Choosing a Simple-System Flute
Gerald O'Loughlin, Co. Clare. Photo copyright Peter Laban, Miltown Malbay
This page provides guidance on several key decisions you will need to make when choosing a simple-system flute.
To Key or Not to Key?
If you want a simple-system flute, you must decide whether you'd like one with keywork or not. With an eight-key, fully chromatic "D" flute, it is relatively easy to play tunes in keys like C, F, Eb, or Bb, and you can hit accidentals (such as F natural or C natural when you're playing in the key of D) faster and more accurately. A keyless flute, on the other hand, is basically like a big whistle played sideways: you can cross-finger or half-hole to get the accidentals, but it's less efficient than using keys. The biggest advantages of keyless flutes are that they're lighter and much less expensive than those with keys. And you don't need keys for most of the traditional Irish tunes that sit well on the flute.
With keyed flutes, you have a choice between post-mounted and block-mounted keys. Many people feel that block-mounted keywork is more aesthetically pleasing, and that's what most modern makers offer. But keep in mind that the wooden blocks are somewhat susceptible to cracking and shrinking with age. (Blocks are fairly easy to replace in most cases, so this is not a major worry.) Post-mounted keywork, in which the keys are attached to little metal posts, should generally be more stable over time.
If you think post-mounted keys are ugly, check out this detail of a lovely Rudall and Rose flute from about 1850. Image courtesy of Richard Moon.
Mind Your Head(joint)!
If you want to play regularly with other musicians, a tuning slide—the bit of metal tubing in the head joint that allows the flute's head to be pushed in or out—is recommended. Some flutes come with tuning slides; others (usually less expensive models) do not. A tuning slide is good to have because a flute that is in tune with other instruments at the beginning of a session will gradually become sharper as you play. (Here's why: when you start blowing warm air into a cold flute, the instrument's cool walls reduce the temperature of the air column inside it. But after playing for a few minutes, your breath starts to warm the flute, allowing the air column's temperature to approach that of your body. Because sound moves faster through warm air than cold, the flute becomes sharper in pitch as it warms up. Thanks to Henrik Norbeck for this explanation.)
Without a tuning slide you'll have to compensate for this sharpening effect by adjusting your blowing angle across the embouchure hole. You can do it, but your tone may suffer. On the other hand, some flute makers eschew tuning slides on the grounds that they may make a wooden flute more likely to crack. You should also be aware that playing with the tuning slide pulled way out or pushed all the way in will make the flute sound out of tune with itself, unless you adjust the distance from the end of the end-cap cork to the middle of the embouchure hole. The heavy "Patent Head" mechanism on some antique Rudall and Rose flutes was designed to keep the flute in tune with itself as the tuning slide was drawn in or out: to adjust the tuning you twisted the end cap, which simultaneously moved the cork and the tuning slide.
On some flutes, mainly those made by (or patterned after) the great English flute makers, you'll find that the headjoint is lined on the inside with a metal tube. A lined headjoint tends to produce a clearer tone, especially in the upper octave, although some flute players prefer the sound of pure wood. Metal-lined headjoints do have some potential disadvantages: they make the flute somewhat heavier to hold and less evenly balanced, they're more expensive (especially if silver tubing is used), and they may make the headjoint more prone to crack. If you play flute regularly, the risk of cracking may be reduced as the wood will have less opportunity to dry out and contract around the lining.
Volume and Tone
When choosing a flute, think about the quality of sound you want to produce. Do you crave the loud, reedy tone that many traditional players favor? Or do you want a flute that sounds rich, sweet, and creamy? Do you want your flute to be heard over the din of accordions, fiddles, and banjos in a crowded session? Or would you rather blend in with the other instruments?
A good player can achieve most of these qualities from any well-designed flute, but if your primary goal is volume and "reediness" you should look for a flute with large toneholes, such as the English flutes of the late 19th century (Nicholson, Pratten, Rudall and Rose).
A slightly squared-off embouchure hole -- commonly called a "boxed oval" --may also help you get a big sound, while a round or rounded-oval hole will tend to produce a darker and more focused tone. The bore size and internal profile make a difference too: narrow-bore flutes are said to have a "sweeter," more refined tone than those with larger bores. Rudall-style flutes (and Baroque flutes) have internal variations in the taper of the bore that are put there for internal tuning purposes or to bring out certain qualities in certain notes. These internal variations set up perturbations in the air column inside the flute, producing a rich, complex tone.
Beginners may find that large-diameter flutes with big tone holes and embouchure holes can be hard to fill with enough air to produce a satisfying tone. Big embouchure holes can also lead to a fluffy, unfocused sound in the hands of a beginner or someone who's used to a smaller embouchure hole.
If you use the traditional Irish flute fingering, like that of a whistle, you'll find that on most English flutes (Pratten, Rudall & Rose, Nicholson, etc.) and their modern replicas, the F# is flat, the A is sharp, and the C# is flat. The bottom D on Rudall and Rose flutes is also quite flat. You will have to adjust your blowing angle across the embouchure hole, or use the metal keys in the original simple-system fingering (see below), to make these notes play in tune. You can blow downward into the hole to make a note flatter, and blow across the hole to make it sharper; this can be done by tipping your head up or down slightly, by rolling the flute toward or away from you, or a bit of both. The bottom D on a Rudall-style flute can be played in tune by tightening your embouchure, blowing harder, and by using a flatter blowing angle than you would use on a Pratten.
I've had lengthy conversations with flute makers and players about why these particular notes are "off" and have heard several explanations. Some makers believe the off notes are casualties of the tempered scale devised to make the flute playable in three octaves. (Remember that these flutes were originally designed to play classical music). Other makers, such as Patrick Olwell, believe these toneholes were deliberately placed they way they were to accommodate Charles Nicholson's idiosyncratic way of playing the flute, in which he blew much more strongly on the bottom notes (G down to D) than on the A. (Nicholson was a very influential flute player in the early 1800s, who had a hand in designing the large-hole flutes favored by most Irish musicians today.) Some makers point out that the A and C# need to be slightly off in order to produce a good cross-fingered C natural.
Nineteenth century English flutes were not originally designed to be played with the "whistle" fingering: if you look at the back of Hammy Hamilton's The Irish Flute Player's Handbook (or in The Flute, by Rockstro), you'll see a chart that shows how the simple-system flute was originally meant to be fingered. Opening either of the two F-natural keys while you play F# will bring the note closer to pitch; combining this with opening the D# key may bring it even closer. Opening the long C-natural key while playing C# (all holes open) will bring that note up to pitch as well. But while this explains why these two particular notes sound "off" when played with the traditional fingering used by Irish musicians, it still doesn't account for the sharp A found on many flutes. Plus it doesn't help you if you have an unkeyed flute.
At any rate, you should try playing scales on your flute against an electronic tuner to learn how to play the instrument reasonably in tune. Start by positioning your flute's tuning slide so you can produce a strong, full G at proper pitch, and then play up and down the scale from there to find out what you need to do to play the other notes in tune. Your tuning will improve, especially in the second octave, as your lip muscles strenghthen and you develop a tighter embouchure. Many beginning players will sound sharp in the second octave because they play the flute as if it were a whistle, going into the second octave by blowing harder. But with the flute you don't want to blow harder to get the second octave, you want to tighten your embouchure. You should actually be able to play the second octave on the flute more quietly than the first octave.
Choose Your Wood
Another factor to consider in choosing a flute is the type of wood (or other material) used: grenadilla (also called African blackwood) and ebony are said to have a warm, dark timbre; boxwood is often said to produce a mellower sound, possibly because the surface of the bore can't be finished quite as smoothly as blackwood. These are fairly subtle differences, however, and not apparent to everyone's ear.
The March 1998 issue of Scientific American has an interesting article on flute materials. It cites an experiment in which a blindfolded audience couldn't tell the difference between the tone of a flute made of cherry wood and one made of concrete. In the end, the material used to make a flute may matter less than the shape and size of the bore, the size and shape of the embouchure hole, the size and shape of the toneholes, the presence or absence of keys, and other factors.
Good flutes can be made from a wide range of materials. Don't reject something simply because it's not blackwood or box. Patrick Olwell's son Aran once made an acceptable (though temporary) flute out of a large carrot, and Vincent Broderick's brother Peter won the All-Ireland championship with a flute he made out of a length of copper pipe. Flutes have been made from bicycle pumps, plastic tubes, glass, ceramic, bones, and who knows what else.
Several makers now offer six-hole flutes made of bamboo or polymer. These are generally more affordable than wood, and a better environmental choice than blackwood. High-quality bamboo flutes are becoming popular among Irish musicians. Bamboo flutes have a cylindrical bore, so their internal tuning is different from that of a conical-bore flute, and nobody's making bamboo flutes with keys or a tuning slide. Aside from these caveats, high-quality bamboo flutes are well suited for Irish music. Plastic flutes are scorned by many Irish players, but some very good ones are on the market now and they are obviously much more durable and easier to care for than wooden instruments.
Some people are allergic or sensitive to certain kinds of woods, such as cocus; if you find that your lips get inflamed when you play, stop immediately. You can ask a flutemaker to install a silver band or sleeve around the embouchure hole, or have a new headjoint made from a different wood. Be very careful when trying out a cocus flute, especially if it has recently been oiled. Oiling seems to bring out the irritating qualities in cocus, and some people who have played a cocus flute for several weeks or months with no ill effects may discover that they are allergic after oiling the flute. Cocus can produce very severe allergic reactions in some people, sometimes requiring a trip to the hospital.
Finding and Buying a Flute
Good wooden flutes range in price from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars. Here in the flute guide you'll find an international directory of flute makers.
Most of the finest eight-key flutes ever made were manufactured in Britain during the 1800s. Nicholson, Rudall and Rose, Pratten, and Boosey (Pratten's Perfected) were among the leading makers, and many of their instruments are still being played today. If you can get your hands on one of these, or a modern replica thereof, you'll have all the flute you'll ever need. Note, however, that the antique flutes were made when concert pitch was sharp of where it is today, so to play these flutes in tune with other modern instruments you'll have to pull out the tuning slide, affecting your tone and internal tuning.
If you wish to start with a smaller investment, there are many old German student flutes on the market that are fairly cheap and produce an acceptable tone, though they often sound somewhat "pinched" or weak. A plastic or bamboo flute may also be a good choice if you don't want to spend a lot of money.
If possible, try to spend a few days (or longer) playing a flute before deciding whether to purchase it. This is especially true for experienced players. Every flute has its own idiosyncracies, and you may have to adjust your playing style accordingly. For example, someone who's used to playing a Pratten Perfected flute would initially find that the bottom D of a Rudall and Rose flute sounds weak and very flat, and might think the instrument was defective. But after some practice, the player would be able to get a strong D, on pitch, with little effort. Even flutes made by the same maker vary widely, so if you're shopping for a flute it pays to get your hands on as many instruments as possible to find out what you like and don't like. When you get a flute you like, stick with it and get to know it.
If you visit a flute maker who has several flutes on hand, ask if you can try several different headjoints on one flute body. No two headjoints are exactly alike, and you'll be amazed at the difference a good headjoint makes.
Australian flutemaker Terry McGee has additional advice on what to look for in buying a flute.
Next: once you've got a flute, go on to the "learning" page to find resources for learning how to play.