Shakuhachi

Frequently Asked Questions?

Shakuhachi is the quintessential bamboo flute of Japan made famous by Komuso Priests of Emptiness.
They wandered the Japanese countryside playing the shakuhachi for alms.
The Shakuhachi epitomized the ethereal world the Komuso lived in - a world of chants, meditation, and impermanence.
The sound is sublime. The playing a ritual. Daily practice will introduce the player into a new world.

What is MADAKE Bamboo.

Kamigoto Island in Kyushu, Nagasaki Prefecture, the perfect growing grounds for Madake bamboo. This is the only species of bamboo used by professional shakuhachi makers in Japan. Other bamboo species are used sometimes but are not acceptable for making quality shakuhachi. Madake bamboo has a thickness that is necessary for the utaguchi blowing edge to work properly and for the finger holes to have the desired tone color. That being said, the bore of the flute usually still needs shaping of some kind to be a functional shakuhachi able to play shakuhachi music with all the cross fingerings.

There are basically two kinds of bamboo shakuhachi these days -

- Natural bore called Jinashi and JI filled bore called Jiari . Ji is a paste made of a mixture of urushi sap and tonoko powder. The result is a Plaster of Paris-like paste that is carefully hand applied to the inside of the bore to manipulate the resonance spots. A good shakuhachi requires at least some borework so that the flute will play with more dynamic balance. This is a time consuming process and this is why full Jiari shakuhachi made in Japan cost in the thousands of dollars.

What is the difference between root end shakuhachi and non root end shakuhachi?

First of all, there are shakuhachi instruments and then there are bamboo flutes that are shakuhachi-like. In general, root end shakuhachi usually have a tapered bore profile that narrows towards the bottom. This helps the second register play in tune and adds to the dynamic shakuhachi sound. However, not all root end shakuhachi display this tapered bore profile nor may they be tapered in the desired way so the luck of nature plays a small yet significant role in Jinashi making. Shakuhachi made from the upper part of a bamboo may play well if it has bore work done to it.

What is the difference between an old shakuhachi and a new one?

All well made hand tapered bore shakuhachi sound different. Even if they are made by the same maker. A great maker can produce shakuhachi within a trademark sound. But still, each flute is distinct within that ballpark. Having said this, a well made antique (at least 100 years old) shakuhachi should have a more open, warm bambooey sound. The modern shakuhachi has a painstakingly hand worked bore so that the pitches can play at exact western standard pitches. This is so the flute can play with other western tuned instruments. It is usually a louder and brighter flute than the antique shakuhachi.

What does "not in exact tuning but in tune with itself" mean when refering to a flute.

Most old shakuhachi made in Japan were not made to the Western pitch standard of the orchestra (A=440hz). Modern shakuhachi is made anywhere from A=440hz-444hz. So, if a flute is not tuned to what is acceptable, it is said to be "in tune with itself" (assuming that the maker drilled the holes in the right places to begin with). This means the scale of the notes (the finger holes) all respond with integrity in two octaves and in relation to the natural pitch of the shakuhachi. Well made shakuhachi, old or new, are in tune with themselves.

What is a good shakuhachi for a beginner?

If one wishes to study formal shakuhachi with a shakuhachi teacher, then a full Jiari flute is need. This is the standard 1.8 length pitched in D ( A=440-444hz). Teachers in America usually only teach on 1.8 flutes. This is mostly because the Japanese Gakyoku or Sankyoku court music with Koto and Shamisen is based on the D pitch. Root end or non root is OK. As long as the flute is pitched properly with a tuned bore. If the beginner does not want to learn Japanese court music but would rather play the shakuhachi for meditation only, then any shakuhachi is fine (as long as it's in tune).

What Goes into a 1.8 Shakuhachi?

Each 1.8 from student to professional level, starts with shaping the internal bore profile to specific measurements. Each maker has his own. There are two main types of traditional shakuhachi makers in Japan, those who shape the bore only by measurements and those who combine shaping to measurements but allowing for flexibility for a unique sound. Making a 1.8 is much more than gauges and measurements, it means letting the flute reveal itself like a piece of art work. This is why it takes a year to produce a high quality hand made shakuhachi that plays at a professional level.

What is Zen Music?

This is often very misunderstood. In Japan, Zen Music is a form of music known as Koten Honkyoku - the largest and oldest collection of solo shakuhachi music that was written centuries ago by unidentified Komuso monks. It is not soothing, new agey music. Zen Honkyoku music is a cultural music form and are specific, individually named and written pieces of music. It is played with demanding technical requirements from both the player and the flute. Not all shakuhachi flutes are suitable or capable of playing Zen Honkyoku music. It is complex in timbre and pitch and uses many shaded fingerings that do not work on lesser shakuhachi-like flutes. Honkyoku can sound atonal to Western ears because of the micro-tonal pitch bends and old Japanese musical intervals. The term Zen music is often mistakenly interchanged with "SUIZEN", which means "blowing zen" in Japanese. Suizen is a non-technical way of playing the shakuhachi for Zen meditation. Suizen is about meditating, not playing music. It does not require any musical playing techniques. Suizen is an individual's approach to meditating with focus on breath control and can be practiced on any kind of flute. The simplest of bamboo flutes will work for "blowing Zen" but only a fine shakuhachi instrument will work for Koten Honkyoku. The modern shakuhachi is a well-tuned instrument great for playing with a Western orchestra or jazz band but some may not feel it is suited for Zen Honkyoku music. To me, it boils down to a personal preference.


The Shakuhachi - Origin, History and Views

Return to Gallery  -  Go to Study Guide  -  Email to Shibui Swords