Choosing a Flute for Irish Music



So you've decided to get a flute to play Irish music. What sort of flute should you get? Are old flutes better than new flutes? What should you look out for in an old flute? In a new flute? Do I need keys? How many? Do I need a tuning slide? Large holes, medium holes, small holes? Cork or thread lapping? What do the rings do? Do I need a case? I'll try to answer some of these questions.....

Old Versus New

There were some wonderful flutes made in the early 19th Century. There were also some truly awful ones. And, of course, a good flute can have been damaged beyond reasonable repair. Age is no guarantee of quality, value or usefulness. But you can be very lucky!

What to look out for in an old flute

It's long been argued that the best flutes for Irish music were those made in London, by makers such as Rudall and Rose, Metzler, Boosey & Co ("Pratten's Perfected"), etc. These flutes were beautifully designed and made, and usually bear the name and address of the maker, often on every joint. The timber is usually cocus wood (often stained very dark but not quite black), although occasionally a good boxwood (lemon when new but aging to a distinguished honey brown) flute can be found. Keys are often solid silver and are usually deliciously formed. Rings are usually silver, sometimes very simple, sometimes beautifully engraved.

Another group of London makers from a slightly earlier period, including Potter, Monzani, and Goulding-Wood, made flutes which are nice but not so useful. They tend to have small holes and consequently a small tone, rather more reminiscent of their predecessor, the baroque flute. The timbers tend to be ebony and box, with silver keys and silver or ivory rings.

Considerably less attractive again are the German factory made instruments, usually in ebony and often with an ivory head. The holes are small, the tuning poor and the tone weak. Some of these went down to a low B note, but are difficult  to play down to D. These instruments usually have their keys mounted on pins, rather than wooden blocks. Keys and rings are of nickel (German) silver and are mass produced and clumsy. The instruments are rarely named. There were some excellent handcrafted German instruments made, but these don't seem to turn up.

More recently, small-hole American flutes have become more popular, because of the example set by US player and teacher Grey Larsen.  Although not as loud as the big London flutes, they offer ease of playing with great agility.

Some flutes, of any manufacture, featured an inlay of metal (usually nickel silver but sometimes the real thing) around the embouchure hole. This was probably done to protect against or repair wear, or to protect players with timber induced allergies, but the impact on tone can be quite significant (harsh and metallic).

One other thing to watch out for is flutes which cannot tune down to modern pitch. Some mid to late 19th century cylinder flutes were made at a time when the prevailing pitch rose to around 455Hz. Some with very short tuning slides cannot get down to A = 440Hz or if they do are hopelessly out of tune throughout the scale.

Finally, be very careful buying flutes on Ebay.  You should be fine if you stick with vendors who have many transactions and an almost perfect satisfaction rating.  But some of the others have simply rerun images and descriptions from an Ebay sale from 6 months previous, and don't even have a flute to sell!

Repairs for Old Flutes

Most old flutes will require at least some repair - some repairs are easier than others.

Pads present no problems, but many instrument repairers will not be familiar with these old woodwinds. Find a repairer who is! One problem often unnoticed is damage or wear to the seat where the pad rests. Sometimes these need to be recut before a new pad will seal properly. Many repairers will not have the facilities for this.

Splits, cracks, broken and missing bits are the real challenges. The headjoints and barrels of most old flutes are cracked - and for good reason. These joints were both lined with brass to provide a tuning slide. As wood ages, it shrinks. If the flute joint is lined with metal, the shrinkage can only be accommodated by the wood splitting open.

Such splits can be repaired, but it's a job best left to the expert. Splits which pass through the embouchure seem to have more impact on the quality of the instrument than those which miss the embouchure.

Woodwind instruments can suffer cracks for another reason - if moisture has been allowed to soak into the inside of the instrument. This causes swelling of the inside which is resisted by the dry wood outside. Enough swelling and something has to give - a crack will appear on the outside. This can usually be repaired without problem and won't re-occur providing the instrument is kept oiled (see my notes on care).

Repair of broken or missing parts (keys, whole joints, mounting blocks, etc) is a task for a maker. Replacing a broken tenon (the inside part where the joints meet) is one of the trickier jobs. Make sure the rest of the instrument warrants the expense and trouble before proceeding.

(I undertake repairs and restorations of old instruments. For details...)

What to look out for in a new flute

This is a much broader question because of the greater range of options. First be convinced about the maker:
  • does he/she seem knowledgable about the flute, its history, the old makers?

  • is he/she a good player? If not, how do they know they are making good instruments?

  • is their work at least excellent? The exterior, sockets and bore should be smooth, embouchure and finger holes neatly cut, rings cleanly and firmly attached, tenons neatly cut, lapping neatly applied, keys beautifully formed and finished.

  • do they use appropriate and excellent materials?

Issues to look for in the instrument itself include:
  • strength of low notes

  • sweetness (versus shrillness) of high notes

  • lack of wind noise (the hiss which accompanies the notes)

  • articulation (how quickly it can play)

  • tuning accuracy

  • uniformity of volume and tone throughout the range (a bit of a challenge for this kind of flute)

If you are not yet a flute player, try to find someone who is, to evaluate the instrument.

One thing to avoid are the cheap "Irish" flutes available from some of the music stores and mail order shops.  They are made using cheap labour in Pakistan and are poor in design, materials and workmanship.  Very unresponsive and prone to cracking within a few months.

Cylindrical Versus Conical?

A straight cylindrical flute can be OK in the bottom octave but out of tune in the second. Mediaeval and renaissance flutes were made like this and are extraordinarily hard to play in tune. The early 19th Century flutes were conical - that is to say the headjoint was cylindrical and the bore then tapered down throughout the rest of the instrument. The bore at headjoint is around 19mm and at its narrowest about 11mm. This constriction of the bore corrected the errors between the first and second octaves.

Boehm in the mid 19th Century invented a cylindrical bore that worked. The majority of his flute is cylindrical (19mm) but the headjoint tapers down to around 17mm at the stopper.

It is possible to make a 6 holed flute suitable for Irish music based on Boehm's bore (Metzler used to make one in the 19th Century - see my page on Flutes for Irish Music). It feels quite different to play compared to the conical flute - it has less of that indefinable quality, resistance. However those used to the modern metal flute might find it more familiar than a conical instrument.

What should a flute be made of?

Traditionally, cocus wood and boxwood were used for the finest instruments. Cocus is now virtually extinct, and African Blackwood has taken its place. It's generally regarded as being better than ebony, which tends to result in a rather sombre sounding instrument. In any locality, there may be local timbers with the right characteristics. Flute timbers should be dense and fine, not prone to splitting. In Australia, some of the inland acacias and a few eucalypts meet the bill.

Furniture timbers like cherry, rosewood, maple etc are really not heavy and fine enough for the best flutes. Nice for cases though!

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Boehm, who invented the modern silver flute, actually preferred the tone of wooden flutes in the hands of all but the very best players. He recommended the combination of wooden headjoints (for tone) and metal bodies (for the precision needed to keep his mechanism in good operation).

Should I get keys?

This is going to depend on the music you play. Many old Irish players never used keys - after all tin whistle players don't have them. You probably will need keys if you want to play fiddle tunes in A, or if you are likely to be playing a lot of song accompaniment.

There is no question that flutes with keys require more maintenance, so don't get keys unless you intend to use them. And don't necessarily rush out and buy an eight key flute, if the only key you are likely to need is G#!

How many keys?

This is a "how long is a length of string?" question, but these points may help:
  • G# is probably the most useful key and is needed for the key of A (and therefore F# minor). It is operated by the left hand fourth finger.

  • F is possibly the next most useful, needed for the key of C major (and A minor). There are two F keys - the short F and the long F. The short F was the first to be added and is operated by the right hand third finger.

  • Bb is next, needed for F major (and  D minor). Operated by the left thumb.

  • Eb comes next, needed for Bb and accidentals in some other keys. Operated by the right fourth finger.  With these four keys the flute is fully chromatic.

You can see from this why the Four Key Flute was popular in the early 19th Century. After these "essential" keys, you can consider the remainders:
  • C', the long key on the upper joint, may seem a bit of a luxury as the C' cross-fingerings work fairly well. Good in slow tunes to get the purest C' note, and also to sharpen the C'#, which tends to be flat on 8-key flutes, especially in the second octave.  Most keyed flute players report that this is their most-used key.

  • F, the long one, duplicates the operation of the short F on some otherwise difficult passages. The long F is operated by the left hand fourth finger. The long F has the advantage that you can play a D to F natural slur, which is not possible using the short F.

Then we come to low C and C#, which requires us first to look at the next topic.

Which bottom note?

Because we often come to the flute with a previous experience of Boehm style flutes, we naturally assume the bottom note of a flute should be C. And certainly, the bottom note on the eight key flutes was C. But, previous to that, the bottom note on one key and four key flutes was D. Why am I raising all this?

When the four key flute's bottom note was extended out to C by adding more wood and two keys, the bottom D lost a lot of its natural strength. No longer was it the acoustically obvious end of the tube. Further, there was no scope for the flare of the bore discernable in many of the older instruments. Indeed, in many eight-key designs, the bore continues to reduce in diameter until the very end.

Now, this would be something we could resign ourselves to if those lower notes, C and C# were important to us. If you play a lot in C, then maybe they are. If, like most dance tune players, you don't, then consider carefully, are you prepared to accept a more muffled bottom D in order  to have them?

Which shape of embouchure?

Embouchure holes in early flutes were round. Eight key flutes almost unvaryingly have eliptical embouchures. More recent Boehm style flutes feature embouchures better described as rectangular with rounded corners. Round embouchures are too quiet; the choice between elliptical and rectangular comes down to personal preference and familiarity.

Do I need a tuning slide?

In the days of the eight key flute, pitch had not stabilised around the world. In one city, the orchestra played at A = 445; in another, A = 455. A tuning slide was necessary to enable players and makers to reconcile all this.

Earlier last century, pitch was stabilised to A = 440. We still have to allow for pianos that are flat and days that are hot, but our need for tuning flexibility is much less. But what's the problem with tuning slides anyway?

  1. Remember what I said above about cracks in headjoint and barrel. Almost every old flute you find has these cracks, because the wood cannot shrink with age with the metal lining.

  2. I'm convinced that introducing metal into the embouchure chimney is injurious to tone.

  3. For the small amount of variation we need these days, we can usually get away with pulling the headjoint out a little to flatten the instrument.

If you do want a tuning slide, you may wish to consider my "new improved tuning slide", which gets away from all those problems.  For details...

Large holes, medium holes, small holes?

Large holes give the biggest tone but require more air and a strong embouchure to get the best results. Small holes are easy to play, rather like a whistle. Tone can be sweet but not strong. Fine for playing at home, recording or playing over a sound system, but not very good in a loud session. Medium size holes may be a good compromise, but, if you have ambitions, stretch yourself!

Cork or thread lapping?

This used to be a matter of personal preference, until I did two studies into the compressive effect of thread lapping:

Effect of thread wrapping on flute tenons, and

Effect of thread wrapping 2 - Introduction

In the light of those studies, I can't see any reason why we should continue with this archaic and damaging practice.  I prefer cork anyway as I think is gives the firmest feeling joint.

What do the rings do?

The rings (usually of metal, ivory or an ivory substitute) protect the thin wood at the sockets from splitting under the wedging effect of the cork or thread lapping. These are vital. Reject or repair any instrument without them.

Do I need a case?

Something to protect your instrument is vital. It can be something as simple as a plastic lunch box with the flute wrapped up in a tea-towel. Or it can be a custom fitted case. Do something. I'm told a plastic pistol case works well.

Never travel with your flute assembled. Never leave it lying on the floor, and never leave it assembled on a seat. On stage, use a flute stand to protect it from being walked on.

Statement of Responsibility

These notes are the views of the writer and derive from forty-odd years of flute playing and making. They should not be taken as critical of the work or views of other makers with other experiences. I am keen to hear views and experiences both supporting and contradicting the above. Other comments and correspondence welcomed.

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Created June 2001, last updated January 2013