Celebrated for her virtuosity on the instrument, Hollywood vamp Marlene Dietrich uses a similar saw-playing technique to me although her thumb seems to be on top of the saw, rather than underneath.

Celebrated for her virtuosity on the instrument, Hollywood vamp Marlene Dietrich uses a similar saw-playing technique to me although her thumb seems to be on top of the saw, rather than underneath.

Here are some step-by-step instructions to make the saw sing. These are based on my own playing technique. However the saw is a skiffle instrument so there’s no right or wrong way to play it. In particular, some people prefer to hold their sawing hand with thumb on top. A few people use a clamp to grip and control the saw, as this is less tiring for hands and fingers. Experiment to find what works best for you.

1) Put some rosin on the hairs of your bow to make it grip. Also rub a little rosin along the edge of your saw (the playing edge – that’s the one without teeth!).
2) Grab the handle of the saw between your legs so the body of the saw points upwards. Make sure the teeth of the saw are facing you.
3) Grab the saw between the thumb and fingers of one hand, about an inch from the top of the saw. Be careful not to put your palm on the saw – that would damp the vibrations. Your thumb should be on the underside of the saw, your fingers on top.
4) Using your grabbing hand, bend the saw body to form a shallow S-shape. To do this, you need to push your thumb upwards and push your other fingers downwards. This takes quite a lot of strength so you may find your fingers and arms become tired very swiftly, if you’re new to the instrument. Take regular breaks until you can cope for long periods with the finger pressure required.
5) Using your other hand, gently bow the smooth edge of the saw, around half way up, as though it’s the string of a cello. String players note: the bow is tight and the bow strikes the instrument very gently (I’ve been told the technique is rather like baroque bowing).
6) Bend the saw more, using your grabbing hand, to make notes that are higher. Bend it into a shallower S-shape to make notes that are lower.
7) Wobble one of your knees for a vibrato effect.
Beware! At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the  saw is very sharp and should be handled with care. It can snag your clothes as well as your fingers. Some players use saws with the teeth removed but I think that’s a lot less fun – less authentic.

Return to Play the Saw in Six Weeks

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