Traditional tapered shakuhachi bores vs. cylindrical PVC

As we know them today, traditional shakuhachi bores taper quite a bit (not to mention they also have undulations). Whether that be the naturally occurring, wild taper found in bamboo Jinashi and Jimori shakuhachi or a human-made taper inside Jinuri and ‘cast-bores’.

A traditional tapering bore responds to our air in a unique and specific way. The increased air resistance of the tapering bore causes the shakuhachi to require more power from us (this is why people often describe shakuhachi as having ‘back pressure ‘). This of course affects both how it feels to play shakuhachi and the sound, though some sounds more than others.

It perhaps becomes more clear if we instead think of our flutes as water pipes. The tapered bore of the shakuhachi will not let water flow through it as freely while a straight cylindrical pvc pipe is literally designed to allow water to flow through it with as little resistance as possible.

While the tapered bore of the shakuhachi resists our efforts and requires more air pressure/power to play, this has the effect of providing more feedback/feeling between the shakuhachi and us. In turn, this results in the possibility for a more dynamic playing experience and sound.

To use an analogy, the increased effort required to play tapered bores feels like molding a firm ball of clay in one’s hands; we get a distinct sense of sculpting our air and the sound. Conversely, with a cylindrical bore such as pvc, the far lower resistance is like having a much softer ball of clay, which, while easier to mold, feels less defined.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some quintessential shakuhachi techniques are also aided by the resistance of tapered bores. Specifically, it gives shakuhachi its distinctive sound when puffs of air are suddenly introduced, e.g., the sound jumps in a very lively, responsive manner (think about a robust ‘Tsu-Re’ with ‘spiking’ overtones).

Similarly, the turbulent air technique known as muraiki results in a very raucous sound with the expected amount of effort from us. Again, all thanks to the tapered bore resisting our air. By contrast, on a straight bore cylindrical or pvc flute, these puffs of air and turbulent techniques produce a comparatively lackluster result and actually require more effort to produce.

This is because the lower air resistance in straight cylindrical bores makes them difficult to ’disturb’, i.e., they’re more stable and therefore less apt to jump when we puff or tumble with turbulence. With these techniques, I feel that a cylindrical bore is analogous to cutting sashimi with a dull knife.

That being said, it all comes down to what we each want or need out of a shakuhachi. While cylindrical bores cannot provide the same experience as a tapered shakuhachi bore, they have their own potential advantages. For example, cylindrical bores are far, far easier to craft. Because the tube is straight, the sound is straight, i.e., the tone is much more homogenous between the notes. They can also be made to play ultimately louder and faster, and easier to play louder and faster as well (soft clay analogy).

It’s all a case of preferences or the needs/demands of the player or situation. As a traditional craftsperson and player, I recommend a tapered bore shakuhachi. That being said, cylindrical bore shakuhachi, such as pvc, are valid in their own right. I hope pointing out the advantages of tapered bores doesn’t come across as disparaging toward cylindrical bore flutes. By better understanding the qualities of both we can hopefully have more fun enjoying each for their distinct differences.