So you need to buy a flute? The number of models, styles and prices can be overwhelming if you’re in the market for the first time. Even if you’re experienced and looking to upgrade, it can be tough to narrow it down to the right flute.
First, you’ll need to decide what price level best suits you. Luckily blowing mellifluous melodies doesn’t require first blowing gigantic wads of cash. That’s not to say that a top-of-the-line $3000 Yamaha isn’t a superior instrument to its $300 cousin, it is.
Unlike some other instruments, a cheaper flute can do the same job as an expensive one, it just doesn’t do it quite as well. And as you’ll see, in some cases the high price is due to the instrument literally being plated in gold! But the flute’s simplicity means high-quality models can be sold at relatively low prices.
To Rent or Buy?
Another question you’ll have to answer is whether you should rent or buy. If you’re an intermediate player it’s real easy, buy every time. If you’re a student or a parent of a student there’s a little more to consider. Ten years ago I would have still recommended that many students rent.
The upsides to renting are clear enough. If you get through one semester or even one year and quit, and many students do despite the best intentions, you don’t have the hassle of selling a used instrument and taking a loss.
The downsides are also clear. If a sixth grader rents and plays the flute until the end of 8th grade, the rental fees will dwarf the price of a new instrument.
Recoup Your Investment
But today there are two game changers. The first is great options to sell used instruments like eBay and Craigslist. Before, selling a used instrument after even one semester would have likely involved selling back to a band instruments retailer. That meant taking a large loss. But selling a slightly used instrument to a private party reduces the loss you’ll take by a huge margin, especially with the top brands.
Online Retailers Blow The Whistle
The other difference in 2017 is online retailers. Ten years ago, even if you lived in a large city chances were you would have only had one supplier within reasonable distance to get your instruments.
I won’t go off on a tangent about old-style retail instrument sales but let’s just say the term “racket” easily comes to mind. It’s a topic for another article, but from personal experience I can tell you there are some really strong arguments against buying from a retail store.
Today, sites like Amazon have eliminated the need to deal with local retailers at all. That’s why I always recommend buying new. There are literally thousands of online sellers so you know you aren’t getting quoted a price that’s $100 higher than the guy who just left the store. There’s just too much competition for pricing shenanigans. And there are some really fantastic deals out there on new instruments.
New v Used
If you have good knowledge and are comfortable going to the used market that can be a great option too. But I would strongly caution anyone who hasn’t bought and sold many instruments against going that route.
Flutes are simpler than concert grand pianos but it’s still real easy to buy junk if you don’t know what to look out for. The bottom line is the internet has made buying a new flute the safest, fastest and cheapest option available today.
So with that out of the way let’s take a look at some of the different options, what they mean, what they cost and who they best serve.
Parts of a Flute
We should probably take a moment to point out the basic parts that make up a modern flute.
The first part is the head joint. This portion has the embouchure hole which is blown into to produce sound. It has no keys.
The second part is the body. The body has the majority of the keys. The G key can either be inline or offset. The keys will either be connected to the main rod by pointed arms or by y-arms. Pointed arms are typically found on more expensive flutes.
Finally, there is the foot joint. It may contain a key called the gizmo key, or it may not. It also may allow for a low note of B3 or a C4.
The version which allows a low B is predictably called a B foot joint and the one that has C as the lowest note is called a C foot joint. Most student models will have a C foot joint while many, but not all, professional models will have a B foot joint.
What flute should I choose?
Flutes can be put into four categories – student, intermediate, professional and artisan. There are differences in materials and resulting sound quality but new buyers may not know there are also differences in ease of play.
Unlike, say, keyboards some flutes have different layouts to make hitting certain notes easier.
With the most basic student flutes you will be sacrificing a little sound quality. But they make learning a lot less frustrating. For beginners going with a student flute is also a great option because they do tend to cost a lot less.
Student model flutes are often priced considerably less than others. They’re also usually made with silver alloys containing nickel. The reason is durability. While silver isn’t necessarily a soft metal, delicate silver products need to be meticulously cared for.
As a practical matter students can’t be expected to provide a level of care that a 1st chair philharmonic flutist can. Nickel-silver alloys provide the extra strength students require. And many modern student flutes also have a beautiful sound.
A couple good examples of nice beginner flutes are the Yamaha YFL-221 and the Gemeinhardt 2SP.
The Advantages of Offset G
Student flutes will usually have what’s known as an “offset G”. The offset G has a number of advantages, especially if you’re a beginner.
First, it’s a lot easier to hit the G key. Since its one of the most frequently used keys it makes learning an all around easier experience.
Second, it’s actually been proven to cut down on tendonitis Carpel Tunnel syndrome. You can find a great article from Miyazawa on this.
The third thing is it will increase the resell value a lot. Flute buyers today want offset G’s even in higher-end flutes. The reason is it just doesn’t affect sound quality any noticeable amount. But it does make playing much easier, especially for those with smaller hands.
C Foot Joint
The common feature among student flutes is having a C foot joint instead of a B foot joint.
There’s a long, ongoing debate about which style of foot joint is better. Ignoring all the minutiae there are two basic things you need to know about foot joints.
The first is that if you get a C foot instrument you won’t be able to play the low B. The second is that a B foot joint is noticeably heavier. Let me tell you what my conclusions are on those two points.
There really aren’t that many pieces that demand a low B in the first place. Even if you happen to be playing a piece that requires a low B, really all you need to do is borrow a B foot joint. It’s that simple.
The second point is a little more important. You might not think a couple of extra ounces really matters that much. As flute players, we may be holding the instrument almost continuously for up to thirty minutes at a time! If you’re a new player those few ounces can mean the difference between your arms buckling halfway through a piece and being able to get to the end.
I’ll skip the rest of the C joint vs B joint debate and just summarize my overall feeling. Both sides have valid points but here’s the deal: just buy a C joint flute. The downsides are minimal and the upsides are very real. The weight savings, simplicity,
The weight savings, simplicity, and absence of a gizmo key are all big plusses. There’s really no reason C foot joint instruments shouldn’t just be made the standard.
Intermediate flutes are the next step up. They’re designed for serious students and performers.
Often intermediate flutes will have solid silver head joints and silver plated bodies and foot joints. They will generally look and sound a little nicer. You may also notice superficial differences like the use of French or pointed arms instead of y-arms.
Some intermediate flutes will also have an inline G key. Also in the past many intermediate flutes would use a B foot joint. Recently though C foot joints have become much more popular.
Perhaps the most important difference though is open-hole keys. This is the one major difference that has a dramatic effect on overall intonation. Open holes also afford the player a high degree of control over intonation. You may even hear professionals claim the open-hole layout improves playability during quick arpeggios, and there is some merit to that claim.
At the intermediate level you should be getting an instrument that looks and sounds almost as good as a professional model. But you’ll likely only be spending 1/10th the amount.
Professional flutes are what the name implies – flutes made for professional musicians. The differences between a good intermediate flute and a professional flute are usually subtle. A professional flutist will notice the difference in appearance, playability and most importantly, sound. But to be perfectly honest you probably won’t – unless you’re a professional flutist!
The bronze alloy springs usually used in lower-end flutes may be replaced by gold alloys. The keys will be manufactured to extremely strict tolerances to give the instrument the best possible action.
The embouchure plate and other components may be gold plated. Overall you’ll be getting a world-class instrument but you’ll also be paying world-class prices for it. If you’re a committed musician looking to take your playing to the next level then you should probably consider going with a professional model.
Artisan flutes are mentioned primarily for completeness. While many of these instruments are stunningly beautiful and stand-alone works of art, they are often prohibitively expensive.
The best products from Yamaha, Miyazawa or Sankyo are scarcely possible to improve on in terms of sound and playability. And artisan flutes are often priced far above them.
Flute Maintenance and Repair
Flutes, especially beginner and intermediate flutes, are pretty hardy. If you follow recommended assembly and disassembly procedures your flute should last a very long time.
Maybe the most important thing is simply never to twist or otherwise apply pressure by grabbing the keys or rails. The most fragile part will be the keys and they should never be grabbed or used for leverage. Also, you should avoid banging the embouchure plate on anything as dents there often cannot be removed.
Taking good care of your flute is important. Repair bills can quickly add up, especially if your flute is being serviced at a retail music supplier. Labor rates of $50/hr and up are common.
Almost all flutes will come with a case when bought new. A nice thing about flutes is it’s a woodwind but there’s no reed. This makes it a much lower maintenance instrument.
Still, like all woodwind instruments it’s important to keep it clean. The Gemeinhardt Flute Cleaning Kit is great for keeping your flute clean.
Nearly all other flute components can be upgraded. But with the so many competitively priced flutes often it’s cheaper to upgrade the whole instrument rather than doing it one piece at a time.
For a full list of flute accessories visit our home page!