The development of Bamboo Saxes from Argentina

Someone, sometime and somewhere might have thought for the first time to blow into a tube with a reed joined to it. We do not know who. Someone, somewhere came up with the idea of attaching a clarinet mouthpiece to a conic tube. We all know who it was -Adolphe Sax.

His invention appeared at a time in which the development of wind instruments had undergone changes introduced by Theobald Boehm. Perhaps, someone had done something similar before, with no success. Later on, someone applied the principle discovered by Sax to create a simpler instrument whit changed the history's way. Again his name got lost in history.

Copying the conical shape with bamboo canes and joining a simple reed may seem obvious once it is done. I have references of people who did this. Undoubtedly, it was invented and re-invented in different places. Although the original name (saxophone) still remains, it is a completely different instrument, probably belonging to the 20ieth century-if there were previous instruments, they got lost too. This kind of sax collects the features of the brass sax with the aesthetic and acoustics of the bamboo.

In my case, I was twenty when I set myself to this job. I started out in 1985 without knowing what a saxophone was like-in fact, I thought I had discovered the clarinet(I called it "aidófono"). At that time I was full of impetus and curiosity-which are still with me. At first, it was an empirical work, then I started really investigating what happened and why. But now I do both things.

My main aim was and is to achieve the best sounds only with natural materials. This developing process was, at the same time, acoustical and technical, gathering experience in characteristics of bamboo, its treatment and finishing.

There are different varieties of bamboo cane in Argentina, but traditionally not all of them are used for the elaboration of musical instruments. In the case of my wife, Mariana García, and I, the passion for the canes led us to work with them for many purposes and to discover that some species are suitable for musical instruments.


The technical description is easy. In the simpler case, a cylinder bamboo (or near cylinder), with a reed attached makes it a clarinet. This kind of tube, as you may know, does not emit the whole harmonic series (that is, the first overtone is not the octave, as it would be in a complete harmonic series, but rather the twelfth). In other cases, joining different bamboo sections of different diameters - building a shape which behaves acoustically like a cone- with an attached reed we get the characteristic sound of a sax with the complete harmonic overtone series. The challenge in these last years, and the year to come was achieving a conical bore acoustically efficient, and at the same time, strong and lasting though time. That is a "real" musical instrument.


Differences between a conical bore and a segmented one took me to an empirical search of the best shapes and proportions. At the same time, I found it important to give the instrument a lasting quality comparable with other woodwind instruments. It is for this reason that I use different types of bamboo for the different sections (normally, three or four plus the mouthpiece)
The treatment with sealants, lacquer and oils complete the objective.

I have always had my mind set on "standardize" my instruments once I achieved a certain result. Of course, dealing with natural materials, this is relative. That is the reason why I find my work so attractive: all the pieces look alike but they are also distinguished from each other.

Anyway, I did not submit to work with the bamboo canes as they are found in nature, and so I modify their bore. At the same time, I am doing some research on mouthpieces- which may often be taken apart to adjust the pitch-. Although most of the models I make have adapters to make possible to attach conventional mouthpieces, my challenge was and will be, once more, to make them out of bamboo, taking advantage of the different shapes of certain canes.

These days I am devoted to the investigation of the mouthpiece and throat. The mouthpiece's angle is variable, tending to become acute for larger instruments- around 17 degrees -. Contradictory as this may seem, I do it in order to get an upper register and also give the sound stridency.

With respect to fingering, it corresponds basically to the chart of the German recorder, but other fingerings may be possible. For some musicians, I make saxes according to the traditional quena fingering. In others, I have inserted half tones in the mayor scale (e.g. Eb and Bb in the C key scale). In every case semitones can be obtained though cross-fingering or half holing. I always build them in equal-temperament scale.

The holes vary in position and diameter in a fashion similar to a flute. They also vary in accordance with internal diameter; consequently, they differ according to the segment of the cone where it is found.

All the bamboo models I manufacture, have at least one key, bamboo made too, for the farthest vent which is also of the biggest diameter and so much more difficult to cover.

In some cases where it is justified by the harmonic response, I have added on the top of the instrument closed keys. They may achieve additional notes over second octave.

Though bamboo saxes possess good sound naturally, different bells made with natural materials give original characteristics to the tone and sonorous intensity. Coconut or gourd bells give it a wrapping and mellower sound. Cow or bull horn bells add stridency - reinforcing upper harmonics-and a louder sound.

Another eye catching characteristic of saxes in general are the curves, so much so that people believe that this has a decisive influence in sound. But this is not so, and the reason for this particular shape is the convenience for playing. In my instruments, curves are made from hard wood which may be disassembled in larger instruments.

To sum up, the bamboo sax is an avant-garde instrument, clearly different from traditional brass saxes whose aesthetic origin may be traced in other South American folkloric instruments. Its acoustics and possibilities make it a choice for musicians of all kind.


Author:Angel Sampedro del Río
Translate by:Mariana Cecilia Iglesias

Published in Experimental Musical Instruments,
Dec. ´96. PO Box 784, Nicasio, CA 94946

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