Distributor: Timber Video
Collection: Private Stash
Running time: 77m
Source: VHS; color; sound
Production: Art Peterson, John Slattery
Post-Production: Art Peterson, Paul Kealoha Blake at East Bay Media Center
Executive Producer: Charlie Blacklock
Musical Saw: Charlie Blacklock
Accordion, Guitar, Vocals: Art Peterson
Fiddle: Ken Blacklock
Guitar: John Massey
Bass: Sam Morocco
Voice of Ol’ 97: Clark Delozier
Tractors, motorcycles, harmonicas, four children, two monkeys, and a musical saw: this more or less sums up the colorful character that was Charlie Blacklock. Known to many as the “Father of the Musical Saw,” he lived a full 91 years and in that time made an enormous amount of music – much of it from the teeth and blades of both traditional woodsmen saws as well as those purposefully made for musical creation. By the time Charlie died he had engineered and began selling his own variety of musical saws, the Blacklock Saw, which many consider to be the preeminent musical saw on the market to this day.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that with such a reputation, Charlie would try his hand at an instructional video for all of those aspiring musical saw students out there (I was one of them back in 2003)! In July of 1995, Timber Video released on VHS the revised edition of the Musical Saw Instruction Video taught by Charlie Blacklock, which is full of helpful saw playing tips and plenty of toe-tappin’ tutorials to keep you occupied for just over an hour.
This video wastes no time in warming up viewers with the Blacklock Band (fully equipped with guitar, vocals, musical saw, stand-up bass, accordion, and even an elderly gentleman howling). If you weren’t in the mood for some slow, back-porch saw grooves, you sure are now! As the band closes and the instruction begins, it’s clear we’re in for a well thought out, organized tutorial with Charlie, lessons set in the following order:
I. Getting Started. Here Charlie covers many of the essentials needed to begin playing the musical saw: Coaxing sound from your saw without using a bow but instead a pencil or mallett. Charlie spends little time here and quickly encourages beginners to pick up their cello, bass, or violin bow (Charlie prefers cello.) From here we learn about loosening and tightening the frog (the little handle present on cello and fiddle bows) which allows the player to manipulate the tautness of the bow strings.
II. Rosining the Bow. Applying the right amount and the right kind of rosin to your bow can make a difference when playing musical saw.
III. Bow technique. Oftentimes new players will dig into their saw with their bow and then become discouraged when little or no sound emanates. Charlie shares some tricks of the saw trade when it comes to truly romancing the blade.
IV. Starting to Play. Foot positioning, bending the blade, and the importance of reliable seating are all important when getting your first sounds, and are all covered within this section.
V. The D Scale. Let’s start playing! Along with the help of Art Peterson and his accordion, Charlie walks players through a D scale. It should be noted here that Charlie always repeats himself so that the viewer needn’t depend solely on constantly stopping and rewinding the tape. Charlie leaves the player time to stumble and try again.
VI. Getting the Notes with Little Jerks. Saw playing can involve more than just the strumming hand. See how your planted foot, non-strumming hand, and upper body/core can all come into play when you’re cutting loose on the saw.
VII. More About Saws. Here Charlie touches on some musical saw odds and ends, including how to correctly measure your musical saw (measure ONLY the teeth, not the handle!), and the variety of musical saws available on the market (tenor, baritone, etc).
VIII. Saw Care and Maintenance. Finally, Charlie reminds us that on-going maintenance of your musical saw will ensure that you’re able to produce only the purest sounds and that it will last you a long while (let’s be real: nobody has a musical saw budget, so take care of the one you’ve got!) *Note, your musical saw’s best friend is WD40.
The musical saw, also referred to by musicians as a friction idiophone, is often confused with the theremin, mainly because both instruments produce similar (and eerie) glissando sounds. But while they may sound similar, the two are quite different. Musical saws have been produced in the United States and internationally for well over a century, reaching the height of its popularity during the early part of the 20th century. In those days saws would often accompany variety show acts touring rural America and in local musical performances where musical instruments were often fastened by materials found around the home. With the start of World War II, metals and other materials became too scarce and the production of musical saws tanked.
Since those days the musical saw has experienced somewhat of a renaissance (thanks, in part, to folks like Charlie Blacklock) with some musicians even producing classical music records on the saw (see the late David Weiss’ album, Virtuoso Saw, where he collaborates with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)
Charlie Blacklock’s Musical Saw Instruction Video exhibits a quirky — and largely forgotten — piece of Americana, a musical style that has been deemed novelty junk to orchestral high art, and everywhere in between.
Also noteworthy on this revised edition VHS is the addition of archival footage (presented post-credits) of Charlie and his band on local news channels.
- Mexacali Rose (in the key of C)
- Home Sweet Home (in the key of D)
- Red River Valley (in the key of G)
- I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (in the key of A)
- Smile Awhile (in the key of A)
- Sioux City Sue (in the key of G)
- My Little Girl (in the key of G)
- More Pretty Girls Than One (in the key of G)
- Charlie Blacklock – “Turkey in the Straw” (Fog Town Network, YouTube)
- A Brief History of the Musical Saw (Charles Hindmarsh)
- The ‘Almost Lost’ Art of Musical Saw (Jenny Schweitzer, The Atlantic)
- Musical saw – demonstration & lecture (Natalia Paruz, TED Talk)