World Flutes


The shakuhachi is a Japanese end blown flute that is normally made with 5 holes and tuned to the pentatonic minor scale. It originally came from China and is traditionally made of bamboo, but modern makers sometimes use plastic and hardwoods. It was used by the monks of the Fuke School of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen (blowing meditation).

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.

I make two very different styles of shakuhachi: The Wooden Jiari Shakuhachi, and the Simple Zen Shakuhachi.

The Wooden Jiari Shakuhachi

(Topmost photo)

I spent two years researching shakuhachi making and meticulously measuring the bores of a number of high quality shakuhachi flutes. The shape of the bore creates a characteristic feel and response with the jiarii shakuhachi, and most quality instruments have very similar bore profiles.

After gathering the needed data, I set about manufacturing special reamers that would allow me to replicate the classic bore shape in a wooden instrument. My goal was to make an affordable wooden shakuhachi that could match the quality of high-end bamboo instruments.

Some of the better quality bamboo shakuhachi can cost thousands of dollars (sometimes tens of thousands). The reason for the cost is due to the high level of skill required to meticulously shape the bore using traditional methods and the years of experience required to do it well. This often means that for many players a high quality instrument is far out of their budget.

By using wood and special reamers to recreate the bore of a high end shakuhachi, it is possible to offer an instrument with superb performance characteristics at a small fraction of the cost.

My Wooden Jiari Shakuhachi also have some advantages that bamboo does not have, most notably stability. Bamboo is highly sensitive to environmental conditions and is prone to cracking. A treasured bamboo instrument can come to harm in a dry environment (for example) if it is not properly stored and cared for. My wooden instruments are specially treated to make them nearly impervious to environmental conditions. Shakuhachi come in various sizes and tunings, but at this time I’m only offering this style in the 1.8 size (key of D).

The Simple Zen Shakuhachi

(Lower photo)

The idea behind the Simple Zen Shakuhachi came from reading an article on the acoustics and design of the shakuhachi, which asked the question: What makes a shakuhachi a shakuhachi?

Is it the material it is made from? Is it the appearance? The scale it plays, or the characteristic sound? Or is it a combination of these things?

I spoke above about the differences between the jiari and jinashi style shakuahchi, but I have recently explored a design that is neither the jiari style or the jinashi style. Bamboo jinashi flutes have irregularities in the bore created by the organic nature of the bamboo culm, and many of the makers who craft these instruments manipulate the bore to some degree, either adding or removing material from the interior of the bore (though not to the extent that the jiari makers do). I don’t do this.

The premise of the article I was reading about the acoustics of the shakuhachi posited that an acoustically balanced shakuhachi could be made without any sort of bore manipulation or shaping. I found this interesting and I have been exploring it for quite some time, and I have found it to be true. The result of this exploration is the Simple Zen Shakuhachi. These are cylindrical bore instruments that have been designed in such a way as to provide the response, tuning, and tone color of a shakuhachi without the need for bore manipulation.

But to achieve this result, I had to take some liberties with the overall design of the flute, and the most noticeable difference is the thin walls of the instrument. The Simple Zen Shakuhachi is very slender in the body compared to a bamboo instrument, and they are lightweight and very comfortable to hold as a result. The utaguchi (mouthpiece) is the same as my jiari instruments, and the finger hole placement and sizing should be quite familiar to players of traditional shakuhachi. By using this thin-walled design I was able to create an instrument that has superb intonation and will allow the player to hit all the notes that would be expected on a well made traditional shakuhachi, with excellent power and responsiveness. But to players familiar with bamboo instruments, these will feel quite different in the hand.

The other benefit of this design is that I can craft them more efficiently and thus they are more affordable than the Wooden Jiari Shakuhachi, with the 1.8 size being half the cost of the jiari style version that I make. It also makes it easier for me to offer them in a wider variety of tunings. And like the jiari style in wood, these flutes also have the advantage of stability in environments of changing temperature and humidity.

Below you can listen to audio samples of these two different styles.

Sound Samples of Wooden Jiari Shakuhachi

Listen to the incomparable Zac Zinger performing traditional Kinko style honkyoku piece “Takiochi” This is a full length performance piece (18 minutes) and demonstrates the range of both the player and the flute. Performed on one of my maple shakuhachi.

Geoffrey Ellis Flutes · Takiochi

Sound Samples of Simple Zen Shakuhachi

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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