Anatomy of the Flute

Anatomy of the Native American Flute

The Native American Flute is a unique wind instrument that actually is very simple in design.  The NAF is actually a two chambered flute with the front of the flute featuring the blow hole and the Slow Air Chamber (SAC) and the entire lower half of the flute which is the Flute Bore, Playing Holes and 4 Winds Tuning Holes when desired (or their equivalent).  In between these two air chambers is a solid block of wood that separates the Slow Air Chamber from the Flute bore.

On top of the flute between the two air chambers is a small channel that in the flutes we build here in our shop is set into the body of the flute.  There are many names for this but I, like many call it the “Focusing Channel”.  Some people call it the “Flu” or other names but as long as you understand it’s purpose I really do not think it matters what you call this area.  What happens at the end of the Focusing Channel is the splitting of your breath and it is here that the sound happens.  In a way the Native American Flute is really a fancy whistle.

Components of the flute:

There are really Seven different main components you will find in a typical Native American Style flute:

  1. The Blow Hole – This simply is the hole that leads from the end of the flute you blow or breathe into and it leads into the SAC or Slow Air Chamber.  The dimensions of this hole is generally cut at ⅜” in diameter for most flutes.  A smaller flute with a flute bore of less than ¾” could be a bit smaller, if for nothing else aesthetics.  When you make flutes that are smaller than a ¾” bore flute you may want to consider making this hole a bit smaller in diameter.
  2. The Slow Air Chamber (SAC) – The SAC or Slow Air Chamber is just that – it is a chamber that is created when you bore the inside components of the flute.  The SAC provides an area where the moisture from your breathe can collect as well as acting as a sort of air bladder to help regulate pressure leading into the focusing channel area.  Part of creating an effective SAC is to create a sort of ramp that helps the air travel with the least resistance leaving the SAC and into the Focusing Channel.  This helps with a smooth transition of your breathe and reducing too much turbulence.  It is important to note here and again later in this document that the length of the SAC Chamber does not have any effect on the tuning of the flute.  We like Slow Air Chambers that are longer because they give added length to the overall flute.
    In our shop here in Wyoming the exit ramp for most flutes is created by the boring of the SAC using mostly plunge router technology and a proprietary jig.  
  3. The Focusing Channel – This is the channel that in our flutes is cut into the body of the flute (not the bottom of the fetish block).  It acts as a channel to direct your breath leading out of the SAC across the solid block and onto the cutting edge of the flute.  Moisture will also collect in this area as you play and as more moisture collects it will restrict the airflow thus changing the way the flute plays.  If too much moisture collects your flute could stop playing altogether.  Crafting this part of the flute is very important as to how your flute will play – more on this later…
  4. The True Sound Hole – This is where the sound actually begins to happen.  As your breath flows down the Focusing Channel it eventually hits the cutting edge and it splits the airflow which causes it to vibrate.  In effect it is creating low and high pressures which causes some of the air that is vibrating to exit out of the flute and air that is making its way into the flute bore.
  5. The Flute Bore – Some people call this the Sound Chamber but again we are using the names we call the parts of the flute in our shop.  NAF flutes create a vibrating stream of air that travels down the Flute Bore.  Both the finger holes and the Four Winds tuning holes effectively change the length of the bore which also changes the pitch.  I am not an expert in this area but this should be enough information to understand what is going on here.
  6. The Playing Holes – These are the holes that you will drill through the top of the flute which is how you change the pitch of each note played.  Some flutes have five hole and others have six.  Most of the flutes that are being played today are either five hole flute or they are using five holes out of the six for most of the time.  It is very common to see a six hole flute that has a piece of leather that is covering the #4 hole thus effectively making it play as a five hole flute.
  7. Four Winds Tuning Holes – These four holes are used to help tune the flute and at the same time giving extra length to the flute.  If you add the Four Winds to your flute you are creating your base note or fundamental note here.  Any extra length beyond your Four Winds will not affect the tuning.  The extra length is primarily used in our shop for aesthetic purposes.  So it is important when you voice your flute that you take into consideration what note you are shooting for when you start.

You will have to start with a note that is much flatter than the note you are trying to achieve and get your base (fundamental note) note within a note of where you want to end up.  You will then place your Four Winds holes to bring the note up to the fundamental note you desire.  About half of the flutes I craft include the 4 winds tuning holes in them for three reasons.  Respect, they look nice and they give extra length to the flute which I personally like.

Some NAF flutes you will see do not have the 4 Winds Holes but rather they have carved some kind of other hole or channel into the body of the flute that effectively acts in the same manner in creating the fundamental note as do the 4 winds.  Using the 4 Winds Tuning Holes also allows you to add to the overall length of the flute.  It is important that any additional length added beyond the tuning holes is for aesthetics only – the added length has little or no effect on your tuning.