If you already play an instrument, you probably play the guitar. Everyone wants to play the guitar. The guitar is a rock instrument, a folk instrument, a bluegrass instrument, a blues and jazz instrument, a classical music instrument, a sacred music instrument, and an instrument to entertain your little kids. The guitar is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere! I began my own folk music life by first learning the guitar. Back then it seemed like the perfect instrument to learn any kind of music on. But along with that enthusiasm came work: work to learn the chord positions, work to learn the scale positions, and, in my case, I attacked those chord and scale positions with a fervor that helped me learn the guitar in a hurry. I even eventually taught guitar, and I can’t begin to count the number of guitar and banjo lessons I gave over the years. So the guitar was one of those positive things that happened in my life. Playing it has given me joy, and through teaching the guitar (and banjo) I’ve passed on that joy to others. But if I were to choose a beginning instrument today, I would start out with the Native American flute, not the guitar. The flute is easily accessible to all those who want to be musicians but don’t know where to start.
What took me so long to come to the Native American flute? Well, when I began learning the guitar, there were few Native American flutes, if any, available to the average musician. The art of building a Native American flute was nearly lost. The flute wasn’t on anyone’s radar. So we all began with the guitar, because the folkie artists and the country artists were playing guitars.
When I began learning the guitar, I wanted to sing and accompany my singing as I picked and strummed. That, to me, was the real power of music. Although it was my father who introduced me to the tenor guitar at a young age, it was also my father who played the sax like a pro. And although I appreciated his musicianship and enjoyed his playing, I wasn’t interested in taking up the sax. You can’t sing and play the sax at the same time. I wanted to be the whole danged band! I wanted to sing and strum, like those cowboy stars I’d seen in the movies!
But there was something really momentous about my father’s sax playing. It was true he was playing just one note at a time on his sax, and he certainly couldn’t sing while he played. But the single-note melody that came out of his horn was beautiful. It was meditative, especially when he played the blues. So when the Native American flute became available to all us common folk, I bought one. After some serious noodling around on it, I quickly found a bluesy sounding scale. I didn’t know the name for this scale then, but I was soon to learn it was the pentatonic scale, the scale that’s “native” to the Native American flute. This scale is the oldest scale on the planet, and the scale was present in very early times, (thousands of years ago), in almost every culture. We know this by old flutes archaeologists have uncovered in their digs. Those first flutes could make only one note. There was no scale–just the one note. But as time passed, people began drilling more holes into the flute barrel, and this humble instrument evolved into the beautiful 5 and 6 hole instruments we use today.
As I learned more and more about the Native American flute, I found more notes than just those in the pentatonic scale. Eventually I figured out the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is made up of the white and black keys of a piano or keyboard; any melody you might know or compose can be played on the chromatic scale. But the best way to start your flute studies is with the simplest scale, the pentatonic scale. This scale makes the NA flute an ideal instrument to learn to play because it requires no music lessons. It requires no formal guidance from anyone, other than you and your instincts. If you play just those notes of the pentatonic scale, you can meditate with the beautiful melodies this humble instrument makes. With the pentatonic scale, no matter what notes you might play, your melody will sound good. That’s the peculiar characteristic of this scale, and it’s probably why the scale endured over thousands of years. Melodies played from this scale, regardless of which instrument you might play it on, will help you slow down, to reflect. In light of the stress many of us are living under, the flute can make our lives easier.
If you would like to hear what the pentatonic scale played on the Native American flute sounds like, go to the LISTEN menu tab. You will hear me play the simple pentatonic scale, a short meditative melody, and a quickly improvised blues melody.
It should be noted that there is more than one type of pentatonic scale. If you are interested in the other scale forms, go to Pentatonic Scale at Wikipedia.org.