Irish Flutes - Of Holes and Keys



Keyed or Keyless?

The first thing to say about keys is that, for many players, they are not necessary.  Flutes in the key of D will play in D and G Major and the related minors Em, Am and Bm without keys. Probably 90% of the music can be played with no keys.  But let's look at both options ...

Keyless flutes

The keyless conical flute is an invention of the late 20th century.  With obvious parallels to the tin whistle, it was a natural starting place for makers learning how to make the old 19th century wooden flutes. It remains a perfectly viable option.

Keyless Rudall Perfected, Blackwood, Eccentric bore Head, MkIII slide, Integral foot.

Keyless flutes are available in all of my models, including Prattens, Rudall Perfected, Rudall 5088, Rudall Refined, Grey Larsen Preferred and Rudall Bb.

An Interesting Keyless Flute Option - the C hole

When you play a keyless D flute in the key of G, you play a cross-fingering for the c-natural note.  The note isn't quite as clear as the other notes of the scale, although this can be used to advantage.

A very interesting zero-cost option is the addition of a c hole, covered by the left thumb.  It occupies the same position along the flute as did the old c key hole, but is operated by the thumb rather than using the key for the right hand index finger.

Benefits include:

  • another way to achieve c-natural
  • works the same in both octaves
  • gives a c-natural with the same tone as the other notes in the scale
  • very handy for B-c-B
  • easier to operate than the original flutes' c-key
  • gives the perfect c# the old makers intended, but more easily

That last point alone makes it worth considering.  

There are no serious downsides:

  • You can still play c-natural by all the other means
  • you do have to keep your thumb in place for notes below c
  • just cover it over with tape if you find you don't like it!
Special note to Low Bb flute purchasers!

The "all-fingers-off" note (A) on a Low Bb flute tends noticeably flat, because of the extra compromises involved in making such a long flute fit our small hands (see my article on the original Rudall & Rose Bb flutes for the details).  That makes the leading note of the scale a bit flat and a lot to lip up.  The thumb-hole option really works well here to reduce this problem without having recourse to keys.  

Offset finger holes

The 6 main finger holes are normally placed in a straight line, but it presents no problem whatsoever to offset any of them in either direction around the flute.  This can make a significant difference to those struggling to make the stretch demanded by the flute - particularly those with small hands or suffering from damage or wear.

The most common holes to move are holes 3 and 6, the third finger of either or both hands.  These are normally offset towards the hand.  If you have a flute you are already finding uncomfortable, try covering holes 1 and 2 of each hand, and letting finger 3 fall where it likes.  Put a mark where the centre of the new hole should be, and measure the distance between new and old.

I don't recommend offsetting the holes too far, as it can cause your finger to slip off, or cause the flute to rotate slightly.  But 3 or 4mm (about 1/8") can help a lot and not cause any problems.  Keyed flutes can have holes offset too.

So, if you want any holes offset, just remember to add it to your order.  There is no extra charge.

Keyed Flutes

When we get to consider keys, the big question is of course "which ones?"  In order of general usefulness, we find:

The upper c key:

  • gives a more accurate and focused c, compared to the cross fingerings
  • greatly simplifies passages such as B-c-B
  • improves intonation of c#
Special note to Bb flute purchasers!

For the same reason expressed in the special note under keyless flutes, Bb flute purchasers should seriously consider an "A" key or should consider a thumb covered hole for the note "A".

The upper c-key is traditionally operated by the right hand index finger.  Optionally, a c-key operated by the left thumb is possible.

The G# key

  • necessary for tunes in the key of A, this is particularly desirable for those who enjoy the northern fiddle-players' repertoire

The F key

  • Needed to play in the key of C (handy for song accompaniment)
  • Desirable for F "accidental" notes in tunes in the more common keys
  • Needed to play the increasing repertoire of tunes in D minor

Note that there are two F keys - the "Short" and the "Long".  Having both simplifies some passages, particularly involving the slur D to F natural.

The Bb key

  • Needed for some D minor tunes
  • Needed to play in F (again a useful singing key)

Bb is traditionally operated by the left thumb.  It can alternatively be provided operated by the right hand index finger, or both.

The Eb key

  • Used for accidentals
  • Can be used to improve the clarity of low octave E 
  • Needed for tunes in Bb.

Low C and C# keys

  • This pair of keys extends the flute in D down to C# and C.

Common Groupings of Keys

  • Some customers request just G# and F, to cover the most commonly needed accidental notes.
  • Four keys (Bb, G#, Short F and Eb) are the minimum needed for a fully chromatic scale from the bottom D upward.
  • Five keys (as above but add upper c) brings the benefit of that very useful key.
  • Six keys (as above but add the Long F key) make the scale a little better and more easy to play. 
  • Eight keys (as for 6-key but add C and C#) extend the range down to a low C. 

    (I do not generally recommend this extension for Irish music as it weakens the bottom D a little.  But of course, if you need those notes, there isn't a lot of choice.)

About my Keys

I make my hand-forged keys in solid sterling silver - the standard silver used by jewellers and silversmiths.  Sterling silver is sometimes called silver 925.  It comprises 92.5% pure silver with a little copper added to make it hard enough for practical purposes.  

My cast keys are made in a slightly different alloy; an Australian innovation called Bright Silver 925 (Australian Patent No 688773).  Bright silver has been specially formulated to prevent the age-old problem of "fire-stain" - a form of tarnish which can arise when casting in sterling silver. The keys are "age-hardened" to minimise the risk of bending if the flute is dropped.

Key springs are rust-free phosphor bronze, and bear on tiny stainless steel striker plates set into the gap in the wooden mounts, to ensure free action and the longest life.  The wooden mounts are turned integral with the wood of the flute, as per the traditional method.  Cork buffers keep the keys noise free.

The axle pins are made from hard drawn sterling silver wire.  The ends of the axle pins are bullet shaped and protrude slightly from their blocks.  This serves two purposes - pins are much easier to insert, and can be pushed to free them when withdrawing.  

Pads are tan leather for authentic appearance, high efficiency and long life.  They closely approximate the appearance of the old pads, but do not suffer their tendency to squeeze down into the tone holes.  The pads are floated in on shellac in the old way, are readily available and can be easily replaced by any competent woodwind repairer.  

Special keys

Left handed flutes, flutes for "piper's grip" and special keys for people who's hands need a bit of extra help are all easy for me.  Just ask!

A new tone hole

The traditional tone holes on 19th century flutes were inefficient and noisy.  They produced tones that were clouded and slow to speak.  I have developed and use a new form of tone hole which I have dubbed the Smoothflow.  It gets around these problems while bringing longer pad and seat life.  For more details on the Smoothflow tone hole ...

Innovation is not enough to guarantee first class results; it requires great care in execution too.  The seats for the pads are cut with specially made hand-stoned cutters and examined under a microscope to ensure no imperfections remain that might corrupt the seal.  

On, to the far end - the Foot

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