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Buying a flute can be overwhelming in this day and age. There's no end of brands, models, metals, features, sizes, shapes, and even colors, causing flutes to run the gamut of prices from Walmart aisle 4 to I-could-buy-a-car-with-that.

If you're reading this page, you're most likely looking to buy a flute and you're probably a parent. You're also probably about neck deep in the slough of despair and confusion over what kind of flute to buy. If you're hoping that I've got a wonderfully uncomplicated answer to take away your misery, then you're hoping in vain. Buying the Right Flute means taking many factors into consideration, such as your budget, your kid's age, dedication to the flute, and how long they'll be using it. But, don't worry, I'm going to lay out the basic facts and need-to-know information, just as I've done for literally hundreds of parents before, so this should help you on your quest to get Janey the right flute. (I'm going to use "Janey" throughout here. Since more flutists are girls than boys, using the generic name "Johnny" doesn't seem to fit.)

Click any of the links to jump to a specific section or just scroll down to read it all.

Rent or buy?

Short answer, buy. Yes, you don't know if Janey is going to stick with the flute, but the problem with renting is that the costs of renting can quickly escalate beyond the flute's worth. Plus, you're shelling out all that money each month and if your kid does quit, you're left with nothing to show and have no way of getting any of your money back. If you buy the flute and Janey switches to soccer, then you can sell the flute. You won't get all your money back, but at least you'll have something.

Some music stores have a rent-to-own program, which is better than just plain old renting, but still, my gut impulse is to advise parents to buy, not rent.

 

Can I buy used flutes?

Used flutes are great for cutting costs, and they're fine to buy as long as the flute isn't too old. I do not recommend buying a flute that's older than three or four years. You'll often see suspiciously great deals for intermediate or professional level flutes for sale that are twenty (or more) years old, but it doesn't matter how good they were in their day, they're still too old. Flutes have many small moving parts which wear out with use, and even if the seller swears that it just sat in the attic for twenty years, flute technology and quality of intonation has still changed so much that using an older flute like that would be like trying to use an out of date road map. So, avoid "vintage" or "antique" in the description. That works for violins or Chippendale furniture, not flutes.

 

Student and intermediate models: what's the dif and which to get?

Flutes come in three basic categories: student, intermediate, and professional. You only need to worry about the first two, though. By the time Janey needs a professional flute, you'll be so in the know on all things flutistical that you won't be reading pages like this anymore, and instead will talk glibly about C# trills, French pointed keys, timbre, wall thicknesses, and taking out mortgages to pay for the thing. (Kidding about the last... sort of.)

 

Student Flutes:

Student flutes are your basic entry level instruments. They range from nice to extraordinarily bad in terms of quality, and are designed for use by those just starting out on the flute, and thus are most commonly used in schools and school bands. The student flute is generally pretty cheap. This is good, because - get used to it now - this flute will be clunked, scraped, and scratched. It will be dropped. It might be even sat on. (But fortunately, due to its size, dead mice probably won't be found inside it, a phenomenon which is known to have occurred in seldom-practiced tubas.) Due to its harsh living environment, the life of a band flute is generally short and brutal, ending with a trip to the attic, garage sale, or its being passed down to a relative. It's a good flute to learn on, and it can take the punishment that comes with student usage, but if Janey really likes the flute, practices it a lot, and does well with it, she'll need to upgrade to an intermediate level in a few years or else the quality of her flute will hold her back.

 

The basic features of student flutes are:

 

Student flute brands

There are a ton of student flute brands out there. It can be difficult to know which ones to avoid, especially if you're not familiar with many or any brands, but here's a handy rule of thumb. If the company doesn't have a website for their flutes or their band instruments, don't buy it. I guarantee you it'll be a piece of junk. Every reputable instrument manufacturer has a website these days. If they don't, it's just some horribly cheap flute that will constantly break down and will be harder to play than a better student flute.

Here's a list of brands and models which are good. Prices aren't set in stone, although I got mine from fluteworld.com, which has fair prices and is a great source for all things flute-related.

  • Yamaha 221: Yamaha is best student flute brand, in my opinion. The 221 model is their basic starter instrument, and they make quality, reliable instruments from student models all the way up to professional flutes. On the other hand, they're also the priciest, as the 221 costs about $800. (Although you can probably find them cheaper, depending on availability and your bargain-hunting capabilities.)

  • Gemeinhardt 2SP: A popular choice for beginners, combining quality with affordability. The 2SP is silver plated, and costs roughly $370. I often recommend Gemeinhardts, especially for younger students, as many parents are (understandably) reluctant to put an $800 Yamaha in the hands of a fourth grader.

  • Armstrong 102 or 104: Armstrong's my third choice. They're like Gemeinhardts, only not quite as good. This is reflected in the price, which is usually a little cheaper, although I don't have a standard estimate to list here. (Armstrong, like many flute brands, is rather cagey about listing prices online, even though that's usually what people most want to know about the flutes...)

I definitely recommend sticking with one of the Big Three here: Yamaha, Gemeinhardt, and Armstrong. There are several other decent but "meh..." brands, like Bundy, Emerson, Buescher, Artley, and Buffet. To quote Doug Adams, they're mostly harmless, plus they're good for saving $, but I'd rate them well below the Three.

After these come zillions of website-less brands, which are very cheap, but again, with the drop in prices comes a drop in quality. And a drop in quality sounds good when you see Janey clonking the flute for the fifth time in an evening, but it's much less good when the flute is so junky it has to get more repairs done to it than a higher quality instrument would need. Again, if it doesn't have a company website, step away from the instrument, and put your wallet back in your pocket.

 

Intermediate Flutes:

Intermediate level flutes are what they're named. They're a step up from student flutes, but not quite to the bank-breaking professional ranks. They're ideal for junior high to high schoolers, who have been playing the flute for a few years and are serious enough about it to stick with the instrument through high school and maybe even beyond for fun, but who will not be majoring in music at a music school. They're also great for adults who are picking up the flute for fun and want a decent instrument that will last them for a long time.

Intermediate level flutes are typically handmade. As to be expected, prices jump up when you're shopping for a step up flute, and they typically range from $1000-5000. (For perspective, $5000-10,000 is for extremely good intermediate flutes or bottom rung professional instruments, while $10,000+ is for the big leagues.)

The main difference between flute-shopping for an intermediate level flute and back when you got Janey's student flute is that now, Janey is going to have a much more active role in determining which flute to get. Testdriving her flute wasn't applicable when you got her student flute, because obviously she couldn't play it yet. Now, it's very important that she thoroughly try as many brands and models as she can, and not only just flutes but various headjoint styles as well. (Headjoints make a flute sound completely different.) She should test the limits of each flute: how it sounds in the high and low registers, how softly and loudly she can play, how responsive it is, what kind of tone it has, etc. Choosing the flute that suits her best is very important now. People like me can spout off all we want about the best flute brands, but recommendations of fellow flutists or teachers are good only to a certain extent, because what works for one flutist may not work for the next. (Or else we'd all play the same brand of flute.)

What makes the perfect intermediate instrument? It all comes down to this: if it has all the necessary intermediate level features (see below), if Janey likes how she sounds with it, and you can afford it, then it's a Good Flute, and just what Janey needs.

The basic features of intermediate flutes are:

 

Intermediate flute brands

Once again, all my prices are from fluteworld.com, so keep in mind that you may find cheaper or more expensive prices, depending on where you look.

With the exception of Yamaha, you'll notice that all the brands I listed weren't found on the student flute list. Gemeinhardt and Armstrong do make intermediate level flutes, but I haven't found the quality to be worth the price. If you're going to shell out all that money for a good flute, it's better to get one made by a brand that's known for making good flutes, not student flutes, rather than buying an intermediate level flute that's made by a brand best known for their student flutes. That's nothing against Gemeinhardt and Armstrong, but their focus is student instruments, so it stands to reason that brands like Pearl and Sonare are going to have an edge. Yamaha is the exception for having a full run of products from beginner instruments to professional ones.

That gives you somewhere to start. Teacher input is vital at this stage, too, because at this point, it's a lot harder to separate the sheep from the goats in terms of which flute brands are worth the price and which aren't. The website test fails here, as brands selling intermediate level flutes will definitely have one, but not all of them are really worth the money.

 

How expensive an intermediate flute should I get?

That depends. (Don't you hate that answer?) Basically, it depends on your budget and how much Janey progresses. You may prefer to get a really good flute now that will be The Flute of Flutes, one which she will keep throughout high school and well beyond. In this case, I would go for something on the level of the Yamaha 500 series, so she has lots of room to grow into it as a flutist.

Of course, the flutes are expensive enough that the kneejerk tendency is to lean towards the cheapest intermediate level flutes. Believe me, I know all about staying on a budget, but if you want to buy the cheapest intermediate flute to save money, it may not save you as much as you'd like. Sure, you can upgrade yet again if and when Janey needs yet another flute, but the thing about upgrading too many times is that you'll be spending more by upgrading in little steps rather than big leaps. Because flutes decrease in value as they age, you will never get what you paid for a flute after it's a few years old, so even if you sell the old flute in order to help pay for the new flute, you'll still be short of what you paid for it. So, in the long run, it won't be saving you money to get the lowest level intermediate flutes.

Also, the better a flute is, the easier it is to play and make it sound good. So if Janey gets The Flute of Flutes now, she's not going to outgrow it yet, but its quality will really let her expand her playing. So, if she's really dedicated to the flute and will be keeping it up through high school and wants to continue to play it in college, you'll be safe getting a quality instrument because it'll be something she can play on without outgrowing for the next several years.

Of course, if Janey want to major in music, you've got one more flute-purchase ahead of you after this one. In this case, I recommend getting the absolute best intermediate flute you can afford, and start saving up - and have her save up - for the professional model she'll need in the last few years of high school or in college.

Bottom line, when shopping for an intermediate level flute, I recommend springing for a significantly better flute, as fits your budget. You can't go wrong by getting a flute that's too good. :) "Worst" case, it'll last her all through high school and college and by the time she needs a new flute, she'll be the one buying it, not you. Best case (from a flutist's point of view), if she outgrows this flute and needs a still better one, that means you have a great little flute player on your hands. :)

 

Janey wants a gold lip plate. Help! Is gold plating really better than silver?

And there we have one of the Flute World's biggest debates - gold vs silver! My short answer: gold lip plating is really not worth it, unless Janey's skin has an allergic reaction to silver.

Leaving the whole gold flute vs silver flute debate aside, plating the lip plate or headjoint is a whole expensive swamp that parents often flounder into due to glib salesmen and dazzling promises of the quality that comes with having a real gold lip plate. There are those who swear that the metal itself changes the tone. But the way I've found it, it's not the gold itself, it's where it's placed. Plating the outside of a flute's lip plate does nothing for the tone. You could plate the lip plate with Scotch tape and it wouldn't change the sound, either. Ultimately, exterior plating on the lip plate or even the whole headjoint is like painting racing stripes on your car. That does nothing to improve the engine performance. There are those who strenuously disagree, and talk about how the metal vibrates differently based on its composition, and how this affects the tone... perhaps so, if it's done over the entire flute, although I still believe that the composition of the flute has less to do with the tone than how the gold is used.

The only places that really affect the tone of a flute is wherever the airstream touches it - so, the edges and inside of the hole in the lip plate (the embouchure hole) and the inside of the flute. Now, if a high quality metal - like gold - is put on the rim and inside the embouchure hole, then it can make a difference. (And here, the Scotch tape plating would be a bad idea.) The expense of such a procedure ensures that the embouchure area will be shaped with care and precision, and this, to my mind, is what ultimately makes the biggest difference in tone. You could get a handmade silver headjoint which will improve the tone just as much if it's treated with the same quality and craftmanship as the gold one.

So is plating in the right areas worth it? I'd still pass at this point, and save these features for buying a really topnotch flute. If you're up for it, though, you can get a really good headjoint with useful gold plating, like gold risers, inserts, and chimneys (ah, don't you love all these flutistical terms?), which are all found in and around the embouchure hole. These are more practical because they leave the general lip plate area alone. Heck, you can even skip gold and get platinum instead. But unless you want to buy a topnotch headjoint to kick the quality of the rest of the flute up a notch (which is always a good option, since the biggest tone improvements come from the headjoint, not the rest of the flute), I recommend saving this kind of bling for The Flute To End All Flutes.

 

What does engraving the lip plate do? Is it worth it?

Engraving the lip plate (or even the keys) is often done to give it "grip" so it doesn't slip on the chin. If Janey wants a pretty flute and it's within your budget, go for it if you want, but know that it's purely cosmetic. I've never found the engraving to be effective in preventing slippage, so I've resorted to the far cheaper option of using pieces of surgical tape (the cloth kind). It's much more grippy and feels a lot nicer than having metal pressed against your skin for hours. (Plus, it prevents the dreaded appearance of the "the flutist's beard"... the black smudge one gets on one's chin either from wearing makeup like foundation or concealer, or after one polishes the flute.)

 

Janey wants a piccolo, too!

Getting a piccolo is a great idea if Janey is enthusiastic about the flute. It doubles the opportunities she'll have for playing, and it provides useful training. If she's even half way serious about the flute, sooner or later, she's going to play piccolo.

Buying a piccolo is even hairier than buying a flute. Not only do you have the regular morass of brands and models to choose from, but you've got to deal with extra issues such as whether you'll get a wood, resin, silver-plated, wood-and-silver, or resin-and-silver type of piccolo. To top it off, you'll have to listen to Janey trying out notes not meant for human beings to hear, let alone play, on an instrument roughly the size of a soda straw. (Bring earplugs - music store tryout rooms are always tiny.) I'm definitely not a piccolo expert, so I'm not going to get into the different kinds and their qualities here, but I can advise you take into account where the piccolo will be used. If Janey needs it for marching band, you'll want a cheaper instrument that can brave the elements outdoors. If she's in concert band or orchestra, then you can splurge on a nice wooden piccolo if you like. (Wood is considered the best piccolo material, silver next, and resin / plastic the worst.)

One last note about piccolos on a budget: cheap piccolos (i.e. made of plastic or resin) are HORRIBLE. They're horrible to play, horrible to hear, and frustrating for Janey because it's not her fault that she can't make it sound better. Piccolos are little beasts in general, but it helps to have the best instrument possible.

Piccolos are also as individual as snowflakes. Once Janey's narrowed it down to a specific brand and model, she should try as many piccs as there are available to try. Even supposedly "identical" models will sound different. That's good to keep in mind when brand-shopping as well - Janey shouldn't judge an entire brand based on how one piccolo sounds.

 

 
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