Bb Bass flutes seem to have originated in the early 19th
century, presumably for military flute-band purposes. Certainly
Rudall & Rose made many fine examples, and you can read all about them at
Rudall & Rose Bb Flutes. These early Bb
flutes were pretty similar to the standard flute, just longer and a little
larger of bore. Given that stretch on the standard flute was already
an issue for some players, and already the cause of some intonation problems, it's easy to
see that on a flute four semitones lower, it has to be a proportionally
more serious issue. We've already drawn attention to the most
noticeable of these problems - the flattening of the all-fingers-off note
- on the Rudall & Rose Bb page.
So it's not surprising that later makers took a fresh look
at the issues involved in making a Bb Bass. It's the purpose of this
web-page to take a peek at them.
A comparison with early and late
While the Rudall & Rose period Bb flutes looked like this:
This is the style of flute that interests us on this
Bb Bass flute by Henry Potter,
Horniman Museum, London
The differences include:
All metal head (apart from the usually wooden filler
piece inside the embouchure section),
One-piece head, tuning achieved by withdrawing the head
section from the left-hand section,
Bent-around head, to reduce arm-extension, probably for a
mixture of reduced strain and convenience in formation marching
Replacement of open holes with some or complete keying.
Note in the example shown above, that a mixture of block and
post mounting is in use.
Development of the later flutes
Not all these later flutes are the same as the one shown above,
however. It seems they didn't just sprout all those keys, they were added
in stages. Our task is to see how the development occurred and to
In the schematic drawings that follow, we will follow the
convention used by band players - calling the notes by their standard D flute
names, even if the notes that result are actually in the Bb scale. If the
real pitch is used it will be provided in parentheses. The Bb flute, like
band instruments in general, was a transposing instrument - the music written
for it presented as if in D. This made it possible for band members to
play any of the instruments in the series.
While we will be looking for increasing signs of
sophistication, we probably won't be able to place these in chronological
order, as many of the makers of this kind of flute did not use serial
The logical starting place is the standard 8-key flute as we see
at the top. It has 6 finger holes to handle the basic scale, and a number
of keys between 4 and 8 to fill in the chromatic gaps. Because of the
limited stretch of the human hand, the holes on the left and right hand sections
have to be clustered together, leaving a large gap between them.
The problems produced by this compromise include:
difficult stretches in both hands
distinctly flat "c#" (really A)
unevenness in power and tone between notes, due to the differing
hole sizes needed to get around the less-than-ideal locations of the holes.
Siccama to the rescue
The earliest sign of development was the adoption of Siccama-style
keys to extend the third finger of both hands. This immediately helps with
issues 1 and 3 by putting the holes closer to where they should be, enabling them to be
better sized, and by putting the fingers where they are more comfortable.
It doesn't solve issue 2, but does permit the "c#" hole to be a little higher and
so a little less flat.
Siccama style Bb flute by Henry
Potter, image courtesy Jack Bradshaw.
Note that the touch for the LH Siccama key has been broken off, as has the
long "C" key (really Ab).
And the same sort of thing from Hawkes & Co (Ser No
6037), with all its keywork intact:
Siccama style Bb flute by Hawkes, image courtesy of
Note that while the body is wood, the embouchure is of ebonite.
The Hawkes shown below appears functionally to be a
Siccama style too, but you can see it has more keys in the left hand
section. The additional two keys permit the top hole to be higher
and both holes to be bigger, as well as making the entire left hand very
Hawkes Bb Flute, DCM 0639.
(You can inspect this flute in more detail by going to the
DCM website and entering DCM0639 in the search box.)
This takes us back to the image at the top - a fully keyed
flute by Henry Potter. Improved comfort and better hole placement in
both hands, but no increased functionality.
Bb Bass flute by Henry Potter,
Horniman Museum, London
Rudall & Carte offered something similar, though there
appear to be significant differences. Note that the top hole appears
much further up (and therefore smaller) than on the Potter. There is
a difference of approach in the right hand too, but probably without much
difference in results. Note that they offered both straight and
With only a few minor variations in keywork, the flute below appears to be
an example of that seen in the catalog.
Rudall & Carte Bb flute #8515, sold on Ebay September
The Rudall Carte factory records remembers it as:
"8515 - June 19th 1933 Cocus. Conical Bass, 6 NS
Keys, ACH, metal head by Morley & Braithwait, sold 12.2.35 to
Camtall Flute Band, Belfast."
Clearly it has more than 6 Nickel Silver keys (probably more like 12), but
they probably mean it has 6-key functionality, as opposed to any of the
more modern systems. The difference between 6 and 12 is covered by
the "ACH" - All Covered Holes. Morley was definitely an employee,
and perhaps Braithwait was too. It's possible that there should
have been a comma after "metal head", i.e. that the entire flute was
made by these two chaps, and not just the head. The Camtall Flute
Band is perhaps Carntall Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim. As you can see
on YouTube, Carntall Road is prime marching territory.
(My thanks to Jem Hammond for alerting us to this instrument and
The Henry Potter flute below seems to offer a bit more
functionality from its keywork. Unfortunately, the image is too
blurred to see all the details - I hope I can get you a better one.
But we can see that the top hole has been moved considerably up the flute,
in keeping with its job as a register hole and to make the all-fingers-off
note sharper. To support that, you can see a duplicate C hole under
the touch for the C#. There may be connection between L2 and the top
hole, permitting the duplicate C to remain open in the oxo xxx
cross-fingering for C.
Henry Potter Bb Bass band flute
And although looking a little different, this Rudall Carte
is probably the same sort of thing as the Potter above. Both have a
plain Siccama style right hand arrangement (easier as the gap between R1
and R2 is a semitone, while all the other gaps are full tones).
Rudall Carte Bb Bass Band Flute
Again, we hope we can track down a clearer image and some
more details of the mechanism.