Quality Irish Flutes

Flute Buyer’s Guide

Materials used for constructing flutes: In general, the best sounding flutes are made from the densest materials. With metal concert flutes, gold alloy sounds better than silver, and silver sounds better than nickel-brass alloy. However, Irish flutes have traditionally been constructed from wood, with African blackwood or ebony being the wood of choice because of the high density. Rosewood, coccus wood, cherry, oak, walnut, maple or other exotic woods are also used. Because wooden flutes must be machined from a solid piece of wood, it requires a lot of skill to construct a good flute. I visited the workshop of a world-class maker of blackwood piccolos (list price $2800.00) in Tucson, Arizona. He explained to me that even with an experienced artisan and after several years of aging, grenadilla or blackwood will sometimes disintegrate as it is being machined. My recommendation is to buy a wooden flute from a well-known maker, and expect to pay over $200 for an entry-level flute. Performance quality flutes may cost between $1,000-$2,000. In my opinion lower-cost wooden flutes made in Pakistan or the Orient, while they may look attractive in the photo, are generally not worth buying due to a variety of technical problems, such as poor intonation.

The advantages of a good wooden Irish flute is that they are beautiful to look at and to hold, they are capable of producing the traditional “reedy” or “woody” Irish flute sound, and with a tuning slide they can be tuned to play below or above the standard pitch, if you happen to be playing with a crazy accordion player, whose circa 1950 accordion has seen better days. However, wooden flutes do have some disadvantages other than their significantly higher cost. They are subject to the vagaries of climate, so they may swell, crack, or go out of tune unless they are cared for properly. Be prepared to swab out the bore of the flute after every playing. The bores of wooden flutes also need to be oiled occasionally, and temperature extremes or sudden temperature changes need to be avoided. And lastly, the best wooden flutes are made using wood from trees that are endangered worldwide. For the potential buyer who is environmentally conscientious, this may be an important consideration.

Conical vs. cylindrical bore flutes: You may have noticed that most wooden flutes have conical bores. The conical bore design helps to compress the fingering on the larger flutes, and it also corrects for second octave intonation problems that are present on flutes made with cylindrical bores, such as flutes made from piping. This intonation correction can also be accomplished by using a tapered head bore, as on the modern Boehm silver flute, which, except for the head joint, has a cylindrical flute body. On flutes made from pipe, it is possible to duplicate the Boehm headjoint taper by inserting a small wedge into the headjoint of the flute. I describe this wedge in an article on my webpage (above).

Some of the non-wood materials that are customarily used for making flutes, arranged in order of decreasing density, are: delrin, PVC, CPVC, and polymer. Delrin is a hard, dense plastic, and flutes made from delrin can be among the best sounding flutes available. Delrin is available in bar stock, so flutes need to be machined as with wooden flutes. Consequently, flutes made from delrin are rather expensive.

The three remaining materials on the list are commonly available as extruded pipe, which greatly simplifies the flute construction process. PVC (poly vinyl chloride) is a dense and very durable plastic. The size of pipe that is commonly used for the construction of low D Irish flutes has an internal diameter of 21mm and a wall thickness of 3mm. It turns out that this is the perfect size to construct a great sounding flute in low D throughout the two-octave range. Because of the large diameter, the low D comes in easily and the volume is loud. But even though the diameter is large, the second octave D is also easy to play. Several types and qualities of PVC are available, and the best sounding flutes are made from the densest PVC.

CPVC is PVC that has additional chlorine in the compound, and it is generally softer and less dense than PVC. Also, it is available in different sizes than PVC pipe. The size of CPVC pipe that is used to make low D Irish flutes has an internal diameter of 18mm with a wall thickness of 2mm. In comparison with PVC pipe the CPVC pipe has a cross-sectional area that is 73% that of PVC pipe, which means that the column of air in the pipe will be 27% smaller than the PVC pipe. And the smaller volume of air in the CPVC pipe translates directly into a smaller volume of sound produced. Also, the low D will not come in as easily on a CPVC flute, because the internal diameter is smaller than PVC pipe. Another factor that makes CPVC less suitable for constructing low D flutes is that the wall thickness is too thin to cut a good-sounding embouchure. I do believe that CPVC is an OK material for flutes in higher keys. Unfortunately, I happen to be allergic to CPVC, so I have quit experimenting with it altogether.

All plastics are actually polymers, including delrin and PVC. I am using polymer in this context as a generic term for a variety of other plastics (other than PVC or delrin) that are available as extruded pipe. Polymer pipe is usually thin-walled with a lower density than PVC, and it is sometimes fibrous. Because of the thin wall (often only 1mm), polymer flutes require a lip plate in order to cut a satisfactory embouchure. My personal bias against polymer flutes has to do with the way they sound. A veteran Irish flute player described the sound of a well-known polymer flute as having a “soapy” sound, which is on the other end of the spectrum from the “reedy” or “woody” sound of a traditional Irish flute. I also discuss polymer flutes in a paragraph on joint construction at the end of this section.

Another important idea when selecting a flute is the concept of playability. You want to select a flute that you will be able to finger easily, and, frankly, not all low D flutes are the same in this regard. Let me attempt to explain why this is so. First, a little review of music theory reminds us that there are two half-tones in the diatonic major scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do). The half tones occur between the 3rd and the 4th notes and between the 7th and the 8th notes of the scale. The problem for flute designers is the half tone interval between the 3rd and 4th notes. If you try to construct a low D flute with all the same size finger holes, you will see that the distance from the first finger hole (from the end of the flute) to the second hole is large. And the distance from the second hole to the third hole is small. Flutes made like this are hard to play unless you have giant fingers. Flute designers compensate for this by making the second hole larger, which will shift the second hole closer to the first hole, making the flute easier to play. On my low D flutes I use three different hole sizes for the first three holes, and this results in maximum finger hole compression and ease of fingering. I also offer flutes with offset finger holes to further assist players with smaller hands. So my advice in this regard is to examine closely the photo of the flute you are considering. Holes one, two, and three (right hand fingers) should be as close together as possible, and likewise for holes four, five, and six (left hand fingers). The distance between holes three and four is not relevant, since that interval is between the two hands.

There is some misunderstanding about the difference between flutes and whistles. Whistles are a group of flute-like instruments where the sound is produced by blowing through a fixed fipple or blowhole. Examples of whistles are penny whistles, recorders, and Native American flutes. One advantage of whistles is that they are easy to play, in that a tone can be produced by merely blowing in the mouthpiece. A serious disadvantage of whistles is that it is difficult for the player to modify the quality of the tone produced, which is often an airy, thin tone. Of course, if the whistle maker is expert, the sound produced can be quite acceptable, but in my opinion, not as good as the flute tone. Flutes, on the other hand, are generally side-blown (transverse) instruments. With flutes there is no fixed fipple but only an opening where a column of air from the mouth is split, with part of the column of air diving down into the flute to set up a standing wave that produces the tone. The quality of the tone is controlled by the shape and angle of the blowhole and by the embouchure, the position of the player’s mouth and lips. Once this simple technique is mastered, flutes are capable of producing a wide range of nuances and subtleties of tone that are impossible with a whistle. The transverse flute allows the performer a greater potential in terms of sound dynamics and expressiveness.

Making a nice tone on a flute is easy but may take some time to master. Personally, I think that it is well worth the effort. Just place your lower lip next to and centered on the blowhole. Now, with pursed lips blow a steady stream of air towards the opposing edge of the blowhole. Imagine yourself blowing through a straw. Now flatten the straw with your lips a blow a stream of air toward the sharp edge of the embouchure or blow hole. Rotate the flute until the best tone is produced and continue to hold the flute in that position. Beginnings players of the flute often blow too hard and become out of breath. Blowing too hard also tends to sharpen the flute tone. With good embouchure control a skilled flautist can make a strong flute tone with a small volume of air, mostly directed down into the flute

The Irish flute is fingered with the index, middle, and ring fingers of both hands. The little finger of the right hand is used to support the flute body. My suggestion is not to try to cover the holes with your fingertips. Trying to play with the fingertips may result in a cramped and uncomfortable hand position. Instead, hold the flute in a relaxed position, letting the fingers cover the holes wherever it feels most comfortable and natural. This is commonly known as “pipers grip” or playing with flat fingers. The fingers of the hands may extend way over the finger holes. I receive more questions about fingering than any other questions about the Irish flute.

A Word About Tuning: In western music (as opposed to world music) the octave is divided into twelve notes or half tones. Although it is contrary to what a musically sensitive person hears, to simplify the tuning of instruments (especially keyboard instruments) it was decided to make the interval between these twelve half-tone notes exactly the same size, with each of the half-tone intervals being further broken down into 100 units or cents. Therefore, the octave is divided into 1200 cents, with half-tone intervals being 100 cents and whole-tone intervals being 200 cents. This system of intonation is called equal-temperment, and it is the standard for all electronic tuners, except for the more expensive tuners that allow tuning to the exact frequency.

Human beings have an innate sense of relationship, both visually and aurally. For example, without using any measuring devices we are able to divide a pie into eight equal pieces. Similarly, with regard to music we can sense certain basic musical intervals in the octave. It turns out that the basic intervals that we sense are related to rational numbers or fractions. The simplest relationship is the octave interval (twice the frequency) or 2:1 ratio. The perfect fifth interval has a ratio of 3:2, and the fourth interval has a ration of 4:3. As the integers become larger, it becomes more difficult to sense the interval. For example, the interval of a seventh is 15:8. A system of intonation for intervals arrived at in this fashion is called Just intonation. However, with Just intonation the intervals are not all the same size, and in the past this caused many technical problems in tuning, so this system was abandoned in favor of equal-temperment..

Our current equal-temperment system of intonation is obviously convenient, but this convenience has been bought at a price. The price is that the scale doesn’t sound right to a musically sensitive person. For example, it is nearly impossible for a musician to tune a piano, because the “correct” notes don’t sound exactly right. In fact, three of the eight notes in a one-octave diatonic, equal-temperment scale vary between 14 and 19 cents from the same notes in the musician’s scale of Just intonation. Also, as an orchestra tunes by ear to an A440 pitch on the oboe, the string section tunes their instruments by ear (no tuners) by listening for perfect fifths between the strings, and somehow the whole orchestra comes together and sounds in-tune to the listener. But actually there are many variations in pitch that are not perceived by the listener. Because of variations in attack strength and embouchure, the side-blown flute is especially vulnerable to frequency fluctuations, and frequency fluctuations up to 4 per cent have been observed, even among concert musicians. I can play my Irish flute in front of an electronic tuner and have the needle swing from 20 cents below to 20 cents above standard pitch just by the way I blow and the way I shape my lips (embouchure).

And lastly, quoting from the classic book “Music, Sound, and Sensation” by Fritz Winckel: “Although completely pure intonation is most difficult on the flute, it is also of least importance, for the (flute) tone is poor in overtone content, and a slight distuning can have a positive equalizing effect.” In other words it may be a good thing to be slightly off-pitch. And that is my main thesis and purpose for writing the above comments about tuning. I believe that some people have unreasonable expectations about pitch and intonation. They think that their $20 electronic tuner set to equal-temperment is the gold standard and that any variation from “dead-on” pitch accuracy is not acceptable. To the contrary, my attitude with regard to flute performance is to lay perfectionism aside and accept some variations in intonation as inescapable and perhaps even a good thing.