Healing Spirit Yew flute in E - more details on Custom flutes page

Above: an 8 hole (there is a small back hole, but everyone has found it easy to play!) rippled Alder E/B Hitzaz with Jacobs Ram head

Below: an 8 hole spalted Ash Hitzaz

Hitzaz flutes

These flutes are quite some way from the normal NA flute. In fact, some purists will probably go running to the hills screaming 'heresy, heresy!!'. In truth, they might better be considered as a new form of flute. Since there are now quite a few of these flutes in the wider world (including the UK, Sweden, Spain, now the USA where I suspect the design might provoke interest) and I now have a steady stream of orders for more, I have decided to finally show them here. Why did I developed them...?

I have a deep-rooted Spirit home in the Mediterranean, plus the fact that the scales found in Arabic, Middle Eastern and Indian music seem to resonate with something very central to my core and to those of many people I know. They seem to be the true 'essence' of melody and tone and have meaning for all of us. It always was my intention to develop the NA flute as far as I could, so when I was talking one day in 2009 with a good friend, who is half Greek and an excellent NA flute player, the subject of an NA flute that could play Hitzaz and Raga scales came up quite naturally. A year's work followed in which the concept became reality, and then a further year trying to work out how to make the flute sound like a Middle Eastern reed flute rather than Native American, and yet play like a normal NA flute.... a tall order that took another year's work to achieve and is still being refined. Suffice it to say that as I let friends (big thanks go to Robin, Mark, Tony and Dario) who were experienced flute players hear, try (and own and record with) the flutes, I knew from their reaction that this was something worth developing further.

Yes, the next bit is a bit nerdy, but it will help those who want to know to understand a bit more.

There are many scales used in Eastern Mediterranean music, but almost all of them give the characteristic sound that a listener might define as Middle Eastern. The distinctive sound is based on the fact that the scales it uses have several places where the there is only a semitone shift between notes. A typical B Hitzaz scale is: B, C, D#, E, F#, G, A . The single semitone shifts in this scale are the B to C, the D# to E and the F# to G. The other characteristic sound comes from the three semitone shift from C to D#.

This Hitzaz scale is commonly used in Greek and Arabic music; it is the scale that the Greek stringed instrument, the Bouzouki, is tuned to (it is also the scale that Flamenco is usually played in, sometimes called the ‘Spanish Gypsy scale’, though there are several of these!). A similar sounding scale is the Hitzazkiar scale found on Middle Eastern lip and reed flutes like the Turkish Ney. In fact, the naming of these scales seems very confused; for some, the Hitzaz scale is called the Hijaz, for others the Hijaz is a shortened form of the HijazKiar scale, and in other texts the Hijaz is the HitzazKiar. The reason for this seems to stem from the fact that if you take a basic Hitzaz scale, which is 1 3 1 2 1 2 2 (these are the semi-tone intervals starting from the basic fundamental note), most players will put extra notes into it, called passing notes, when they are playing. The same happens with the Hitzazkiar scale which is basically 1 3 1 2 1 3 1. Not surprisingly, these passing notes blend the two scales into each other and all distinction is blurred. To most listeners all they will hear is something that they would say sounds Middle Eastern or Arabic or Indian.

For a Native American flute player, all this might sound irrelevant, after all, NAFs are normally tuned to pentatonic scale. And yes, you can get these Middle Eastern scale notes on a normally tuned NA flute, but playing the one and three semitone shifts requires a good deal of cross fingering, and the riffs, runs and trills that are so prevalent in Arabic and other such melodies make it very difficult to execute tunes easily. And probably for that reason more than any other, several NAF makers, myself included, have had people who play NA flutes asking whether it is possible to make an NA-style flute that plays Middle Eastern scales, but using conventional NA flute style fingering! Well, back to the nerdy stuff...

Yes it is possible to a certain extent. If you look at what Brent at Woodsounds flutes or Michelle at Butterfly flutes have done, you can see that the NA flute can be adapted. For me, however, having made simple copies of such flutes, several things became clear. Firstly, at some point in these scales, usually on the octave, you might have to take all your fingers off the flutes and uncover all the holes to get the full Hitzaz scale; inevitably, you drop the flute! Secondly, these scales are tonally very ‘stretched’ and you usually have to use eight very spread out fingers to both grip and play the flute, hard if your fingers are not so long. The overlarge sizes of some of the holes also came up as an issue. Six months of playing around with these scales (and producing many flutes that ended up on the firewood heap) trying to achieve a playable Greek/Arabic-scaled, Turkish Ney-sounding NA flute led me to the conclusion that it’s where you start the Hitzaz scale on the flute that matters. If you start the scale with the bottom note on the flute, you’re doomed. If however you start the scale at holes 1 or 4, then all becomes possible. Providing you start with an E fundamental flute, a conventional Hitzaz F# scale can be easily played starting with hole 1 open; a Hitzaz B scale can be achieved  by starting on hole 4, putting the distinctive sounding  1 3 1 part of the scale higher up and having the 2 1 2 2 below it and above on the overblow. The initial end result was a conventional six hole NA flute with an extra bottom hole and an extra back hole. To make playing (and holding the flute) easier, the final design made the fifth hole up blank, giving a seven-hole version which is very adaptable in that, because it has an E fundamental, it has easy access to all notes and passing notes of Hitzaz, Hitzazkiar and many other Middle Eastern scales. If anyone wants more on the scales, just ask.

However, getting a playable Middle Eastern scale is one thing. Trying to re-create the haunting sounds that a skilled reed or lip-flute player gets from a Turkish Ney or simple bamboo flute, is another. Having discovered that with Plains style NA flutes (flue channel in the block) you can dramatically vary the flute’s tone depending on the depth of the groove in the block base, it was logical to invert the whole of the voice box mechanism, so the ramp was on the outside, and the air was cut over the fipple edge in the same way that a lip flute player cuts the air across the edge of an open ended flute. This then became the first aspect of voicing the flute, since an inverted voice box allows the use of different depths of flue channel and different heights of fipple edge to give different tones, from clear to very husky.

And this is the beauty of these flutes... I decided early on to set the flue channel into an easily removeable Cherry or Beech wood 'shoe' that sits under the main block. That way, one flute could have several voices; most of my Hitzaz flutes now come with up to five shoes, a 0.8mm, a 1.0mm, a 1.2mm, 1.6mm and a 2.0mm deep flue. The 0.8mm channel gives a clear high-frequency-rich tone similar to a 'snake-charmers' flute; the 1.0mm gives a more rounded tone, and the 2mm gives a much breathier fuller sound reminescent of a smoky kasbah. The shoes are self-locating and automatically leave the right amount of distance between the front of it and the rear edge of the sound hole. The main block sits on top of the shoe and is secured with the leather tie as per a normal NA flute block. You can also experiment with the position of the top block… moving it nearer the rear edge of the soundhole or further away will also change the tone.

The shoes however are not the only aspect to the voicing... All Middle Eastern reed flutes have a distinctly ‘edgy’, nasal and infinitely variable quality to their voices, and these are quite different to the innate voice of an NA flute. The answer as to how to change the latter to the former lay in Church. Organ makers have to voice pipes that are very similar in principle to an NA flute. To produce a reed-sounding voice, they simply put a 'harmonic bridge' over the sound hole and grooves (nicks) in the languid. Simply?…well, yes, once you have the right bridge height above the hole, the right distance from the front of the hole, the right distance between the back of the bridge and the block, the right shape to the front of the block, the right flue width, length and depth in the shoe under the block, the right height and angle to the splitting edge, the right shape and thickness to the bridge itself, the right number, length and depth of nicks in the languid floor, the right throat ramp angles, then you end up with a Middle Eastern reed flute sound. And then there is the thorny issue of getting the hole sizes correct and in a playable configuration. Many more flutes hit the firewood pile on this journey, and the refinement of these flutes continues!

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Click below to hear soundclips of the many voices of these flutes:

Clip 1: Spalted Ash hitzaz shown below (three pieces showing the effects of 1.0, 1.2 and 2.0 mm flue depth on voice)

Clip 2. Padauk hitzaz (with thanks to good friend Mark Abdey who composed and played this on one of the first flutes made)

Clip 3. Cedar of Lebanon hitzaz

Clip 4. My good friend Dario Ristic playing a beautiful piece called Ancient Magic on a Cedar of Lebanon hitzaz flute

Clip 5. Paula Tait playing a wonderful improvisation on two middle eastern folk tunes on a spalted Ash hitzaz flute

Above: the newer design 7 hole, lower 4 version in Padauk; the normal fifth hole up from the foot is left blank.

Ash Hitzaz NA flute

A note to all flutemakers... No, I am not giving any more technical details either here or in the Workshop section! The principles I am using can be seen here, but I am leaving it those of you who want to make similar flutes to discover for yourselves what is needed in the internal designs and cutting precision to make a similar flute which plays and sounds right. The list of what needs to be considered is in the paragraph above!


The original flutes had 8 holes, but as I have developed the design, I have found that only 7 holes are needed. I now make two forms of these flutes. The original one had the bottom hand playing four holes and the top playing three; this is called the lower 4 version. However, as I have made more of these flutes, I have found that many people have better control over the little finger on their top hand; I therefore also make an upper 4 version, where the bottom hand plays three holes and the top hand four. The placement of the holes is done to each individual’s hand. It can also help sometimes to use 'pipers grip' to play these flutes, where the fingers are laid relatively flat across the holes.

Playing the 7-hole version is similar to a normal 5 hole NA flute with an extra back and bottom hole. A true Hitzaz F# scale can be played starting on the F# (bottom hole open). In truth, the bottom hole is only really used for  i) the low E passing note under the F#, ii) for the Hitzaz and Hitzazkiar B scale and iii) for Arabic E scales. The Hitzaz and Hitzazkiar B scales can also be played but the second half of the scale has to be played on the lower notes. The upper hand fingering positions are also important. The third finger, upper hand, which would normally cover 4 on a normal NA flute, has no hole under it, allowing the hand to be positioned comfortably and also hold the flute. Hole 5 is under the middle finger and gives the note C, making it easy to trill between B and C, which is a characteristic sound in Middle Eastern music. Hole 6 gives the three semitone shift to E flat, again an important transition in this music; incidentally, the intermediate notes here can be easily reached by simple cross fingering. The thumbhole at the back stays closed until you want to get to the octave E. It is easy with practice to use the thumbhole (or either of the top two holes) to get grace notes and trills by short-lift or rapid opening/closing. There are also overblows which expand the range further.

upper four hitzaz flute at Second Voice Flutes

Playing an upper 4 (pictured above, click to enlarge) uses index, middle and third fingers on the bottom hand, as for a normal NA flute to give the F# G and A notes. However the B is on hole four under the top hand little finger. And while this might sound a bit weird to an experienced NA flute player, I have testimony from many many players that the brain does adapt very quickly to using this finger! Honestly! Third finger upper hand again has no hole under it, then there are holes 5 and 6 with the C and E flat as above, and the thumbhole for the octave. I have to say I am now making far more upper 4s than lower 4s.

Also, I cannot stress enough the need to experiment with breath pressure; playing with gentle breath produces a different voice to a stronger ‘blow’. This is as key an element here as it is to playing rim blown flutes and is a massive part of getting the full expressive range out of these flutes.

Alternatively, you can ignore all the above technicalities and just experiment and see what falls out! Trust me, those that have these flutes find them very easy to learn and play.

In summary, yes, the work I have done has taken the NA flute a long way from where it started, and it’s probably true to say the resulting hybrid has no claim to even mention the words ‘Native American’ in its ancestry or present form. Nevertheless, the SVF Hitzaz flutes do allow the NA player a chance to experiment with other scales and flute voices, and those that have played them find a whole new music landscape opening up from within.

Below: a 7 hole, upper 4 version in Yew; the normal fifth hole up from the foot is left blank.

Hitzaz flutes are available in keys from mid E upwards. Using similar principles, I am also able to make flutes that play Indian Raga scales.

Please feel free to call or email if you would like any more details on the above flute range. And remember, this range can be customised to your own requirements.

 The Owlhouse • Milford • Surrey • UK • dc@secondvoiceflutes.co.uk

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