4.1 Construction and physical characteristics of the dan bau

The dan bau had a distinctive construction and physical characteristics. There have been many changes in the way the dan bau has been improved from the past to the present to give it a better sound, make it easier to play, and more portable. The rod used to be made of bamboo and is now made of buffalo horn. The pluck, which used to be 10 cm long, is now only 4 cm long and is mainly made of bamboo, but now we can also use many different materials such as wood, plastic or horn. The body of the instrument has also become smaller and can be folded. 

It consists of a long, slender wooden soundboard typically crafted from bamboo or hardwood. The slight curvature of the soundboard creates a resonating chamber, enhancing the amplification of the vibrating string’s sound.

One end of the soundboard houses a small wooden peg or tuning pin, allowing the player to adjust the string’s tension and alter the instrument’s pitch. The other end of the soundboard remains open, enabling the sound to escape and resonate freely.

The string itself is made from metal and is tightly stretched across the soundboard. It is connected to a small wooden bridge that rests on the soundboard, facilitating the transmission of string vibrations to the resonating chamber. 

A notable feature of the dan bau is the presence of a horn rod attached to the string. When it is bent inward or outward it will change the pitch. This can be used also to make a variety of ornamentations and vibrato to create shimmering, wavering sounds, adding depth and expressiveness to the music.

The physical characteristics of the dan bau contribute to its distinct sound and versatility. The ability to adjust the string’s tension, possibly playing overtone or non-overtone will allow for a wide range of pitches and tones to be produced.

4.2 Tuning and the mechanics of producing sound

Before I touch on the mechanics of producing the sound I would like to talk about the tuning system of the instrument. Most commonly dan bau is tuned in C, especially at the Vietnam Academy of Music, and this tuning has become a standard in the study program. Using the finger to simply pluck the string will get the C3 (open string). For the traditional music performances, the artists will tune the dan bau to D or, less often, to A (A2 on the piano) or to B-flat (B2-flat on the piano). In the case that the composer wishes for different tuning, they will indicate that in the score and the players are used to working with it.

To simplify the explanations on how to produce the sound on the dan bau, in the rest of the text I will stay with the in C tuning. Basically, dan bau playing is strongly rooted in the overtone series. There are two elements we need to know to be able to produce the sound. First, we have to find the exact position where the edge of the right hand will touch the string. This position shortens the vibrating part of the string, creating overtones. If the edge of your right hand touches the midpoint between where the string is tied to the rod and the tailpiece it will half the string, and we will hear the first overtone, meaning that we will get a C note one octave higher (middle C – C4). Next, in a similar fashion, we will divide the string into three equal parts. The first 1/3 point on the left will be the G4 note. As we continue to divide it into 4, 5, 6 and 8 (skipping 7), placing the edge on our right hand to ¼, ⅕, ⅙ and 1/8 of the sting, we will go through C5, E5, G5, and finally C6. We can mark all these 6 positions with a pen, to make it easier to find them while playing. These are our basic playing positions.

And now we come to the second element – how to get the correct plucking.  Hold the plectrum with three fingers: the thumb, the index finger, and the middle finger (you can also add the ring finger, if you want). Hold the plectrum with your fingertips and angle it at a 45-degree angle away from the palm. To start plucking the string you need to relax your hand, keep the wrist level with the forearm, put the right hand at a 45-degree angle and choose one of the basic positions (which you previously found and marked). Lightly touch the string with the edge of your right hand (in the correct position) and almost simultaneously pluck the string with the plectrum. You should be using about one to two millimetres of the pointy end of the plectrum to pluck the string. To begin playing, rest the edge of your hand on the string and at the same time pluck the string in an upward motion. When you lift your hand up do not move the end of the plectrum and the edge of your hand both at the same time. Instead, turn your hand slightly to the right to achieve a fuller sound. These are the two elements necessary to achieve producing the sound in the traditional way. If you are not touching the right position the timber will change and the sound will not be clean – you could get a quiet sound, a dirty sound or also a multiphonic sound which is not common in the traditional way of playing. 

One more element affects the character of the sound: the plectrum. Most plectrums are made of bamboo and have a smoother and rougher side. Plucking the string will produce different sound quality depending on the side we chose: smooth side will produce brighter sound; rougher side will produce a warmer sound. If the plectrum is made of other material it can produce louder or quieter sounds, depending on the material. All of this refers to the traditional playing techniques. Of course, there are many more ways to produce sound in the context of new and experimental music, and it is a part of my work to discover them. In the next chapter, I will talk more about that as well as my aesthetics, motivations and inspirations to make music.