Phin in a haystack

Yes, It’s been a while since my last post, I know. But good things are in the works, I have just been waiting to meet a benchmark good enough to post. I don’t really know if I have, but I decided that since this blog isn’t really about the idea of “finished” music, but about experimenting and learning, I’d go ahead and post my most recent project.

I’ve never been a huge fan of VICE magazine, for reasons immaterial to this post, but I recently found their new video site and decided to give it a look anyhow, as I am really interested in the possibilities inherent in internet video. While a good portion of it is typically boring, I was pretty much overjoyed to see the inclusion of a Sublime Frequencies channel. I have admired the fine fellows who put together the always lovely SF compilations and even more so the dynamic individuals they document, so the chance to see these individuals playing this wonderful music is truly singular.

I checked back the other day to see if any new videos had been added and discovered the focus of my new obsession. In the video “Thai Ghost Festival, Part 1” The focal point of much of the video is an amazing electric “guitar” player improvising a molam-meets-hendrix jam over a group drumming and bamboo xylophone (Pong-Lang) backbone. The whole image, vibe and content of this video is truly awesome. The sound of the “guitar” was just eastern enough and just snarly enough to form a totally new sound. I wanted it. I had been thinking about another instrument building project, especially a microtonal one, and for me, this was it.

You may be wondering to yourself, why I keep putting the word “guitar” in parentheses… Well, in Thailand it seems they use the word “guitar” to reference any instrument that resembles and plays in the same range as a western guitar. However, the instrument being played was very un-guitar-like. It had only three strings (on each of it’s two necks! Rock!), and a fret placement so odd, it almost looked random.

Image capture of the phin player from the Sublime Frequencies video

After a some googling, I was able to find out that the instrument is question is called a “phin” (piin, pin). It seems from what I can gather that the phin is the main guitar-like instrument of modern Thai culture, although the western guitar has also become very popular.

Earlier in the week I had, out of the desire to build something, begun working on a 2 stringed instrument, built out of a mop handle and an old cookie tin. Initially this was going to be fretted in dulcimer tuning, even though the idea bored me some. I wanted to explore other tunings, but I didn’t know how. Whenever I searched I got a ton of sites using a language I knew was based on english, but that I didn’t understand, and a bevy of math, with which I am inherently completely worthless. Upon seeing the phin tho, the idea changed. “What if I had an instrument I could put in any tuning?”, I thought. The idea came to me, to attach movable frets to this new instrument, so I could tune it to any interesting method that I found.

As soon as I got a chance I banged my instrument together. It came together pretty quickly which was good, and I was really pleased with the overall banjo-like sound. This version is a sort of prototype, so there are things i’d like to change, but all of that can be done fairly easily in the future. I pretty much just wanted to get this thing playable to see whether or not it was worth my time.

The next problem was of course, tuning it, and this is where the story gets a little complicated. I knew i could figure out phin tuning if I could just find a proper image. Which I did, but what I realized soon after is that unlike instruments in the west, the tunings of instruments in many other cultures is widely open ot interpretation. So, while I had my image, there was no guarantee it was going to come out sounding at all like what I had heard in the video. But I went for it anyway.

In order to get the fretting in the image I found on to my instrument, I made use of some of the tools of my actual trade, graphic design. I brought the image in to Adobe Illusrator and mapped the frets, nut and bridge with lines made with Illustrators “pen” tool. You can see the lines in the image below. This made scalable markings that would not distort upon stretching to the scale of my instrument. I measured my instrument from face of bridge to face of nut, and entered that measurement into Illustrator and stretched my newly copied scale to match. I then printed out my newly drawn fret position template, laid it across the neck of the instrument and began positioning frets.

fret mapping in illustrator
fret mapping in illustrator (close up)

I had looked into a couple classic methods of making movable frets, but found all of them too complicated for now or lacking in some way. I decided to experiment instead with small “zip-ties”. The ones I had laying around were about 2mm thick, and a nice green to match my tin (total coincedence I swear). They work GREAT! I put them on pretty tight and they just stretched out enough after a day to be easily movable, but stay put when you need them to. The only down side is the cut ends are sharp (though they could be filed down) and the ties are 1mm thick all the way around which makes playing a little difficult, but I think with practice and a shoulder strap, I could play around those obstacles. My future plan though, is to build a proper 3 string phin, but I think I still want to have movable frets. In that case, I think I will try the sitar method, which uses a bar for a fret, that is notched towards the ends so that it can be tied on. I think this would look nicer and also make for a nicer tone.

The initial tuning was a total success. Aside from a couple minor issues, it played wonderfully, and the tuning sounded great. The only problem is, it did not sound like the tuning in the video. This is where things get kind of tricky. Due to the fact that these instruments are not built to a certain set specifications, but instead to the builders own ear, the chance that the phin I used to build the scale, is tuned the same as the phin in the video, is more than slim. Now you may be asking yourself why I care, since I can’t play this instrument in combination with any of the others I own anyway. Well, for one, I love to figure things like this out so the search is an end in itself. Secondly, I just LOVE the way the phin in the video sounds and I want to give what Ive got to try and get it.

Since I started this, I have tried about 5 or so different tunings, all from different images I have found. I still can’t find one that sounds like the one in the video. I may actually attempt to pull a fret chart from the video, but this is complicated for a number of reasons. I love the “The Tihn”, as I have jokingly called it and I’m sure it won’t be staying in any one tuning for very long. I feel a weird sense of accomplishment having built it, even though it was the simplest thing. Maybe it’s just the excitement of having such a flexible instrument at my disposal.

Thoughts for the future (before I wrap this thing up):
– a pickup
– a small soundhole?
– strap
– black paint for the neck?

If I happen to find this elusive tuning, I will post it here, but for now, check out these samples of my initial tuning:

All frets played on the high string, going from lowest to highest
A little jam

BONUS: A rip of the sound from the Sublime Frequencies video
BONUS: Another nice little phin piece I found

By the by, if anyone can read thai and wants to translate this page for me, I’d love you forever.

Here’s a bunch more cool phin images:


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17 Responses to “Phin in a haystack”

  1. Chchchchchanges... « OF SOUND MIND Says:

    […] while i haven’t been experimenting much lately, I have been playing my makeshift phin a lot and really enjoying that. Right now it is in a tuning very similar to the tuning that was […]

  2. My first time collaborating on improvised music « OF SOUND MIND Says:

    […] Al B & ET (me) Implements: Cassette recorders, home made “lute”, various modified and unmodified children’s toys, kalimba, silvertone acoustic, boss reverb […]

  3. tommy Says:

    I recently traveled to thailand and during my stay fell in love with the music of the issan region similar to what is being played in the video you’ve posted. As a guitar player i found the phin intriguing and began playing it with some of the villagers and eventually purchased one before coming home to the states. I cant seem to figure out the exact tuning though i am positive it is either EAE or DGD as my phin has the frets marked in english and thai.(the first frets marked EAE then each succeding fret being a whole step up. The phin itself is electric with a guitar humbucker installed and almost identicle to the last picture of phins in your entry. Ive also purchased a cd from Thailand with two very long tracks of traditional phin playing, im interested in finding out what you know and sharing what i’ve picked up from my last viit.

  4. howsthatsound Says:

    that sounds amazing! i would love to go to thailand. it’s great that
    you got to play with some of the local folks, what a great experience.

    i have never really gotten the tuning verified, but everyone i have
    spoken too (some of them fairly knowlegable on thai culture
    specifically) seems to think that it is tuned in an EAE sort of
    relationship, but it seems to vary as to the specific tuning by
    region. i’d love to see some images of your phin as there are very few
    detailed images available online.

    what cd did you get? is it a local one? i’d love to hear it. sublime
    frequencies has an interesting looking video from isaan that i have
    been meaning to see here.

    thanks for reading!

  5. John Says:

    Hi, I also just returned from Thailand (word of advice – don’t leave anything valuable in your check-in luggage on the flight!)

    I also bought a Phin (the going price is about 1000-1500 baht), which is tuned to EAE as well, with A being the tonic. I also tried EBE. String gauges should be about the same as the three highest strings on a guitar, though mine is strung up with the A way too light.

    The frets are, if you assume the open string is E

    F F# G A B C D

    My phin is a cheap beginner type, exactly like the one on the right in the bottom-most photo on this page. Sounds great and really good intonation, though! Good luck with your project.

  6. howsthatsound Says:

    thanks a lot for the comment john! you get the prize for being the first to supply me with any info on the fret placement. kudos! i had temporarily given up on the thai tuning and returned mine to dulcimer tuning. while certainly enjoyable it is slightly less exciting than the thai tuning.
    i’m excited to try this out. now i will HAVE to build a 3 string version!

    thanks again for the info!

  7. jp Says:

    I just read that the 3 cords are 1: 009 , 2: 011 /012 3: 016
    it mean: the 3 first cord of a guitar EBG , tuning in EAE.

  8. Kunakorn Says:

    If you want to know how to play phin?
    let ‘see on

  9. Ortega Says:

    i read some similar in other blogs. but i do not think the same. sorry. maybe check better some more sources to point the thing out. community resources

  10. Edward Says:

    What pick up is in the “cigar box” guitar?? Looks great and sounds great too!!


  11. Privett Says:

    Bel post! 🙂
    non ci credo! 😀
    non capisco..
    complimenti per il blog
    mi piace come scrivi

  12. Seagraves Says:

    That is some riveting stuff. You are a great writer and what a great topic!


    […] instruments and one of the most interesting instruments I’ve heard a Thai Lute called the Phin, electrified, and with copious amounts of reverb. Because of that post, which sparked interest in […]

  14. thaikarl Says:

    my real home is in thailand. i love the Phin sound and playing. i’m friended with a Phin maker on Facebook, going to visit him when i go home in march 2016

  15. xph Says:

    from what I saw, most used tunings are EAE (live) and GCG (e.g. Khun Narin records), but whatever works can be used, too 🙂 – see

  16. Wingy Moore Says:

    Where can I buy strings for an acoustic Thai phin???- I live in th UK, Tia.

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