BASIC BAMBOO ANATOMY
By David Osborn
General Characteristics of Bamboo
Bamboo is essentially a giant, woody grass, and is a member of the Graminae, or cereal grass family, which also includes not only grass, but common cereal grains like corn and wheat. If you have any doubt about the botanical kinship of Bamboo with the cereal grasses, just dig up a corn stalk by its roots, then dig up a stalk or culm of Bamboo by its roots – the similarities will be plainly visible. That which is up above may be different between the two plants, but when you get down to their roots, you can plainly see that these roots stem from a common source. Bamboo is also one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and one of the quickest generators of green biomass on our planet – and as such, its cultivation can help absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, generate more oxygen, and thereby slow the pace of global warming. Because it is so hardy and fast growing, and propagates itself so quickly, Bamboo has been classified as an invasive species.
Because it is fibrous and woody, Bamboo is also classified as a type of wood, and has been used for many of the same purposes that wood is used for, including building materials, weaving, furniture, household items and cooking utensils, not to mention flutes and other musical instruments. As far as woods go, Bamboo is fairly hard – it ranges from about 1400 on the Janka hardness scale for the softer varieties all the way up to 1600 for the harder varieties. Soil quality and growing conditions, as well as local variations in the climate, can also have a profound influence on the hardness or softness of particular stalks of Bamboo. Bamboo fibers have a great degree of tensile strength, but Bamboo is notorious for cracking lengthwise along its grain; torque and tensions created in the drying process, which can be uneven throughout the stalk or culm, are usually to blame. Wetter climates generally tend to be friendlier on Bamboo and less conducive to cracking, whereas dryer climates are notoriously hard on Bamboo, tending to cause or provoke cracking, as does wind as well.
Like all trees, the Bamboo tree or stalk is wider at its base than at its upper end; although the Bamboo stalk or culm is hollow in the middle, which gives it a great utility and desirability for making flutes, the thickness of the walls of the stalk is also greater at the bottom than at the top, to support all the weight of the growing stalk or culm. A very distinctive and characteristic feature of Bamboo is the division of a stalk or culm by “joints”, or nodes, with the distance between two consecutive nodes being called an internode; different species and varieties of Bamboo can vary greatly in the typical distance between their nodes, and the consequent length or shortness of their internodes, which tend to be shorter towards the bottom of the stalk or culm than towards the top. The joints or nodes give the Bamboo stalk strength and sturdiness, and that’s why they are closer together towards the bottom of the stalk than towards the top – they are needed for structural reinforcement. Not only does the outer diameter or circumference of the Bamboo stalk get larger towards its base, but at the same time, the inner hollow space or bore gets smaller, especially towards the base. The upper nodes of the Bamboo tree or stalk have branches sprouting out from them, and where the branches sprout off, there are longitudinal dents or grooves in the Bamboo stalk, which disturb the roundness or cylindricality of the stalk and its inner bore; therefore, the choicest parts of the Bamboo stalk for flute making are the parts that lie below these upper nodes.
Since this is an article on Basic Bamboo Anatomy, I shall stick to the general structures and features of the Bamboo plant and its stalks or culms. Please keep in mind here that these are generalities that can be applied to most species or varieties of Bamboo, and that individual species may vary considerably from one another in their specifics. Among these specific individual variations from one species to another are included differences in typical internode length; the overall shape, structure and appearance of the nodes or “joints”; the coloring and pigmentation of the outer skin of the Bamboo; the relative hardness or softness of its wood; and the particulars regarding the cambering of the hollow interior or bore, especially in relation to the nodes, which form partitions or interruptions in the Bamboo stalk’s hollow interior. Common English words that are quite similar to the word “Bamboo” include the words “Cane” and “Reed” – so much so that they are often used interchangeably. But if distinctions had to be made, Cane is Bamboo that tends to have a longer internode length, whereas Reed is generally lighter, softer and flimsier in its structure than true Bamboo.
Bamboo Biology and the Bamboo Life Cycle
Bamboo is a hardy, evergreen plant that does not shed its leaves in the winter. Because of its hardiness and quick growth, and its ability to thrive in all kinds of weather, the Bamboo, along with the Pine and Plum trees, are particularly symbolic or emblematic of strengths and virtues in the Japanese national character – Sho (Pine), Chiku (Bamboo), Bai (Plum) is the common saying. The Bamboo shoots up quickly in the spring, attaining its full adult height in only a few months; the young shoots of Bamboo are so soft and tender that they are eaten as vegetables in Asian cultures. As the Bamboo stalk or culm grows and shoots up, the distance between its nodes, which are all there in embryonic form in the Bamboo shoot, quickly elongates, and what was once a tender young Bamboo shoot quickly grows much harder and more fibrous. Within the initial few months of a Bamboo stalk’s growth, it attains its full mature outer form, but as it matures, inner changes take place, namely an increased hardness and fibrousness, as well as a thickening of the walls on the inside. For the Japanese Shakuhachi, thick, hard dense walls are desired, so in stalking the wild Bamboo for harvesting, the Shakuhachi maker or Bamboo harvester will shake a stalk of Bamboo back and forth if it looks good in its outer appearance, to see if it has attained the requisite degree of inner strength and maturity; if not, the maker or harvester will want to mark it out and return to cut it one or more years later.
The usual method of propagation for Bamboo is by sending up stalks, or culms, as offshoots from an underground rootstock called a rhizome. There are two basic forms that this rhizome can take, with certain species using one kind, and other species the other: Either the Bamboo shoots spring up in the spring from a horizontal running rhizome, or they branch out from a central, clumping rhizome complex. This hardy and rapid propagation via rhizomes is one of the things that makes Bamboo an invasive species. The sending up of shoots or stalks from underground rhizomes happens on an annual basis, in the springtime, and is how a Bamboo grove spreads and maintains itself. The other method of propagation for Bamboo, which happens much less frequently, is when a grove of Bamboo flowers and goes to seed. This signals the beginning of the end for the Bamboo grove, because after the Bamboo goes to seed, the whole grove dies – but new shoots, and their rhizomes, will arise anew from the fallen seeds. The going to seed, death and rebirth of a Bamboo grove is something that happens only about once every twenty years or more, depending on the species.
The Birds, the Bees – and Bamboo
Being a plant that does go to seed, Bamboo is a sexual plant, with different culms or stalks within a Bamboo grove being of the male or female gender, as the case may be. As with all sexual species the world over, in both the plant and animal kingdoms, the male fertilizes, and the female brings forth the seed or fruit. Being a plant of the cereal grass family, the fruit of the Bamboo is its seed. Botanically speaking the male culms produce pollen, which then fertilizes the female culms so that they can bring forth seed. Although asexual propagation via an underground rhizome is the usual method of propagation for Bamboo, this sexual method of pollination and seed production does occur, although much less frequently, as we have seen. In general, the female Bamboo stalks within a grove tend to be more slender, and also softer in their wood, than male stalks, and their internodes, in many species, are covered or veiled with broad leaf-like sheaths. Also, a female culm will send out two relatively fat or large spreading branches from their top nodes, whereas a male culm tends to send out only one small or narrow branch. During my Shakuhachi days in Japan, I have seen sections of a male and female culm juxtaposed in a sexually suggestive position. Because the wood of the male culm tends to be harder and denser, the male culms are usually the most prized for flute making – except for one species I know of, whose Japanese name is Shinodake, or Shino Bamboo, which is also called Medake, or “female Bamboo” because of its long and slender qualities; it is the preferred species for making the Japanese Yokobue, or transverse flute, which is played at Shinto festivals.
Getting Down to the Roots
The Japanese Shakuhachi is one of the few world flutes I know of that are made specifically from the bottom or root end of the Bamboo stalk; most other world flutes that are made from Bamboo are usually made from the middle internodes of the culm. In my anatomical discussion of Bamboo so far, I have omitted describing the root structure of the plant, so I will do so here. As I said before, the outer diameter of the Bamboo stalk gets quite a bit wider at its base, and when Bamboo is sorted out into different sizes or diameters for selling, stalks or culms are measured according to their outer diameter at their bottom end, or base. Inwardly, the wall thickness of the stalk gets a lot thicker in the final few nodes towards the base, making the inner bore diameter also get a lot narrower, in contrast to its relative evenness and stability in the middle of the stalk. These trends that begin in the lowermost internodes of the stalk continue exponentially in the subterranean portion or roots, which finally produce a very wide outer diameter with no hollow core. Also, these bottom-most, subterranean nodes of the Bamboo stalk send out many small rootlets, which serve to anchor or root it firmly into Mother Earth. All these structures, including the root structures, are there in embryonic form in the Bamboo shoot.
When a Japanese Shakuhachi maker goes out into the Bamboo grove to harvest the Bamboo, he usually does so in the dead of winter; not only is there less of a problem with insect infestation in the winter, but also the sap and vital energy or Qi / Ki of the stalk is centered in its roots. Before the roots can be dealt with, the first step is to cut off the upper internodes of the Bamboo stalk or culm, leaving behind only the bottom internodes and the rootstock. Digging up the ground around the roots with a sharp spade or hoe, the Shakuhachi maker severs off the rootlets that hold the stalk firmly into the ground. He may also use a small saw or knife to cut rootlets that are particularly tough or recalcitrant. This method of Nemawashi, or literally, “working around the roots” also refers to the typical Japanese method of problem solving, which always begins with going around the group members to build a consensus. When all the surrounding rootlets have been cut and the ground around the stalk has been thoroughly excavated, the Shakuhachi maker wiggles the stalk to and fro to loosen it from its earthly bed; finally, a few strokes of the hatchet severs the central core of the rootstock from its rhizome.
The subterranean rootstock of the Bamboo stalk or culm is a thing of exquisite natural beauty, with the bottom-most nodes of the culm each sending out a halo of protruding rootlets. Sculpting and carving this root section into an aesthetically pleasing shape is one of the more artistic aspects of Shakuhachi making, and there are definitely different final “forms” that are traditionally preferred for different types of Bamboo rootstocks. But before he gets to the outer sculpting of the rootstock, the Shakuhachi maker must drill out its solid inner core, thereby hollowing out the rootstock base and connecting it interiorly with the hollow internodes above. And after he has drilled out the rootstock, the Shakuhachi maker must also duly knock out the nodes on the inside of the stalk with a steel rod and rasp them out in order to create the hollow tube which will become the instrument.
Species Variations in Bamboo
What I have described previously could be called the basic generalities of Bamboo anatomy – structural observations and descriptions that apply pretty much to all species and varieties of Bamboo. What I will briefly describe or introduce here is how certain species of Bamboo – and here I will concentrate mainly on the species that are traditionally preferred for flute making – can vary in these basic structures. In terms of parts discussed, I will focus mainly on those parts of the Bamboo plant that are most crucial to the flute maker. These observations and descriptions will not be strictly scientific, but will also be enlivened with the traditional wisdom that I have gleaned from flute makers like my old Shakuhachi teacher, Iida Sesshu.
Nodes: The general outer shape and appearance of the nodes on a Bamboo stalk is one of the most distinctive features of Bamboo, and different basic structures and appearances of the nodes will often serve to differentiate one Bamboo genus from another. Subtler variations in the size, shape and general appearance of the nodes will then serve to differentiate one species from another within the same botanical genus. And so, the nodal shape and appearance of all the various species within the Phyllostachys genus will all have similarities that distinguish them as being members of this genus. Members of this genus, which occupies an important place in flute making, include Madake, or Shakuhachi Bamboo (Phyllotachys bambusoides); also included in this genus are Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) and Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea). Members of the Bambusa genus will have nodes that are not nearly as swelling or prominent as those of the Phyllostachys genus, for example. And the nodes of Bamboo in the Arundinaria genus will be different still, being somewhat like the Phyllostachys genus, but more graceful and elongated; also, the grooves or indentations created by the branches that sprout out from the upper nodes will tend to be smaller and less prominent in the Arundinaria genus than they are in the Phyllostachys genus. By their nodes shall ye know them.
This whole question of nodes is not merely a matter of gross, outer form and appearance; it also has inner and subtle dimensions as well. Each genus and species of Bamboo also has a characteristic inner form of its nodes to complement or mirror their outer appearance, with the single commonality amongst all geni and species being that the node involves an inner barrier or partition that separates what would otherwise be a continuously hollow interior into discreet portions or sections. The subtler dimension of nodal structure and appearance was conveyed to me by master Shakuhachi craftsman Iida Sesshu when he told me that you could discern or intuit a Bamboo stalk’s overall hardness, toughness and density by looking at its nodes; nodes of a tough, strong appearance indicated similar qualities in the Bamboo stalk, whereas nodes of a weak, devitalized appearance were signs of softness, weakness, and undesirability. I gathered that this ability to intuit a Bamboo stalk’s hardness, toughness and Qi / Ki or inner vitality level was important to him, because even individual stalks of the same Bamboo species, even those growing within the same grove, could vary greatly in their overall hardness and density.
Internode Length: Internode length is an important consideration in flute making, with various types of world flutes having different requirements and specifications in this department. In the Shakuhachi, as with all traditional Japanese art forms, the whole concept of kakko, or outer form, is extremely important. Shakuhachis are traditionally made with a certain form and arrangement of finger hole placement vis-à-vis the internode lengths; there are traditionally three internodes above those connected with the rootstock at the bottom of the instrument. The bottom two finger holes are placed in the bottom-most and shortest of these three internodes; the remaining three holes are all placed within the internode above it, which is usually where the nakatsugi or central partition or socket falls as well; and the topmost of these three internodes has no finger holes at all – it ends in a topmost node, into which the utaguchi, or notch-like “song mouth” of the instrument is cut and inlaid. So strict is this adherence to kakko or outer form that Japanese Shakuhachi makers will usually carry yardsticks marking off the distance of the various finger holes downwards from the top utaguchi with them when they go out to harvest Bamboo, ensuring that every piece they cut will have finger hole placements falling within the proper internodes.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are certain world flutes, most notably the Indian Bansuri, that insist on absolutely no nodes. The considerations involved in this are not so much those involved with outer form or appearance as with inner sound, acoustics and musicality. You see, nodes are a part of the Bamboo stalk that frequently involve roughness and crooked-ness, and if there are no nodes, there is absolutely no potential for crookedness or roughness to arise – nothing to disturb the evenness and acoustical soundness and desirability of the flute’s inner bore. There is no node at the top or blowing end of the north Indian Bansuri because having a cork or stopper at this end makes the upper end adjustable and tunable; South Indian transverse flutes, on the other hand, are usually made with a node serving as the top cork – and no other nodes on the instrument at all. In the Andean Quena, there is also only one node, but that falls at the bottom of the instrument, and not at the top. For these nodeless or nearly nodeless kinds of world flutes, Bamboo species with really long internode lengths, of two feet (60 cm.) or more, are absolutely required. The all time “champion” of internode length seems to be Assam Bamboo, which is usually of the Schizostachyum genus, which is used for the North Indian Bansuri. For the South Indian transverse flute, there is a South Indian species, Ochlandra travancorica. For the Andean Quena, there is Aulonemia quecko, a species that is indigenous to South America. Bambusa textilis, or Weaver’s Bamboo, is another species that can be used to make nodeless or nearly nodeless flutes or pipes for a Bass Pan Flute.
The Phyllostachys genus is an important Bamboo genus for the making of world flutes, especially those of China, Korea and Japan. There are three important species of this genus which are commonly used for making flutes: Phyllostachys bambusoides, or Madake, which is used to make the Japanese Shakuhachi; Phyllostachys nigra, or Black Bamboo, which is used to make the Chinese Xiao or Di-zi; and Phyllostachys aurea, or Golden Bamboo, which is used to make other kinds of flutes. Of these three species, P. bambusoides tends to have the longest internode length, with P. aurea tending to have the shortest; P. nigra tends to fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Tonkin Bamboo, or Aurndinaria amabilis McClure, has an internode length that falls in between that of the Phyllostachys genus and the two foot-plus “champions” of internode length described above; Arundinaria gigantea, or American Rive Cane, also falls in between, with its internode length tending to be slightly longer than that of A. amabilis. Regarding internode length, I say “tends” to here, because there can be significant variations in internode length between individuals of the same Bamboo species, depending on factors such as climate, growing conditions and soil quality.
Hardness and Density: Hardness and density, which usually goes hand in hand with resilience, acoustical resonance and sonority, are generally very sought after qualities in Bamboo for making world flutes. Although different species of Bamboo do tend to have their overall trends and patterns when it comes to hardness and density, this is one aspect of Bamboo that can have wide variability from one individual stalk or pole to the next, depending on various factors, such as soil quality, terrain and drainage, and local climactic factors. Even within the very same species, Phyllostachys bambusoides, or the Madake used to make the Japanese Shakuhachi, I have seen individual pieces that were so hard that even the sharpest knife could hardly cut them on the one hand, versus pieces that were so soft that they were only slightly harder than cardboard or Balsa wood on the other end of the spectrum. Generally speaking, colder climates and dry, rocky, well-drained mountain soil tends to produce harder and denser bamboo, whereas warmer, balmy climates and moist, marshy, rich valley soil tends to produce softer and pithier bamboo.
One snowy winter day, Iida Sensei took me out to the countryside on a Bamboo harvesting expedition, to a location quite a distance away from where we lived – quite remote, indeed. On the way there, he told me tales of Bamboo harvesting to get me all fired up and ready to go. He said he had a great instinct for being able to sniff out where the top quality Bamboo grew, and to go right to it, much like a hound tracking its prey. By the time we reached the Bamboo fields, I was literally flowing over with anticipation and excitement. We first cut off the upper portion of the Bamboo stalk or culm, leaving behind only the root end section that could be used for making the Shakuhachi; then we dug up around the roots, cutting them, wiggling the Bamboo to and fro, and finally cutting the central core with a hatchet once it had been exposed. Then we took the Bamboo home to roast it over the little charcoal stove or hibachi and dry it. A couple of months later, when the initial phase of the drying process had been completed, Iida Sensei took the pieces we had harvested out of the shed to inspect them. And what he found was that the Bamboo was very soft, almost as soft as cardboard, and had to be discarded, being unsuitable for Shakuhachi making. The problem and cause of this softness, Iida Sensei concluded, was that the Bamboo was growing in moist, marshy valley soil. “Why take me all the way out to the remote countryside and go to all that trouble, only to harvest worthless Bamboo?” I asked myself silently. The only thing I could conclude was that the whole expedition had been merely an educational exercise set up to initiate me into the Bamboo harvesting process; the real “goldmine” areas for Bamboo, I concluded, were secrets that Iida Sensei was keeping to himself.
If we discount all these extraneous individual factors that can have an impact on Bamboo quality, hardness and density, there are still general trends and tendencies amongst the different species of Bamboo regarding their overall hardness and density. The hardest species of Bamboo that I have worked on in my own personal experience is Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure). Tonkin Bamboo is followed closely by the three Phyllostachys species I cited earlier: Black Bamboo, Golden Bamboo and Madake or Shakuhachi Bamboo – in that descending order of hardness. On the soft end of the spectrum we have Italian Cane (Arundinaria sativa), as well as the closely related species of Cane or Reed that is used to make the Turkish or Middle Eastern Ney. Although hardness and density are indeed desirable qualities, which usually produce a pleasing musical sound and sonority, these softer species of bamboo also produce a good sound, albeit one that is much more soft and mellow. Because individual poles and pieces of bamboo can vary so much in their quality, hardness and density, the flute maker must be constantly vigilant, and on the lookout to reject any pieces of inferior hardness or quality. One useful test that I have found for hardness and density is to scrape the end cross section of the Bamboo pole with one’s fingernail.
Wall Thickness: Attaining the desired wall thickness is an important concern for flute makers of all kinds. When you are crafting a flute out of a block of wood, you can sculpt or shape the block to achieve any degree of wall thickness or thinness you desire, but when you are making a flute from Bamboo, you have to work within the limitations of what Nature has given you. In other words, although you can subsequently thin down the walls of a Bamboo flute, you cannot make them any thicker than what Nature originally provided you with in the piece of Bamboo. And so, it is important for the Bamboo flute maker to have a good understanding of the natural laws underlying the wall thickness of Bamboo. First of all, there are general trends and patterns displayed by different species and varieties of Bamboo when it comes to wall thickness, even though there can be significant variation amongst individual poles or stalks of Bamboo within the same species. Of the three main Phyllostachys species used in Bamboo flute making, for example, Madake or Shakuhachi Bamboo tends to have the thickest walls in general; Black Bamboo tends to have the thinnest walls; and Golden Bamboo falls somewhere in between. Tonkin Bamboo, used for making Pan Flutes, not only has a lot of hardness and density, but its walls tend to be quite thick and substantial as well.
There are also general physical laws that govern wall thickness, which apply equally to Bamboo stalks or culms of all species – the laws that govern basic physical firmness and structural support. These laws dictate that wall thickness tends to increase the further down the stalk or culm you go, because the lower internodes have more weight to support. Although wall thickness may not increase very substantially as you go down the middle internodes of a Bamboo stalk or culm, where it is generally of intermediate thickness, wall thickness does tend to increase dramatically in the bottom few internodes of the base, towards the subterranean root section. In these bottom-most internodes, both the outer diameter increases and the inner bore diameter decreases, leaving one with a greater wall thickness as the difference between the two. If one subtracts the inner bore diameter from the outer diameter of the pole at any given point, the remainder, divided by two, gives you the wall thickness at that point. Knowing the general nature and wall thickness tendencies of the species, as well as the physical laws governing wall thickness, the experienced and astute Bamboo flute maker can develop good intuitive insight and instincts for estimating wall thickness at any given point.
Internode Shape or Form: Just as different species of Bamboo have different forms and appearances of their nodes, they also have different tendencies when it comes to the shape and form of the space between their nodes, which is called the internode. In Tonkin Bamboo, for instance, the upper “neck” of the internode, sitting right below the node above, tends to be slightly narrower than the rest of the internode, whereas its bottom end, sitting right on top of the node below, tends to be the widest part of the internode, both internally and externally. In the Phyllostachys genus, for example, Black Bamboo is notorious for having a hollow interior bore that usually contracts significantly at the bottom of the internode; this makes things difficult for the Pan Flute maker when working with Black Bamboo – he must widen the bottoms of the pipes, especially the lower, longer ones, with a rasp or dowel stick and sandpaper before the pipes can be rendered acoustically fit for incorporation into an instrument. Madake, on the other hand, has no such problems, and has an inner bore that is consistently wider at the internode’s bottom end than at the top, except for the two or three internodes closest to the base. Golden Bamboo takes after Madake in this respect, and also has no problems.
Straightness versus Crookedness: “No S.O.B. likes a crooked Bamboo!” I heard Araki Kodo Sensei say to me once during a Shakuhachi lesson; it was one of his more memorable sayings indeed. Indeed, crookedness is the great foe of the flute maker, who is always looking to make flutes that are as straight as possible. In Bamboo, crookedness is usually something that stems from the nodes, which tend to be the most crooked places in the Bamboo stalk or culm; in fact, one could even say that it’s virtually impossible to find a Bamboo node that is absolutely, 100%, straight. At the nodes, some slight kink or bending is virtually unavoidable, and few indeed, in my own personal experience as a flute maker, have been the nodes that looked absolutely straight. To straighten out crooked nodes, Shakuhachi makers heat up the node in question over a charcoal stove or hibachi and truss it up in a Bamboo press, taking care to mark the place in which the node juts out the most markedly as the place that must receive the full thrust of the press’ corrective pressure. The press is able to straighten out a crooked Bamboo node because Bamboo, like all other kinds of wood, softens and gets more flexible with heat.
It is also virtually impossible to single out any particular Bamboo species as being singularly notorious for crookedness, as all species and varieties of Bamboo can be susceptible to it. With crookedness, it is not so much soil or climactic factors that are responsible, but rather very localized growing conditions. By this, I mean the presence or absence of obstacles that the growing Bamboo stalk or culm must grow around. Maybe prevailing wind patterns and directions play a role in crookedness, swaying the Bamboo to and fro, but this is just speculation; crookedness, or the lack thereof, may be something that is just idiosyncratically inherent in the individual Bamboo stalk itself. Different species of Bamboo also have their own individual patterns or tendencies when it comes to crookedness or bending. Madake, for example, tends to be very straight between its nodes, with the only bending or crookedness being at the node itself; Tonkin Bamboo, on the other hand, tends to curve or bow gracefully throughout the internode when it deviates from straightness.
In closing, I wish to say that, although crookedness is generally a bad or undesirable trait to have in a Bamboo piece or pole for making a flute, it does not unconditionally condemn a piece of Bamboo to flute making oblivion and the trash heap. The final proof of whether the crookedness of any piece of Bamboo is a bad thing or not resides in how well the finished instrument plays, and how good it sounds. I have personally seen pieces of Bamboo that were quite crooked, which I was ready to throw out and consign to oblivion, go on to make perfectly good flutes, despite all expectations to the contrary. Flute makers can calculate probabilities based on their past experience and their theoretical knowledge of flute acoustics, but the ultimate “proof of the pudding” is in the eating – or with a flute, in the playing.
Coloring and Pigmentation: The dimension or aspect of coloring and pigmentation is definitely the most aesthetic part of flute making. When it comes to coloration and overall aesthetic beauty, the clear winner is Black Bamboo; in comparison, Madake, with its uniform pale or pale yellow color, seems to be the bland, “plain Vanilla” option, with Golden Bamboo falling somewhere in between on the Phyllostachys spectrum. But here again, the particulars of local growing conditions can make all the difference, as soggy or rotting leaves growing around the base of the Bamboo stalk or culm can impose rich coloration patterns upon it. So, different individual poles or pieces of Bamboo can have very unique or distinctive coloration patterns, no matter what the species – that’s one of the things that makes the craft of Bamboo flute making so rewarding.
Tone Quality and Sonority: Tone quality and sonority is probably the most subtle and elusive aspect of Bamboo flute making; definitely, different species or varieties of Bamboo each have their own distinctive “sound” in this department. Generally speaking, tone quality and sonority often go hand in hand with hardness, density and resiliency of the Bamboo. On the hard and resilient end of the spectrum, there are three species that I most prefer: Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure); Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra); and Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea). In relation to the first three species, Madake or Shakuhachi Bamboo tends to be slightly softer, although still quite hard, dense and resilient; correspondingly, its tone quality is still good, but slightly softer and more mellow. Although hardness and density are usually sought after qualities that go hand in hand with a species of Bamboo’s overall tone quality and sonority, softness is not necessarily a bad thing; for example, Italian Cane Arundinaria sativa), although quite soft, is still quite sonorous, even though its tone quality is decidedly soft and mellow. As with so many other aspects and parameters of Bamboo, individual variation plays a significant role, and if a piece or pipe of Bamboo doesn’t yield a good sound when tested, it should be discarded.
Conclusion: The Fusion of Nature and Art
Of all the different woods and materials that a flute maker can work with, Bamboo is definitely the one material that is closest to being a flute in its natural form. Other types of wood must be carved out from a block into a flute form, but Bamboo is almost totally there in its natural state. And so, the whole process of making a flute from Bamboo is the perfect fusion of Nature and Art, with Nature providing half of the ingredients necessary for building a fine flute, and the artisan and his craftsmanship providing the other half. Because the Bamboo flute maker is always, and will forever be, conditioned by the quality, shape and form of the individual pieces of Bamboo that Nature gives him, it behooves him to get to know his Bamboo anatomy very well. Although this page gives the reader and aspiring Bamboo flute artisan a good introduction to the basics of Bamboo anatomy, understanding and mastering its finer points can only come through experience.