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Finger Hole Placement

Where do I place the finger holes?

This is a daunting question for just about all builders of woodwind instruments.

There are many guidelines and tools available on this site to help answer this question:

Grandfather Traditional Finger Hole Placement

One of the easiest and most organic ways to lay out the finger holes and direction holes of the flute is to follow the traditional method typically called Grandfather tuning. Many makers still tune their flutes using this method.

Here's a description of this method by Dr. Richard W. Payne, from the DVD Toubat: A Journey of the Native American Flute ([Bee 2006]). Thanks to the Oregon Flute Store for permission to reprint it here. My notes and clarifications are shown in [brackets].

Toubat: A Journey of the Native American Flute

Toubat: A Journey of the
Native American Flute DVD

The flutes were made in the old days by the dimensions of the maker. The length of the flute was the length of the arm, from the axilla [armpit] to the tips of the fingers. And then the tone chamber [sound chamber] was from the elbow, the antecubital space [the depression in front of the elbow], to the end of the fingers.

The wind holes [direction holes] were placed a thumb's breadth from the end of the flute. There are four wind holes and they were placed to direct the song to the four directions. They also extend the length of the flute and, if you want to put an effigy at the end, it allows you to do that without interfering with the tonic note [root note, meaning the fundamental note of the flute, played with all finger holes closed].

Then, from the wind holes, the lowest tone hole [meaning finger hole] was place a palm's breadth up, and then the tone holes were a thumb's breath apart. Now this should have left a palm's breadth at the top, but if you do this, your octave is too high, so you make them with a palm's breath plus two fingers to the sound edge or fipple edge [splitting edge].

And here is another description from Chippewa Customs, from [Densmore 1929b] Chippewa Customs, page 167:

The length of a Chippewa flute was according to the stature of the man who was to use it. Tom Skinaway said the flute should be two “spreads” of the man's hand from the thumb to the end of the second finger, plus one “spread” from the thumb to the end of the first finger. The middle of the whistle opening should be a spread of the man's thumb and first finger from the upper end of the tube. The flute illustrated (pl. 76) is 19¾ inches long. It was obtained on the White Earth Reservation, and the position of the openings is different from the measurements described by Skinaway, who was an expert worker.

Chippewa Flute, 1914

Chippewa Flute, 1914. Original photograph in the Smithsonian Institution
National Anthropological Archives, NAA INV 9283800, OPPS NEG 596 D 117, photographer unknown.

Equal-Spaced Finger Hole Placement

The Grandfather Traditional Finger Hole Placement method described above is one type of placement method that results in equally-spaced finger holes. Most flute makers today who wish to use equal-spaced holes rely on a ruler and a few very basic calculations to lay out their finger holes.

See the separate page on Equal-Spaced Finger Hole Placement for a complete method developed by Keith Stanford.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is not as much of a rule as a “sanity check” of other placement methods. It applies to mid-range contemporary Native American flutes without direction holes.

The rule is simply that the finger holes should be contained, or close to being contained, within the middle third of the physical bore length.

Michael Jones noted in an email on March 4, 2014:

The lowest hole is usually a little lower than the 1/3 mark and often the top hole is slightly higher than the 1/3 mark. But, if they are not too far away, you should end up with a flute that has reasonably sized holes and plays reasonably well in scale in the fundamental octave. The further away from the mid range F or F#, the more likely the holes will vary from this rule, more as a matter of ergonomics. Large (low) flutes will often have their finger holes in a tighter space than 1/3 of the bore, while smaller (high) flutes will have to extend further out so that you have room for human fingers to cover each hole. Allowances for tuning or direction holes would need to be considered.
If I use a method to calculate the finger holes and my quick visual check shows that they aren't in the middle 1/3 I know I should double check to make sure I didn't make a mistake somewhere.
If I were to make a mid range flute without the benefit of conventional measuring tools, I would first get the fundamental note playing well. I would then mark the bore in thirds, put the lowest 1/3 mark splitting the first and second finger holes and the top finger hole slightly above (probably just touching) the top third mark and then evenly space the finger holes in that space. Tuning would be adjusted by the hole sizes. I am pretty confident that a decent sounding flute would result. Cross fingered notes and octave+ notes may not be all that accurate, but the standard pentatonic mode 1 & 4 notes will be decent.

Physical Methods

A number of methods have been used to physically record and replicate an existing flute design. The basic idea is that of a story stick — a device whose size, shape, and markings tell the story of how to construct an instrument. They are like a three-dimensional plan that provide key markings and measurements. At a minimum, the story stick should record the length of the sound chamber and the locations of the sound hole, finger holes and direction holes.

The J. L. Smith Company produces a commerical version of a flute story stick — the JLS Flute Scale Story Stick. Their PDF Instruction Page provides an excellent primer on how story sticks work.

A variant of the story stick idea is to mark the key locations of a flute on a piece of elastic. This allows you to stretch the elastic to fit a flute with a different length sound chamber, and have the key locations scaled to the new size of flute.

The Dumbrill One-String Method

This is a method proposed by Richard Drumbrill in November 2012 at the Archaeomusicology conference at the University of London. Richard described the method at the conference, but I am not sure it has been documented. I am providing a description here as best I recall it (and also giving it a name) in the hope that some people might explore this approach and provide feedback. Even though Richard was likely proposing this method as a way that early flute makers might have determined finger hole locations, it might be useful:

Create a one-string guitar from a hollow pipe (such as a reed) and a string. You will also need a piece of wood to act as the “bridge” of your guitar.

Place the bridge 25–35% of the way down the pipe and stretch the string across the bridge, fixing it at both ends of the pipe.

Now explore the possible pitches on your one-string guitar by pressing a finger down in various places to shorten the vibrating length of the string. Mark the locations of the pitches you like.

Finally, drill your sound hole at the location of the bridge and your finger holes at the locations of each of your marks.

Figure 1 from About the Music of the North American Wild

Figure 3 from [Werner-R 1973] Larger image

Nose Flutes

The diagram at the right is from a 1973 anthropology study showing how nose flutes of Malayan Aborigines in Orang Asli are crafted ([Werner-R 1973]).


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