Shakuhachi - Free Evaluation

Assessment   •   Repair   •   Performance Upgrade

If you are considering purchasing a new or previously-owned shakuhachi through an auction site or from a private party on the Internet, careful scrutiny is recommended. Bear in mind that most any shakuhachi will play and produce a tone if blown softly, but fail to perform adequately when embouchure is refined and blowing is intensified. The pertinent questions are: How well does the flute perform, and is its asking price in line with the quality of the instrument? Without years of experience blowing shakuhachi, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make these determinations accurately.

In Japan, students of the traditional music usually rely on their teachers to select and recommend an instrument for them. Because a shakuhachi is "vintage" or its bamboo aesthetic is appealing does not assure that it will perform well or even adequately. With so many new and preowned flutes being offered online nowadays, with only their appearance as a guide, most potential buyers are unable to make independent and accurate appraisals upon which to make an informed decision. In this instance, "What you see is not necessarily what you get."

Over my many years of making shakuhachi, I've been asked to make evaluations for beginning, intermediate, advanced students as well as seasoned players to insure that the instruments they are considering purchasing perform at an level commensurate to the seller's asking price. If you are considering a purchase and would like to know more about the flute, or are not completely satisfied with the shakuhachi you are currently playing, I would be glad to provide complete assessment of its acoustical and performance qualities as well as its level of craftsmanship and proximity to the traditional aesthetic for shakuhachi that has evolved over generations. In this endeavor, every effort will be made to be as thorough and objective as possible. A signed, dated statement accompanies each evaluation.

There is no charge whatsoever for this service other than the cost of return shipping. These evaluations are offered freely as an appreciation for the long tradition of craftsmanship for which my life has been blessed and a service to members of the world shakuhachi community.

Scope of the Evaluation

In evaluating a shakuhachi the following criteria are considered: bamboo aesthetics and craftsmanship along with performance and acoustical issues. The latter considerations take into account intonation (tuning for pitch), timbre (tone color), and the resonance response of all the open-hole tones.

Intonation is a simple determination of whether the instrument is in tune or not with standard Western pitch at room temperature. If not, which notes are sharp or flat and what can be done to correct the problems. Generally, pitch is determined by the relative diameter, chimney height (depth), and position of the finger holes, but can be affected by resonance issues as well. It is important to remember that the temperature of a room in which an instrument is played is a significant factor in measuring intonation as the speed of sound in air is directly proportional to ambient temperature. The standard for most musical instruments tuned to Equal Temperament is A=440 or 442 hz. at 20° C / 68°F).

Timbre or tone color (neiro, in Japanese) is largely determined by the overall design of the bore and essentially a matter of personal taste. Timbre translates into harmonic configuration or the spectrum of frequencies that make up each individual tone. Not much can be done to alter this aspect of the a flute without completely redesigning and rebuilding the bore. Each traditional maker tends to have a recognizable quality of sound in this regard.

Resonance is by far the most important issue in assessing the acoustical and performance qualities of a shakuhachi. It is the domain in which most wind instruments are likely to exhibit problems, but fortunately one that is correctable. 

Resonance response governs how much air the flute will accept and how hard it can be challenged or pushed without acoustical consequences that diminish its sound production. If blowing across the utaguchi produces vibrations that match the natural frequencies of standing waves inherent in the profile of the oscillating air column inside a shakuhachi, then the transfer of energy is optimized. That is to say, little energy is wasted and lost in the transformation of breath to sound, so it is highly efficient. A well-designed shakuhachi bore—fabricated within a tolerance of plus or minus 0.01 mm.—has the potential to produce a strong, robust, or "big" sound with minimal vibrational input for all the open-hole frequencies. More simply put, the flute will respond by producing deep, rich tones having a wide dynamic range within a large envelope of sound if the vibrational modes initiated at the mouthpiece match the natural frequency of the instrument's precision bore profile.

Any shakuhachi, including the most primitive plastic plumbing pipe models, will perform adequately if the player blows softly, thereby exercising only the fundamental frequency in the harmonic series of sound. As more air is introduced into the bore and blowing intensifies, a composite of higher partials called “overtones" are simultaneously exercised giving the shakuhachi its distinctive full-bodied and resonant ringing tone. If the bore profile of an instrument is not properly fabricated and rendered to a very precise shape, acoustical problems will result. Unwanted vibrato, notes jumping into higher octaves, instability and weakness of tone, and, in extreme case, the inability to produce a clear sound at all are just a few manifestations of resonance problems. This aspect of assessing and grading the quality of a shakuhachi represents the greatest challenge to traditional makers.

Assessing the Value of a Shakuhachi

In assessing the value of a shakuhachi, I have long maintained the importance of distinguishing between intrinsic value and market value. In other words, is one evaluating how well the instrument performs as opposed to its vintage status, mode of construction, bamboo aesthetics, or reputation of the maker? Or, on the other hand, is one primarily concerned with the resale value of the flute, i.e., how much it will fetch on the open market? Both are legitimate concerns, but require very different considerations to arrive at an accurate assessment.

In considering intrinsic value embodied in the performance and acoustical qualities of a shakuhachi, the evaluations I make are concerned solely with the following questions:

1. If the shakuhachi is a jiari made with a precision bore fabricated inside the bamboo, is it tuned precisely to standard Western pitch at A=440-442 hz. at room temperature (20° C / 68°F? It is imperative that a jiari shakuhachi be accurately tuned to this standard if used to play sankyoku, gaikyoku, shinkyoku, or minyo in ensemble with koto, shamisen, and other traditional or modern instruments. Jiari shakuhachi are distinguished from older-style jinashi that are used to perform solo honkyoku pieces only. The intonation of a jinashikan is based upon the tone produced by the overall length of the bamboo rather than strict standards of Western pitch. They work fine and, some feel, are more appropriate for blowing koden and koten honkyoku, if and only if the next condition is satisfied.

2. Are the intervals between of the open-hole tones of the shakuhachi in balance with each other? If not, are the notes produced either sharp or flat in relation to standard Western pitch? And if so, how much do they deviate?

3. Is the phase between the otsu and kan registers in balance and the octaves consistent with each other? Or do the notes sound at different frequencies in lower and higher octaves?

4. Does the timbre (neiro) or tone color of the instrument appeal to the owner?

5. Last but not least, do all the notes of the instrument blow strongly at full resonance, or is the resonance response of one or more of them limited or impaired in some manner? How much air is the shakuhachi capable of accepting without acoustical consequences? Similarly, is the instrument capable of transforming the slightest breath into sound? Does the shakuhachi have a high dynamic range–difference in decibel level between the strongest and quietest tones–and wide envelope of sound or is it's expressive potential limited in scope?

Only if all of these questions are answered affirmatively, can a shakuhachi be considered to be performing at or near an acceptable level. The degree to which an instrument conforms to these exacting acoustical and performance standards essentially determines how I evaluate a flute—not its age, craftsmanship, history, or maker’s name on the hanko. Certainly, the condition, stability, and aesthetics of the bamboo used to make the flute is a consideration as well, but far less so than its acoustical and performance qualities. In either case, having my or any other hanko stamped onto a flute would not make it play any better or worse than it does either before of after an performance enhancement is completed. (I wish it were that easy!)

Alternatively, if one's interest is primarily focused on reselling a shakuhachi, either privately or via an on-line venue or auction site such as eBay, Amazon, or Craig's List, an entirely different set of criteria come into play. Pricing shakuhachi for resale on the open market is subject to the whims of that market and governed by the motivations of the seller and buyer. Quite frankly, this is a matter I have long since given up speculating about as the criteria involved are based on very subjective standards. As a maker of new and restored vintage shakuhachi only, I have neither interest nor enthusiasm in brokering flutes that may have historic or aesthetic value, but do not play well. All of the vintage instruments offered for sale on my website have been restored and had their performance enhanced, thus they are thoroughly vetted. I would never consider offering for sale anything less or any shakuhachi that failed to come up to my highest standards. My customers rely on me for this kind of assurance. The Internet is full of websites and online marketplaces that offer shakuhachi at various levels that are expensive and may look nice, but unaccompanied by any guarantee as to how they perform. My site is not amongst these.

In short, when taking into account market considerations, it usually comes down to the appearance of the flute and/or how much value a potential buyer places on the reputation of the maker whose name appears on a shakuhachi. For the very best players and teachers I know, the condition and aesthetics of the bamboo or hanko stamped on it are far outweighed by acoustics and performance variables in assessing the quality of an instrument. For the majority of the resale market, however, this may not be the case. That being said, I do not have enough fingers on my hands to keep one of them on the pulse of the shakuhachi resale market, so unfortunately cannot provide a meaningful or informed response regarding how much any given flute may fetch on the open market.

For details on how to ship your flute for evaluation, contact [email protected] 

Tai Hei Shakuhachi Catalog
Shakuhachi: The Sound of Nature
Origins & History of the Shakuhachi
Bamboo Used for Shakuhachi
Precision Cast Bore Technology

Models of Shakuhachi
Professional Root-End Shakuhachi
Jinashi - Natural Bore Flutes
Advanced Student Level Shakuhachi

Student Level Shakuhachi
Meditation Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi Headjoint for the Silver Flute
Traditional Styles
How Shakuhachi are Graded
Flute Accessories
Shakuhachi Repair & Restoration
Frequently Asked Questions
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