Flexible EWI fingerings

July 24, 2010

With traditional woodwind instruments, the fingers work together to change the effective length of the instrument’s body tube by opening and closing toneholes. Woodwind fingerings at their most basic use the fingers in sequence. For example, a certain note might be produced with an “open” fingering (all toneholes open). When the “first” finger (the one closest to the mouthpiece) closes a hole, the pitch drops, perhaps by a whole step. Adding the next farther finger drops the pitch again, and so on toward the bell end of the instrument.

“Forked” fingerings, in which a lower tonehole is closed while one above it is open, often produce somewhat inferior results—notes that are mismatched in timbre and/or intonation. (Some modern woodwinds use special mechanisms to correct for this, such as the F resonance mechanism on a high-quality oboe.)

An electronic woodwind-style instrument, such as the Akai EWI series, uses a fingering system that is designed to be similar to a traditional woodwind, so that a traditional woodwind player can easily adapt to it. But this is an arbitrary choice. Since the instrument’s tone production system uses electronic circuitry and software, rather than a vibrating air column, the fingering system don’t necessarily have to use the fingers in sequence, and forked fingerings don’t have any inherent problems. The fingerings can be invented completely from scratch, with no acoustical limitations.

EWI fingerings are designed to draw upon the best of both worlds—the familiarity of traditional woodwind fingerings, and the flexibility of a non-acoustical fingering system.

Note that the current-model EWI4000s, using version 2.4 of the operating system, includes several fingering modes. The mode I am considering here is the “EWI” mode, as the “flute,” “oboe,” and “saxophone” modes sacrifice some flexibility for the sake of increased familiarity to traditional woodwind players. You might consider this article to be subtitled, “Why you should be using the ‘EWI’ fingering mode.”

The current manual (“revision D”) shows a mere 17 fingerings in its EWI mode fingering chart (11 chromatic pitches, with B-flat through D having fingerings in two octaves, and B-flat having one additional alternate fingering). But many, many more are possible.

We can consider the individual EWI keys as having individual functions, rather than being inherently interdependent. For example, pressing none of the keys produces a C-sharp:


Adding any key will alter the C-sharp pitch by a given amount:

key pitch change
(in semitones)
LH 1 -2
LH bis -1 If both LH 1 and LH 2 are pressed, LH bis has no effect
LH 2 -2 If LH 1 is not pressed, LH2 produces -1 (this makes LH middle finger C possible)
LH 3 -2
LH pinky 1 +1
LH pinky 2 -1
RH side +1 No effect when used in combination with LH pinky 1
RH 1 -2 If LH 3 is not pressed, RH1 produces -1 (this makes 1 + 1 B-flat possible)
RH 2 -1
RH 3 -2
RH pinky 1 +1
RH pinky 2 -1
RH pinky 3 -2

If I press LH 1, LH 2, and LH 3, the pitch is lowered from C-sharp by a total of 6 semitones, producing the G fingering familiar to saxophonists, oboists, flutists, and clarinetists.

But that is only one possible combination. I could also produce a G with, for example, LH 1, LH 2, and RH 3. Or LH 3, LH pinky 2, RH 1, and RH pinky 2. These fingerings would be extremely unlikely to work on a traditional woodwind, but with the EWI the possibilities are wide open. As long as the total pitch change adds up to -6 (and accounting for any of the listed exceptions), you get a G.

Standard G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + LH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G One alternative G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + RH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G Another alternative G.(LH 3 + LH pinky 2 + RH 1 + RH pinky 2) = (-2 + -1 + -2 + -1) = -6 = G

These examples are illustrative but likely have few real-world applications. For a more practical example, consider trills, which among traditional woodwind players are a subject of endless discussion and books upon books of awkward, complicated fingerings. An ideal trill fingering involves moving only one finger, preferably one that can be moved in a rapid, controlled, non-awkward way.

Take a look at the following musical example (one that oboists will recognize).

This passage would be a nightmare to play using only Akai’s 17 listed fingerings, but is easily manageable if you take a moment to work out some alternatives.

Assuming that you are using the “side” B-flat fingering in the first measure, the most obvious A-flat to B-flat trill is to hold the B-flat fingering and trill will LH 3. However, if you prefer, LH 2 will work equally well, as will RH 3 or RH pinky 3. (LH 1 will not work, because of the LH 2 exception; that would produce an A-flat to B-natural tremolo.)

Awkward A-flat to B-flat trills using Akai’s published fingerings. (Alternate the blue and red keys.) A much better trill fingering.

The next problematic trill is F to G-flat in the last measure of line 2. I suggest holding the F fingering and trilling with RH pinky 1. (LH pinky 1 is also serviceable, but I find RH easier because RH 3 is free.)

F to G-flat trill

For the G-flat to A-flat trill in the same measure, I would hold the G-flat trill fingering (standard F, plus RH pinky 1) and trill with RH 1. (Again, there are more possibilities. In many cases the standard A-flat fingering trilling RH 1 would make sense.)

G-flat to A-flat trill

Try that whole measure—the fingerings are unfamiliar at first, but they lie very comfortably under the fingers and make for effortless trills.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Take a little time to experiment with your EWI’s fingerings, and see what you come up with!


  1. JK

    Thanks for what I hope is turning into a series on wind controllers. I don’t know anyone who as one, which makes it hard to learn what they will do. Do you have any thoughts on the simpler (and less expensive) USB models by Akai and Yamaha. By the way, which patch did you use for the audio clip?


    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Hi JK,

      Definitely keep an eye open for more wind controller stuff here in the future. You might also check out some related links and visit the websites and blogs of some other wind controller players.

      I don’t have anything more than a passing acquaintance with the Akai USB or the Yamaha WX series. My understanding is that the Akai USB has essentially the same capabilities as the Akai 4000s, except that is has to be plugged into a computer and has fewer octave rollers. I don’t know that the Yamaha is any simpler than the Akai, but it is actually more expensive because it requires an external sound module (sold separately).

      For the audio clip, I used the “Phazar” patch (#58) from the Patchman sound bank.

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. EWIChris

    Great article! I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have been using the sax fingerings on EWI, mostly because of G#. On sax, the right hand fingers close the G# key even when you keep you have G# pressed, so when I play in sharp keys, I have a tendency to keep my left pinky on the G# key. The sax mode on EWI lets me get away with this, and behaves like a sax, whereas the EWI mode does not.

    Maybe I’ll take a shot at EWI mode again, though. Like you say, the increased flexibility might make the transition worth it. Thanks for the insights.

    @JK – The Akai EWI-USB is indeed similar to the EWI4000s except with 2 less octaves, no built in sound module and connects to a computer via USB, so you don’t need a MIDI interface. It’s ideal if you want to use your computer as your sole sound source.

    Recent blog post: Sound of the Week - Brecker 4ths (July 21, 2010)


    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Right—this is the trade-off of the EWI fingerings versus the flute/oboe/saxophone fingerings. The EWI fingerings are powerful but don’t tolerate much laziness.

      For me, there’s enough of a learning curve with the breath control, the octave rollers, etc. that the flute/oboe/saxophone fingering modes don’t smooth the transition to a significant extent. Might as well learn the EWI fingerings while I’m getting to know the instrument.

      The saxophone mode, at least, seems to be the most faithful to “real” saxophone fingerings (you only really lose some palm keys, the side F-sharp, and the low B-flat). The flute and oboe modes are farther from real woodwind fingerings, and could really only become more accurate with hardware modifications.

      Thanks for the confirmation/clarification about the EWI-USB.


  3. Jose Nunez

    Bret: Thanks for all your notes. Really appreciated.

    The sound file seems to be outdated and cannot be found. Can you update it, please? I would like to hear it.

    Also, since the EWI fingering is just programmed in (so, there is no need for an specific route to follow since there is not real tubing to be enlarged or shorted to change the pitch, as in any “real” wind instrument…) do you think that it could be possible to program the EWI to form even some other alternative fingering schedule/chart?

    (Going back to the “real” wind instrument that I mentioned before: I think that I should have used “analog” wind instrument instead, since the EWI – at least IMHO – it is a very “real” instrument indeed)


  4. ldb

    I didn’t have any previous woodwind experience before I got an EWI. What I found fastest was to memorize the C maj scale starting with all fingers down, then internalize the +/- halfstep/wholestep “extra” keys. I sometimes run into parts that I have to refinger (trills, as you point out, sometimes), but for 95% of the things I play, this one set of fingers works fine.

    Nice web site, just stumbled across it.


  5. Neil

    I am flautist and started out using the flute fingering but quickly gave up and switched to the EWI fingering a) because I kept on tripping myself up with D (you can’t lift the index finger of your left hand on the EWI and still get a D) and b) because of the way, as Bret says in this article, that you can use the little fingers of both your hands to make difficult transitions easier, for instance playing a C♯ with RH side key to give a D at the top of the octave without having to play over the break.
    Great article. Thanks Bret.


  6. Ozzoid

    I played clarinet originally and started with the EWI fingering from scratch.

    As outlined in this article, there is an abundance of alternate fingerings, either leaving keys open or use of various forks + the side keys.

    I started to write a ‘chart’ for all of them but gave up – it bordered at writing a thesis…

    I found depending on the actual key you are playing in (or the lick) there are some optimal fingerings or rather fingering sequences available – only patience and experimentation (and a good memory) will get you there, but it’s worth it.

    To be able to play e.g. 4 bars of 16th at 180 jumping seamlessly from B to Eb to D then to F# will impress listeners… (as long as it sounds good)…

    PS I have to admit (this is really embarassing) I also ‘cheat’ sometimes: playing a fast lick with e.g. B or Db chords in it I simply leave the left pinky on K6 and ‘play’ C or D ‘scales’ instead, or slaving thru Ab minor I leave pinky on K5 and ‘play’ in A minor … you still need to know what you are doing and when to let go for blue notes/any extra chromatics required… but the EWI does the semitone up or down over a whole range brilliantly.

    Imho whoever designed this fingering system is a genius.


  7. Nicolas

    Hello and thank you for your article. I’ve had an EWI for a month and I thought I would stick to the saxophone fingering since I would be able to reuse that knowledge later on a real saxophone.
    However, after trying the real thing, I think I’ll stick to the EWI. In that perspective it would be foolish not to take advantage of the EWI fingering. It’s more permissive but in the end, what counts is whether you do good music, not how easily it was obtained. Finally I’m more a “relative” player than an “absolute” one, so notes modifiers is a good way to approach it for me.


  8. Bastien

    just to let you know this article (and actually a lot more of them) will be a lifesaver for me, 5 years after it was written.
    I didn’t find the way the keys worked anywere else, and I need this much more than any diagram filled with 200 fingerings ^^

    I’ll be starting EWI in a few days after wanting to play it for a few years(sadly I didn’t have the money etc as a teenager back then) since I discovered artists like Masato Honda or Brecker. Ideally I’ll get to saxophone (but as a college student I’m not allowed to play such a loud instrument and I’d just bother everyone) but you really convinced me to use EWI fingering (I was actually wondering for a while on which one to pick), in hindsight it looks like forthmentionned musicians use the EWI fingering even though they played saxophone when EWI was still lyricon :p (Then again Honda is a monster with 4 different woodwinds and good with others each with different fingerings)

    So really thanks for this.


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