School of The Rock


Horns in my Life:

1971 Selmer Signet Flute

by Paul D. Race

In late 1971, I was playing saxophone in a rock band that played a lot of Chicago. When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas, I said, a used flute, so I could double like the sax player in Chicago. A number of rock bands were using the flute, including Chicago, BS&T, Jethro Tull and a local band with a national hit - Green Lyte Sunday. The band I was in was getting better gigs all the time, and we were trying to broaden our repertoire, so a flute seemed like a good investment to me.

At the time, we could probably have got a used flute in playable condition for $35. But there weren't as many outlets as there are today, and my folks would have been paranoid that they were being "taken" (something my dad specialized in, by the way).

So, unbeknownst to me, my folks went to the big music store in town, where they let the guy talk them out of a used or student-line flute into a semi-professional flute. Like at least one other woodwind I have owned, it deserved a better owner/player. But now that I have it, I'm not likely to let it go except to family members.

I learned to play the flute, and used it in the band, but it was hard to get the soundsignet_flute2 into the PA. We only had so many microphones, so I needed to play it through the same mike I sang and played my sax through. Sadly, I wasn't good enough on flute to be really loud, and the PA guy never noticed I was playing flute in time to turn me up before the solo was over.

Imagine "Colour My World" without the flute solo in the third verse. It sounds a lot like the first verse. In retrospect, the drunks in the clubs or the teenagers shuffling around in the high school dances probably didn't worry about that sort of thing nearly as much as I did. But at the time, I was still naive enough to think that sounding as good as I could was more important than having, say, really good hair.

The guy in Jethro Tull didn't seem to have a microphone problem. Oh, that's right - he had a built-in pickup that allowed him to move all over the stage.

So I took the flute back to the same store (hey, we didn't have many choices in those days) and got a pickup for it. The pickup was built like a transistor radio earpiece in reverse. It would snap into a special mount that was drilled and soldered into the headpiece. There was a snap-in piece to cover the hole when I wasn't using the pickup. There was also a little belt-mounted volume control. There wasn't a preamp, but at least I could crank up the input on my amp, and crank the volume down on the belt pack until I needed it cranked up.

Flute pickups today are a lot less intrusive, but the store's repair guy did a very nice job of installing the mount. Much better than I did when I installed the brass-colored mount that came with it onto my Signet tenor saxophone because I was having the same problem getting my sax into the PA in another setting later.

The truth is that the sound coming through the pickup did not do the flute justice - it had limited and uneven frequency response, like piezoelectric pickups on acoustic guitars. And the pickup picked up almost as much handling noise and key/pad noise as it did flute sound. But it could be amplified without having to wave at the PA guy to get his attention. It also could be run through devices like my old tape-based echoplex, which gave a really trippy effect and made me sound much more impressive than I really was.

That said, since that band broke up, 99% of the time that flute has been played, the pickup was not attached.

"Coin Silver" vs "Nickel Silver"

Student flutes are usually made of "Nickel Silver," also called "German Silver," an alloy that actually has no silver. Most of them are plated with silver, though, which is why they tarnish. (A few have been made out of brass that has been silverplated.) Many of the best flutes have heads and tubes made out of sterling silver. The head and tube on my semi-pro flute was made out of coin-silver, which is is a step down (about the same as Mercury head dimes). It still tarnishes, but less than as some of the silver-plated nickel silver flutes our family has owned.

Was the upgrade to a semi-pro flute worth it? Not to me in those days - a Bundy run through a 70's PA head would have sounded about the same. But as far as the acoustic sound of the thing is concerned, it sounded/sounds way better than the Gemeinhardt, Armstrong, and Bundy flutes that my friends and family have owned.

To hear someone do it justice, I once loaned it to a friend who could really "rip" on flute in her jazz band. Her tone was so much better, that I was hoping she'd take the hint and upgrade her own flute - the improvement was night and day. So it wasn't just my imagination that the thing sounded better.

Why Does Music Have to Take So Much Work?

The "down" side of my Signet flute is that it is actually harder to blow than the student flutes I just named. My jazz-flute-playing friend went back to her student-line flute without a thought - she couldn't see the trade-off between taking much more work to sound much better.

Years later, when my each of flute-playing daughters wanted to replace their starter flutes, I let them try it in turn. I could hear a substantial difference in their tone as well. But it was "too hard to play," so they both passed.

As few opportunities as I have to play sax these days, I have even fewer opportunities to play flute. So for the past twenty years, the poor thing has been neglected more often than not.

Not long ago, one of my daughter's friends needed to borrow a flute, and I got it out of the case to make sure it was still playable before I shot it her way. Guess what - it wasn't. So I loaned her a Gemeinhardt that was still playable, and took the Signet to my current repair guy. After he replaced a couple pads and tweaked it a little, it's just fine. In fact, he commented on what a nice sound it produced. I told him, "Yes, but it's harder to play." He said, "Yeah, I noticed that, too." Still, I can't help wishing I had enough time to keep in practice on it.

Urban Myths About Silver Content

Some folks who have come across these have been known to see the words "coin silver" and imagine that they'll be wealthy if they melt it down. They weigh the whole thing and check out the "We Buy Gold and Silver" ads and get goosebumps. But they don't think about the fact that many of the little pieces that don't affect the sound are made of other materials, so these are still worth more as flutes, even in bad condition, than they're worth for the silver content.

What I learned from the Signet Flute

Never ask your parents for a musical instrument as a Christmas present. They'll either spend far too little (bad) or far too much (much, much worse).

Playability and great sound don't always go together.

You can't actually dance to most of Jethro Tull's music, even if the flute player does.

Just having an "electric flute" doesn't mean you can play like the pros.

There is never enough time to practice like you should.

Enjoy your music!

Paul Race

Here Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

Other Articles you may find helpful include:

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