Anatomy of a bad bamboo flute

Bamboo flutes and other “world”-type woodwinds of true musician quality can be difficult to find, and if you’re not experienced with them it can be nearly impossible to tell if an online seller’s wares are genuinely playable or more like souvenir items. I’m going to share an experience of mine in which I gambled and got burned, in case it is instructive to anyone out there.

Recently I needed a bamboo flute in a specific and unusual key (high B-flat) on very short notice for a gig (a performance of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite). My favorite trusted flutemakers don’t currently make flutes in that key, so I placed an order with a flutemaker that I hadn’t bought from before. (I won’t identify the flutemaker here, but I will say that he and his staff were very nice to me. When there was a totally-understandable wrinkle in getting the flute shipped on time, they even overnighted it plus threw in a very nice flute bag at no extra charge.)

Ability to ship quickly was certainly a factor in my choice of vendors, but I was also reassured by the fact that the maker sells flutes in three grades: student, intermediate, and professional. I ponied up the money for a professional flute, and expressed to the flutemaker my need for excellent intonation and a strong high register.

Here is what I received:

cute, right?
cute, right?

Now, the proof of a flute is in the playing, and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s any good without giving it a try. But here are some immediate visual warning signs:

  • Uh-oh
    uh-oh

    The embouchure hole is strangely shaped. I don’t know for sure what the flutemaker intended, but round-ish is pretty standard. Since bamboo is an irregular material, a certain amount of air noise (vibrational inefficiency) is to be expected, but this flute is very airy, and I suspect the oddly-shaped and roughly-finished embouchure hole is a contributor to this.

  • This is an extremely wide-bored flute. Often for flute-like instruments we see a length-to-diameter ratio of something around 30:1, but this one is closer to 15:1. To oversimplify the ramifications of this a bit, a wider-bore flute (a smaller ratio) will generally tend to be stronger in the low register and weaker in the high register. For this gig, I needed a flute that could play just to the second octave above the fundamental note—not an unreasonable demand for any common variety of bamboo transverse flute. I couldn’t get this flute to do it. A smaller-diameter bamboo would improve this flute’s upper range.
  • The finger holes are fairly large, and about the same size. Generally, similarly-sized holes leads to more even tone across the instrument’s scale, but also means that the right hand index and middle finger holes are placed very close together for a simple-system major-scale flute, and on this one the holes are uncomfortably close for me. Larger holes decrease the likelihood of finding usable cross-fingerings; I needed one good cross-fingering for this gig, and couldn’t find one that worked—couldn’t even “lip” the chromatic note into tune. A well-designed flute strikes a balance between large and small holes, and similarly- and differently-sized holes.
  • The second octave is quite noticeably flat. This is a common problem of bamboo flutes (or any cylindrical-bore flutes), but this one is particularly difficult to wrangle into tune. Really excellent bamboo flutes are sometimes made from bamboo carefully selected to have just a bit of taper in the embouchure-hole end, like a concert flute’s headjoint, or have some bore work done to create an internal taper; this helps to bring the upper register into tune with the lower.

When I realized that the flute wasn’t going to be usable, I packed my piccolo and a B-flat pennywhistle as possible alternatives. As it turned out, we didn’t end up playing the movement in question, so I was off the hook.

Shop smart!

Comments

  1. Dan Hooke

    Good catch! If you ever need a major transverse bamboo flute that plays clean 3 notes into the 3rd octave let me know. I make all keys.

    Reply

  2. Peter Ozanne

    I have made plenty of bamboo flutes of good ratio – mostly around 25:1 – in heavy bamboo of wall thickness around 4mm, in any key, including a couple in high Bb. I’ve sold a few to Irish Trad session flutists. I feel your pain regarding that runt of an instrument, ouch!

    Reply

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