Flexatone

As finding a good musical saw player became more and more difficult, orchestras and composers had to resort to replacing the musical saw with other instruments. Often the musical saw part gets replaced by a violin or a soprano singer. One popular replacement option for the musical saw in mid 20th century was the flexatone. It was so popular a replacement, and finding a good musical saw player was so difficult, that the Piano Concerto by Aram Khachatorian, which has a part of the musical saw in the 2nd movement, was printed with the sheet music stating 'flexatone' for the part which originately stated 'musical saw'.

On many recordings of the Khachaturian piano concerto, the flexatone is replace by a violin (including the Kapell/Koussevitsky/BSO on RCA Gold Seal 09026-60921-2). Among those that utilize the flexatone are:

What is a flexatone?

This is the original 1924 FLEX-A-TONE instrument:

flexatone1.jpg (14982 bytes) Flexatone7.jpg (55468 bytes)

The actual instrument has a printed diagram with "PATENTED" on the steel blade. This barely shows up on the scan due to the reflection off the bright steel (which also distorts the color somewhat).
The overall length of the FLEX-A-TONE is 8 inches. The blade is 5 inches long.

An invention for a flexatone occurs in the British Patent Records of 1922 and 1923. In 1924 the 'Flex-a-tone' was patented in the USA by the Playatone Company of 113-119 Fourth Avenue, New York. In the advertising, the Playatone Company claims that their Flex-A-Tone makes "Jazz Jazzier"! The Flex-A-Tone sounds like a musical saw when properly played but can be conveniently played with one hand. Though it is extremely difficult to controle in a way that will give the same smooth melodic line that a musical saw can give.
It is made of tempered steel, hand held, and is struck by two wood balls mounted on flat steel springs. (Kind of looks like a pizza spatula with balls on extended wire levers connected on either side, like a noisemaker). The hardness of the wooden balls is tempered with rubberized cork. The pitch of the tempered steel is changed by thumb pressure, while the whole thing is swung around with a rapid "soup stirring" motion. The "soup stirring" motion creates a nice tremolo effect.

among others.

Flex-A-Tones were also played with monkey organs in Berlin in the 1920's. The organ grinder would crank with one hand and play the Flex-A-Tone with the other.

The FLEX-A-TONE was banned by Hitler during the Nazi regime:
"Strictly forbidden is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (e.g. so-called cowbells, flex-a-tone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of brass-wind instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yell (so-called wa-wa, in hat, etc.)"

The original FLEX-A-TONE came in a cardboard box with instructions. The box has wonderful graphics on it:
flexatone2.jpg (16994 bytes) flexatone4.jpg (18434 bytes) flexatone6.jpg (6677 bytes)

It is noted to be "A ZIMMY PRODUCT", is a "NO. 0", and is also stamped "101" on the box.

flexatone.jpg (32239 bytes) flexatone3.jpg (79918 bytes) flexatone5.jpg (7012 bytes)

A different maker of Flex-a-tones:
Top of box reads:A NEW MUSICAL INSTRUMENT/EASY TO PLAY/HARMONIZES WITH RADIO,VICTROLA AND PIANO
FLEX-A-TONE/MAKES JAZZ JAZZIER/THE FLEX-A-TONE IS A MUSICAL SAW,PLAYED IN AN EASY,PRACTICAL WAY,COMBINING THE TONWE EFFECTS OF THE ORCHESTRA BELLS & SONG WHISTLE/A MUSICAL MARVEL/DISTINCTIVE TONE
MADE BY THE PLAYTONE CO.,NEW YORK CITY

New Flex-a-tones are being made today but they are just cheap toys when compared to the original professional ones made in the twenties.

The following is from the entry for "Flexatone" in Anthony Baines 'The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments' (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) at p. 113:
A small percussion instrument waved up and down in one hand... .
The flexible steel blade, c.18 cm. (7") long, is bolted at the wider end to a wider frame. Waving this sets in motion the two wooden balls (each with an insert of hard rubber) that are attached on opposite sides of the blade by springy wires to strike the blade alternately.
...[A] rise in pitch of about an octave upwards from c''', due an effect of increased stiffness in the metal... . Characteristic sounds are a high glissando or tremolo, not very loud.
The flexatone was introduced in the early 1920s, for light music and variety artists.

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