In the mid-90s, Les Claypool helped bring the musical saw back from the dead when he collaborated with Mirv Haggard, who played the improvised instrument on the song “Cohibas Esplenditos” from Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel’s album Highball With The Devil. This was a big deal for the musical saw, which had taken a dive decades earlier when World War II sucked up all the metal in America, leaving virtually nothing for the construction of novelty instruments. Thankfully, the saw remains a useful item and continued to be produced as a basic carpentry tool. With a few adjustments, a simple saw purchased from a hardware store can be turned into a musical saw. In fact, nowadays you can even electrify that baby and run it through various effects to make it sound absolutely crazy. Here’s how.
You’ll need a flexible hand saw at least 36" in length. You could go longer, up to 48" but you have to ask yourself, how much saw can you handle? Presumably, you’re the one who’s going to play this thing, so be sure you can sit down with it, handle in your lap, and reach the other end of it with your hand enough to bend it. Comfortable? Great. Other than that, you’ll need a contact mic, electrical tape, audio wiring, a plastic or wooden handle (the “pitch handle”) and the appropriate adhesive. The contact mic will be plugged into a guitar amp, so make sure you can connect it via quarter inch audio cable.
Tape the contact mic down at the base of the saw, on the metal just before it meets the saw handle. Use additional tape to fasten the wire to the saw handle so none of it is hanging off. Plug your patch cable into the quarter inch jack. The other end of the cable will either run straight into your amp, or first through your effects pedal and then to your amp.
Now to attach the pitch handle to the narrow end of the saw. This will allow you to bend the saw with ease, and also prevent you from cutting off any fingers that you might need later to perform for an audience on your musical saw. As the old musical saw saying goes, “You’re far less likely to be an effective musical saw practitioner if you’re missing several of your fingers.” You can attach the handle using tape, or another adhesive depending on what the pitch handle is made of.
Your saw is just about ready, but don’t jump the gun! You’ll need a bow before you can start playing music. If you want to skip this last step, you can just use a violin or cello bow. But if that’s not DIY enough for you and you’e got a little juice left, building one yourself is only 75 to 100 twirls of fishing line away. Cut the yardstick in half so that it’s about 18" in length. Drill a hole about 3 inches from the end on each end. Run your fishing line through one hole and tie it off. Now you’ll have to carefully bend the stick without breaking it and run the fishing line from hole to hole several dozen times. Keeping the stick bent and doing this repeatedly can be slightly difficult, but you’d better get used to it because if you’re taking up the musical saw, your bending days are far from over. Once you’re run the line through 75 to 100 times, tie off the string. Coat the line in copious amounts of rosin. The key word here is “copious.” Don’t skimp. It takes a lot of this stuff to get a piece of metal vibrating.
Plug your saw into your amplifier and effects and you’re good to go. Like any instrument, learning to play a musical saw well takes good technique and lots of practice. The bare bones basics are; hold the handle in your lap, bend the saw into an S-curve, run the bow along the edge, and look hard for the “sweet spot.” This is something that’s far easier to get the hang of if you see it. Watch this high energy tutorial video for a quick beginner’s lesson.