The flute can be traced back to the stone age, with such a long history we have a large selection to choose the best flute players of all time from.
In the right hands the flute is one of the most versatile wind instruments, it can be joyous, haunting, or humbling.
While we often think of its place as being in the orchestra picking out those higher melody lines it has a place in many contemporary genres.
The flute has found itself a home everywhere from romantic opera, ballets, and musicals to folk, jazz, rock, disco, hip hop and pop.
There are and have been many fantastic flutists throughout history.
Today we will give you an overview of the best and most famous flute players of all time.
We have tried to include a good mix of key figures, past and present that cover the decades comprehensively.
1. Jean-Pierre Rampal
Rampal is one of the most famous flute players, credited by music historians as repopularizing the flute as a solo instrument.
During the 1800s plenty of solos were composed for the flute and then the fixation with the beautiful instrument tapered off.
Jean Pierre Rampal rekindled the passion in the listeners by recovering a myriad of Baroque-era flute compositions.
Until he brought them into the limelight they had largely been forgotten.
Rampal’s virtuosic playing style, bright sound, and disciplined technique always impressed and thrilled audiences.
He also inspired the composers of the era to write for the instrument again.
One such contemporary composer was Francis Poulenc.
Every flutist learns to play Poulenc’s Sonata but without Rampal, it would never have been written.
2. Sir James Galway
Arguably the most famous flutist in the world, ever, James Galway was born in Ireland in December 1939.
The Irish, working-class James Galway might be one of the most famous flute players on our list.
Coming from a musical family, he began studying music at a young age with his uncle at his fife and drum corps.
It was clear that Galway had a natural talent.
He won three different categories of the Belfast Flute Championships in one day!
Galway was a motivated student, attending the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall, and the Paris Conservatoire.
During his years in Paris, he studied under Jean-Pierre Rampal himself and Marcel Moyse, who has the next spot in our best flutist article.
Galway performed with various London orchestras and went on to become the principal flute for 8 years with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
However, it wasn’t until he went solo and stepped away from the classical music scene that he became a household name.
James was the first flutist to achieve celebrity status.
Leaving his humble roots and gaining a wealthy status, he bought himself some extravagant instruments.
Later in life, Galway was nicknamed “The Man With the Golden Flute”.
3. Marcel Moyse
Another Paris Conservatoire graduate who learned to play the flute to perfection was Marcel Moyse who went on to teach Galway as we briefly mentioned.
Moyse studied under Philippe Gaubert and Paul Taffanel and caught the attention of various Paris orchestras for his flexible tone and rapid vibrato.
He played the principal flute strongly and earned a name as a skilled soloist.
After teaching in France he crossed the sea to Canada and the US.
He was a sought-after tutor and inspired the next generation of great flutists bringing us some of the most famous flute players courtesy of his teachings.
His focus was on musicality, pushing improv and creativity.
He is quoted as wanting his students to learn “not how to play the flute, but to make music.”
4. Emmanuel Pahud
Another flutist who can accredit his playing to the path paved by Jean-Pierre Rampal is Emmanuel Pahud.
He, like Galway, trained classically at the Paris Conservatoire.
Pahud was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1970.
Contrary to the majority of virtuosos on our hotlist, he didn’t come with a musical family background.
But, being captivated by the sounds of the flute at a young age helped kickstart his lifelong passion.
A quick and motivated learner, he joined the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra after completing his classical training.
He progressed to a principal position within a short period.
Pahud is known for his genre diversity; he is an agile player with a range of musical influences aside from classical.
5. Severino Gazzelloni
One of the reasons that the flute is ever prevalent in music today is because of the experimentation of some pretty key figures.
Italian flutist Severino Gazzeloni born in 1919 is considered one of the best flute players in history.
His praise comes largely from his bold experimentation.
He spent 3 decades as a member of the Symphony Orchestra of the RIA in Rome for over thirty years.
Gazzeloni broke tradition and wasn’t afraid to mix classical and contemporary music genres.
This led him to be considered a jazz musician and ‘fusion’ artist, and not simply a classical chamber player.
He quickly became notorious for it and composers began writing him avant-garde music to play.
Berio’s famous ‘Sequenza’ was one such work.
He also caught the attention of Boulez and Stravinsky.
6. Jacques-Martin Hotteterre
Jaques-Martin Hotteterre came from a family of talented woodwind players.
Many of whom were also credited for design developments in a variety of woodwind instruments.
His uncle, for example, invented the oboe!
Hotteterre played the flute beautifully and was the king of France’s chamber musicians.
He was a musical “Jacques of all trades”, playing an assortment of wind instruments but is largely remembered as a flutist.
His performance successes are numerous.
He was the first chamber musician to ever play a transverse flute in the orchestra of the Paris Grand Opera.
But that wasn’t his only “first-ever” accreditation.
He authored the first-ever published manual instructing learners on how to play the transverse Flute.
It was entitled “L’Art de Préluder sur la Flute Transversaire”(“The Art of Playing the Transverse Flute” in English).
Hotteterre is also considered the ‘inventor’ of the baroque flute itself.
So he was a key historical figure in the instrumental design of the flute.
His design added an anchor device.
Only 3 specimens of the Hotteterre model are known to exist today.
7. Johann Joachim Quantz
Another great flutist who contributed enormously to the instrument’s design was Johann Joachim Quantz.
Quantz was also a court musician and is perhaps more well-known than Hotteterre.
As well as his design contributions he expanded the repertoire of every flutist by composing over 600 pieces that had a part to highlight the beautiful instrument.
In addition to the many sonatas and concertos, he also authored an instructional treatise “Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen” (“On Playing the Flute” in English) in 1752.
8. Herbie Mann
We are leaving some of the earlier flute virtuosos to take a look at some of the jazz flutists history has to offer.
Herbie Mann is a good place to start, many jazz musicians played a variety of instruments.
To make a living they dabbled with them all but Mann stuck to one instrument for his entire career and that instrument was his flute.
What makes Mann memorable is the way he merged jazz with ethnic styles.
He was heavily influenced by both Latin and Middle Eastern music.
At the time World music wasn’t a coined term so his blending of styles was captivating.
He regularly collaborated with a friendly rival jazz flutist Sam Most.
Their audiences brought rivalry by shouting creative countering slogans; “Most is the man!” “Mann is the most!”.
9. Alberto Socarras Estacio
Cuban-born flutist Alberto Socarras fell in love with jazz in his youth.
He joined the provincial music conservatory at Santiago de Cuba.
Later he moved to the U.S. and studied for his doctorate at the New York Timothy Music Conservatory in New York.
At the time the flute wasn’t hugely sought-after on the jazz scene with people leaning towards brassier sounds and the clarinet mostly hogging the limelight.
By using the upper register to shine in among the bigger sounds Alberto found his footing jamming with the locals.
He performed, and recorded, a memorable jazz flute solo with the Clarence Williams Orchestra on a track called ‘Shooting the Pistol’.
The solo is considered to be the first recorded jazz flute solo.
10. Wayman Carver
Before the likes of Herbie Mann with his experimental genre blending came Wayman Carver, a famous flute player who is often referred to as “the first jazz flutist”.
Respectfully, soloist Alberto Socarras preceded him but Carver gets the credit.
Carver performed alongside some of the greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Nelson, Benny Carter, and Spike Hughes.
There were very few active flutists during the swing jazz era and so Carver was in demand once things began evolving.
He recorded with the Chick Webb band where they gave him many memorable solos on tracks like “I Got Rhythm.”
Carver, like many a passionate performer, went on to teach the following generation of flutists.
He was an esteemed player, having played with the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and became an esteemed professor and mentor too.
11. Buddy Collette
Another notable jazz performer who steals a spot on our best flute players list is Buddy Collette.
He is known for being the first jazz flutist to record with all of the members of the orchestral flute family.
Along with the other members of the flutist group the “Swinging Shepherds” he made some amazing early recordings utilizing the different pitchings.
He liked to experiment compositionally, pairing breath-flute playing with the muted timbres of the trumpet.
The trick became prevalent in many subsequent jazz compositions but could be considered Collette’s signature sound.
12. Frank Wess
The birth of jazz brought us big bands, one notable big band was the Count Basie Big Band where Frank Wess showcased his flute-playing skills.
The Kansas City-born flutist/saxophonist recorded an extensive repertoire with the group and performed live on the radio frequently.
In 1954 he recorded “Perdido”, a track that helped bring the flute into the spotlight as a jazz soloing instrument.
Many jazz composers began to write flute solos specifically for Wess to play.
Once in high demand he left the Count Basie Big Band and had a successful career.
During his career, he went on to play in the New York Jazz Quartet and featured often in the 16-piece Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra.
13. Frances Blaisdell
Blaisdell was born in Tennessee and is recognized as one of the first female professional flutists.
She began learning her instrument at five years old.
Her father managed to get her lessons with Ernest Wagner who was at the time the bandleader of the New York Philharmonic.
He did it deceptively, asking for lessons for his son, Wagner wasn’t happy nor convinced but reluctantly agreed.
She then managed to get an audition with Georges Barrere at what is now the Juilliard School of Music.
Again somewhat deceptively, her name had been recorded as Francis!
Regardless of the rules at the time she managed to get her chance to perform and Barrere was so impressed he offered her admission.
There she studied under Barrere and later studied under Marcel Moyse.
She was the first female wind player to perform with the Philharmonic and replaced her tutor Barrere in the Barrère Trio following his death.
Given her difficulties in education, there is a scholarship named in her honor.
14. Ian Anderson
Although they are familiar territory for the flute we are momentarily taking you away from the world of classical and jazz music to discuss Ian Anderson.
Rock music is by no means synonymous with flute solos except for that is in the case with Jethro Tull.
The guitarist and frontman is a multi-instrumentalist known for some quirky instrument insertion in his experimental rock music.
He plays with a bluesy rock style quite unlike anyone we have mentioned on our list.
Famously, he is known for his curious, flamingo-like, one-legged flute stance.
He learned to play quickly and while he may not measure up to the technical prestige of some of the classical flutists we have shown he still holds a lot of merits.
Anderson recorded on the Jethro Tull album just a few months after picking the flute up!
He has been invited to play flute with several other groups and has numerous recordings.
He played the flute on the track “Cannonball” by The Darkness, “Cry to the World” by Renaissance, “Play, Minstrel, Play” by Blackmore’s Night, and “On Tuesday” by Men Without Hats.
He is also featured on two Uriah Heap albums and has played for Roy Harper too.
15. Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef is a beautiful flutist with a playing style influenced by world music genres.
The Tennessee-born American musician is known mostly for his tenor saxophone and flute playing but also plays the oboe, bassoon, bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, xun, nai, and arghul.
The majority of these instruments are considerably rare in jazz yet Lateef blends these ethnic instruments in.
In the 1960s he joined the Cannonball Adderley Sextet, led by the saxophonist Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley, and quickly became famous.
He toured with many jazz bands and crossed paths with some huge names on the Detroit Jazz scene.
In addition to his ethnic flute use, he built upon vocal techniques, speaking syllables into his flute.
Latif also invented his own type of ethnic flute and named it the “ma ma” flute.
16. Sharon Bezaly
Sharon Bezaly is something of a child prodigy, at just thirteen she took a spot in the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.
Her successful career has seen her play with some of the world’s leading symphony and chamber orchestras.
She demonstrates amazing circular breathing skills that allow her to play continuous notes and she is truly impressive to listen to.
Her aptitude for playing didn’t go unnoticed; she has had over 20 pieces composed specifically for her to play.
To date, she has released 24 award-winning CDs, also quite a feat.
Some of her accolades include the Cannes Classical Young Artist of the Year Award, the Klassic Echo’s Instrumentalist of the Year, and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.
In the footsteps of James Galway A.K.A “The Man With the Golden Flute”, Bezaly has a beautiful 24-carat gold flute to grace the stage with.
17. Bobbi Humphrey
Another notable female flutist that deserves a mention among the greats is Bobbi Humphrey.
Classically trained and influenced by jazz, funk, and soul-jazz she has brushed shoulders with some pretty big names.
Her big break came off the back of performing maturely at the Apollo Theater following the advice of Dizzy Gillespie, who was impressed with her raw talent and pizazz.
The singing flutist was signed within weeks of moving to New York, becoming the first-ever female artist to be signed by Blue Note.
She collaborated with Herbie Mann who we already mentioned.
Bobbi also worked alongside Duke Ellington and George Benson.
In 1994, frustrated by the lack of earnings, she set up her own “ethical” record label and music management company to provide performers with a better deal.
18. Roland Kirk
Hailing from Ohio, Roland Kirk is a talented multi-instrumentalist.
After losing his sight at two years old, he honed in on his musical skills making the most of his other senses.
Kirk is famed for his innovativeness; he has an inimitable playing style that is highly entertaining and experimental.
He toured the rhythm and blues scene from the age of fourteen tearing the joint up with his liberated playing style and crazy antics.
He was the first flutist to record with unusual flutes including the bamboo flute and the nose but the thing he is most famous for is his ability to play three saxophones at once!
19. Hubert Laws
American flutist Hubert Laws is next on our list.
You may recognize the surname Laws, his brother Ronnie is a successful jazz musician in his own right, playing the sax.
Hubert’s career spans over 40 years and covers a variety of genres to boot.
He is known for his jazz but has classical roots and isn’t afraid to branch into pop and rhythm-and-blues.
He began playing in his high school orchestra as there was a spot that needed filling.
A love of the instrument pushed him to land himself a Juilliard scholarship where he trained classically.
Laws went on to become a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
He plays with a signature handmade solid silver Seolos flute of which only 500 were ever produced.
His versatility as a player has seen him play with a whole host of names.
Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, George Benson, and Stevie Wonder, are but a few!
20. Jasmine Choi
Jasmine Choi has many accolades in her name.
The South Korean flutist won countless prizes during her time at Julliard.
She is a competent virtuoso and great at interpretation with her stamp.
Choi held principal flute at the Vienna Symphony, associate principal at Cincinnati Symphony, and has performed as a soloist with over a dozen international orchestral groups.
She has been referred to as “the goddess of the flute” in her home country which also named her a “cultural ambassador” back in 2016.
Her compositions have a lot of interest; she pushes boundaries and mixes genres.
Numerous recordings have crossed musical genres and included her own compositions.
When she is not performing she is teaching and innovating in her field.
21. Gareth Davies
Gareth Davies studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Davies showed promise from a young age
His playing aptitude soon meant that he became the youngest-ever principal flutist at Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
He was then appointed leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and has held the position for over two decades.
He has played for some notable composers such as Previn, Rostropovich, Boulez, and Haitink and had a concerto written for him by Karl Jenkins.
Like many of the best flute players, he teaches in between his orchestral performances.
His work with the orchestra branches into film scores.
He has recorded musical scores for “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” in addition to the usual classical flute repertoire.
22. Matt Molloy
Ireland was an important country in the history of folk music talents.
We all know Galway’s name but Matt Molloy was another great Irish flutist.
Born in 1947, he grew up with traditional folk music influences.
At just 19 years old he won the All-Ireland Flute Championship.
He is famous for bringing folk into the contemporary scene by adapting traditional Irish piping techniques into his playing.
Molloy is responsible for prompting other flutists to become more adventurous with their improvisation.
He played with The Bothy Band, Planxty, and the Chieftains as a successful soloist.
23. Jeanne Baxtresser
A young Baxtresser switched from trying to learn the piano to the flute at the age of 10.
It was the right decision.
She found she progressed very quickly and got accepted into Julliard, one of the best music schools in the world.
She went on to earn a position in the Montreal Symphony for 7 years and eventually became principal at the New York Philharmonic.
She is very true to her training, a praiseworthy, technically skilled flutist.
The National Flute Association awarded her with a lifetime achievement for “upholding an increasingly higher standard of artistic excellence for the flute” in 2006.
She has recorded solos for multiple arrangements.
When not performing, Jean Baxtresser teaches regular masterclasses.
24. Robert Dick
Composer, teacher, author, and flutist Robert Dick is a player who widens the scope when it comes to genre.
Alongside his classical training, he impressively mixes a blend of jazz, electronic, and world music.
His penchant for improvisation and wide range of musical genre influences bring him great critical acclaim.
The Jazz Times dubbed him “revolutionary” which is high praise indeed.
Throughout his career, Dick has recorded a huge range of music across multiple genres but most recently has focused on performing and improvising his own music.
Like a lot of our more historical entries, Robert Dick invented an important flute mechanism.
His customized flute head joint, known as the “glissando head joint” changed the game.
With it, a performer can slide between chromatic pitches.
This along with his revolutionary playing earned him a National Flute Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
25. Theobald Boehm
Boehm is not so much a famous flute player but he is famed in the world of flute playing and composing for flute.
Although he did love the instrument and played it to a high degree he is mostly known for his instrument-making skills.
Credited with the invention of the complex key mechanisms that all flutes still rely on today, he is a crucial flute player to remember.
Without the key system, the flute would not be truly chromatic, without the chromatic nature it probably wouldn’t have been considered a suitable solo instrument.
All famous flutists that came after the late 1700s owe their playing dexterity to Theobald Boehm.
Best Flute Players of All Time – Final Thoughts
Exciting new flutists are constantly emerging.
We didn’t have too many new and experimental artists on the list.
But we certainly made mention of the most famous flute players, the most important flutists, and the best of all time.
From the disciplined woodwind playing of a renowned chamber musician that you prefer to the beat-box vocal stylings of jazz fusion.
The foundations were laid out by the likes of Rampal, Pahud, and Moyse and their instrument itself owes a debt of gratitude to Hotteterre, Quantz, and Boehm.
If nothing else, we trust you have learned a little about the fascinating musical history of the use of the flute.
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