How They're Made

The Xaphoon is made by Brian Wittman, a Maui resident who invented the instrument more than 20 years ago.

The Xaphoon starts with raw bamboo stalks selected from the rainforests of East Maui. Each is slightly different in its dimensions, inside diameter and consistency, making mass production nearly impossible. The bamboo is cut down to the proper size and dried for at least six months before instrument making begins.

The mouthpiece is done first, formed by cutting the solid end at a fixed angle and then rounding it to a parabolic shape. The inside is then carved out with a great deal of skill––when the reed vibrates, it must form a tight seal with the mouth of the opening. Wall thickness and other variations have a tremendous influence on the quality of the sound.

All the bamboo pieces are slowly "roasted" over a flame, giving them the unique burnt finish.

Tuning the instrument is an art in itself. Without making any measurements, the length, inside diameter, and inside shape of the mouthpiece are examined, and the bamboo is pierced by a red-hot iron at the place deemed appropriate by the creator. A note is blown and checked against a chromatic auto tuner. A perfect "D"! 

Mineral oil and a varnish are then applied, and the instrument is then hand-sanded down to a flat finish.




"I have made over 15,000 such instruments in the past 20 years, all because of a single instrument I made on the whim of a child. The young lad lived with his mother in a tent in the woods, and heard me playing the sax (the expensive metal variety). He approached respectfully and then boldly asked if perhaps I had a little one he could play. Why not? I fiddled around and whittled a small end-blown block flute out of bamboo. Its tone was wheezy and small, and satisfied neither of us. I had a small grinding wheel I was using to shape some wooden boat cleats, and in sudden inspiration I applied the flute to the wheel and ground off the whole corner of the mouthpiece at an angle, re-shaping it to take a sax reed. With a bit of string holding the reed, I blew a test note... it screamed!

The child was delighted and couldn't wait to have it, so I passed it on, but immediately made myself another, this time a bit longer, and I made the mouthpiece first so I could hear the pitch as I located the finger holes. Somehow, by chance, I ended up with a serviceable scale in E, and I couldn't put it down. I even played it one-handed as I drove into town, not noticing the speedometer was reading 80 until I heard the sirens.

Finally I arrived at the rehearsal studio where I was due, only to find a major hero, Mr. Airto Morierra (the Brazilian percussionist) just happened to be there jamming with my delighted band members. I jumped in on my new axe, and found that its strong warm tone could be as full as a sax, and amplified very well in an electric band setting. Airto was fascinated, so I offered this #2 instrument as a token of my respect for his music.

So I made a third and played it on gigs. People would come up and ask about it... “Where did you get it?” “You made it?” “Can you make me one?” “What do you mean you don't have time––Here's my money!” So I ended up in business. A name developed from "bamboozaphone" to "bamboozafoon" to "bamboo zafoon" to just "zafoon," then spelled "xaphoon". I eventually moved closer to the bamboo forests, and even took out a patent in several countries. And as I answered my mail and filled the orders, the years went by. My children were born into a house built of bamboo saxophones, and heard them from the womb onward.

The instrument I have made commercially all these years is not much different from the first experimental models. I did construct several larger instruments, some with conical extensions (usually cow horn), but rather than complicate the design with a number of pieces, I have elected to maintain the "one stick" concept with the mouthpiece carved directly on the end of the instrument body. Fortunately, the bamboo naturally lends itself to this type of construction if it is carefully chosen in the forest for the correct length and diameter.

After some experimentation, I eventually found a hole placement and fingering system that will allow two complete chromatic octaves, though the instrument remains primarily diatonic. For example, it would be simple enough to play a C# note on a C instrument, or sketch through a riff in that key while following the chord changes, but it would not make much sense to transpose the entire tune to C#. There would be just too many cross-fingerings and lip adjustments.

I have generally restricted my output to C instruments, mostly to avoid confusing beginners with too many choices. I will gladly make instruments of any key, but only if the customer is still interested after having attained some skill on the C. The C plays best in the keys of D,F, G, Gm, Dm, Am, etc.

Some of my customers have surprised me by adopting radically different styles, from Baroque to Peruvian to Irish to African. I greatly appreciate the occasional tapes I receive from my customers. One can well imagine that the actual construction of 15,000 of anything can become tedious, so it has become the satisfaction of customers that drives me (as well as the opportunity to feed my family). It is truly rewarding to receive orders from distant places and it does get easier to make them now that I know how.

I can only wonder though, if perhaps my punishment in the next world will be to hear them all played at once."