As a fanatical player of the Native American flute, this question is often asked of me: How does the material a flute is made of affect the tone? The answer is greatly! So in this article I will talk specifics about the three major flute barrel materials. They are bamboo, wood, and PVC.
BAMBOO: I like to play the blues, so I love the rough edged sound of bamboo. I play a variety of tunes on the flutes I play, but bamboo is especially good for that intense blues sound. They also produce a great sound for meditation.
WOOD: Wood flutes have a sweeter tone and are wonderful for folk, pop, classical, and sacred music. Sacred music sounds especially beautiful because of this flute type’s smooth sound.
PVC: PVC is a high tech plastic material that makes great flutes. Like wood, they sound good with a variety of music. But I frequently use PVCs to play the blues as well.
BAMBOO PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: All three of these flute types play quite differently. Bamboo is the more difficult flute type to play. Bamboo, by its nature, is very grainy, if one could apply the concept of “grainy” to bamboo which is not a wood but a type of grass! This graininess adds to the tone texture of this particular material. Bamboo barrels will be larger in diameter than a wood flute might be. Because of this, the column of air in the barrel might be less stable if you are new to the NAF. It’s a wonderful instrument to play, but you might have more luck with wood or PVC if you are new to the flute. Bamboo flutes can be touchy, because it doesn’t take much air to get a good sound. If you blow just a little bit too hard, you’ll get squawks, even if you have all of the holes firmly closed.
WOOD PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: The most common material to make flutes is wood. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’m not a big fan of cedar flutes. Cedar is probably the most common wood used and most sought after, but the tone is too sweet for my taste. When I play the blues, I want bamboo blues, not bluesy woozy blues. 🙂 Maybe I’m too hard on cedar. I certainly don’t mean to be. But there are woods that give a less sweet tone, and that makes this type of flute more flexible in playing lots of different tunes. My friend Chris Fuqua of WindPoem Flutes sends me one of his custom creations every once in awhile. He has been sending me bamboo and PVC flutes for years. Last week a pine flute came sailing through my door. It’s an F# and it sounds gorgeous. Wood flutes typically have smaller diameter barrels than bamboo flutes of the same key. The diameter of the finger holes are also less on a wood flute than on a bamboo flute. The greater barrel volume of the bamboo flute requires larger holes, something that might be of concern to someone of limited finger size, or limited hand strength or both.
PVC PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: The ideal flute to learn to play is the PVC flute. It might not have the attractive grain you would find on a wood flute, and it might not have the folksy look of bamboo, but it’s an easy flute to play and learn on. The tone is gutsy but smooth, like a cross between a bamboo flute and a wood flute. The barrel diameter is larger than a wood flute in the same key, but finger-hole diameter is very manageable. The PVC’s consistent barrel bore makes it easy to play accurately.
You can best hear the tone difference between these three flute types in the audio demo I recorded for you. You can check this out on the LISTEN page.
I have written a variety of books on how to play the Native American flute, and each book covers different tune types. To see what they are click the MUSIC BOOKS tab.