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Johannes Bergmark

written in response to an email question the 30th of October 2006, with later additions.

Choice of a saw:

I play two musical saws myself:
Sandviken Stradivarius. (Made since maybe 80 years at the saw factory in Bollnäs, is most easily ordered in a hardware store. Nowadays Bahco took over the company, but except for a small change in the logo, the saw is still the same, no. 296 in their catalog.)
Speliplari (made since maybe 30 years, from the Pikaterä saw factory in Kausala, Finland, can be ordered from there).
Stradivarius is in principle the same as an ordinary hand saw of that size, and except for the brand logo on the blade, the difference is only that the teeth aren't inclined and hardened.
Speliplari, designed by the musician Aarto Viljamaa, has no teeth (which explains the name, meaning "play blade"), the handle is made of black plastic (on the model I have) and the steel is a bit thinner and thus more flexible, it's also shorter than the Stradivarius.
The playing character is different: Stradivarius has a deeper, stronger and longer tone but is less flexible than the Speliplari. I also find it easier to have control over the overtones on it. The fundamental note on the Stradivarius has 2 octaves of scope, the Speliplari something similar. For solo playing I prefer the Stradivarius, for fast improvisation with other musicians, I prefer the Speliplari. I often carry both of them in the same case (that I built myself). If I would choose only one, it would be the Stradivarius. I also have the impression that it has the best reputation among other saw players internationally.
There are many other musical saws made, at least in germany and the usa, longer as well as shorter. The prize varies very much.
It's of course possible to play ordinary saws (preferably long hand saws) as well, but be careful of the teeth that can easily hurt you and your trousers.

Treatment of the instrument:

Never use fat and avoid touching the saw blade with your fingers other than on the tip where you bend it when playing. In any case, the back of it (the edge opposite the teeth side) should never be touched but be kept dry.
If it becomes dirty, clean it with alcohol if you can, otherwise it's important to dry it as soon as you can. A rusty saw sounds much worse.
If you haven't used a bow before, the same thing applies there - never touch the horse hair, release the tension of the bow when not using it, and put on rosin before playing.

[Bergmark with saw]
Bergmark with the Stradivarius.
[Two saws played at once]
Bergmark playing double saws.

How to play:

There are many techniques, but this is probably the most common one:
Sit on a chair of normal height, put the handle of the saw between the thighs inside the knees. You souldn't have to squeeze, the saw should be able to rest by itself without being kept by the hands and lean upwards-to the left (i.e. if you want to hold the bow or beater in the right hand, otherwise it's the other way). Try to hold it in a way so that the blade doesn't touch your leg but is free in the air.
Put the left foot outward with the heel in the floor, and the right foot a bit inwards with the heel a bit above the floor. This makes it easier to direct and makes it possible to do vibrato if you have a "nervous shaking” in your right leg. (You can also vary the expression with vibrations of your left arm.)
Take the tip of the blade with a light grip of your left hand. The thumb you put about 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) into the blade, and the other fingers grip the end of the blade. It's enough with a very small tension for the blade to be able to produce a tone (it's actually enough with the weight of the blade itself to get a tone, but it's easier to have control if you hold it with the hand). The thumb with a light pressure down, the other fingers with a light pressure upwards. So no extreme bending. In principle, you should bend the blade into an S-form, where the first bend is very small and the rest of the blade below the hand consists of the other bend.
Hold the saw with a light tension in this way, and now I propose you to start with beating the blade with a mallet. For my part, I use a big bass piano hammer, but you can just as well use a felt mallet for percussion (the saw is classified as a bowed idiophone, but it can also be played as a percussion instrument) or something similar. I know of a saw player that uses the cork of a termos. The hardness decides what kind of timbre you get, try different things.
When you have a tone, bend the left arm slowly up or down and observe one important thing: the tone rises and moves up towards the tip when you bend down the tip of the blade, and the tone sinks and moves down towards the handle when you lift up the tip with the hand. Different notes, thus, come from different locations on the blade. This is especially important to observe when you want to play with a bow.
Use a bow of your choice, it should be well rosined and tensed. I use violin bows myself but anything goes, also home-made ones. The easiest grip on a bow is upside-down compared to how you play the violin. Hold the right hand straight forward, the thumb on the frog (the sliding piece with which you tense the horsehair) and the other fingers around the stick, in such a way that the bow points downwards from the hand. To get a tone, you need to find the right place to play, otherwise it can become completely silent. The easiest way is to strike it with a beater first, and then localize where the tone comes from. Put the bow with a slow and stable movement with just enough and steady pressure on the back of the saw, in 90 degrees (right) angle to the blade on the point where the sound comes from. I think the best effect is reached with a small angle inwards (towards your stomach) when the bow is moved upwards, and a small angle towards the feet when it's moved downwards. Control speed and pressure in order to get the volume you want, you can play from very strong to almost nothing if you do it right. If you want to let the tone sound release by itself you lift out the bow from the contact with the blade, if you want to stop it abruptly, you can stop the bow while in contact with the blade.
Make sure you have a tone and then slowly bend the left arm without contact of the bow so you can hear that the tone moves. Strike another time with the bow on the point where the tone is now. Change the pitch, move the bow, so you learn how to control the instrument. Some say you should play at the peak (the middle) of the bend. Try if this idea makes it easier.

Alternative playing methods:

A small saw can (with some difficulty) be held under the chin as a violin.
I've seen some holding the saw with the feet instead of with the thighs.
I often play two saws at once. I usually have the Stradivarius closest to me, and the Speliplari, with the back inwards, closest to the knees (on the picture above it's the opposite). The bow goes between the two and I turn it alternately in order to play either saw. The left hand holds the tips of both saws and it's possible to bend them partly separately from each other. The sound of two saws is the best there is.
You can also play two saws by putting them on top of each other, so the backs are parallel to each other. By combining these techniques you might be able to play four saws at the same time?
The bowing technique has big impact on the sound, by applying extra hard pressure, you can achieve squeeky sounds.
You will soon note that the saw has a number of overtones, that originate on points that are on different locations than where the fundamental (the deepest) is. Most saw players tend to avoid these, but I think they make very interesting effects. Those are between the fundamental and the handle. If you find and hold a stable fundamental note, you can move the bow and play them partly separately from the fundamental, getting several notes at the same time. Note that the pitch difference between those don't correspond at all to the ovetones in a string- or wind instrument. You can get at least 2-4 tones at the same time. You can also get them separately, without the fundamental, and make them slide over and under each other.

Laif Carr, national musician from Skåne (southern sweden), was kind enough to send me this tip about playing technique the 10th of Jan. 2009:
I play a Strad. myself and a short 3/4 cello bow with double bass rosin.
Marvelous tones!
I play with a little bit special technique I'd like to share with you.
A strap. A noose round the right foot, up along the right side of the calf to the handle of the saw, which is then resting on the right thigh. This gives a very relaxed playing position, where you can sit with the legs a bit apart. The left arm then doesn't have to stretch out so far either.
Try this! I learned it from my danish saw guru Niels Sav, or “Sav-Niels”.
Always use a saw of an old model! The modern ones sound terrible, -if you start them...
Stories go around about the event 1964, when Karl-Erik Welin gave a concert at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Welin concluded the concert by attacking the grand piano with a chain saw, but happened to saw himself in the leg and ended up on the hospital as well as on the headlines.
He's supposed to have answered at the emergency, when they asked what happened, that he happened to play the wrong note...
I replied the 14th of Jan.:
That solves the problem with the musical saws that are very long, and especially for those enthusiasts that might not have very long arms ...
It's fun that you mention Welin's chain saw concert, even though a chain saw has very different acoustic qualities than a musical saw... I have researched a lot on this event, and even tried to replicate it as far as possible ... however without “playing the wrong note”!
It's a common misunderstanding that it was a grand piano that he treated. It was an upright piano, even though he played other pieces on a grand on the same concert.

The same day, Laif replied:
But it also gives a more “controlled” knee vibrato. The length of the rope/strap is of course very important. But also one-legged people are given a chance...
Above all it's comfortable in long sessions. You can even put the noose all the way to the left foot (the red) if you want. Then, the length of the rope or height of the chair aren't as important.
I saw the light!!
About the Welin story, I've heard it from a local comedian I once shared the stage with. When I brought up the saw, he came back up again and intruded with this story. The ending he probably invented himself...
It would be an honor to be mentioned on your page!
Good you didn't cut my technique short...

[Laif's playing technique]
The playing technique that Laif Carr proposes.
Illustration © by Laif Carr.
Another very kind addition to the knowledge about playing positions was sent to me by Natalia Paruz (The Saw Lady) the 2nd of June 2009:
I've also seen people play the saw in the following positions:
  • a kneeling position (saw handle between foot and knee)
  • sitting on the floor (handle between thighs)
  • handle under the arm
  • standing (handle between knees)
  • standing (handle on a specially made stand)
  • sitting on chair (handle laying on top of a boot's edge). [You wear boots, then sit down as usual (for us) but instead of placing the saw handle between your knees, let it slide down and rest on top of the edge of the boot. (Clarification the next day because I didn't get it.)]
  • In China they have a special strap that you wear like a belt, and the saw is velcroed into the strap.
  • Amplification:

    A saw has a stronger sound than you might think, but if you must amplify, or record, a saw, it's most practical to place the microphone under and behind the blade, otherwise it's easily in the way of the playing, and from this position, most of the notes are caught. Look out for feedback which easily occurs with this instrument.
    Sometimes I've seen, and also tried myself, contact mikes on the blade, but so far I thought this was too problematic with this instrument. The sound is too sharp and uneven for my taste.

    Here is more information and pictures about my saw playing, including a film clip.

    Read about my piece for saw ensemble (that you can hear as well).

    Other saw playing resources:

    Natalia Paruz (The Saw Lady).
    The Singing Saw Gazette
    Current Guinness world record of the size of a saw ensemble at Gostyn, poland.
    Tutorials, listings etc
    Savbladet (danish, english)
    International Musical Saw Association

    Some saw playing friends:

    Girilal Baars
    Pierre Bastien
    Catherine Christer Hennix
    Paul Lovens
    Finn Loxbo
    Terje Mentyjærvi
    Steve Noble
    Hal Rammel
    Dorothea Schürch

    In this film, an acoustic so called Chladni experiment is made, in order to show where the node lines go in the saw blade for different partials, from 5'52!

    Luc Kerléo and Johannes Bergmark have one workshop each at Helsjöns Folkhögskola, in the Fenix international youth project organized by Leader Sjuhärad., on August 21st, 2010, as part of the Mubil tour. The young participants came from estonia, finland and sweden, and built oscillator systems and simple instruments based on contact microphones. They then applied them into and performed through our electro-acoustic van, the Mubil. We also introduced new ways of thinking about sound, space and acoustics to them, in order to inspire their creativity.
    From Marie Lindblad November 18th, 2011:
    Hello Johannes!
    Thanks for all the creative and fantastic projects that you contribute to the world. I wonder if you can help me? I have a saw. Where can I find tools in Sweden, that can help me to play without tiring my wrists? Is there anyone you know in Sweden that makes handles to the saw, I already have a small hole for a handle on the saw.
    Greetings from a dedicated new beginner on the West coast

    I suppose you mean a handle for the open (outer) end? I have indeed seen some saw players use such a thing, but after more habit I don't feel I need it, by playing with a minimum of force and sometimes change the grip, it works fine for me. Several good professional saw players (Paul Lovens, Dorothea Schürch ..) prefer such an outer handle, though, which isn't screwed on it but loose, if I remember right.
    I'm sorry I don't have the actual answer, but it might be found in some of my links. Someone (I forgot who) made such a handle himself by taking a comfortable piece of wood sawing a cut of a suitable angle in it, that you simply hook into the end of the saw when you'll play. You can try it out yourself until it suits you.

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    This page updated the 4th of January, 2012.