Have you ever wanted to play low flutes? You should consider the alto vs. bass flute to decide which to learn first.
Both can be super fun, but they’re not for everyone. Keep reading to learn the similarities and differences and choose the low flute for you.
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What Is the Alto Flute?
The alto flute is the most common member of the flute family that’s not in concert pitch or the key of C. Instead, it’s in the key of G, which means it sounds a perfect fourth lower than written.
You can choose an alto flute with a straight headjoint or curved headjoint. The right style can make the instrument more comfortable for you. Many flute brands make at least one alto flute model, so there are some at all price points.
What Is the Bass Flute?
The bass flute is another popular low flute, meaning it has a lower range than the standard C flute. It’s in the key of C, though, so it sounds a full octave lower than written.
While no bass flute has a straight headjoint, there are options. Most models feature a curved headjoint. However, I’ve seen a few people play an upright bass, meaning the body sits vertically while the headjoint is horizontal.
Alto vs. Bass Flute Similarities
If you’re trying to decide between the alto vs. bass flute, consider some features they have in common.
The alto and bass flute have ranges that are a perfect fifth apart. But in general, they play lower than the C flute. Both instruments also use the same written range as the regular flute.
So you can easily transition between these low flutes and to and from the C flute or even the piccolo. You don’t have to learn a new set of fingerings when playing the whole flute family.
Most Common Ensemble
The ensemble in which you’ll most commonly find the alto and bass flutes is going to be a flute choir. These function similarly to string orchestras where the alto flute is like the viola, and the bass flute is like the cello.
Many colleges and universities have a flute choir for students. Some also have an ensemble for community members to join. Cities outside of college towns may also have a community flute choir.
I’ve played both low flutes in at least one flute choir. Personally, I prefer to play the alto flute, but both instruments have pros and cons.
Alto vs. Bass Flute Differences
To help choose between the alto vs. bass flute, you should know some crucial differences between the instruments.
As I mentioned, the alto flute is in the key of G. For many flute players, it can be hard to get used to playing a transposing instrument, especially in a group. I’d already played the saxophone and clarinet, so I was used to it.
Luckily, most composers and arrangers know to transpose the alto flute part up a perfect fourth. That way, you as the performer don’t have to think about the right notes to play.
On the other hand, the bass flute is in the key of C. That means if you see a C on paper, you’ll finger a C and hear a C on the flute. But it will be an octave lower than the written note.
Another major difference is the headjoint styles available. The alto flute can come with either a straight headjoint, curved headjoint, or both. I have an alto with just a straight headjoint since that’s the style I prefer.
But buying one with both headjoints is good for long-term use. Then, if you need to switch, you can.
I don’t know of any bass flutes that come with multiple headjoints. Most come with a curved one. But brands like Di Zhao make a vertical bass flute with a floor peg, so you can hold the instrument more like a bass clarinet but blow into the embouchure hole like a normal bass flute.
Use in Orchestras
This difference can be a bit confusing, but alto flutes are occasionally used in orchestras. Some scores list the part as “bass flute” or “bass flute in G,” but they really mean the alto flute.
I don’t know of any orchestral music that calls for a true bass flute. But with all of the changes in classical music, it’s not impossible. It’s just unlikely that there’s a piece with a bass flute part.
Who Should Play the Alto Flute?
You should play the alto flute if you want to slowly work your way down. Moving from the C flute to the bass can be a big jump. Since the alto sits between them, it can be easier to learn first.
I’d also recommend the alto to anyone who wants to play in an orchestra. Whether you’re a piccolo player or want to sub, knowing the alto can be a good way to help you get called for gigs involving larger works.
Who Should Play the Bass Flute?
You should play the bass flute if you don’t really want to transpose, even when it comes to tuning in an ensemble. It can also be a good idea to play the bass if there’s a shortage in your local flute choir.
But you’ll want to have a bit of extra money on hand if you need to buy your own bass flute. With few exceptions, bass flutes start at about twice the cost of the lowest-priced alto flutes.
Best Alto Flutes
There are tons of alto flute models out there. I started on a Pearl 201, and it’s served me well for five years. But other players prefer models from brands like Di Zhao, Gemeinhardt, Jupiter, and Trevor James.
Be sure to consider your budget as well as the C flute and/or piccolo brand you use. When I bought my Pearl alto flute, I was already playing a Pearl piccolo, so it was a natural fit for me.
You should also try the alto flute if possible. Each brand has a slightly different key layout that may be more comfortable for some players than others. Only you can decide which brand and model is right for you.
Best Bass Flutes
When searching for a bass flute, you can look into many of the same brands as you would when buying an alto. I’ve played bass flutes from brands like Yamaha and Jupiter, but I’ve never owned one.
Other brands to consider include Pearl, Di Zhao, and Gemeinhardt. Trevor James is another good option. And if weight is a concern (and money, too), the GUO Tenor Flute is a good alternative. Despite the name, it’s a bass flute.
As with alto flutes, trying the bass flute you want is vital. You should also make sure to buy an instrument with trill keys. They can help with trills, and you can use them to fix intonation issues.
If you love the low register of the C flute, be sure to compare the alto vs. bass flute. Then, you can expand your skills by playing a lower-pitched instrument.
I love the alto flute, but I also enjoy hearing others play the bass flute.
If you’re set on learning the alto flute, consider taking a few lessons. Learn more about how I can help!