How to convert your panpipe to wholetone tuning

So your Gran bought you this beautiful Romanian nai for Christmas and the first thing you want to do is convert it to wholetone tuning so you can play all your favorite Charlie Parker tunes on it – in all keys.


She would of course be horrified if she knew what you were about to do, so choose a day when she is not about, preferably a warm day when you can send her to the seaside. You are about to see why.

The tubes are joined at the bottom by a beautifully curved (and sometimes carved) piece of wood. This disguises the fact that the inner lengths of the tubes do not describe a beautiful curve because some of the intervals between tubes are tones and some are semitones. Below you can see what the inner lengths would look like if you could see through the instrument. I am not sure that the extra length at the bottom makes the thing easier to handle.

retune_your_nai2What we are about to do is replace the diatonic scale G A B C D E F# with the whole tone scale G A B C# Eb F G. We will need an electronic tuner, some beeswax and wooden tuning rods. They have one flat end for tamping down the wax and another shaped like a four-cornered chisel to remove the surplus wax. You can find pictures of these and very detailed instructions on how to use them on If you can’t buy them they are easy to make with some dowelling.

Beeswax is preferable to candle wax, because it sticks better and stays softer, in case you put in too much and need to scrape some out with the sharp end of the rod. It also doesn’t shrink so much when it cools. Also never pour in liquid wax,  as it sticks to the sides and ruins the sound. The wax should be sticky-soft, which was why I recommended choosing a warm day. Otherwise find some way to warm it without it melting, like rolling it in your hand.

So here is what we will have to do. Starting from the bottom, the first three tubes keep the same tuning, G A B. The next four tubes (C D E F#) need to be raised a semitone (+1) to sound C# Eb F G. To do this we will need to shorten the inner length by about 5.7% by adding in wax. The next three tubes will need to be raised a whole tone (+2). This means the length will be roughly 11% shorter. This is to give an idea how much wax to put in. And so we carry on up the tubes as in the picture below. The orange represents the beeswax you will have to add, and the numbers represent the semitone change:


Now you will notice the very highest tube is raised by three whole tones (a tritone) and makes a sound that only a dog can hear. In fact your 19th tube now makes the sound that your 22nd tube used to make, and even that is something you normally avoid playing. I don’t recommend sawing off the top three tubes or your Gran will freak out. Just don’t play them if you want to avoid damaging your hearing (or your Gran’s).

So far you have only changed the lengths of  your tubes, but this creates a problem at the extreme top end, because you didn’t reduce the diameters. Your top octave is probably hard to play, with the notes sounding a bit wild and unstable.

I have made bamboo fillets for this instrument using gardening bamboo


The trick is to use a small round file to hollow out the bamboo from the inside first, before shaving the outside down with a sharp knife to fit inside the tube. If you do the outside first you risk breaking the bamboo when you file the inside. We are talking less than a 2mm reduction, which means the walls of the fillet will be just 1mm thick! Once the fillet fits snugly inside the tube, cut the fillet to length and smear soft wax (not glue!!) on the outside before placing it in the tube. Dont force it! If it is too big it could split the tube, so be gentle and work patiently. Sand off the top of the fillet and you are ready to go!

This operation should be reversible if you decide you don’t like wholetone tuning. But give it a month, and I am sure you will be converted to the wholetone system!

You can learn more on And I wish you Happy tuuting!

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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2 Responses to How to convert your panpipe to wholetone tuning

  1. panflutepath says:

    Not as complicated as I had thought, -except for maybe the fillets on the high-end but even that is do-able. Hmm. My next project may be…


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