Homegrown Music: Make a Bamboo Flute (Part II)

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When he's not playing a bamboo flute, Marc Bristol also plays guitar.
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Playing a bamboo flute is somewhat like blowing across the top of a bottle.

In my last column (Homegrown Wind Instrument: How to Carve a Homemade Bamboo Flute), I introduced you to Craig Rusbult, a bamboo flute maker extraordinaire. And that particular article went on to detail some of the basics of Craig’s technique with the aim of allowing you to craft a primitive flute of your own.

We’ve already discussed where to find the right bamboo for the job, how to cut it and remove the central membrane, and how to position — and form — the mouthpiece and finger holes. However, although that column did provide all the information necessary to produce a “playable” instrument, the piece didn’t include (because of space limitations) the “three F’s” of bamboo-flute construction: fine tuning, finishing, and fingering. I aim to remedy that situation here and now.

Fine Tuning

In the first part of this article I explained the importance of enlarging each hole in gradual increments, in order to “sneak up” on the right pitch, but there are some other tuning pointers that I think will also prove helpful.

For example, if you drill a small starter hole that produces an on-pitch but relatively weak note, you can obtain a clearer, more open sound by slightly enlarging the opening on the side closest to the flute’s open end. And if a hole produces a very flat note, you can increase its pitch significantly by gradually expanding the opening on the side nearest the mouthpiece.

Of course there’s always the danger of making a hole too large, and therefore too sharp. If you find yourself in that situation, you may want to imitate a trick of Craig’s: He stands his flute on end (mouthpiece down), applies a little white glue to the upward-facing edge of the offending opening, and allows it to dry. By building up this surface slightly, he’s able to lower the pitch produced by the hole.

Double Up

You’ll likely be glad to know (if you don’t already) that your homemade flute is capable of producing a second octave, which is played by simply blowing harder than usual into the instrument while using the same finger positions as those employed for the “normal” scale. Once you’ve shaped the holes to your satisfaction, then, you’ll want to check the tuning of those higher notes. If your bamboo’s natural taper is just right — that is, if the tube’s inside diameter decreases very uniformly from its closed to its open end — the upper octave may be naturally in tune.

Chances are, though, that at least some of the notes will be flat. To remedy the situation, carefully sand all, or a portion of, the area inside the tube between the mouthpiece and the hole closest to it (use the same dowel-and-sandpaper tool you made to smooth the interior while making your flute). If all the notes are flat, of course, you’ll have to work on the entire gap … if the three notes closest to the blow hole are the bad ones, sand just that half of the region closest to the mouthpiece … and, likewise, if the three notes farthest from the mouthpiece are flat, smooth the other half of the area. Again, always proceed gradually, and check the flute’s performance frequently as you make your adjustments.

Finishing the Flute

Once you’re done drilling and tuning your flute, you’ll probably want to lightly sand and contour the surface edges around the holes to make it easy for your fingers to form tight seals on the openings (this is, of course, essential if you intend to produce good clear notes). In addition, you may also decide to sand and polish the entire outer skin of the bamboo, and to smooth out the joints as well, to give the final product a truly professional appearance. Do be careful, though, not to sand too deeply into the wood, or you’ll destroy the natural beauty of the instrument.

Some flutemakers apply wrappings of colorful waxed linen thread (available at most craft shops) to several areas along the length of the instrument — particularly the portions around the mouthpiece, holes, and open end — to reinforce the tube and prevent (or repair) cracks. You can either glue or lacquer the cord in place.

Well, at this point your bamboo music maker ought to be ready to warble. That brings us to the third “F” of homegrown fluting. For this, refer to my Bamboo Flute Fingering Diagram.

A Pair of Possible Fingering Systems

In Fig. 1 — showing the standard six-hole fingering system — the shaded holes indicate finger placement, with the open end of the flute on the right. The numbers in turn designate the notes in the scale, in ascending order, with “1” being the key note. In addition, there are many ways to play flat and sharp notes, such as “half holing” — that is, placing your finger over just a portion of a hole to produce an “off” note — plus various other full fingerings not depicted in the chart.

The three “extra” holes shown in Fig. 2 — Craig Rusbult’s nine-hole fingering system — allow you to play in the two keys above and below the flute’s “natural” key. The additional openings are situated so that they’re covered by your thumbs and right ring finger when the instrument is held in the “normal” six-hole playing position.

The shaded holes represent finger placement, with the open end of the flute on the right. The two crosshatched holes shown indicate a need to finger one, the other, or both openings (depending on the individual flute) to achieve the flatted “6” note. The numbers on the left designate the notes in the scale, in ascending order, with “1” being the key note. The number-and-letter combinations across the top indicate the specific digits to be used: “L” is left, “R” is right, “T” is thumb … and “1”, “2”, “3”, and “4” designate index, middle, ring, and “little” fingers, respectively.

And Finally …

All you have to do now is experiment, practice, play, and enjoy. I’ve owned and used my bamboo flute since 1972, and the instrument has stood up faithfully to the test of ten years’ wear. (I keep the tune pipe in a quiverlike leather case that I believe has helped prevent it from drying and cracking.) I hope you get as much pleasure and longevity out of your homemade instrument as I have from mine.

And by all means, write and let me know how your flute toots!