Buying a flute from eBay

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Confused by the choice? New or old?  Open or closed hole? Inline or offset? Split E? Silver or plated? If you are looking for your first flute here are some pointers to guide you in your purchase. A poor flute can really put you off

As a flute teacher of many years experience I have seen many makes come and go. I have never found a chinese made flute that is any good. Flutes are probably the most critical instrument to have well sealed pads, a little leakage and the sound vanishes. Older and cheaper flutes often leak as the keys get damaged by the pressure of the beginner's fingers.

Best flute on the market for the beginning flautist is the Yamaha 211. Generally a tough flute that can withstand the rigours of the beginner as the quality of the metal and pads is far superior to cheaper flutes. Buy new if you can (some great deals available through schools and music services can reduce the cost)

Most students find it easier to start with closed-hole flutes. Open-hole (Like the Yamaha 261) can be played with rubber bungs but this does detract from the overall sound. Many experienced players prefer open-hole flutes as the range of tone colours and sound response in the hands of a good player are greater, they are also the preferred flute of the Jazz player as you can slide into and out of notes.

In the Uk teachers recommend the offset G configuration(where two keys appear out of line on the flute body) as this allows smaller fingers to reach the keys more easily and causes less tension and cramping of the hand. The French prefer inline G (all keys in a straight line). You need larger hands for this and a really relaxed and curved finger position so I would avoid this until you are more experienced.

Split E mechanism refers to a device on your flute that makes a third octave E note easier to sound. It looks like a little extra bar next to the two long rods. Most newer flutes have this mechanism. Whilest it does help to play the high E it doesn't help any other notes and at the level you would be expected to play this note I would expect the student to have sufficient technique so as not to need it. It can also cause some difficulty for smaller hands initially as flattened right hand pressing on the rods (a common beginner problem) can push it up interfering with the lower F notes.

Entry level flutes are generally silver plated. Beware when buying a second-hand instrument. A curious phenomenon that I have noticed  is that adolescent girls' sweat is terrible for stripping the silver plating from flutes. Most flutes use a nickel alloy which can cause allergic reactions in much the same way as cheap jewellery. Check especially the lip-plate (the part that rests on your bottom lip) and top front left and back below third key from the bottom as these are the places of most contact. Plating wear will not interfere with the sound of the instrument but can be a good indicator of age (replating is generally not economic) Plating wear on the keywork is also common.

Solid silver is generally agreed to produce the most melodious tones but it is a precious metal and therefore not cheap. If you continue to enjoy playing flute you might wish to upgrade to this. The headjoint is the most crucial for tone production. Beware silver is a softer metal and will dent and bend much easier so not recommended at the early stages.

So which is the right choice for you?

Young beginner- Small fingers maybe still a little clumsy Go for Yamaha 211 The sturdiest, easiest blowing flute available. It also has a good resale value and if you are buying second-hand is one of the few that are likely to have stood the test of time. It is the most expensive of the beginner flutes but probably is the best value for money in the long run. The cheaper Tiawanese Jupiter flutes are also pretty good but not as sturdy so watch out second hand (the same applies to Pearl but their earlier flutes were made in Japan and are sturdily constructed). Gemeinhardt, Armstrong, Olds and well looked after Boosey and Hawkes Emperors are also worth a look. Always go for the offset G and closed-hole

More mature beginners and continuing players open-hole models such as the Yamaha 261\271 are good. Larger fingers and better technique means that some of the more lightly-built flutes would not suffer as much. Beware though, cheaper flutes often have poor intonation (the notes don't stay in tune with each other) and and a shrill sound. Buffet flutes(the ones in the red not blue cases) are worth a look

Grade 5+ You should be looking towards silver head flutes. Yamaha 3 series(cheapest) Pearl, Miazawa, Altus, Sankyo or Sheriden( If you've lots of money!) These are all generally good second-hand as the build quality (and student quality) prolong their life. Go for open hole unless your hands and fingers are very small. At this level you can get cheaper silver flutes by all the popular makers eg Buffet,Jupiter etc but consider carefully the long term. You may have to upgrade again from these as your playing improves.

A word about headjoints. There are many handmade headjoints for upgrading your flute. Generally these are solid silver (some  have gold lip plates) They are all slightly different as the shape of the blow hole can have a dramatic effect on the type of sound and ease of lower and higher notes. Always seek advice from your teacher and play any headjoint with your flute before buying. Some headjoints suit different makes of flute better than others. Check that the rest of your flute is up to the upgrade (Here is where the Yamaha value for money can be seen as these are an excellent body to take a new headjoint)

So in summary if you are buying second hand check that all the pads seal well and are not damaged in any way. Check plating is not excessively worn. Avoid any second hand chinese flutes or very old ones.Check for play in the keywork (if the keys slide up and down on the long rods they will not seal well) If you are buying new.... you get what you pay for, don't expect a £60 flute to sound as nice or last as long as a £300 one!

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