The musical saw is an American folk music instrument with its roots originating in the early 19th century. Somewhere in the Appalachian mountains an unknown and inquisitive musician first took a fiddle bow to the bent blade of his hand saw which he held firmly clamped between his knees. What probably began in a moment inspired by curiosity soon caught on and before long mountain music bands throughout the area had a member manipulating the blade of a common carpenter’s saw and stroking it with a well rosined bow.
Before 1900 musical saw playing was fairly rare outside Appalachia. By the early 1900’s its popularity began to spread across the United States. It’s popularity peaked on the musical hall stages of the 20’s and 30’s. During the Vaudeville days of the the 1920’s much of the acclaim the musical saw garnered was due to its use by the Weaver Brothers, one of America’s most successful entertainment groups of that era.
In 1919, after seeing the Weaver Brothers perform, Clarence Mussehl (pictured at right) began perfecting the design of the musical saw. His innovations included using a special steel that was much more malleable, better sustained the plaintive tones and generated more vibrato. By using thinner steel and experimenting with the blade width, Mussehl was able to create a musical saw capable of producing 16-20 notes. In 1921 he began selling them commercially for the express purpose of playing music… not cutting wood. Soon it was not uncommon to be entertained by a musician with a Mussehl & Westphal musical saw clamped between his knees and bent in the distinctive shallow “S” curve while the player stroked or tapped out the popular tunes of the day. For a few years during its peak, sales of the saw averaged approximately 25,000 per year.
By the mid-30’s live musical entertainment was largely replaced by recorded media. Consequently, the opportunity to see and hear many types of worthwhile musical art forms vanished. In the following generations few replacements could be found for the aging Vaudevillians. Hence, through lack of use, the singularly beautiful voice of the singing saw was fading toward silence.
In the mid-70’s, Dan Wallace (pictured at left) saw an advertisement for the Mussehl & Westphal musical saw in Popular Mechanics magazine. He was excited when he realized it was the very same company that produced the instrument that his grandfather had played. This was the spark that led him to contact Clarence Mussehl which began a special friendship between the two gifted folk music lovers. With no family members able to take on his business Clarence asked Dan to carry on Mussehl & Westphal. Before Clarence died in 1978 at the age of 84, he sold his unique musical saw business to Dan. Retaining the name the company had held for over 50 years, Wallace, who was also an American Airlines pilot, took control of the business in a manner respectful to Clarence Mussehl and his legacy. In his travels Dan began to promote the musical saw nationwide and sales began to rebound. Living in Delavan, Wisconsin, he had yet another passion, flying his small private airplane. In October 1982, at the age of 43, his family and the many friends he’d met in his travels were shocked and saddened to hear of Dan’s untimely death in the tragic crash of his small plane.
Since then, his wife Mary Kay (pictured at right), with son Jim’s support, has continued preserving this unique piece of American heritage and has brought the singing saw well into the 21st century. In recent years through use of the internet, interest has greatly increased and Mary Kay regularly ships her product around the world. The musical saw is popular because, as Dan used to say, “If you can sing, whistle or hum a tune you can play the musical saw.” Wallace could also be heard to say, “If a person has any ear at all for music he should be able to play a simple tune in about 30 minutes.”
Sawyers from all over the world continue to keep in contact with one another and frequently meet up at area bluegrass festivals and entertain in local communities with their unique brand of musical Americana. The Wallaces look forward to providing the world with Mussehl & Westphal musical saws for generations to come.
From A Prairie Home Companion originally broadcast on November 23, 1985:
Click on the show’s 9th segment — “Danny Boy/Sweet Georgia Brown” — to hear David Weiss playing “Danny Boy” on the musical saw. During the segment, David credits Dan Wallace for continuing the Mussehl & Westphal legacy.
Good afternoon! I just wanted to say that I received my package yesterday, just after ordering it Saturday. Thank you so much! I do believe that’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a package reach my mailbox. You guys are great. I’ll definitely be ordering some replacement parts from you whenever the time comes.
Take care, Aaron Rowan
Hi there! My name is Isabel and I’m from Portland, OR and first off I would just like to say how much I admire your saws and your history of manufacturing them! I absolutely love the musical saw and I know you guys are the best in the biz.
Thank you so much, Isabel Perez
Dear Mary Kay,
Hope you’re well and hale. My saw arrived yesterday. Thanks. I’ll try and create a demand locally. I visit your information-rich website often and you must be proud to be part of such a large key part of the Musical Saw tradition in the US and the world…
Best wishes for joy from the ‘Great White north’… Wolf Thank you so much.
I have really been looking forward to this(musical saw). You guys are the best.
Thanks so much for the extra strings you sent with my Musical Saw order. They arrived shortly after the rest of my order. The saw is singing happily. We are all set for Acoustics class next Fall. Thanks so much.
Wayne Freer here, just writing to say thanks for my new saw. I was impressed with your prompt delivery(to Western Australia), the hand-written letter(don’t see that enough anymore, appreciate it, Mary Kay) and, not least, the singing tone and play ability of the saw. I had previously played a Sandvik saw, and the difference is startling – so much easier to play. Keep up the good work.
Dear Mary Kay Dawson,
Thanks to send musical saw. It is a cute and fine sound. I will enjoy music. Special thanks to you.
Rika Tanaka from Japan
I appreciate you keeping the tradition of Mussehl & Westphal going. I look forward to using my new saw and seeing the delight it brings to others just to hear such a novelty instrument. Again, thanks so much!
Dear Mary Kay,
Just touching base with you. I have been playing the saw I bought from you for over a month. I find every saw has its own idiosyncrasies, but I am getting the hang of it. It is playing beautifully and certainly lives up to its reputation.
I am an old man and took up saw playing some years ago since the ‘experts’ advise we should give our minds new challenges in order to delay the inevitable mental deterioration that comes with age. My wife is in a retirement home where the pianist from a local restaurant that we had frequented for many years does a sing-along for the residents every week. I teamed up with him and now we do a piano-saw sing-along. We have been very popular and recently made it to local television, I suspect rather more as a result of the uniqueness of the instrument than my not terribly good playing. However, they want us back in the fall, so it doesn’t really matter. Other retirement homes, too, are asking us to play. Amazing how people these days have never heard of the saw used to make music and even more have never seen or heard it played.
I am enjoying my new (unpaid) career. Many thanks for your prompt service.
My name is Andy Heintz and I am the lead singer and saw player in London-based ‘Steampunk’ band, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.
We are releasing our third album, Not Your Typical Victorians, in October 2015.
On the track The Gin Song (and briefly on The Worst Sideshow Ever), I play a 28″ blade, two octave, English steel, professional musical saw made by Mussehl & Westphal of East Troy, Wisconsin.
I play using a second hand horse hair cello bow bought in a music shop in Edinburgh, Scotland (near the Surgeons’ Hall Museums).
I have been playing my Mussehl & Westphal saw since 2008, when I purchased one of your starter kits via the Internet and have also played it on various songs on our first two albums, Now That’s What I Call Steampunk: Volume 1 and This May Be The Reason… (all three of our albums are available on iTunes and Amazon, etc.).
My saw came with it’s own fitted saw case and felt hammer, and easy-to-follow instructions, and I found learning the saw quick, easy and intuitive.
It adds a beautiful haunting sound to our songs, reminiscent to a Theremin, and we always include a couple of songs featuring the saw in our live sets.
There are not many saw players in rock/punk bands in the UK and this instrument gives our sound a unique edge — not to mention how good it looks playing live — people can’t believe that a saw can produce such a song and stand and stare amazed!
Whenever people ask about playing, I recommend your product as it’s quality is second to none.
Thanks for all the hours of enjoyment you have given me!