Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Master Flute Maker Series: Earth Tone Flutes

If you are reading this it is probably because you have been bitten by the flute bug and have subsequently begun to develop a synergetic relationship with the Native American flute. Before you realized it you probably found yourself a member of a local flute circle (or have started your own). Looking back, you realize you have truly begun your amazing flute journey one note at a time. It is my desire to give credit to those that make this possible for those of us who do not have the time or skills to make our own flutes. These are our esteemed Flute Makers who have made the Native American flute accessible to us, and to everyone for generations to come.

As a way of paying tribute to the Master Flute Makers for their art form, for their expertise, and for their efforts to produce consistent quality in their offerings that are continued to be offered at a reasonable price, I will be featuring an in depth interview with one or more of our flute makers here, with an abridged version that will be published with each edition of "The Voice of the Circle", the official newsletter of the Northern California Flute Circle ( If it wasn't for our flute makers a lot less people would be enjoying the benefits and the healing that the Native American flute brings, and many of us would not have our "Voice".

Geoffrey Ellis of Earth Tone Flutes has been making quality flutes for many years now. What started out as a passion for him turned into a successful career where he is able to harmonize with his creative muse and make a successful living being immersed in doing something he is quite passionate about. This passion is quite evident when you see the detail in his work, when you hear the tone in the finished product, and when you are told about his unconditional guarantee on every flute he sells.

While I have several flute makers represented in my collection, his was the first "quality" flute I have purchased. Compared to what I had before, it was so well made that it my learning curve spiked and I found myself playing music that was from the heart rather from the blood, sweat and tears of frustration. Having a quality flute got me hooked with the first note, and thus my journey truly began. Geoffrey has also been busy with the successful new launch of the Flute Portal Forums, the only online forum of its kind. You can sign up for a free account and access the forms by going to or by clicking "Forums" from the main page at He has also been busy with the new Scott August Signature line of Anasazi flute, available sometime this Spring. More information will be available soon at

I sat down on the phone with Geoffrey and learned quite a bit about his passion and where it comes from. I have learned to appreciate how accessible Geoffrey is and how much time he is willing to invest whether talking about his work, or in helping a customer figure out what kind of flute they really want. Such things are both hallmark and trademark of a good Flute Maker.

Cryss: Geoffrey, how long have you been making flutes?

Geoffrey: It’ll be eleven years this June.

Cryss: Please describe your earliest experience with the Native American flute and, or NA flute music.

Geoffrey: Hearing R.Carlos Nakai’s Earth Spirit CD was my first exposure, around 1989. I never actually played one until 1995 when I bought one as a gift for my brother (a Coyote Oldman backpacking flute from Michael Allan).

Cryss: From this, what was the experience at the proverbial crossroads where you made the conscious step in the direction of becoming an accomplished flute maker, rather than just a collector and player of the Native American flute?

Geoffrey: Well, I only ever owned one flute before I became a maker. My brother, in his turn, gifted me a High Spirits flute when I moved back to California from Portland, Oregon. I had been working in Portland restoring old houses and doing pastel painting. I decided to try to make it as a full time artist, and so in February of 1997, at the encouragement of my retired parents, I moved down to Humboldt County, CA where they lived. They have 20 acres up on a ridge, and my Dad and I started building my home/art studio in a corner of their land. They had always been really supportive of my art, and they were thrilled that I was going to make a go of it, so they wanted to help.

The construction took more than a year, and when we weren’t working I was sitting on a stump in the woods playing the flute. About this same time two things happened concurrently: I wanted some more flutes, and I realized that I needed a job while I was getting my studio started! We were out in the sticks a bit, and I didn’t own a car, so the idea of trying to find a job in the town (25 minutes away) was not very attractive. My Dad had a fully equipped wood shop that was pretty much dormant when we weren’t building, so I took it in my head to try to make some flutes for myself. It was only after I had made a couple that the light bulb went off and I thought, “I could try doing this for a living!”

I had bought some books by Lew Price (Creating and Using the Native American Flute series) and was starting to teach myself the basics. Because I had no other distractions I was able to commit a huge amount of time to the process, so I got pretty far pretty quickly. By Spring of 1998 I had made Earth Tone Flutes official with a presence on the internet, and by 2000 I was supporting myself full time at flute making (I had been working at it full time from the get go, but it took nearly three years to build up to it being an actual livelihood.

Cryss: I have heard some pretty amazing snippets of the pre-mastered recordings that you and Kenneth Hooper of Elysium Calling are working on for an upcoming disk. How much influence has your playing and recording had on your flute making and has it affected techniques, wood choices, etc. when you consider how it sounds and plays under the digital microscope of mastered tracks?

Geoffrey: I didn’t really get serious about recording music until late 2000 when I started my first digital “studio” (a computer in a room of my house). It was another 4 years until I started to build a proper studio in the backyard. My flute making techniques were already long established by that time, so the recording had little influence on my decisions in that respect. I had been blessed with a lot of great feedback over the years from different recording artists who used my flutes so I already had a notion of how they worked in a studio setting. In almost all cases, what sounds great to your ear sitting in your living room or out in the woods is going to sound good when you record it.

Cryss: Are you able to speak about your recording projects?

Geoffrey: Sure. By the time Kenneth and I met, I already had a serious project studio going and had been learning the ropes of mixing and editing audio, as well as getting practice with more elaborate arrangements and compositions.

Kenneth and I got along very well, and we both loved a lot of the same kind of music, so eventually we decided to team up. Elysium Calling had been put on sabbatical by some geographical challenges, so Kenneth was a free agent, creatively speaking. I had always admired him as a truly gifted player--apart from technical skill, which he has a great deal of--I had never met anyone who had such a natural gift for melody. I could show him a song with just a rhythm and chord changes, and within minutes he would have just reached into the ether and grabbed the most amazing melody line! The uncanny thing is that he can do this just about every time.

Our current (first) project is very much in the “process” phase right now. We are writing songs and messing with arrangements and the atmosphere of the whole thing. It has been getting more ambitious as we go, but we are not forcing the pace at all. It might be a year or more before we actually have a finished “product”, assuming that the ebb and flow of lifes events don’t sideline it. We both have jobs and other responsibilities and we live about 350 miles apart, so things have to be flexible.

Cryss: I know that some of your customers – myself included – have come to you for a flute but pretty much give you full, creative and artistic license. What do you draw from as a muse to assist you when creating something for someone in complete, proverbial darkness who has given you no parameters or coordinates to triangulate from? Do you consider their personality? Do you, perhaps, take the Pygmalion approach and breath life into the finished product from its solid wood origins, and just let your hands and instinct guide you as you shape and embellish the flute and let it manifest the way it will?

Geoffrey: That’s funny! No, no Pygmalion. I’ve always shied away from trying to “assess” my customers in any way that is remotely psychic ( for lack of a better word). I actually try to stay out of the way completely, actively avoiding letting my opinion (about who they might “be“) get involved. I’ve always felt that a flutes “spirit” is given to it by the player, not by the maker. If someone has no preconceived ideas of what they want, I might ask them a few very simple questions, such as: Do you like low tones, medium tones, or high tones? Are you allergic to any woods? That sort of thing. It actually doesn’t happen that often that a player says, “Do whatever you want---surprise me.” Most people have an inkling of what they want, even if it’s just the key of the flute. So I don’t have a “muse” per se. I have a fair amount of practice, however. I’ve made over 2,000 flutes at this point, so picking a nice wood and nice accents, and matching them with the key of the flute is pretty easy. When someone doesn’t know what they want, I make what I feel like making in the moment, and so far that has always worked (which is nice).

Cryss: Do you make other types of flutes? Perhaps a middle eastern tuning flute or an anasazi?

Geoffrey: I’ve messed with some unusual tunings for the NAF, and I’ll be offering them as an option pretty soon. I’m also hoping to make Anasazi flutes, and possibly some other notch blown flutes. It’s a different discipline, but there is a lot of interest in these other kinds of flutes. I know I’m interested, and I’m not alone when it comes to liking these other types of voices and tunings. (note: Since the interview Geoffrey has confirmed the official Scott August Signature Anasazi flute will be made available around April 2008 in standard and limited editions).

Cryss: What is the most unusual request that you have received? As you might recall from a conversation several months ago, I had a bone or two laying around from my college days as a Biology Major. I asked if you make me a flute from the human Fibula I bought from UC Berkeley’s Bone store would count. I dont blame you for your declining, by the way.

Geoffrey: A bone flute probably takes the cake. Prior to that, I’ve had requests for quadruple barreled drones and the like--nothing too crazy. I’ve had some very odd decoration requests, but only one that was so bizarre and out-of-character for me that I flatly refused to do it. I won’t say what it is, in case the customer is reading this (I managed to disguise my incredulous horror behind a plausibly urbane exterior J .

Cryss: Is there a flute that you recall that was either really fun or really a challenge from perspective of wood, shape, tuning, etc. ?

Geoffrey: I did a big drone flute with a design of Lilies on it that was pretty challenging and lots of fun. I also did a flute with a multi-colored, stone inlay turtle (probably my favorite decorating task so far). Those leap to mind. Most of the construction aspects are not so unusual (I never agreed to do that quadruple drone, for example).

Cryss: How do you resolve the symbiotic relationship between you, the flute maker, and the medium you use to create? Do you consider yourself a creator, inventor, and artist… or perhaps more of a Channeler or Instrument yourself from which a greater creation occurs through your gift and art form?

Geoffrey: Wow, man…this is a perfect opportunity for me to say something really pretentious! Tempting….

Seriously, I’d call myself a craftsman or artisan. Flute making is a bit of both: an art and a craft. I’d only call it a gift insofar as “artsy” things have always come very easy to me (things like drawing, music, crafts of different sorts). That is not something a person can claim any credit for--we each have a gift of some kind. I was lucky in that I grew up in an environment that told me it was a good thing, something to be pursued. But that didn’t mean that I stepped into a wood shop and started making good flutes! Lots and lots of practice is the only way to become a good instrument maker.

I will add one thing that I think is very important, and I fear that this will sound pretentious, though I mean it in the humblest sense. You can’t be a good instrument maker if you do not have an “ear”. I’ve had a lot of discussions with my friend Colyn Petersen on this subject, because we’ve had an uncanny number of parallel experiences in our flute journeys. Your guide, as a flute maker is always your ear. You have to be able to hear in your imagination how you want the flute to sound. If you have that image clearly available to you, then you can’t go wrong. You may struggle to adapt your physical skills to the task of reaching that image, but you will get there in time. If you don’t have the “ear”, no amount of technical skill will get you there. Added to this is the fact that your ear continues to refine. My ability to hear nuance within the voice of the flute has gotten more and more honed with practice. And after having enough “shop time” to build the craft-based skills that are needed to make the physical flute, refining this image of the flutes voice is where the essence lies.

I should also say, that I’m talking about successful, commercial flute-making. To do that, you really need to be very consistent from flute to flute. Hit and miss flute making is actually not that hard. My first flute sounded amazing (because I was copying another flute). My next two were not very good at all. Then a good one, then a mediocre, etc.. You get the idea. There are a lot of part-time makers, hobbyist makers who do it for love, not money (meaning they don’t have to make a living) who can make a good flute. There are a tremendous amount of skilled woodworkers who can make a wooden work of art--something truly amazing to look at, but that can barely be played (we’ve all seen these--Nakai called them “wall-hangers”). And there is everything in between. For people to come back to you again and again, and for them to recommend you to their friends, you need to be very consistent, and that will only happen if you have a consistent ear. However, I do need to offer a respectful tip of the hat to makers who embrace a different philosophy. I’ve talked to makers who truly feel that every flute should be unique--different voice, different character, and they make no attempt to have a consistent “sound” that is representative of them. This is a valid approach as well, and more suited to certain players.

Cryss: When you absolutely need to get away from the shop, where do you like to go and/or what do you like to do to freshen your well of inspiration?

Geoffrey: Apart from taking a walk in the woods or doing some yoga, I generally go into my music studio. That is my favorite pastime and what I do when I have leisure.

Cryss: Can you please offer some insight regarding your shop, your tools, your methods, etc. Do you have any unconventional methodologies?

Geoffrey: Not really! Nothing special about the tools--they are just tools. My methodology comes from lots trial and error--nothing that I would call unconventional. There are some little tricks that I use for certain phases of flute making, but those are my “trade secrets” if you will. There aren’t really many things about flute-making that you can’t just look up on the internet or in a book these days. These “tricks” or methods that each maker develops are their personal, hard-won pieces of wisdom. Some share them, some don’t. I don’t. I believe that there is value in figuring things out for ourselves, and letting others do the same. Knowledge that is earned from experience is always valued differently from knowledge that is just handed to us with no effort on our part.

Cryss: As the adage says, “If you do something you love you never work a day in your life”. It became apparent to me (during a recent conversation with regard to a flute I wanted to commission you to make) that you really love what you do. What you said really impressed me. For starters, awhile back I approached you for a flute I wanted you to make which would have required a process you do not perform in your shop. You made a couple of recommendations as to whom I should speak to. When I jokingly said I felt like I was “cheating on you” you said, “Most seasoned players will have flutes from more than one maker. Besides, there’s plenty of business to go around”. I have come to really appreciate how much you have lifted your competition up and placed them in a peer role, showing that you are all giving back to the Flute Community at large rather than trying to squash your competition. I found that not only refreshing, but common amongst the seasoned artists such as yourself. From the perspective of the flute maker, do you perceive yourself as filling an important niche, or merely having the coolest job in the world where you get to do something you really love and make a living at the same time?

Geoffrey: I just think that I have the coolest job in the world J When I first started making flutes I was just looking for something that I could tolerate doing that would make me a bit of money to support my art. Well, it totally swept me up and I haven’t painted a picture since I became a flute maker! I was really happy to have it turn into a sustainable career that I could do from home in a peaceful setting--that was already a huge blessing, but there was another aspect that I didn’t anticipate at all. I think a lot of makers will relate to this, but I didn’t foresee the thanks that would be offered to me.

I’ve received hundreds of e-mails from customers telling me how happy their new flute is making them, how they use it for healing, meditation, inspiration…how it has changed their life for the better. They thank me for my art and for creating this for them. That just blew me away--I never saw it coming. To have a “job” that I enjoy doing is already a great blessing, but then to see all of this gratitude and joy is intensely moving. Humbling, really, because every time I get an e-mail or phone call like that it immediately shifts me into this “higher” viewpoint. I never feel at those moments that I was “doing” something cool, but rather that I get to be a small part of this beneficial stream of creation that is manifesting in this persons life. It’s nice to be the middle-man, if you know what I mean, but a person cannot take credit for that any more than they can take credit for having a good singing voice, or the ability to run a marathon. Sure, you practice to get better, but the ability is God given and therefore not eligible for ego-identification (ideally). At least that is what I feel in the moment. There are times when I indulge in a bit of pride, but I try to keep that nonsense in check as much as I can.

Cryss: What advice can you offer for consideration with regard to buying a flute, whether it is the first one, or the fortieth one?

Geoffrey: Hmmm. Well, I’ve never actually bought a flute before, if you can believe that! I can only really say what my own values are when I pick up a flute: playability first. Good response, well tuned with a pleasing voice. I don’t care at all what it looks like if it really sings. Beautiful wood, embellishments and decorations are all pointless if the flute does not sing to the ears of the player. If it plays well and the player feels a connection, that is all that matters--go ahead and buy it. Doesn’t matter if it is a $400 flute from a famous maker or a $30 flute from the craft fair.

Cryss: What trends, as a flute maker, have you seen in the Flute Community at large? Do you see more studious individuals who become repeat customers, more fading fad type individuals who buy one and you never hear anything from them again, or any other indicators as to the health and vitality of the flute community?

Geoffrey: The flute community is healthy and thriving--no question about it. Flute circles are popping up everywhere, and they are a lovely thing. What can be more wonderful than a bunch of strangers united by a common interest in a healing instrument?

I have a fair number of one-time customers, like any maker. However, the vast majority of my flute sales are to repeat customers. We all know what it is to be bitten by the Flute Bug, and those who are bitten usually start a modest collection (sometimes not-so-modest). When they find a maker who creates what they like, they tend to come back, which is a wonderful symbiotic relationship. They support the maker, and in return they always know they will be getting something that they will like.

There are fads in the flute business. When I was early in my career, really high flutes were quite popular and I made a lot of them. Then they went out of style for the most part and drones were all the rage. Made a lot of drones. Then bass flutes got popular, and have stayed popular (I don’t think that will ever change because they are so soothing and healing). Ancient flutes seem to be gaining popularity now. The Anasazi flutes have been brought to life again by Michael Allan, and they are inspiring a lot of players (which is pretty incredible considering how hard they are to play!). There will always be “fads” but they never really affect the core-interest in the NAF.

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