A Commentary on Older Shakuhachi

The flutes displayed on this website are mostly old, Kinko-ryu shakuhachi. Older (that is, pre-WWII) shakuhachi have their advantages and disadvantages compared to modern flutes. A good quality modern shakuhachi will almost always have a bigger sound, better balance between notes, and usually have a wider "sweet spot" on most notes than a pre-war shakuhachi. Since the above are all very desirable qualities in a musical instrument, why then should one bother with old shakuhachi?

First, there is an exception in modern shakuhachi being easier to play: despite usually having a smaller "sweet spot," older shakuhachi, virtually without exception, have a smoother sound, and will play note combinations smoothly that tend to elicit a "creak" or "screech" on modern flutes. Since this creaking between certain notes combinations is a very difficult thing to overcome, having a flute that can play them smoothly is highly desirable. Why this is, by the way, is a matter of speculation among master players and makers alike, and no one seems to be able to give a definitive answer. Personally, I think that it is to a large extent the result of the flute having been played a lot; I have found that shakuhachi that look well-played often sound the smoothest.

Old shakuhachi also almost always have a sweeter tone than new shakuhachi. Moreover, very high quality old shakuhachi have a quality of tone that I have yet to hear in a modern shakuhachi, even in flutes costing well over $10,000 made by some of the most famous makers alive today. The reason for this is also a matter of speculation, but personally, again, I think it has a lot to do with the method of construction. In the past, makers had a more organic approach to their craft, meaning that they shaped the bore by playing and listening to the flute, depending on their ear, as well of course on what they learned from their teachers. Modern flutes, on the other hand, are made according to gauges that were created by measuring the bores of fine older flutes and then adjusting to optimize the diameter at each point along the length of the bore . While the precision of these measurements is very great, as fine as 0.1 mm, and the resulting bore shape close to optimal, which results in the volume and balance of modern flutes, I think that the beauty of the tone of older flutes lies at least in part in the fact that the bores were not optimized. In other words, the slightly irregular bore shapes of older shakuhachi may well account for the nicer tone color, as that is what the maker was aiming for in shaping the bore.

All of the vintage flutes I have for sale are Kinko-ryu shakuhachi. Kinko and Tozan shakuhachi dating from before and soon after WWII differ in construction and sound: Tozan makers generally constructed flutes with a narrower bore, which gives them a somewhat reedier tone, which I personally don't care for so I rarely buy them.

Many modern makers produce mostly Tozan or mostly Kinko shakuhachi, but this choice depends mostly on the style they are associated with, either through the person or persons with whom they studied making and/or playing, or the style payed by most of their customers. Moreover, the difference in sound between and Kinko and Tozan flute by the same maker is nonexistent or negligable. For example, my 2.4 length Gyokusui has a Tozan mouthpiece, as Kono sensei lives in Kansai, which is a predominantly Tozan area, but the bore on it is large and the tone deep and earthy.

Therefore, I cannot recommend either older shakuhachi or new shakuhachi without qualification. For playing sankyoku (gaikyoku), Kinko-ryu honkyoku, or Koten honkyoku, I highly recommend old flutes. Most of the master Japanese players--though by no means all of them--play old shakuhachi. Any of these players can acquire any modern flute they want, probably for free as most makers are eager to have top players playing their flutes, yet they choose to play old instruments.

For playing Doukyoku, however, modern shakuhachi are advisable, though with extra effort one can certainly use an old shakuhachi. This is because Doukyoku is technically more demanding than other styles of honkyoku: the pieces demand rapid changes in embouchure and blowing position (meri/kari) along with fast fingerings, plus there are certain note combinations that are much easier to play on shakuhachi made by the contemporary maker Miura Ryuho than on other shakuhachi, even modern ones, hence the popularity of his flutes among serous Doukyoku players. That said, I play Doukyoku on my old 1.8, and would buy an old 2.1, 2.4, or 2.7 if I could find one.

Thus, I recommend any potential buyer weigh the advantages and disadvantages of old shakuhachi and choose accordingly. For those who decide to buy a modern shakuhachi, I can provide modern instruments in any price range from $1500 and up. Ultimately, I recommend having an old shakuhachi as one's main flute, and, if necessary, buying a modern shakuhachi for playing modern pieces.

All of the shakuhachi I have for sale here are good musical instruments. I have chosen them from among a much larger number of old flutes I've come across that had weak notes, poor tuning, or poor tone quality. For example, many old shakuhachi have one or more notes that will break or warble if pushed hard. I have a bigger sound than the vast majority of players, whether Japanese or foreign, so I can weed out such flutes. A shakuhachi can only be as good as its maker could play, and likewise the better one can play the better one can evaluate shakuhachi, especially older flutes.

This is not to say that one must have a big sound to properly evaluate shakuhachi; overall playing ability is key, as is experience and a good ear. In fact some shakuhachi sound better when played quietly, no doubt because that's how the maker played. That said, being able to play with a lot of volume is very helpful in determining how much sound the flute can hold, and whether it has poor notes; moreover, when a shakuhachi is played loudly the tone color will generally become more transparent, or on especially good flutes it will become richer and deeper. It happens that I will come across a shakuahchi that sounds great except for one week note; if possible, I will get that fixed, but occasionally that can't be done, and it's possible I'll consider it worth selling anyway. If I do I will note that in the description of the flute.

Many of the flutes on this site have no maker's stamp. Since most players outside of Japan are beginning or intermediate players, I have focused on finding good, old flutes that are not too expensive. In Japan, as in the West, flutes without stamps are less expensive than those with stamps, regardless of quality, though to be sure in some cases a maker wouldn't stamp a flute because he didn't think it was good enough to have his name on it. In many cases, though, since older, pre-WWII flutes were often passed from player-makers to their students, and the students could get the shakuhachi for less if they were not stamped, there are fine shakuhachi out there without stamps, and these flutes have remained lower priced to this day. I get them for less, and pass on those saving to the buyer. Thus, while the stamp of a famous maker can be an inducement to spend a lot of money, I have played mediocre or even inferior flutes by famous makers, and I have played very fine shakuhachi without stamps.

Likewise, while it is nice to have a shakuhachi with a big, beautiful, symmetrical root, or speckled bamboo, or no cracks, these things are, of course, unrelated to how the flute sounds. Moreover, I'm not against making alterations to the flute to improve its playability (however, I never touch the bore--that I leave to the professionals). A glance at my own shakuhachi will show that I practice what I preach. Let your ears, not your eyes, be your guides when choosing a flute.

I'm happy to answer any questions regarding the shakuhachi on this page or the purchase of a modern shakuhachi. I am also available for playing and evaluating flutes you have purchased or are considering the purchase of, so feel free to contact me. Meanwhile, happy blowing, and ganbatte!

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