A BRIEF SURVEY OF LOVE FLUTE MAKERS
By David Osborn
Introduction: The Wide, Wide World of Love Flute Makers
There has been a great explosion of interest in the Native American Style Flute, or the Love Flute, in recent years, and now, there are Love Flute makers of every type and description, seeking to fill the needs of every possible niche in the Love Flute marketplace. Starting with only a handful of craftspeople, mainly of Native origin, enterprising artisans, both Native and non-Native alike, are now getting in on the act, and making Love Flutes of every possible size and description. Every kind of Love Flute that you could imagine is out there, just waiting for the right buyer – and even some that you could never imagine! And Love Flute artisans are no longer confined to the United States alone – if you want to go “way down under” to New Zealand, for example, there is a Kiwi Love Flute maker waiting there for you – Southern Cross Flutes. In this article, I will conduct a brief survey of Love Flute Makers, which is designed to show you the incredible diversity that exists among them today.
In the Beginning: The Native Old Timers
“When I started making flutes, there were only a handful of people doing it, but lately, so many people have started making flutes…” Such were the words I heard in my initial phone conversation with Jerry Fretwell, of Fretwell Flutes. And his words were echoed by another old timer, Daniel Bigay of Mountain Spirit Flutes, a Native of the Cherokee Tribe. I also had a long phone conversation with LeRoy Cully, who I bought a beautiful F# Red Cedar flute from, and he could have echoed these very same words as well. I vividly remember how I came across his flute. I was driving down interstate 40 in Oklahoma when I spied a huge billboard for a Native American trading post. It read, “Native Flutes – wide selection, high quality.” You can bet that I slammed on my brakes for that one! I bought a beautiful Osage Orange flute from Daniel Bigay after I had heard more than one Native flute player who played his flutes sing his praises – and the flutes they were playing looked like very well-made flutes indeed. The website of Fretwell Flutes presents itself as the Fretwell family – your family of flute makers, with a kind of homespun flavor to it.
Daniel Bigay was very generous in sharing the fruits of his flute making knowledge and experience with me. He lives in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee – and where he lives, he told me, there is so much wood to be had. Daniel told me that he harvests most of the wood he uses himself; he says that he often walks through the forest, saw in hand, I suppose, and cuts down trees that have died and dried in a standing position, leaving him with wood that has been naturally dried and cured. He graciously played several flutes he had just made for me, to see which ones I liked the best, and also asked me how I tended to blow a flute. I told him that I was a rather forceful, robust blower, and he said that that’s the way he blows as well. When I told him that I wanted an Osage Orange flute, he told me that every Native flutist should have at least one Osage Orange flute in his collection. Osage Orange is a very hard wood, he told me, and a lot like Black Locust, which is another favorite hard wood of his. Daniel also told me that Eastern Red Cedar and Alligator Juniper were virtually identical woods, with the same sound – the only difference between them was their color.
The F# flute made of Eastern Red Cedar that I bought from LeRoy Cully, of the Muskogee Nation in Oklahoma, is probably the most treasured flute I have in my collection that was made by these Native old timers. Its tone is super full and mellow, with absolutely no holes, gaps or inconsistencies in its tone, dynamics or playing response; in addition, all the cross-fingerings work perfectly. Another remarkable thing about the piece of Red Cedar that the flute is made from is that it has absolutely no knots or flaws in it. The Osage Orange flute in A that I got from Daniel Bigay is another remarkable flute, and what is so remarkable about it is its sound power and projection – again, no weak spots in that flute, either. As a flute maker, it’s great to have these flutes in my collection, to serve as inspirational models for my own flute making efforts. They give me a vision of the ideal towards which to strive as I endeavor to perfect my craft.
If you wish to contact any of these Native old timer flute makers, please follow the following links:
Daniel Bigay – www.mountainspiritflutes.com
LeRoy Cully - https://www.facebook.com/LeroyCullyFlutes/
Jerry Fretwell – www.fretwellflutes.com
The Economy Club: A Great Flute for a Great Price
Everyone can understand and appreciate the value of getting a great flute for a great price, and that is the ideal and business model for many flute makers out there. As exemplars of this niche and business model in the world of the Love Flute, I have selected three flute makers who I feel best fit the bill. They are Jonah Thompson, High Spirits Flutes and Kuzin Bruce Flutes.
Many people driving down the freeway in Arizona or New Mexico have probably pulled in to one of those frequent trading posts by the side of the road. And in those trading posts, many of the Love Flutes being sold are made by Jonah Thompson, who I like to call “The Navajo Guy”, because he signs all his flutes with the word “Navajo”, with his initials, JT, right under it. I once heard Jonah Thompson’s flutes described as being “the most flute for the money”, and indeed, his prices, at 60 to 80 dollars or so for a flute, are hard to beat. And for the money, his flutes play surprisingly well – I have a few Jonah Thompson flutes in my collection, which I continue to play, with great delight. He uses Pine, which is probably the humblest and most common wood there is, for his flutes – and he crafts them all by hand and glues them together in the traditional manner. It’s surprising how good his simple Pine flutes sound.
The maker who has probably perfected the economy, mass production business model for making and selling flutes more than any other is Odell Borg of High Spirits Flutes, which is based in Patagonia, Arizona, which lies in the hills just south of Tucson, near the Mexican border. To make his flutes, Odell uses cheap, economical woods that have a good sound, and which are also easy to work with, like Eastern Red Cedar, Spanish Cedar, Birch and Black Walnut. He has also created his own distinctive flute designs for the body and the bird of the instrument, which give his flutes an instantly identifiable brand recognition and market presence. A distinctive feature of High Spirits Flutes is the way the mouthpiece is shaped, which Odell says is ergonomically designed in that it enables a greater stabilization of the flute between one’s lips, which facilitates more efficient breathing and tonguing. An intrepid and astute businessman above all things, Odell is constantly working to find new market niches for his flutes - go to a national park or monument, and his flutes are there; I even went to the website of a Japanese Native Flute Association and lo and behold, Odell Borg was there as the chairman of the group, giving his “goaisatsu” or initial greeting remarks. High Spirits Flutes also partners with various professional flutists to promote their flutes as well.
Bruce Belmore, of Kuzin Bruce Flutes, makes his home, and his flutes, in Woodland Park in the Colorado Rockies. I quote his mission statement below, which is taken directly from his website, which puts him squarely in the economy club:
The mission now, as it has always been, is to get a quality playing flute into folks’ hands at a good price. I’ve seen this instrument change lives, and I consider flute making as my Ministry. Keeping it simple, honest and good, Kuzin Bruce Flutes have a 100% happiness guarantee.
That pretty much sums it up. I have listened to Kuzin Bruce flutes being played on YouTube, and have been greatly impressed by them.
The video below is a favorite of mine, and is of Hal Weeks playing a Cherry wood flute in G, which is a Kuzin Bruce flute:
The economy club flute makers can be contacted, or their flutes obtained, by following the links below:
Jonah Thompson - http://www.cedarflutes.com/navajo_flutes_by_jonah_thompson.htm
High Spirits Flutes - https://highspirits.com/
Kuzin Bruce – KuzinBruceFlutes@aol.com ; www.kuzinbruceflutes.tripod.com
The Do-It-Yourselfers: Serving Aspiring Flute Makers
There has indeed been a great explosion of interest in the Love Flute in recent years, and that includes making the Love Flute. Not only have the ranks of full time, professional flute makers grown considerably, but there has also been an explosion of interest in flute making by amateur hobbyists as well. The way I see it, and what my own personal experience making and playing my own flutes has taught me, is that the only way to acquire a flute that is 100% exactly how you like it, which conforms perfectly to your ideals for an instrument, is to make it yourself. But to this statement I must tack on a huge caveat or qualifier here – and that is that you have the necessary craftsmanship skills; the rest, such as the musical knowledge and the understanding of flute acoustics, is something that can be learned, which comes with experience. But the innate talents and aptitude must be there, waiting to be brought out. And so, a number of Love Flute craftsmen have stepped up to the plate to educate and guide these aspiring flute makers, and to provide them with blanks, kits and other raw materials. I for one got into making the Love Flute because I didn’t see any other flutes out there that lived up to my ideals and aspirations for the instrument – and I suspect that many other flute makers could also say the same thing.
My own personal journey into making the Love Flute started when I contacted the website of Scott Jones of Columbia, Missouri, which is www.woodwindflutes.com . He was most helpful in getting me started. What Scott does is to rout out flute blanks and send them to those who order flute blanks from him; to my great satisfaction, he could also make flute blanks according to my own specifications, with a narrower bore. The first flute blanks I ordered from him were of Alaskan Yellow Cedar, which is a very soft and easily workable wood – in fact, it was so easy to work that I don’t think I could have started with any easier wood. Along the way, as I had questions, I would call Scott or send him an email, and he would offer me practical and cogent advice. I also highly recommend his YouTube channel for educational videos on flute making. I have also made flutes from Sassafras wood and Ash from the flute blanks he sent me.
Below is one of Scott’s most valuable instructional videos on flute making from his YouTube channel. It shows the viewer how to cut the True Sound Window, which is crucial:
Another helpful do-it-yourselfer and online flute making guru that I found is Charlie Mato-Toyela at www.bluebearflutes.com . There were a few distinctive things about Charlie and his web presence that made him stand out. The first thing is that he seemed to be the most prolific maker of educational videos on making the Love Flute, and he sells kits and specialized flute making tools via his website. Secondly, he was into making Love Flutes from unusual or uncommon materials, especially from River Cane and Sawgrass – but these materials, even if they may be relatively uncommon in flute making today, could well have been the original material for the Love Flute. Thirdly, Charlie had a simple, common sense approach to flute making, and some unique or distinctive solutions to common flute making problems; for example, he seems to be quite adept at using super glue, which I’m sure is not, strictly speaking, a traditional flute making material. Charlie sells flute making kits on his website, and has also authored a book on making the Love Flute, with many helpful photos and illustrations. Charlie is also in constant contact with his flute making students via phone and email.
The final flute maker that I have in the do-it-yourselfer category is www.stellarflutes.com , which is headquartered in the lush forest environment of western Washington state. It has been family owned and operated since 1995, and offers through its website, in addition to hand crafted Native American Style Flutes, pre-bored flute kits for the aspiring flute maker. The reason why I selected Stellar Flutes to round out the do-it-yourselfer category is for two distinctive features that they have: First of all, they have a distinctive way of putting their flutes together, which is not unique to them, but still distinctive, and that is to have the seams of their flutes running up and down the front and back midlines of their flutes, which means a split sound window and exit hole, among other things. And secondly, it is because they make their flutes in the Plains style, with the grooved flue milled into the bird rather than into the body of their flutes. These distinctive features and approaches to their flute making style should make for a new and different flute making experience: You’ve tried flute making the usual way – so why not try it the Stellar Flutes way as well?
The Innovators: Doing New and Different Things with the Love Flute
I for one came to the Love Flute with the aspirations of becoming an innovator – of taking the Love Flute to musical places it has never been before. And for me, as well as for many of the other flute makers who aspire to be innovators, it’s time to take the Love Flute off the beaten path into new and virgin territory. More specifically, as an aspiring innovator, I wanted to extend the upper range of the Love Flute – and the main way to do that seemed to be by making the bore narrower in relation to the total air column length. However, this is not the only way to extend the Love Flute’s range and expand its musical possibilities, as we shall see.
The first flute maker I will take a look at in the innovator category is Miguel Medina at www.singingtreeflutes.com . On his website, Miguel advertises that one specialty of his is rare and exotic scales and tunings – like the diatonic major scale, or an Arabian scale – and this for some two octaves, due to a narrower bore. Miguel also does specialty art work and creative, one-of-a-kind flutes, and is eager to work with his customers in bringing their suggestions, dreams and flute concepts to fruition. Miguel has some mighty fine, exquisitely sculpted and crafted flutes in the Gallery section of his website – please feel free to browse at your leisure. I first became aware of Miguel Medina and his exquisitely hand crafted and innovative flutes through his many videos up on YouTube.
The following video, from YouTube, is of Miguel Medina himself demonstrating an Alder flute he made, which is tuned to an Arabian scale:
When I first started making Love Flutes, I thought that I was the only one who was into narrow bore flutes. I just didn’t see why there were so many flute makers out there who were making their flute bores so darn wide – especially when it was possible to extend the Love Flute’s upper range if the bore was made narrow enough – and still retain something of the broad, mellow sound of a wider bore if the bore was not made too narrow. Then I ran across a native flute player busking in front of a Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, New Mexico who was playing narrow bore flutes, with the basic bore diameter ratios exactly as I preferred them. “Who made your flutes?” I asked him, and he told me that they were made by Guillermo Martinez, a talented flute maker living in Orange County, in southern California, whose website and flute making portal was called www.quetzalcoatlmusic.com . The website, it seems, is now defunct. The interesting thing about Guillermo’s flutes, as played by busker Johnny Alston, was that I never heard him play any note that went beyond the lower octave or register. Curious to find out why, I decided to call Guillermo Martinez myself, and got the explanation that the Slow Air Chamber of the Love Flute prevented a sufficient amount of back pressure from building up, making overblowing impossible. That’s funny, I thought – I can overblow to produce about half of the upper register on my narrow bore Love Flutes – up to the fourth or fifth.
Making narrow bore flutes is just one way to get creative with the Love Flute and expand the instrument’s musical possibilities; the other main way is to make multiple barreled flutes. Multiple barrels on a Love Flute can be used in two different ways: as drone flutes, and to switch octaves or registers. Drone flutes are available from many, many flute makers, maybe even most of them, and the concept is simple – two barrels, with their mouthpieces conjoining closely to fit into the player’s mouth together, with one barrel providing the tonic note drone, and the other with finger holes to provide the melodic line. Drone flutes are quite popular. The flute maker who has pushed the concept of multiple barreled drone flutes to the limit, the most bold and creative flute maker out there in this field, seems to be Dana Ross of Falcon Flutes and Drums. Dana Ross’ YouTube channel is danaross01 – check it out. His Facebook page is https://m.facebook.com/Falcon-Flutes-and-Drums-229185508463/ . When it comes to drone flutes, why stop at two barrels? Dana Ross has gone to three barrels, offering the player a wide menu of “mix and match” possibilities, which include playing the melodic line either high or low. His YouTube video of this flute is embedded below:
Of the second possibility for multiple barreled flutes, which is that of switching registers or octaves, the leader seems to be Brent Haines of Woodsounds Flutes – www.woodsounds.com . The trick is positioning both barrels just right so that not only is it easy to switch back and forth between barrels at the conjoined mouthpiece, but at the finger holes as well with one’s fingers. Enter the amazing Double D Flute by Woodsounds Flutes – the upper flute / barrel is in high D, and the lower one in low D, with both barrels having six holes; you can either play both barrels simultaneously, as in a drone / melody arrangement, or alternately, switching back and forth between the two barrels. The lower barrel, or the low D flute, has leather straps that allows one to cover each one of the finger holes to select the note of the drone – if that is what is desired – or to remove all the leather straps to finger a melody on that barrel as well. The possibilities are virtually endless! I present you with a YouTube video demonstrating this flute, courtesy of Brent Adams, below:
The Stylistics: Making a Fashion Statement with Your Flutes
There are certain flute makers who have carved out a distinctive niche or market presence for themselves, that is distinguished, it seems, by the uniqueness of the visual design of their flutes. Of course, they probably see their flutes as much more than a mere visual fashion statement, and there’s probably much more involved as well – after all, making a fine flute requires great attention to detail, both inside the flute as well as outside. But the external features and design of the flute are what first grab the customer’s eye – and many people are predominantly visually oriented, especially if their musicianship and flute playing skills are rather basic. And what is going on on the outside of the flute, as a general rule, doesn’t usually have that much effect on the actual sound, playability and other musical qualities of the flute, with the possible exception of wall thickness. Nevertheless, the striking visual appeal of a distinctively designed flute may still influence the mind of the buyer and player that the flute in question really does sound better. Let’s face it, the overall visual design and image of a flute is important as a marketing tool, and in establishing a market niche and identity.
The first of the Stylistic flute makers that I will be looking at is John Stillwell of Ancient Territories Flutes – www.atflutes.com . Living and working out in the deserts of southern California near Joshua Tree, John’s workshop is designed in the shape of a Native American Kiva, and it is a place, as John states, “where spirit takes form”. Since John was a cabinet maker before becoming a flute maker, it is no surprise that his flutes are quite distinctive and cutting edge when it comes to wood artisanship and design. First of all, his flutes are assembled with a vertical front-to-back seam, with the front seam running through the center of the finger holes and the True Sound Window. This allows John, through clever wood splicing and inlay work, to put together flutes with distinctive “V” shaped patterns towards the head and foot ends of the flute that are quite attractive. Similarly, his birds are distinctively scorpion shaped, and made of artful wood laminations as well. And the final distinctive design feature is a triangular cross sectional profile on the outside, which makes the upper surface of the flute flatter, for easier fingering and sealing of the finger holes during playing. John has also made flutes that are made from visually contrasting pieces of hardwood – either in the left versus right halves of the instrument, or splicing the flute lengthwise into quarters. Believing that the softer woods are not that well suited for flute making, John prefers to make flutes from harder hardwoods like Cherry, Purpleheart and Zebrawood. The following flute maker’s profile, from Scott August’s website, gives Ancient Territories an enthusiastic thumbs up, and portrays John Stillwell as both a distinctive flute stylist and designer as well as a flute innovator: Ancient Territories flute
And finally, I will leave you with a video from YouTube in which John Stillwell himself shows and demonstrates the various sizes or keys of flutes that he makes. Bringing eastern mysticism into the mix as well, John ties the various flute keys in with the different chakras:
The next flute maker we will look at in this category is Richard Maynard, who goes by the Native name of Laughing Crow; his website is www.laughingcrow.com . Richard has his main workshop in Tucson, Arizona but spends the summer months in Taos, New Mexico, I have heard. His mission, as he states it, is to be a musician making quality flutes for other musicians at an affordable price. Although all of his flutes don’t have this distinctive design feature, what Laughing Crow is most known for, and what has become a distinctive visual trademark of his flutes, is the steeply slanting bottom end of his flutes – which are suggestive of a laughing crow, perhaps. And this is the main reason why I have included Laughing Crow in the Stylistics category. Richard admits that he is often asked if the slanting bottom end of his flutes affects the sound in any way, and his short answer to that question is that it doesn’t affect the basic sound to any appreciable degree. However, he points out, the slanting bottom end may enable the player to play a note a half step below the fundamental if they are able to bring it up against their knee or another body part to partially close the bottom opening.
Allen Bruce Ray, a flutist who has his own YouTube channel, really likes Laughing Crow’s flutes and profiles them a lot in his videos. I leave you with a short video of a flute jam in A minor with Allen Bruce Ray and Laughing Crow:
The High End Artistes: The Love Flute as a Work of Musical and Visual Art
Imagine, if you will, a flute that looks like a priceless work of art – and then, when you put it to your lips to play it, it sounds just as good as it looks! That’s the basic concept and business model that inspires high end flute makers to create their visually stunning and magnificent artistic creations. Many of these beautiful flutes probably wind up on the mantelpieces of art collectors in Phoenix, Taos or Santa Fe, but if the flute is lucky, it will fall into the hands of an expert or avid player who will get a chance to show off the flute’s sonic beauty and stellar musical virtues as well. The websites of these high end flute artistes feature flute galleries that let you browse and ogle these beautiful “eye candy” flutes, and also watch videos of them being played and described by their makers. Although a magnificent high end flute made by one of these elite flute makers can cost thousands of dollars, most of them also offer modestly priced flutes for the beginning flutist as well. Of course, endorsements from superstar performing artists on the Love Flute are also sought after by these makers and prominently displayed on their websites.
The first high end flute maker we will look at is Brent Haines of Woodsounds Flutes, who has his workshop in central Utah. His website is www.woodsounds.com . A former chemical engineer, Brent sees his job as a flute maker as turning his customers’ dreams into a reality, and will work with them, even to create custom flutes according to their own concept and desires. In my opinion, Brent Haines is without equal in his beautiful craftsmanship in creating flutes that look absolutely stunning and marvelous, as well as flutes that sound and play great – in other words, his flutes are state of the art. When it comes to how his flutes sound and play, Brent is happy to report that his customers and clients regard Woodsounds Flutes as being the Stradivarius of Native American Style Flutes, and takes this awesome responsibility to live up to his clients’ expectations very seriously. Brent has also worked with leading recording artists on the Love Flute, like Robert Mirabal, to create unique and distinctively styled flutes for their special needs and demands. Brent is also very active on YouTube, and frequently puts out videos that showcase his latest and greatest flute creations. Although he makes student model flutes out of basic Cedar, Brent’s real passion is making flutes out of beautiful and exotic hardwoods, like the various Rosewoods and wood burls of many different kinds.
Brent Haines was the first high end flute maker I discovered online; not long thereafter, I discovered J. P. Gomez and Heartsong Flutes – www.heartsongflutes.com . Headquartered in beautiful Sedona Arizona, J. P. Gomez ranks right up there as an elite flute artiste, although his style of flute craftsmanship and artistic expression is distinctively different from that of Brent Haines. And Heartsong Flutes also has endorsements from many professional recording artists on the Love Flute, including Mary Youngblood. By browsing their flute gallery, you can see high resolution photos of their beautiful handcrafted instruments, as well as sound samples of the flutes that are being offered for sale. If I had to sum up the difference between Brent’s and JP Gomez’ respective styles of flute artistry in a nutshell, it would be that Brent’s flutes are more contemporary in their overall style and character, whereas JP Gomez’ flutes are more traditional in their overall style and character. In addition to their high end collector’s item flutes, Heartsong also has cheaper flutes for sale as well – I say cheaper, because, instead of a four digit price tag, they go for five to six hundred dollars a piece. To showcase his fine flutes, JP Gomez has a fine Native flutist, Timothy JP Gomez – no relation – who has many videos up on YouTube. I consider Timothy JP Gomez to be one of the finest players of the Love Flute around today.
Below is a YouTube video of the phenomenally talented Timothy JP Gomez playing a soulful improvisation in the key of G minor on a Heartsong flute.
To round out the high end artiste category, I would like to offer the fine flutes of Tim Blueflint, who is a Native jeweler as well as a flute maker; his website is www.shadesofrez.com. I first encountered Tim and his flutes at the Santa Fe Indian Market, which was held in mid August of 2018; he seemed to be the only Native flute maker represented at the fair. What struck me about Tim and his flutes was how he was re-creating the old style Native American Flutes that I had found at old antique stores in places like Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico. At least that is how they appeared in their outward, physical design, and I admired his sense of history and craftsmanship in flute creation. But his flutes sounded like they were of professional, concert quality – definitely worlds better than those old Indian relics in the antique stores. Tim also appeared to feature many narrow bore flutes among the flutes that he was making.
A Final Apology and Disclaimer
I realize that there are many, many flute makers out there who are making very fine flutes. If I were to profile all of them on this page, it would probably stretch halfway to the moon! This omission of mine is only done in the interests of space limitations, and to wind up with an article that wasn’t too long and hard to read or access. The above flute makers are the main ones I have run across in my own personal journey with the Love Flute, and they have been selected to fit into various categories, which I believe typify the various approaches that a flute maker can have to his or her craft and business. To connect with other flute makers, I highly encourage you to surf the net, and especially to visit portal sites like www.cedarmesa.com as well as the truly encyclopedic www.flutopedia.com