The Xaphoon is a musical instrument that falls into the category of woodwind instruments.
It was invented by Brian Wittman in the 1970s. The name “Xaphoon” is a combination of two words, “saxophone” and “bamboo,” which gives you an idea of its design and sound.
It has a slender, cylindrical body with finger holes and a single-reed mouthpiece. The instrument comes in various keys, with the most common being the key of C.
The Xaphoon boasts a straightforward construction, making it convenient to hold and transport. One distinctive feature of the Xaphoon is its portability.
Due to its small size, it can be easily carried around in a pocket, making it a popular choice for musicians who want a travel-friendly woodwind instrument.
In terms of reed instruments, its compact size sets it apart as a particularly manageable option.
It is very easy to learn, which makes it accessible to both novices and seasoned professionals, rendering it an instrument suitable for all skill levels.
The Xaphoon has gained popularity among amateur musicians, travelers, and people looking for a fun and accessible wind instrument.
What is a Xaphoon?
The Xaphoon is essentially a pocket-sized, single-reed musical instrument similar to a saxophone or clarinet, but it is constructed primarily from bamboo.
The Xaphoon is a patented musical instrument also known as Pocket Saxophone. It measures approximately 31 cm for the C instrument and 34 cm for the B Xaphoon, with a weight of about 250g.
This unique instrument features a total of nine finger holes, eight located on the front and one positioned behind the thumbs.
The configuration of the instrument’s holes bears a superficial resemblance to that of a recorder.
However, the fingerings for the Xaphoon differ significantly from both the saxophone and recorder.
However, Recorder and Xaphoon share many similarities. When playing a C scale, the fingerings are nearly identical, except for the B and Bb notes, which require different finger placements.
Additionally, the idea of an octave hole is no longer present. Instead, the thumb hole at the back functions as another opening to assist in playing a seamless scale.
The Xaphoon bears resemblance to the chalumeau, an early European single-reed instrument that served as the precursor to the clarinet and shares a similar range.
Despite possessing a full chromatic scale, its creator views it primarily as a diatonic instrument, proficient in playing effectively within a limited set of keys.
In terms of sound, the Xaphoon produces a unique, breathy tone that falls somewhere between a saxophone and a clarinet.
It’s not as loud or versatile as a full-sized saxophone, but it has a charming and distinct character that many players find appealing.
The History of the Xaphoon
Brian Wittman, a skilled American saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist living in Hawaii, crafted the first Xaphoon around 1972 in response to a unique request.
This endeavor stemmed from an unusual request by a young child who resided with his mother in a forested area.
Having once heard Wittman play a high-end metal saxophone, the boy approached with caution, admiration, and reverence.
With a bold and clear voice, he mustered the courage to inquire if it were possible to fashion a smaller version for him to play. The idea seemed both reasonable and intriguing, prompting Wittman to agree without hesitation.
Creation of the First Xaphoon
Shortly thereafter, Brian found himself experimenting with a small bamboo recorder he had personally crafted.
Unfortunately, the resulting sound was rather weak and left both of them unsatisfied. Brian, however, possessed a small grindstone typically used for shaping wooden boat components.
During a moment of inspiration, he decided to modify the recorder’s mouthpiece, transforming it into something resembling a saxophone mouthpiece.
He attached a strip of reed to this makeshift mouthpiece using a piece of string and blew into it, resulting in a sudden, high-pitched “screech!”
The young boy was absolutely thrilled and eagerly reached out for this new instrument, prompting Brian to hand it over without hesitation.
Creation of the Second Xaphoon
Without delay, Brian Wittman created another instrument as a replacement for the first one.
But the new instrument he made this time is slightly longer than its predecessor.
Crucially, he crafted the mouthpiece first to ensure he could get the standard pitch before determining the placement of the holes.
Ultimately, he triumphed in creating a serviceable E scale. However, initially, he encountered difficulty attaining a lower pitch.
Brian brought his second bamboo reed instrument to the practice room, where he encountered the local legend, Mr. Airto Morierra, a renowned Brazilian percussionist.
Airto was in the midst of a spirited jam session with Brian’s esteemed bandmates.
Without hesitation, Brian joined in with his new creation, which emitted a warm, full tone that blended seamlessly with the electric instruments in the band.
Airto was captivated by the unique sound, prompting Brian to offer him the second instrument as a gesture of admiration for Airto’s musical prowess.
Creation of the Third Xaphoon
Inspired by this positive reception, Brian went on to craft a third instrument, which he began to feature in performances.
The warm, full-toned sound of the instrument caught the attention of curious listeners, prompting them to ask him where he got it.
However, when they found out he was the one who made it, they asked him to craft one for them at a price.
In this manner, a business was born, as Brian began creating and sharing these unique instruments with anyone who cared to have a copy.
Commercial Production of Xaphoon
Eventually, Brian Wittman decided to relocate nearer to the bamboo forests and submitted patent applications in several countries.
After a series of experiments, he successfully devised a hole-and-finger system that enabled the playing of two complete sets of chromatic octaves.
This innovation could be adapted for different pitches.
Moreover, he made significant improvements to the mouthpiece, along with a unique fingerhole system.
These enhancements resulted in a richer, more resonant sound, allowing the instrument to be played chromatically across two octaves.
Meanwhile, the Xaphoon has made its way across the entire world. Since its inception, Wittman has handcrafted over 40,000 Xaphoons.
While Wittman has been commercially producing the instrument for years, it hasn’t strayed far from the original experimental models.
He did create some longer versions and even experimented with adding a conical extension made mostly of cow horn.
However, as the design became more complex with many parts, he decided to stick with the “from one piece” concept.
This means that the mouthpiece is directly connected to the resonant body.
Since Wittman resides in Maui, Hawaii, where he sources the bamboo for crafting this instrument, it’s often affectionately known as the Maui Xaphoon.
Invention of “Pocket Sax”
The Xaphoon gained such immense popularity globally that fulfilling all the orders using the traditional method became an overwhelming task.
Therefore, in the year 2000, a new type of Xaphoon was introduced, made using a process called injection molding, and it was called the “Pocket Sax”.
This version of the instrument is highly portable and more budget-friendly, making it a favored choice for beginners to familiarize themselves with playing.
Plus, with the addition of various colors, it adds an extra touch of coolness.
For example, the Cobalt Blue Pocket Sax may seem dark at first, but when held in the light, it creates a fantastic jazzy atmosphere when played in the right way.
How a Xaphoon Is Made
Crafting a Xaphoon is an intricate and time-consuming process. It all starts with selecting raw bamboo stalks from the lush rainforests.
Since each bamboo cane has unique dimensions, consistency, and inside diameter, mass production becomes nearly impractical.
The selected and appropriate bamboo is precisely cut down into ideal pieces.
It is then left to dry for a minimum of six months before the actual instrument-making process commences.
The initial step involves crafting the mouthpiece to achieve a standard pitch. This is achieved by first cutting the solid end at a fixed angle and then shaping it into a parabolic form.
The interior is then skillfully hollowed out—a crucial step as the reed must create a tight seal with the mouth of the opening to produce sound.
Variations in wall thickness, internal diameter, and other factors have a significant impact on the instrument’s sound quality.
To give the bamboo its unique burnt finish and durability, all the pieces are slowly heated over an open flame.
Besides, this ensures that there are no lingering moisture or bamboo-eating larvae within the walls.
Tunning and Finishing
Tuning the Xaphoon is a true art form. The instrument maker first ensures that the instrument produces the correct note without any holes.
For example, if it is a C xaphoon, when blown through the hollow, unpierced body, the sound produced should be of note C.
A chromatic auto-tuner is used to confirm that the note sounds appropriately.
In case the note does not sound perfect, some pieces are carefully carved out of the inner wall. This is skillfully done until the note sounds perfect.
Thereafter, the creator evaluates the point where the finger hole will be on the body without taking specific measurements.
Then, using a red-hot iron, the bamboo is carefully pierced at the spot determined to be just right.
A note is blown and then checked against a chromatic auto-tuner to ensure accuracy.
A small adjustment can be made to the hole to ensure the note sounds perfectly.
When all the holes have been pierced, the maker makes a few adjustments to ensure balance.
This allows every note on the instrument to be played with the same amount of pressure, which in turn makes the instrument easier to play.
Finally, a finishing touch is added with the application of mineral oil and varnish. Afterwards, a cloth is used to smoothly polish the finished instrument.
How to Play the Xaphoon
Learning to play the Xaphoon isn’t particularly challenging. The key is to familiarize yourself with the mouthpiece and know how to position your fingers correctly.
You also need to become accustomed to the forceful blowing required and adjust the pressure of your upper lip on the reed for higher notes.
Generally, the standard Xaphoon is tuned to the key of C major.
It features nine holes, with five meant for the left hand, held closest to the mouth, and four for the right hand, which is positioned below the left.
The right thumb is used primarily for providing support to the instrument.
To produce a sound from the Xaphoon, position it in your mouth like you would with a wide straw, about halfway onto the mouthpiece.
Only let your lower lip touch the reed. Your teeth can rest on top of the instrument. Now, place your mouth about an inch over the mouthpiece (but be sure not to bite the reed!).
Gently cushion your lower teeth with your lip, give a light squeeze, and then blow.
Your upper teeth may touch the mouthpiece directly. The pitch can be adjusted by altering the pressure of your lip on the reed.
With the right combination of finger placements and correct lip pressure, you can play a full chromatic scale.
The notes can be easily adjusted to be a little higher or lower in pitch.
The Xaphoon also has the unique ability to create special sound effects by quickly alternating between two notes (trilling) and gently bending the notes together.
Another cool trick is to hum while playing, which gives it a kind of soulful, bluesy sound.
The reed it comes with is a medium-strength tenor sax reed, which you can find at any music store. If you want to play softly and easily, go for thinner reeds; if you want more power, use thicker ones.
Xaphoon Fingering Chart
The Xaphoon Fingering Chart is a visual guide that shows the finger placements and combinations used to produce different notes on a Xaphoon instrument.
It helps players understand which holes to cover and uncover to create specific musical pitches. This chart, as shown in the diagram below, is a valuable resource for learning to play the Xaphoon effectively.
Caring for the Xaphoon
Just like any cherished musical instrument, a Xaphoon deserves attentive care to maintain its tone, playability, and overall longevity.
Properly caring for your Xaphoon will ensure it continues to produce beautiful melodies for years to come.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through essential steps and practices to keep your Xaphoon in prime condition.
From basic cleaning techniques to preventative measures against potential wear, we’ll cover it all.
With good care, your Xaphoon will remain a trusted companion in your musical endeavors, ready to enchant listeners with its unique, soulful sound.
Here are some recommended care practices:
Allow the Instrument to Dry
After playing, it’s essential to let the Xaphoon thoroughly dry. Use a clean, dry cloth to wipe it down, removing any moisture and preventing the accumulation of dirt or debris.
Utilize a Cleaning Aid
A small weight attached to a thin string with a cloth handkerchief tied at the end is a standard cleaning tool. This aids in conserving the instrument. Begin by removing the reed, then insert the weight into the pipe and pull the cloth through.
Avoid Flute-Cleaning Swabs
While flute cleaning swabs can be used, they are not the most suitable option as they have the potential to damage the mouthpiece.
Periodically, apply sterile oil to the inside of the instrument. This helps maintain its condition.
The Maui Xaphoon is resistant to moisture and can even be played in the rain. However, it must be allowed to thoroughly dry out afterwards. Removing the reed after playing and allowing the entire mouthpiece to be exposed to air is recommended.
Prevent Coating Formation
Prolonged moisture can lead to a coating forming on the inside of the bamboo Xaphoon, which can affect the sound quality. In such cases, strong vinegar can be used to remove it in emergencies.
Caring for Classic Xaphoons
Caring for Classic Xaphoons is straightforward. After playing, remove the reed and wipe down the instrument. They can also be washed with running water.
Use a Protective Case
When not in use, store your Xaphoon in a protective case. This safeguards it from dust, moisture, and potential damage.
Be cautious not to drop your Xaphoon, as this can lead to damage to the bamboo or other components.
By adhering to these care tips, you’ll ensure that your Xaphoon remains in excellent condition. This will allow it to continue producing beautiful music for years to come.
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