While many people associate the flute with classical pieces, such as the Bach Partita in A Minor, or the Mozart flute duets, you’d be surprised how often this woodwind instrument has infiltrated the world of rock. In this article, guest blogger Aleah Fitzwater will lead you through how the flute made its way into jazz, and then rock and roll, as well as some of the instrument’s biggest moments in rock history.
Flute in Jazz
Before I get into the flute in rock, we need to talk about the roots: Flute in jazz. Genre-bending woodwind doublers such as Yousef Latif really leaned into the flute around the late 1960s. Latif added many new instruments, including Eastern sounds, to the jazz of his time. Another famous jazz flutist, Hubert Laws, also inspired the next generations of musicians to come: The rockers.
Famous Rock Flute Solos
The following flute-rock solos are quite well-known. If you haven’t heard them yet, I’d be surprised!
Ray Thomas, the initial founder of the prog-rock group The Moody Blues, was both a flutist and vocalist. His flute solo on the band’s 1967 hit single Nights in White Satin is regarded as one of progressive rock’s defining moments.
Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson (Aqualung, Locomotive Breath) is arguably the most famous flute-rocker out there. His use of trills, percussive tonguing, and other extended techniques on top of his enthusiastic dancing causes quite the ruckus. A ruckus that audiences love!
Van Morrison’s Moondance also features a flute player. This solo takes on much more of a jazz style when compared to the above solos. Van Morrison was no stranger to having the occasional flutist on his tracks. He also featured a flutist on the tune Beside You. That being said, the flute player who was featured in some of Morrison’s work actually still remains anonymous to this day!
More Rock Bands that Have Used the Flute:
Genesis is an English rock band that formed in the late 1960’s. Genesis member Peter Gabriel played flute on several of the band’s albums.
The Beach Boys‘ album Pet Sounds features many orchestral instruments, such as flutes, oboes, and strings. I’m Waiting For The Day has a particularly obvious flute part.
The Beatles’ song You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away from the album Help features a flute. It is sneaky, but if you listen carefully, you can hear it!
The Blues Project was a short-lived rock/blues/folk group formed in 1965. The song Flute Thing was a popular instrumental which featured multi-instrumentalist Andy Kulberg on the flute. Oddly enough, the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys sampled the flute from this song, and used it in their tune Flute Loop. You can hear both Flute Thing and Flute Loop here:
Traffic, an English rock band, occasionally featured Chris Wood (founding member and multi-instrumentalist) on the flute. However, Randall Bramblett primarily played flute when the band was touring.
Camel, an English progressive rock band, featured guitarist Andy Latimer on the flute in several songs.
Lead singer Ann Wilson of Heart often took to the stage with her flute. Love Alive and Crazy On You are two of the most recognizable.
The Left Banke‘s unforgettable baroque-pop tune Walk Away Renee has not just a flute, but an alto flute. This feature can be heard in the bridge. American saxophonist Jackie Kelso played on the track, uncredited.
The band Focus, a Dutch progressive rock group, is one of the newer bands that can be found integrating flute into this rock subgenre. Progarchives.com states that “Focus is, without a doubt, the most notable Dutch group widely known outside the Netherlands”. The band consists of two central members; Thijs Van Leer and Jan Akkerman. Thijs sings, as well as plays keyboard and the flute, while Akkerman plays guitar.
Classical Flute vs. Rock Flute
Flutists in the genre of rock often employ extended techniques. The following techniques are commonly used:
- Flutter tonguing
- Percussive tonguing
- Key Clicking
- Humming (or Singing and Playing)
Extended techniques are extremely intuitive to self-taught flutists who learned by exploration, such as flutist Ian Anderson. For classical flutists, extended techniques like flutter tonguing, growling, and percussive tonguing often feels like you’re doing something ‘wrong’ and need a lot of practice to feel natural.
Classical-era flute playing typically involves playing with a straight tone (After all, Brahms would never ask us to flutter tongue!). Traditional classical flute pieces often have a lot of arpeggiation of triads, and focus on tone colour shifts and dynamics. That being said, modern classical pieces are using more and more extended techniques, such as The Great Train Race. The flute is a bit of a favourite when it comes to composers and experimentation.
Classical Flute in Rock
Some groups have added classical flute directly to rock and alternative music. For example, the Panic At The Disco song The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know from the album Pretty Odd. The introduction features a flute trio, paired with a harpsichord and cellos. This flute is arpeggiated in such a way that it sounds like it could come straight out of a piece for orchestra! This dark-sounding tune is an insightful peek into songwriter Ryan Ross’s musical process.
The seemingly inconspicuous flute has made itself a home in the rock and roll hall of fame. As you can already tell, Brit-rock groups seem to favour the flute, when compared to bands hailing from other countries.
So, which flute solo is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
» The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
» The Trumpet: The History, Models & Techniques
» Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low
» Meet the Kazoo!
» The Trombone: Types, Playing Techniques and More!