the popular jiari style required the manufacture of the aforementioned cutting reamers that would allow me to replicate the tapered bore design that is a feature of this style. It’s a tricky business and requires a lot of work machining metal to very precise specifications. Because of this, I only ever created tools to make the 1.8 size shakuhachi (the most popular tuning). I had quite a few requests over the years to branch out and make other tunings, but I knew that it would be a huge undertaking to manufacture the specific sets of reamers that would be needed for each different key, and I would also need to find high-quality shakuhachi in each key so that I could study the bore profiles. I knew it would just be too much to take on unless I was going to make the shakuhachi my primary focus.

Back in the early 2000’s, before I was even contemplating making shakuhachi, there was a website maintained by a shakuhachi enthusiast named Nelson Zink. Sadly it is no longer there, but in one section of his site he had posted a large collection of articles on shakuhachi design where he explored (and explained) the physics behind these fascinating flutes. I used to visit this site and read the articles because they touched on many principles of acoustic physics and how they related to woodwind design. So I was really just auditing the information with a view to enhancing my understanding of flute craft.

In one of the articles he put forth the idea that a very functional shakuhachi could be made from a PVC plastic pipe, which surprised me a bit because I was under the impression that all shakuhachi required a great deal of bore manipulation, and PVC pipe only provides a simple cylinder of a fixed (unchanging) diameter throughout. Also, my experience with cylindrical bore flutes at that time had convinced me that it was impossible to get a balanced, two-octave instrument, since typically the second octave on a cylindrical flute is going to be flat.

And yet (as I later discovered), early shakuhachi actually were simple, cylindrical bore instruments made from a part of the bamboo plant that had thinner walls and fewer organic irregularities in the bore shape, and clearly they must have been acceptable to players despite whatever natural limits they had. And even though the shakuhachi evolved there was plenty of precedent for the “plastic pipe” type of bore. I would discover a means of solving the flat second octave problem, but that came later.

Fast forward many years to 2022, and I was having an email exchange with shakuhachi teacher and performer Steven Casano. Steven had bought a couple of my wooden shakuhachi and was very complimentary about them (and he made some very nice recordings and videos with them as well). He was mentioning how he would be interested in a 2.4 shakuhachi that had a somewhat more robust voice than the more traditional designs that he was accustomed to (and as it happens, world flute virtuoso Peter Phippen had expressed interest in a 2.4 shakuhachi many years previous to this exchange). These remarks rang a little bell in my memory and I found myself returning to the Nelson Zink article (luckily, I had saved copies of these articles before his site went offline, so I was able to revisit his thoughts on the PVC shakuhachi).

The virtue of PVC pipe is that it has uniform wall thickness and a bore that is also uniformly hard and smooth. From a woodwind design perspective, this has many advantages. The down side to working with PVC is that it only comes in standard diameters, and those diameters would only be optimal for a couple of very specific tunings. Also, crafting flutes from PVC isn’t ideal if any sanding is needed, because PVC dust is something you absolutely don’t want to inhale! A careful maker can avoid the hazards of working with PVC, but on a personal level I didn’t care for the idea of making plastic flutes. And as I said, the size limits would be a problem.

But creating a simple cylinder with uniform wall thickness and a smooth bore is something that I do every day! I use gun drills to make these precision bores, and I use wood instead of plastic. And unlike PVC, I can make these cylinders in any size that I choose. So despite some reservations, I told Steven that I would attempt a 2.4 shakuhachi for him to test.

What followed was a frenzy of experimental flute making, wherein a couple of dozen prototype flutes were made, all featuring the cylindrical bore. I ended up making both a 2.4 and a 1.8, figuring that since the 1.8 is the most common tuning, it would be a good means of testing the authenticity of a cylindrical bore design.

Well, to make a long story short, I succeeded. And the design of this flute lent itself to a high degree of production efficiency, which saved me a significant amount of labor. These are relatively simple flutes in that respect, but they are not so simple when it comes to tone, tuning and response. They ended up being more “shakuhachi-like” than I had dared to imagine (proving Nelson Zink right), and I was delighted to find that the streamlined design allowed me to make them much more affordable. I named this line of instruments the Simple Zen Shakuhachi in the hopes of capturing the spirit behind the design.

The most noticeable difference between these flutes and traditional bamboo shakuhachi is the very thin walls. This thin-walled approach is the same that I used on my quena flutes in order to optimize octave balance, and it works very well. I’ve done a fair bit of experimenting with bamboo shakuhachi made from varieties that have a more naturally cylindrical bore, and while they sound great it is much more challenging to achieve accurate tuning on the second octave due to the wall thickness. The thick walls can be compensated for by strategic undercutting of the finger holes, but this is a time consuming task and often isn’t enough to achieve really good balance, depending upon the piece of bamboo.

In order to “field test” this new design, I sent prototypes to several professional shakuhachi players, all of whom were pleasantly surprised to find that they sounded quite authentic. To quote one of the players:

“…I was expecting the cylindrical bore to make a much bigger difference in the sound, but it sounds right. I especially like the brightness I’m able to still get out of it. It feels like there’s decent resistance too…If my eyes were closed I’d have no idea it was a different bore. Sounds like a shakuhachi to me!”

Steven Casano also tested them and confirmed that they checked all of the boxes on how a shakuhachi should perform, the only real difference being that they feel a bit different in the hand because of the slender design.

Despite this very positive feedback, it is worth observing that there will be subtle differences between these shakuhachi and the jiari style with the tapered bore. The tapered bore versions do create a certain level of “resistance” or “back-pressure”. This is nuanced but familiar to players of the jiari style. A cylindrical bore is going to have a bit less of this quality. On the other hand, the cylindrical bore has a free-blowing quality and also gives a very full voice, which is particularly noticeable on the lower tunings, which (when made in the jiari style) tend to have less volume. So it’s a good trade in my view. And I should add that this design makes for a very nice meditation flute as well, being so light in the hand that it’s like playing a tube made of air!

And then there is the cost.

Anyone who has shopped for good quality shakuhachi knows that they can be quite expensive, especially the well-crafted bamboo flutes. Even student or beginner flutes made from bamboo by a competent maker can be costly. Such shakuhachi are considered quite affordable if you can get one for less than a thousand dollars. And some of the larger shakuhachi cannot be found for less than several thousand dollars. This means that some tunings are not readily available in student models or are out of the reach of many player’s budgets.

The Simple Zen Shakuachi embodies a minimalist sensibility, putting less emphasis on ornamentation in the design. This saved me a lot of time during the crafting of the flutes, and because of this I’m able to set the price within a very narrow range. Basically any flute in the entire range of tunings can be had for as little as $279 or as much as $399 for the very largest size, but no more than that. So if you have always wanted to try a lower shakuhachi (for example a 2.4 or lower) or an unusual or rare tuning like a 1.7, you don’t have to break the bank. In fact, for the price of a single, high quality bamboo flute, an enthusiast can own a wide range of the Simple Zen style. As of this writing I’ve finalized the following tunings: 1.8 (key of D), of course, but also 2.4, 2.0, and 1.6 (which are keys of A, C, and E respectively). My intention is to add further tunings as time permits.

Just listen to Steven Casano playing the 1.8 and 2.4 tunings to get a taste of what these flutes can do.

Geoffrey Ellis Flutes · Steven Casano performs Ryugin Koku (Dragon Singing In The Empty Sky) 1.8

Geoffrey Ellis Flutes · Steven Casano performs Daiwagaku on 2.4

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Published Tuesday, March 28, 2023