Later Bb Bass Flutes



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 page:

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 speculate why. 

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 numbers.

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:

  1. difficult stretches in both hands

  2. distinctly flat "c#" (really A)

  3. 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 Pamela's Music
Note that while the body is wood, the embouchure is of ebonite.

More keys

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 comfortable.

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.)

Fully Keyed!

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 curved heads.

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 2013

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 information.)

More functionality?

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

Same again?

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.


Thanks to those who made images available for this peek into post-Boehm Bb band flutes. 

Help Wanted!

Clearly we need better images of some of the flutes shown here - please let us know if you can help.  And we want to be able to check the functionality of some of these.

There are probably other models of Bb bass flutes out there - if you have something that doesn't seem to fit in with what we've shown, please get in touch!

Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page

Created: October 2005, Last Modified: May 2013