The Shakuhachi

diagram shakuhachi
A diagram of a shakuhachi I crafted, 2015

What are shakuhachi?

Most of us know the basics of what shakuhachi are, i.e., end blown or rim blown vertical bamboo flutes from Japan with five finger holes tuned to the minor pentatonic scale. Instead of rehashing all of that, on this page, I'm going to share with you some deeper insights into the shakuhachi; its essence as a musical instrument or 'world flute' (all flutes are of the world making the term 'world flutes' obviously Eurocentric). Specifically, the unique characteristics which set shakuhachi apart from other flutes.

Put more simply, I'm going to share with you what makes a shakuhachi, a shakuhachi. We'll also look at shakuhachi which deviate, and why. These are things I've learned as a craftsperson of shakuhachi for over twenty years and from studying and teaching traditional shakuhachi music called Honkyoku as a licensed Dai Shihan or 'Grandmaster'.

What makes any flute special or distinct?

Each distinct type of flute from around the world is a crystalized example; each has evolved to have its own unique attributes, trade-offs, and resultant specialities and character. Of course, there's always some variations with any one type of flute, however, if things are pushed too far from center they become something new or “other”. For example, if we were to put a shakuhachi blowing edge on a ney it will no longer sound like a ney, and it won’t sound like a shakuhachi either.

This leads us to ask, just what, then, is the essence of the shakuhachi; what are the special advantages of the shakuhachi compared to other flute designs. In answering this, we can find what the core or center of the shakuhachi is. This will also allow us to observe how shakuhachi design is pushed from this center to suit differing needs or desires.

The shakuhachi is Japanese

While some of the base design of shakuhachi as we know them originates from China, it was in Japan with Japanese people that the shakuhachi evolved into its quintessential form. This becomes particularly significant when the Japanese began crafting the shakuhachi from root end bamboo sometime in the late 17th c., nearly one thousand years after the introduction of the first examples from China in the 8th c. A good analogy might be that, while the language known as Japanese or Nihongo ultimately originates from mainland Asia, it's clearly become its own distinct dialect compared to Chinese.

This evolution to root end is often referred to as the 'Fuke shakuhachi'. This is because it's assumed that the Komuso monks of the Fuke Shu Zen shakuhachi sect began utilizing the root end of the bamboo stalk for shakuhachi construction (it's also quite possible that 'non-Komuso' began crafting shakuhachi from the root end, of course. See Komuso shakuhachi monks for more).

Beyond obvious differences in the outer aesthetics, it's actually the tapered inner bore of the lower portion of the bamboo stalk, which may or may not include the roots or root end, which is the most significant attribute. Around the beginning of the 1900's, Japanese shakuhachi craftspeople also began sculpting there own tapered bore profiles within the bamboo using Ji plaster, thus maximizing their control over shakuhachi construction (see Jinashi and Jimori vs. Jiari Jinuri and cast-bore shakuhachi).

There’s always compromise or 'trade-offs'

First, we must understand that with all musical instruments everything is a compromise or 'trade-off'. Crafting flutes shows us that all of their attributes are connected—there is no separation. Thus, to make a gain in one area or boost one aspect or attribute of a flute, such as maximum volume, we are always inherently subtracting from another attribute, always. In fact, there is no “perfect flute”, just differently balanced flutes.

Specifically, with flute construction, it's all about how a flute accepts our air, also known as air resistance or "back-pressure". Every single part of the flute, and thus the whole, is about this air resistance. Whether it be the utaguchi 'blowing edge' or the all-important inner bore, craftspeople are making choices for either more or less air resistance (this is experienced by the player as the shakuhachi requiring more or less effort from the breath to play). All of these choices in regards to more or less air resistance come with many, many consequences beyond simply how easy or difficult a flute is to play.

This is one of the most humbling and interesting things about crafting shakuhachi, i.e, that there’s no single one which can 'have it all'; no 'best'. Each design choice and every shakuhachi type will have its strengths and weaknesses. Let's get into them below. But first, take a deep breath, hopefully without much resistance at all.

The essence of the shakuhachi

Shakuhachi is a very versatile flute, however, just by looking at it and counting the finger holes we can see that it’s minimalistic in design, not to be conflated with simplistic, of course. Thus, we can see that the design of the shakuhachi didn't evolve to play many notes easily, like a silver flute with its many keys.

We can also see that it’s not designed to make a sound easily either, as it does not have a mouthpiece with a 'fipple' air-way to direct our breath like a recorder flute, ocarina, kaval, or other whistle-type flutes. These mouthpieces essentially form the embouchure for the player, thus, the lips simply make a seal around the mouthpiece and do not, therefore, have a dynamic role at all in their sound production.

Conversely, the essence or design of the shakuhachi, which has no mouthpiece, evolved to allow us, the player, to greatly explore and shape the single note we’re voicing. This is achieved via subtle shaping of our lips or embouchure in relation to adjustments in air-speed, which are controlled by the muscles of our torso.

In this way, we can make the absolute most out of the shakuhachi with just five finger holes and a little over two registers. Truly, no other flute offers as many possibilities on a single note as the shakuhachi, because it's literally designed and evolved to allow the player to have more control. This is also what makes shakuhachi so much harder to play compared to other flutes; a trade-off to be sure, but one well worth it.

Suffice to say, to make palatable use of all of this control, we need to sustain a note, as opposed to playing many notes in quick succession. Truly, without much effort, we can easily see or hear that the essence of the shakuhachi is tonal exploration *in the 1st and 2nd registers, or Otsu and Kan in Japanese. Within the instrument itself, such tonal exploration is facilitated by tuning for tonal stability and tonal flexibility or range. Proper utaguchi blowing edge design also makes it possible to bend the pitch (メ and カ or 'meri and kari') and perform various breath techniques like the turbulent muraiki.

*[ A register on a flute is not to be confused with an octave. A clear example of this is the thumb hole on the shakuhachi. In Otsu the 1st register, the thumbhole イ voices the 2nd octave above RO, not the 2nd register or Kan. When we blow with more intensity on the thumbhole note イ we get the 2nd register Kan which gives us the 3rd octave above Ro Otsu, yet we do not call this Dai Kan the 3rd register. Registers, Otsu, Kan, and Dai Kan are physical phenomena which result from us blowing with more intensity. Conversely, octaves simply describes the span of twelve notes.

Of particular note is that there is no mention, nor use of Dai Kan in any Koten Honkyoku of the Edo period, just Otsu and Kan. In recent times, we’ve simply made the blunder of conflating registers with octaves and mismatching contemporary Western musical theory terms with Japanese terms. For instance, when we describe Kinko Ryu notation ハ or ni yon go Ha as “Dai Kan”, when in fact it's Kan, the 2nd register, not Dai Kan the 3rd (Tsu meri pitch or Eb on a 1.8; this note is ヒ Hi in Fudaiji derived notations of Seien Ryu and Myoan Taizan Ha).

For proof of this fact, you only need to pick up your shakuhachi. Simply blow as gently as you can on ハ and this will give you Otsu and a pitch close to RO, an octave above RO otsu, or D5 on a 1.8. Next, blow harder to get Kan the 2nd register on this same fingering which gives us around Eb on a 1.8. Finally, try to blow even harder for a true Dai Kan 3rd register and you most likely will not get it, but more importantly we don't use this in any Japanese shakuhachi music. Therefore, ハ is not Dai Kan, it's just Kan (thanks for bearing with me there!). ]

The tapered bore of shakuhachi is essential

[The following section is taken from my other guide on PVC cylindrical bore shakuhachi vs. traditional tapering shakuhachi bores. If you've already read that you can skip ahead on this page.]

As we've established near the beginning of this writing, traditional shakuhachi bores taper quite a bit, not to mention they also often have undulations. Whether these be the naturally occurring, wild tapers found in bamboo Jinashi and Jimori or a human-made taper inside Jinuri aka Jiari and 'cast-bores'. The tapering bore of shakuhachi responds to our air in a unique and specific way. As we'll see, it's integral for facilitating tonal exploration, i.e., the essence of shakuhachi.

Specifically, it's the increased air resistance of the tapering bore of shakuhachi which causes them to require more power or effort from us. This is why people often describe shakuhachi as having 'back pressure'. This of course affects both how it feels to play shakuhachi and the sound, though some sounds more than others.

It perhaps becomes more clear if we instead think of our flutes as water pipes. The tapered bore of the shakuhachi will not let water flow through it as freely while a straight cylindrical pvc pipe is literally designed to allow water to flow through it with as little resistance as possible.

While the tapered bore of the shakuhachi resists our efforts and requires more air pressure/power to play, this has the effect of providing more feedback/feeling between the shakuhachi and us. In turn, this results in the possibility for a more dynamic playing experience and sound, which is to say tonal exploration.

To use an analogy, the increased effort required to play tapered bores feels like molding a firm ball of clay in one’s hands; we get a distinct sense of sculpting our air and the sound. Conversely, with a cylindrical bore such as pvc, the far lower resistance is like having a much softer ball of clay, which, while easier to mold, feels less defined.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some quintessential shakuhachi techniques are also aided by the resistance of tapered bores. Specifically, it gives shakuhachi its distinctive sound when puffs of air are suddenly introduced, e.g., the sound jumps in a very lively, responsive manner (think about a robust 'Tsu-Re' with 'spiking' overtones).

Similarly, the turbulent air technique known as muraiki results in a very raucous sound with the expected amount of effort from us. Again, all thanks to the tapered bore resisting our air. By contrast, on a straight bore cylindrical or pvc flute, these puffs of air and turbulent techniques produce a comparatively lackluster result and actually require more effort to produce.

This is because the lower air resistance in straight cylindrical bores makes them difficult to ’disturb’, i.e., they’re more stable and therefore less apt to jump when we puff or tumble with turbulence. With these techniques, I feel that a cylindrical bore is analogous to cutting sashimi with a dull knife.

However, cylindrical bores are far, far easier to craft. Additionally, because the tube is straight the sound is also 'straight', i.e., the tone is much more homogenous between the notes. They can also be made to play ultimately louder and faster, and easier to play louder and faster as well (soft clay analogy).

[ It’s all a case of preferences or the needs/demands of the player or situation. As a traditional craftsperson and player, I recommend true shakuhachi, thus with tapered bores. That being said, cylindrical bore shakuhachi, such as pvc, are valid in their own right. I hope pointing out the advantages of tapered bores doesn’t come across as disparaging toward cylindrical bore flutes. By better understanding the qualities of both we can hopefully have more fun enjoying each for their distinct differences. ]

Shakuhachi which are skewed from center, away from the essence

Limiting, "hard to blow" designs

Now let’s consider shakuhachi which are skewed more towards the extremes from the central core essence of the shakuhachi, which is to say, shakuhachi which sacrifice tonal stability, flexibility or range in the 1st and 2nd registers Otsu and Kan. First, let’s look at shakuhachi which are crafted so as to be more difficult to play, or "harder to blow", either intentionally or not.

Such shakuhachi are often preferred by those who want an ascetic or difficult experience and find the resultant sound to be to their tastes. Players of such shakuhachi enjoy figuring out their many quirks and the rustic sound of hard to blow shakuhachi. Naturally, these shakuhachi have a lower overall volume, are harder to push into the 2nd register Kan, have less tonal range, but can be quite stable within their scope of sound.

However, the necessity for harder blowing will make them less stable in a sense because maintaining a loud tone or higher Kan notes will feel like holding a heavy weight out infront of ones body, i.e., very effortful and tiring for the embouchure or lips. As mentioned earlier, some people greatly cherish this effort and the resultant rustic quality of sound.

“Optimized" shakuhachi with "easy to blow", fast, loud designs

Next, on the opposite end of the spectrum we find 'cutting-edge' modern shakuhachi of the late 20th, and of course our current century. While perhaps many of these shakuhachi are presented as being "optimized" only, and thus implying little or no compromises, we’ve already established that there are always compromises or trade-offs. These modern shakuhachi designs simply favor or boost speed/ease, max volume, and reach into the 3rd register, and they of course make sacrifices to do so. Let’s look at each of these attributes in detail and remember that they’re actually all connected to one another as well.

Speed, ease, and max volume

Speed and ease mean that a shakuhachi is easy to blow with less effort than typical or “older” shakuhachi. Speed and ease are connected. Speed, however, implies instability. Think of going downhill on a bicycle or skateboard and reaching speeds where it becomes hard to maintain stability, or to stop where we wish. Ease also implies sensitive, indeed too sensitive for some players.

For instance, shakuhachi "optimized" for speed and ease will easily race to a loud, full sound. This can make them feel testy or unstable when we wish to gradually approach maximum volume, but especially when we want to maintain a steady tone in places below maximum volume. Another way to put it is that easy is testy (notice how players of these "optimized" shakuhachi often 'squeak' or 'squeal' by accident and can have a lot of 'whistling', airy overtones to the sound, i.e., instability).

The perhaps obvious advantages of such "optimized" shakuhachi are that it’s easy to play them very loudly and for longer periods of time without fatigue. Interestingly, they can also play some of the quietest, purest notes possible. Again, this is thanks to being easy to blow; accepting a very gentle breath for a very gentle sound.

It’s no wonder that such shakuhachi have evolved to play mostly modern and/or Western music, meeting the demands of contemporary musicians (in Japan most shakuhachi players are from the Tozan Ryu school which focuses on modern music. Most of these players go on to perform with musicians who play Western musical instruments like Piano which are capable of high volumes).

Speed, both in playing fast and in shakuhachi design, simply doesn’t give enough time, space/range, or stability of tone to explore shaping any one sound through the widest range possible in Otsu and Kan, the 1st and 2nd registers (I must emphasize, the widest range possible). It's not unlike a rushed ride through the countryside.

Reach into the 3rd register or true Dai Kan

All "optimized", contemporary shakuhachi have "narrow bores" (ratio of bore volume to total length), compared to their lengths. These narrow bores facilitate more reach into the 3rd register or true Dai Kan (if you skipped the section above in brackets about registers vs. octaves, please go back and read it before continuing. Apologies, I know it’s a long and potentially confusing section).

However, gaining access to more 3rd register Dai Kan notes also means losing range in the first two registers Otsu and Kan. There is no way around this. For example, if we keep constricting the bore we'll get a "dog whistle" with a register higher than what the human ear can hear.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881), inventor of the silver flute wrote, " order to extend the compass to three [registers], as is required at the present day, I was obliged, for the sake of freedom of tone in the upper notes, to use narrower tubes, and thus again to injure, in some measure, the finest notes of the first two [registers]." — An Essay on the Construction of Flutes, pages 36 and 37.

Boehm continues, "It results from the laws of acoustics that all wind instruments with a wide bore [medium bore shakuhachi] are fuller in the lower notes [Otsu and Kan], while, on the other hand, those with a narrower bore are freer in the upper notes [Kan and Dai Kan]. The only question, therefore, is which you prefer." — page 50.

Undoubtedly, constricting the bore to gain access to more 3rd register notes limits the range of the 1st and 2nd, Otsu and Kan, the main registers of classical shakuhachi playing. This is an obvious disadvantage for some while a great advantage for others. In either case, narrow bore shakuhachi with more reach into the 3rd register or Dai Kan are skewed from the center or essence of shakuhachi.

The middle path of crafting shakuhachi

The core essence of the shakuhachi is to have the most tonal range, flexibility, and stability in Otsu and Kan or 1st and 2nd registers. With Jiari aka Jinuri and 'cast-bore' type shakuhachi, all with human-made bores, we can achieve this by first using a medium bore. To quote Theobald Boehm again, ‘...a flute constructed according to such proportions [medium bore], and with a compass of two [registers], would certainly be the most perfect in regard to fullness, purity, and freedom of tone [in the first two registers].

Next, we would choose a "middle of the road" utaguchi blowing edge design or dimensions and finger hole sizes. That’s about it, other than of course tuning the bore for tonal stability (this is the most time consuming aspect of crafting quality shakuhachi). However, with Jinashi and Jimori natural bamboo bore shakuhachi things become far more complex. With natural bamboo bores, which of course vary immensely, unless nature gives us a medium bore volume for the given length, we can only seek to craft each one as close to the essence of shakuhachi as possible. This entails choosing utaguchi and hole sizes to match the bore-to-length ratio, all so as to get the most range out of Otsu and Kan.

➤ Visit my shakuhachi for sale page to see what's available.

Below you'll find additional useful reading: