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So many flute options: Where do you start?

Modern flutes have seemingly endless options – you can quickly feel overwhelmed by a torrent of jargon. This guide lists all the flute options we can think of and explains why they exist. Hopefully, after reading this, you can amaze* your friends with your extensive flute knowledge.

*information not guaranteed to amaze

Click on each ‘option’ for expanded information.

Beginner Flute Options

(click here for a guide to buying your first flute)

Entry-level flutes are silver plated, closed hole, C foot instruments. The metal underneath the silver plating is nickel silver. If the metal has been power forged, the keywork should be quite strong – ideal for a beginner instrument in the hands of a novice.

Silver plating is superficial and makes no difference to performance.  However, silver plating protects the player from the more porous metal underneath, especially on the lip plate. It protects the skin from any kind of allergic reaction. If you are looking at second hand instruments, DO NOT purchase an instrument where the silver plating on the lip plate is in any way NOT PERFECT.

The beginner flute can also come with a curved headjoint that brings the flute body closer for shorter arms.

The options you may have to consider on entry-level flutes are:

Inline or Offset G Keys

There are two G keys on a flute. Inline G keys are lined up parallel with the other keys. Offset G keys stick out a little bit (see image).

inline offset g key flute vanguard orchestral

There is no tonal difference between inline or offset G keys.

An inline mechanism is increasingly less common in modern flutes. It is more prone to binding keys as well as causing strength/longevity problems. There can be binding (sluggishness or worse) in the Bb key.

Offset G keys are more naturally ergonomic, and it is easier to reach for small hands. The G keys are on a separate rod therefore separating it from the Bb key and its binding problems.

Split E Mechanism

A split E mechanism splits the two G keys in order to make the high E more responsive. When you play G, both keys close normally, but when you finger high E, only the lower of the two G keys close. This makes the high E much more stable.

split e mechanism

Another advantage is that it IS easier to slur from the second octave E to the third octave E. It also ensures a smooth slur between the 3rd octave A and E. It does not alter the pitch on any note.

The downside is that there are two more adjustments on the flute to accommodate the split E - that means two more things can go wrong.

Drawn Toneholes

Toneholes are the holes in your flute that the pads cover:

tonehole

Drawn toneholes  are ‘drawn’ up from the body by a special machine. There is no solder seam on the tonehole and therefore no chance of a leaking tonehole. They give give a quick flexible response and rich, resonant timbre.

Drawn toneholes are standard on student and intermediate level flutes.

'Soldered Toneholes' are found on higher-level, handmade flutes.

Intermediate

When you have been playing a flute for 2-5 years it really is time to move on to a more advanced instrument. Here is where it starts to get complicated with many options.

Sterling Silver Head Joint

A sterling silver head joint is pretty much standard with an intermediate flute. The reason most professional flutes are made of solid silver is that it produces a better sound. The head joint is the most important part of the flute, so obviously a sold silver head joint would be better than a silver plated one.

head joint flute vanguard orchestral

A good head joint increases the dynamic range of the instrument which means that you have more volume range to work with. The player grows into the head joint, begins to produce more sound, and eventually gains control over this newfound ability. If a player stays too long on a student head joint it may hinder their developmental progress.

Open Holes

The most simple (and crude) way to describe an open hole flute is, "A flute with holes in the middle of the keys."

open hole closed hole flute vanguard orchestral

Moving on to an open hole flute is definitely a move in the right direction. If you have an incorrect hand position this will show itself with an open hole flute, and you will be forced into a correct hand position to be able to cover the holes. The most common problem is covering the G open hole.

Moving from a closed hole flute to an open hole requires a plan.

Firstly, plug the holes! Plugs often come with the flute or your friendly Vanguard technician can put plugs in for you.

As you practice over the months, remove the plugs one by one starting at the bottom D. Don't rush and do it hole by hole. SUDDENLY (like learning to ride a 2-wheel bike) you can cover all the holes confidently.

Not everyone agrees that there is a difference between open hole and closed hole. Some say that the venting of lifting your finger on an open hole flute AND lifting the key gives a quicker response and clarity. Also, on an open hole, glissandos, pitch bends, and microtones are possible.

C Foot or B Foot

A B foot flute means there is an extra key at the very end of the foot joint:

c foot b foot flute vanguard orchestral

This is definitely a preference one way or the other. French flautists prefer the C foot as they say that the flute plays better with a C foot. I would say that it plays differently, and, perhaps it does perform better with a C foot.

For flutes with a silver headjoint, the argument against a C foot is that the flute is 'headjoint heavy' and balances better with a B foot. In saying that, the B foot does increase the overall weight of the instrument.

There are many arguments for both. I think that the B foot produces a darker, fuller tone and improves the intonation of the third octave. Also, it gives more fullness of sound in the lower octave.

Sterling Silver Body

There is a lot of debate about whether a solid silver flute body is any better than a silver plated one. The person who originally wrote this guide (Elaine Ward) said:

"[Silver] definitely gives the flute more volume and presence. The dynamic range is enlarged and the sound projects more"

But there are plenty or arguments in online forums saying that the build quality of an instrument is far more important than the material it is made from.

This is something you should really research yourself; we can't give you a definitive answer here!

Split E Mechanism

A split E mechanism splits the two G keys in order to make the high E more responsive. When you play G, both keys close normally, but when you finger high E, only the lower of the two G keys close. This makes the high E much more stable.

split e mechanism

Another advantage is that it IS easier to slur from the second octave E to the third octave E. It also ensures a smooth slur between the 3rd octave A and E. It does not alter the pitch on any note.

The downside is that there are two more adjustments on the flute to accommodate the split E - that means two more things can go wrong.

Semi-Professional

If you have reached the level of heading to university level study then a semi-professional flute is a must and a minimum.

In addition to the options in the intermediate flute, the semi-pro has the following options:

Handmade Mechanism

This is a better balanced, more delicate mechanism. It tends to have slightly smaller 'French pointed' keys. The better balanced keys allow for a more even spring tension. The adjustment can be fine tuned as the mechanism is better designed. These characteristics make it easier to play with a 'light touch' and with more relaxed fingers. It cannot be stressed too much that, if a player is striving towards a professional career as a flautist, they must have an instrument that doesn't hold them back.

Straubinger or High Quality Firm Felt Pads

Straubinger and other firm pads require a certain degree of skill to install; the flute needs a very professional setup of the mechanism since the pads are far less forgiving (not soft).

straubinger pads vanguard orchestral

A well-installed pad will be able to completely cover the tonehole firmly without any leaks. It should have only the slightest of impressions from the tone hole (i.e. not squished to cover). This ensures a good coverage and 'snap' with only a feather-light touch from the player.

The build quality on cheaper flutes is simply not good enough to use high-level pads.

Semi-Professional Headjoint

This more advanced head joint is still machine cut (rather than handmade) but it has more resistance, produces the lower range more easily and projects more.

Visually, the front of the lip plate drops off more than a student/intermediate head joint.

Pinless Mechanism

In addition to what was said about the mechanism, we have the 'pinless' mechanism. In a pinned mechanism some of the keys are pinned (attached) to the rod. This means that when some of the keys move, the rod moves as well. This makes some key movements feel different from others. On a pinless mechanism the rod does not move and there is very little difference in feel between of the keys.

pinless mechanism vanguard

A pinless mechanism allows for a more stable adjustment and eliminates binding which occurs on traditional mechanisms. The mechanism is smoother and quieter, allowing for a very even spring tension throughout and also a very light even action. Only certain manufacturers use this style of mechanism. It is a superior mechanism.

Sterling Silver Body

There is a lot of debate about whether a solid silver flute body is any better than a silver plated one. The person who originally wrote this guide (Elaine Ward) said:

"[Silver] definitely gives the flute more volume and presence. The dynamic range is enlarged and the sound projects more"

But there are plenty or arguments in online forums saying that the build quality of an instrument is far more important than the material it is made from.

This is something you should really research yourself; we can't give you a definitive answer here!

Professional Flute Options

The professional flute is characterized by all the qualities of the Semi-professional flute and some of the following:

Riser Options

The riser is the little chimney that supports the lip plate above the headjoint tubing:

Adding a 14ct gold riser to a solid silver headjoint puts many 'gold' qualities into the sound. Once again, there is plenty of debate out there as to how much tonal difference this actually achieves, but it's a fun internet hole to go down if you are interested.

There are many handmade headjoints that use precious metals not only in the riser but also on the lip late itself. There is no end to the possibilities of combinations with the headjoint, lip plate, and tubing and it is up to you to try many and purchase what works best for you.

Pinless Mechanism

In addition to what was said about the mechanism, we have the 'pinless' mechanism. In a pinned mechanism some of the keys are pinned (attached) to the rod. This means that when some of the keys move, the rod moves as well. This makes some key movements feel different from others. On a pinless mechanism the rod does not move and there is very little difference in feel between of the keys.

pinless mechanism vanguard

A pinless mechanism allows for a more stable adjustment and eliminates binding which occurs on traditional mechanisms. The mechanism is smoother and quieter, allowing for a very even spring tension throughout and also a very light even action. Only certain manufacturers use this style of mechanism. It is a superior mechanism.

Soldered Toneholes

The part highlighted in this picture is the tonehole. This part is either soldered onto the body separately, or drawn up from the body in a single piece:

soldered tone holes

A soldered tone hole allows more possibilities as it is shaped to give more resistance, a darker sound, and a deeper timbre. You as the player have to decide. Soldered tone holes are the most popular on professional flutes.

Precious Metals

At this level of flute many precious metals are used.

Lunn Flute The Dryad’s Touch

A couple of popular options are:

  • A sterling silver body and keys
  • A 14ct body with sterling silver keys and headjoint with a 14ct gold riser

Any combination can work. The debate rages on as to how much difference precious metals make. We won't give you an opinion here, but we're happy to chat in store!

Tubing Thickness Variations

The standard thickness (thickness of the metal) on a flute is .38mm and this tends to give a flexible and resonant sound.

Thicker optins range from .42mm - .45mm and give a much darker sound. A thinner wall gives a lighter sound more suited to chamber playing. Standard thickness is the most popular.

C# Trill

The C# trill key adds another tonehole and cup next to the thumb key. It is operated by a lever which is usually positioned next to the Bb lever. The C# trill simplifies many awkward trills and tremolo, dramatically improving the pitch and clarity

c# trill key vanguard orchestral

It gives an easier B-C# trill, a reliable G-A trill by fingering G and trilling C3 and the D together. It also trills from high F#-G#, and Ab-Bb. The C# trill . It moves several left-hand fingerings to the right hand. It also provides an additional vent that clarifies several notes.

This is a very useful key yet it is a very 'delicate' key that can be easily bumped out of adjustment!

Lower G Insert

The lower G insert is a crescent shaped insert epoxied or soldered into the lower G tonehole.

lower G insert flute vanguard orchestral

It may lower the pitch of A1 and A. A good option and less expensive than the Split-E mechanism.

Gizmo

The gizmo key if found on B-foot flutes. It closes the low B tone hole without closing the low C tone hole or the low C tone hole.

gizmo key flute vanguard orchestral

Depressing the gizmo key helps a produce a 4th octave C. It also makes the 3rd octave speak easier. Slurring to the 3rd octave F# can be easier as well by depressing only this key (no C# or C).

Inline or Offset G Keys

There are two G keys on a flute. Inline G keys are lined up parallel with the other keys. Offset G keys stick out a little bit (see image).

inline offset g key flute vanguard orchestral

There is no tonal difference between inline or offset G keys.

An inline mechanism is increasingly less common in modern flutes. It is more prone to binding keys as well as causing strength/longevity problems. There can be binding (sluggishness or worse) in the Bb key.

Offset G keys are more naturally ergonomic, and it is easier to reach for small hands. The G keys are on a separate rod therefore separating it from the Bb key and its binding problems.

This guide was originally written by Elaine Ward – a ex-technician at Vanguard Orchestral who now works at Backun in Canada. This guide has been updated, but the bulk of the information (and residual opinions) is attributable to Elaine.