How Low Can You Go?

Posted on October 06, 2015 by Odell Borg

October 1, 2015

From the very beginning I was attracted to the voice of deep, resonant bass flutes. They emit a spiritual quality that touches my heart and creates a peaceful mood. As a solo instrument, I found the bass flutes to be very contemplative and thoughtful, evoking deep feelings, taking the player inward. When played with high-pitched flutes or other instruments, the bass flutes are a subtle drone element. They create the additional rhythm that establishes the grounding foundation of the song. Both these qualities have made them a part of many flute players’ collections.

The bass flutes do present some challenges along with their popularity. Creating those deep, full voices, dictates these low-tone flutes must have a large-diameter bore. They are longer and have larger fingering holes. They also require an increase in air volume and more breath control. These characteristics have been a challenge to flute makers in our attempts to create instruments that are accessible and easy to use for those who have smaller hands and a shorter reach.

Throughout the past 25 years, I have experimented with several innovations to make the lower-tone flute easier to use, so they could be available to a larger number of flute players. Most attempts required changing the physical characteristics and the traditional look. My first attempt at creating a more-user friendly bass flute, was placing a mouthpiece on the side of the flute bore so the fingering hole could be more easily reached. It did make it easier to play the instrument but unfortunately departing from the traditional look and design of the Native Flute was not very popular.

Modified bass flute mouthpiece that was not popular with customers

We made several prototype bass flutes that had a very large diameter bore so the overall flute could be shorter in length. It was easier to reach the fingering holes but for the flute to be in tune, we also had to increase the size of the fingering holes. This was impractical for most players.

Around 2003, at a trade show, I met the inventor of a process that made it possible to create precise laminate wood tubing. We worked together to create tubes that had the correct diameters to use as the body for the bass flutes. What made the tubes so ideal was the tube walls could be very thin yet very strong. This allowed us to use smaller fingering holes. The thinness of the tubes also vibrated easily giving the flutes a full, resonant voice. It made our bass flute a bit more accessible to a larger number of people who wanted to go deeper into their flute journey.

Around 2007, the wood tubes were no longer available. The person who had created the process decided to retire. I could not find another supplier. I seriously considered taking over the making of the tubes but quickly realized that doing that would distract me from my first love, the making of flutes.

As with most change, it was for the better. It forced me to be more creative and search for an alternative solution. Now we make our bass flutes out of solid wood. On our larger Contra Basses we added a mouthpiece that is ergonomically designed to hold the flute closer to the body. This allows the fingers to be flatter, making it easier to seal the holes. It also minimizes bending of the wrists.

The new contra bass mouthpiece that retains traditional style

Frequently I am asked what bass flute one should consider. For the most part it comes down to the size of the flute on which the fingers can seal the holes. I feel it is best to start with a low “D” which is more versatile, because it has a good low bass register. It can also play high notes that are still lively enough that the flute can be used as a lead instrument. Playing this bass will slowly stretch the finger reach so when it is time for the next-lower bass, the transition and increased fingering stretch will be easier.

Condor bass flute showing our current bass flute style

Regrettably, most of the lower-bass flutes are still a challenge for those with smaller hands but at High Spirits our goal is to create flutes that almost anyone can play. We do have a 1-inch bore Bass D flute for people with smaller hands. The fingering holes are significantly smaller and easier to reach. We promise to continue the experimenting and innovating. We’ll get there!

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Odell with dog, Bingo.