Sometimes it can be a long road to finding an instrument you really want to learn to play, an instrument like the Native American flute. With me it was an easy walk to the tenor guitar, (a small guitar minus the 5th and 6th strings), because my father introduced me to it when I was a young boy. That’s where my musical quest began. Eventually I picked up my grandpa’s old Sears guitar. It was in terrible shape with nearly unplayable action. The “action” is the distance the strings are from the fretboard. If the action is too high, it’s impossible to fret notes because it kills your fingers. I tuned that old guitar to an open G tuning and used a table knife as a slide, and that, of course, solved the action problem. Later in life I found the banjo, as well as ukulele finger picking and blues harmonica (cross harping). I played folk guitar and blues on an Ovation acoustic, I played rock on a Gibson electric solid body, and I played classical guitar on Martin and Córdoba guitars. Yup, there are lots of instruments and many musical high points in my life. You’d think that with all these instruments, I would have had enough of it. But underneath it all was the desire to own and play the Native American flute. It took many steps to get there.
It might be a surprise to you what initially attracted me to the NAF. It wasn’t the romance and culture of the NAF, although I respect that aspect of it. And It wasn’t that iconic “look” of the NAF with its animal totem and attached feathers, either. I wasn’t interested in any of that. I was interested in the musical possibilities of the instrument, most specifically the blues. My dad played a hot blues sax, and so I was fortunate enough to have grown up around his gift for blues and jazz. I had heard the music of the NAF somewhere, and although at the time I didn’t realize traditional NAF tunes were being played on the simple pentatonic scale, I heard the blues notes in that scale. And so I wanted more. I knew I could play the blues on it if I just knew where to find one.
When I first thirsted for the NAF, there was no Internet. Yes, it was that long ago! So I had no idea where I might buy an NAF. Music stores certainly didn’t stock them because the flutes at that time were all hand made. The answer seemed to present itself when my daughter and I were at a craft fair in Flagstaff, Arizona. I saw an authentic Native American flute I liked and asked the builder to play me something. He played me “Melody In F” by Anton Rubinstein. This was an epiphany because I realized, then and there, that any kind of music could be played on the NAF! Even complex classical music! But the man wanted more money than I was willing to pay for his flute. And so I passed it up, and I can tell you I was very heartsick about it. At that same craft fair my intrepid daughter, refusing to give up, went scouting and found me a 6-hole whistle for 5 bucks. It was made in India, it stunk like my grandpa’s mahogany rocking chair, it was easy to play, it had a soft breathy sound, and it was in the almost unworkable key of B. It wasn’t compatible with a guitar player unless the guitarist played in A with his/her capo on the second fret. (This is why capos are indispensable to guitarists.) That whistle, although not an NAF, nor did it finger like one, set me on the NAF path. But it still took awhile. From that simple 6-hole whistle I bought a 6-hole penny whistle, key of G. Then I bought a 6-hole penny whistle in low D. It’s finger holes on the low end are almost impossible for me to reach. I also purchased a recorder, (the kind you blow into to get a tune), as well as a 6-hole whistle from Afghanistan. You could say I was in the process of whetting my whistle for the honest to God big daddy — the Native American flute!
Eventually the Net uncovered many NAF flute builders. I bought my very first NAF, online. It was a Cedar flute and it still sounds nice. (Flutes, like guitars, sound better and better with age.) I don’t play this particular flute that much because the note hole distances are too great for me to comfortably play it. Without going into details we don’t need here I eventually stumbled onto my good friend, Chris Fuqua. Chris is an accomplished author, and through this author/publisher association I learned through our email discussions that he built excellent NAFs with note hole distances I could comfortably handle. And so, this is where my flute playing truly began.
Chris (C.S. Fuqua) has written several books on the NAF. His meticulously researched book “Native American flute: Myth, History, Craft” introduces us to the NAF in a way few authors have even touched upon. He has also written the how-to book, “Native American Flute Craft.” This book extensively covers many aspects of the building of several flute types, including the drone flute and the Anasazi flute, and you can read full descriptions of both books under the site tab, MUSIC BOOKS. Just tap to get the drop-down menu.
Chris has recently added an excellent video to YouTube on how to build a flute from PVC pipe. His original video proved to be so popular that he has recently upgraded it with much more construction detail.
This video doesn’t take the place of his book, “Native American Flute Craft.” That book is extremely extensive in the art of building the Native American flute. But if you consider yourself handy, you might want to try to build a flute of the PVC variety, just for the heck of it. This video will give you all the info you’ll need to do this. My only suggestion is that when Chris tells you in the video that you’ll need a tuner, get a tuner. He uses an expensive tuner hardware device, but you can download free chromatic tuner apps for your smart phone that do the same thing. They do a good job. Regardless of how good an ear for pitch you might have, if you have no ear for pitch, you won’t know that. Or if you have just minor problems with discerning pitch, you won’t know that either. And since most of us don’t have perfect pitch anyway, (most of us have good relative pitch), you will need a tuner if you hope to play with others. You will need a tuner that visually displays the correct pitch. All tuners display the correct pitch, regardless if they are an expensive device or a totally free tuner app. A good free tuner is called “Pano Tuner.” I have it on my iPhone and find it easy to use. There are other free tuner apps, but even the more expensive tuner apps cost only two or three bucks. In regard to that, I bought the “insTuner” for my iPhone and I think it cost me three bucks. (The pay version of Pano Tuner is similarly priced.) It displays a correct pitch differently than Pano Tuner, but they both work well. Before you even consider getting a tuner, first watch the video. Then you’ll know if you want to actually try building a flute.
It took me awhile to really fall in love with the NAF. Even after I bought my first flute, I had no mentor. And so I didn’t play that first flute much. I needed someone to listen to and learn from. I didn’t need actual instruction. I just needed someone to play for me, stupid as that might seem. I needed someone to emulate until I eventually developed my own style. Chris sent me his own MP3s, and my eyes lit up at his sound! Through his MP3 examples, he came along and became my mentor. You need to listen to the music of others so you know what you should sound like. That’s the way we all learn, regardless of which instrument we might want to play. If you want examples but don’t have flute playing friends to take you by the hand with their own sounds, listen to the online MP3 examples Chris and I have posted for you. We have posted dozens of examples on this site that will hopefully inspire you. Tap the following links and listen to what’s there. Once you’ve finished listening, close that page and you will again see this page so you can then try other page links in this list.
The path to the instrument of your dreams can be frustrating at times, but that path can be a joyous one as you experience those many wonderful flute “events” along the way. 🙂