For years now I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I love my Butch Hall Native-American-style flute in F-sharp minor. I recently bought it a little friend in G minor, and realized it is high time I did a proper review of these lovely instruments.
The modern instrument commonly referred to as the “Native American Flute” is related to a certain flute tradition associated with the Lakota people; of course labeling anything as “Native American” mistakenly implies that it is common to all the groups lumped together as “Native American.” As an additional complication name-wise, there are certain legal requirements regarding who can sell products under the designation “Native American,” so some flutemakers, for example, must sell their wares as “Native-American-style.” In general, flutes of this type, regardless of seller, are a contemporary take on a traditional instrument, often made with modern tools and processes and tweaked to suit contemporary Western-world pitch standards. This suits me just fine—I’m interested in the instrument’s history, but as a working musician I like an instrument that I can buy affordably and play in a variety of situations.
If you are in the market for an instrument of this kind, be very careful about souvenir-type flutes, including some popular makes sold on the internet and in souvenir shops as “professional” instruments. If you want an instrument that plays beautifully, easily, and in tune, and is genuinely suited to professional playing situations, I strongly recommend that you send money to Butch Hall immediately. These are real-deal musician-quality flutes, and the amount of money involved is shockingly small.
Hall’s “Concert” flutes, of which I now happily own two, have a clean and simple design; if you require elaborate carving and clichéd turquoise-and-silver inlays, then there are plenty of other makers who seem to consider those things to be major priorities. Hall’s flutes are not ornate, but they are made with meticulous attention to detail, and really quite stunning, especially under close inspection.
The flutes have a deep, resonant tone, with articulation that is clear and crisp without being overly chirpy. I have tried flutes by many other makers and find nearly all of them to sound thin and whistle-y by comparison. These aren’t loud instruments, but they speak with authority, and besides, microphones love them. Bring one of these to your recording session and be a hero.
The fingering system is really well-designed; these respond well to the minor-pentatonic fingerings (well, technically a minor-sounding mode of a major pentatonic scale) that seem to be a de facto standard for modern NAFs. However, Hall’s flutes are also well-suited to cross-fingering and can produce more or less a chromatic scale if you do a little half-holing for the lowest few notes. (A fingering chart is included with purchase.) Still, you will need more than one flute if you want to be serious about playing in multiple keys.
Tuning is very good, but remember that as with any whistle/fipple-type instrument (such as recorders or pennywhistles), blowing harder or softer does affect the pitch. My F-sharp flute (a 2005 model) plays quite well in tune at A=440Hz with a moderate amount of air; the G (brand new) can take more aggressive blowing.
Here are some quick clips. These are totally unprocessed but the flutes sound especially amazing with a sort of canyon-esque echo.
If you’re shopping for your first flute, I recommend that you get either the F-sharp, which seems to me to be the “standard” size so far as there is one, or perhaps the G-minor, which Hall indicates is his “personal flute of choice,” or, preferably, both. Mine are red cedar, which is the least-expensive option, and they smell so heavenly that I simply must insist that you choose the same. You can get the pair for a tenth or less of what one nice clarinet would cost you.
And if all that isn’t enough, Mr. and Mrs. Hall are super nice; I got a handwritten thank-you note with my most recent purchase, which also shipped very fast and was packed with astonishing care. (Even the plastic beads on the flute bags were separately bubble-wrapped.)
Verdict: Highly recommended!