Building a Native American Flute

CHRIS-HandsSepia_5wideThe Native American flute is one of those folk instruments that looks like it would be easy to build. After all, it’s just a simple barrel with six, (or five), holes drilled down its length. You blow in one end, and you cover various holes with your fingers to get different notes. There’s little more to it than that? Right? Wrong. If this is your idea of a functioning flute, you will be terribly disappointed when you try blowing into a simple tube with holes in it. Try it for yourself. Blow through that paper towel tube from your empty paper towel roll. You already know that you’ll get a big fat nothin’! If you want sound, don’t blow. Instead say, in a high falsetto voice, “Toot ta doooo,” like you did when you were a kid! πŸ™‚

The flute, like any instrument, has to be built in accordance with the principles of physics, even if the builder isn’t aware of those principles. (You don’t have to know the actual principles to build a working flute.) How do you make a blowing end that will produce sound? How in the world might this be done with nothing more than a tube and that little block thingie that sometimes looks like an animal or bird sitting next to what appears to be a sound hole close to the blowing end? Do you make a blowing end, (called a “fipple”), like you see on a typical whistle? Well…yes…and no. It’s not a fipple end like you might see on something like a penny whistle. Unlike a typical fipple, on the Native American flute there is a separate air chamber, there is an air channel, there is a partition to block the air, and there is that block thingie, often called the totem or the chimney, which guides the air across the labium, the edge that splits the air you blow and makes the sound. But there’s more! Even if you knew how to make a blowing end that produces sound, how would you space the note holes so the whole thing plays in tune? In other words, how could you consistently play Mary Had a Little Lamb on any NA flute so your kid would recognize it? The NA flute is a true mystery of design, elegant in concept. So if you want to know how to build a flute you can actually tune correctly and play, keep reading….

Several books have been written on how to build a playable Native American flute. Many of the books I’ve investigated don’t go into much depth. They will show you how to build one type of flute and that’s about it. Quite often these books will show you how to build the 5-hole flute, but not the 6-hole flute. (The 6-hole flute has more musical possibilities and is favored by NA flute masters like R. Carlos Nakai.) But a new book has recently been released that gives specific instructions for building the ancient Anasazi flute, as well as instructions for building the types of flutes we are more familiar with made of wood, bamboo and river cane, PVC, and clay. And this book even shows you how to build a flute system, a swappable head piece that fits on barrels of varying flute keys. There are also detailed instructions for building the double-barreled drone flute. A drone flute plays an accompanying drone note, (much like a bagpipe), as the melody is played. It delivers a startlingly haunting sound. The drone is not a modern flute, even though you might think so. Drone flutes were found among the remains of the Aztecs who lived 5,000 years ago. This is the only book I’ve investigated that shows specific instructions for building many types of NA flutes, including the Anasazi flute and including the drone flute.

The book I’m talking about is titled, “Native American Flute Craft,” and it’s written by master flute builder and flute musician, C.S. Fuqua. The book is packed with instructional photos and explanatory text. The book shows things like how to wrap bamboo and river cane barrels with fine twine to keep the barrels from splitting. It shows how to make various chimneys, those little block thingies I referred to earlier, that sit in front of the sound hole. Why are they even needed? Aren’t they just there for decoration? Nope. In the book you’ll learn how crucial they are to the function of the flute. The book will show you how to finish the flute. Most important, the book gives you the simple math, (yes, the math is very simple), to space all the holes correctly. What was once a mystery to many that want to build a flute is no longer a mystery. Fuqua has laid it out in universal values so you will be able to build a flute in any key, from the higher register to the low C# contra bass flute. In fact, there is a special section in the book that shows how to build the contra bass. Detailed tuning charts are included, along with detailed instructions on where to drill the sound holes on any size flute as well as how to modify a sound hole to make a note sharper or flatter. (The scale must be tuned correctly or your music will sound awful.) You can tune by ear, but most builders, even seasoned professionals, use tuners. So tuners are discussed as well. There is also an in depth discussion at the book’s beginning about Native American flute myth and history. The end of the book has materials sources as well as crafter databases in both the U.S. and U.K.

The book is 137 pages long. It’s in an 8 x 10 inch format, which allows you to lay the book open at your workbench for easy access. Some instruction books are the size of a typical paperback book. This makes it difficult to keep the pages open as you try to use the book at the workbench, and diagrams in a book this size are usually quite small. “Native American Flute Craft” is not a small book. It’s convenient to use when you are actually using it as a reference at the workbench. It’s also fun to just read the many interesting topics, even if you never plan to build your own flute. The book is also available in ebook form so you can set up your iPad or other tablet at the bench.

C.S. (Chris) Fuqua is a first class flute builder and flute musician, and I’m the proud owner of many of his bamboo, pine, and PVC flutes. I play any and every kind of music imaginable on these flutes: Native American traditional; folk; country; blues, classical; gospel; jazz; meditative; sacred, and children’s music. You can play any type of music on the simple Native American flute. I love this book. It’s part of my spiritual medicine, as are my flutes. The squirrels and bunnies out back love my flute playing. πŸ™‚

Chris Fuqua is a scholar of Native American flute myth and history. And it shows in this book. You can learn even more about this book as well as other books Chris has written, just by clicking the ‘Music Books’ tab and the ‘Books/CDs’ tab in the top menu bar. To go directly to where you can learn more about “Native American Flute Craft,” the book just discussed, click the following linkβ€”

Native American Flute Craft book

You can read a short description of many of the other projects Chris has been involved in by clicking the following linkβ€”

C.S. Fuqua info

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The next blog article will discuss the musical differences between 5-hole and 6-hole NA flutes. Don’t miss it! πŸ™‚



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