How many octaves should a good shakuhachi be able to play?

The answer depends, I suppose, on your definition of a ‘good shakuhachi’. Most decent 1.8 length flutes can produce in the third octave, the pitches e, f#, g, g#, a, b, (or is it a# and not b?) and c. Some can produce a fourth octave d on a good day. These are all pitches above the tsu-no-meri (d#) made by opening the 2nd and 5th finger holes.

If you count the otsu no ro meri, then that’s three complete octaves minus a few pitches, notably f-natural, for example. A 7-hole 1.8 shakuhachi can produce the high f-natural too. Longer flutes, for example 2.3 or 2.4 (with a fundamental or otsu no ro of A below middle C) usually produce the third octave above otsu no ro, or the pitch ‘A’ way above the treble staff.

This means that when the otsu no ro-meri (a-flat) and otsu no ro dai meri (g) are added, one is getting into the fourth octave! Many of these ‘dai kan’ notes are not very useable in performance (for example, with the 1.8, most of the pitches above the g#), but are great for developing one’s embouchure muscles.

Riley Lee Shakuhachi teacher

How much should one spend on a shakuhachi?

In my opinion, one should buy the best instrument one can afford. How much one can afford depends not only upon one’s financial situation, but also one’s commitment to the instrument, and one’s priorities. For example, as a professional player, I can ‘afford’ more expensive flutes than I could if I wasn’t a professional, with the same income.

Having ‘good’ flutes are possibly more of a necessity for me than if my livelihood didn’t depend on it. Everyone has to decide for themselves at what price does a flute stop being a necessity. So it really boils down to a personal decision. There is no reason to wait until one is a ‘better’ player before buying a ‘better’ (or more expensive) flute, so far as I can see. A total beginner will still get more from a good flute than a not so good one.

The issue of choosing an instrument is a totally different one, however. The better the flutes, the more difficult it is to determine their strengths and weaknesses. A total beginner will not be able to tell the difference between a $100 flute and a $10,000 flute, at least in terms of playing, much less the difference between a $9000 flute and a $10000 flute, or a $1000 one and a $1500 one, or two flutes priced exactly the same.

I recommend that you buy the best instrument you can afford and that you have a person or persons who you trust (ideally your teacher, or someone that plays like you want to play) help you choose that instrument. Though I could justify buying the most expensive flutes in existence, many of my flutes are quite moderate in price. A more expensive flute is not necessarily a better one, especially after a certain level (US$2000-3000?).

Finally, what makes one flute ‘better’ than another flute, can be subjective after a certain point. The best way to acquire a good flute is usually through a teacher or shakuhachi player that you respect and trust.

Confucius Institute – University of Sydney

22nd Sept 2019, Sydney, Australia

Beibei Wang: Rhythms of the WorldShare

London-based young percussion virtuoso comes to Sydney for the Confucius Institute’s annual concert on Sunday 22 September with special guests Taikoz and Riley Lee.

Experience a concert that of rare imagination and breathtaking physical musicianship.

  • Sunday 22 September, 2pm
  • Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
  • $45 Full / $35 Concession

View details here


The only theory behind the kana used in shakuhachi notation that I have heard of goes like this: The earliest notation (early 1600s) used the kana fu, ho, u, e, ya, i. These were chosen because they evoked the breathy or airy sounds of the solo shakuhachi. At this period in time, most if not all shakuhachi music was solo, predominantly honkyoku.

By the way, the “fu-ho-u” set of kana is still used by some lineages, notably in the Chikuho notation system. The late Watazumi also used these kana to notate his honkyoku. The kana used in Kinko notation, that is, ro tsu re chi ri (or in the case of Tozan notation, ro tsu re chi ha), were chosen when Kinko notation was developed in the18th century. They were chosen because at that time, the shakuhachi was more and more being played in ensemble with the koto and the shamisen. The kana was chosen because they evoked the percussive sounds these two instruments make when their strings are plucked with picks or plectrum.

The conclusion drawn by shakuhachi players who use variations of the “fu ho u” system is that it is more suited to honkyoku and it is older and therefore better than the “ro tsu re” systems. The opinion held by the 99% of the shakuhachi population who use the “ro tsu re” systems is that the above information is marginally interesting, but which kana used in the notation has no affect on the music, honkyoku or otherwise (unless, as Michael Gould pointed out, you sing the notation), and in any case, older is not necessarily better.

Differences in Sound and Playing Between Ji-nashi and Standard Instruments

There are many differences between ji-nashi flutes and flutes made with ji. But then, there is also an infinite number of differences between all of the flutes that are made with ji. In other words, it’s hard to generalise. Many people (including me) think that excellent ji-nashi flutes are very desirable. But this might be a personal preference thing, rather than something based upon concrete and consistent observations.

Among the subjective words I might use to describe the sounds that an exceptional ji nashi flute might make, are ‘mellow’, ‘rich’, ‘traditional’, ‘complex’, ‘rough’, etc.. None of these words really describe the actual physical sound, but we all know what they mean, at least to ourselves!

Perhaps, if you can’t tell the difference by yourself when playing on the two types of flutes or listening to them being played, then there is no point really in listening to someone else’s opinion on the subject. Generalising about pitch or intonation might also be counterproductive. The quality of intonation varies between all flutes, whether they have ji in them or not.

One might observe floating around more ji-nashi flutes w/bad intonation or dud notes, than flutes w/filler. This doesn’t mean that therefore ji-nashi flutes, by definition, have worse intonation than flutes with ji. It’s just that it is easier to make a bamboo flute w/out ji than w/ji (so lots of ji-nashi flutes), but it’s easier to make a flute with good intonation and no dud notes using ji (so lots of ji-nashi flutes with bad intonation and dud notes).

By the way, one should never, ever think that by playing ji-nashi shakuhachi, one doesn’t need to sound musical. There is only one excuse, or rather reason, for that — not enough practice.

I am blessed with a number of ji-nashi or nearly ji-nashi flutes with good intonation and a minimal of questionable notes. I’ve seen many more ji nashi flutes in others’ possession that play much better than my own. Maybe I’m not so blessed after all…

Here’s what I like about ji-nashi, or nearly ji-nashi shakuhachi. They can be very difficult to control, in other words, they are even more challenging than shakuhachi made with ji. Why would anyone want that!?! [Maybe because shakuhachi players are ‘special’ people. In German, I think the word would be ‘komisch‘.]    :-)

Ji-nashi flutes make various sounds, noises, weird harmonics or no sound when I do lose control. I try my utmost and spend a great deal of time and effort trying to learn how to control these flutes, and avoid the various sounds, noises, etc. And yet…

And yet, it is that extra effort of trying to stay in control, that ever-present risk of losing control and the unexpected, unintended addition to the ‘music’ of the various sounds, noises (or even the ‘no sound’) when I inevitably lose control, that I enjoy most about these flutes.

In other words, when playing these flutes, I try my best to eliminate the very things I like most about playing the flutes. How weird (komisch) is that!?!

In any case, I never have to worry about succeeding in eliminating those unintended elements, because I never will.

Blowing edge inlays and about the flutes I use and play

I have found that inlays do very little to the texture of the sound. I’ve broken inlays and the flutes played no differently. I’ve played on flutes with the inlay totally knocked out. The sound was a little bit fuzzier; that’s all.

I have flutes made by Yamaguchi Shugetsu (Nara), the Kôno family (the deceased father and both sons), Ichijô (Osaka?), Okamoto Chikudo (Okayama?). David Brown (Aus.), and some others I don’t know who made them. My favourite no.1 most used 1.8 flute is one that Tom Deaver made me. My 2.7 (G) is totally without ji, and my 3.1 shaku length flute is virtually a true ‘ji-nashi’ flute, with only small dabs of ji in three places. Its ‘ro’ is F. It is very responsive and easy to play considering its length. Being ji-nashi, it is very light in weight too. It was made by a fellow named Yamaguchi Shugetsu, who lives in Nara.

My longest flute is a 3.6, totally ji-nashi, made by my dear friend, Kurita-san. It is a joy to play. It is the most demanding flute to play. It is really really hard to play. But it is wonderful, in part because with effort it is in tune and can produce all the notes and sounds needed to play my favourite honkyoku. As implied by it’s length, it is exactly one octave below a standard 1.8 shakuhachi, a very low D.

I have four others by Yamaguchi, a 1.1 (F), a 1.3 (G), a 1.9 (D#), and a 2.7 (G). All play very well. I have yet to play a really long flute (over 2.6) that I thought was better than the ones I’ve seen of Yamaguchi. I have played a fair few by Miura Ryuho, which I have seen in the USA, and more recently those of my students who have purchased them while studying in Japan. I think that they are exceptional flutes. I recently acquired a new 1.8 by Tom Deaver that I am thrilled about. It will replace my primary 1.8, which was also by Tom Deaver. It has many of the qualities of the Miura flutes I’ve played on, and then some. It’s price was also much less. I also recently bought a 2.2 (A#) by Tom Deaver. One of the many joys of being a professionaly shakuhachi player is not really having to have an excuse to buy another shakuhachi, even one with as obscure length as a 2.2!

My new ‘fat’ Deaver flute projects well, which is important when performing for anything other than the smallest audiences, especially with other musicians. Plus it is as mellow as any flute I’ve played. I also have 1.8, 2.1 and 2.4 Gyokusui flutes (made for me by the deceased Gyokusui elder in 1972-1973) which have that mellow quality. These flutes are wonderful for honkyoku.

I have flutes made by Gyokusui (son) and a 2.0 by Gyokuzan (younger son of Gyokusui), and a 1.7 by Okamoto Chikugai. I like all of these flutes. Finally, I use ones made by Australian maker David Brown. The best is to try lots of flutes by many makers, if only to appreciate your own flute all the better. More likely, you might find a few flutes that are not better or lesser than your flute, just different. Trying to compare some flutes is like comparing kaki with nashi…