An Irish Whistle Buyer’s Guide

    The humble tin whistle is probably the most popular wind instrument in traditional Irish music. John O’Brien, maker of premium Irish whistles, Setanta Whistles, has these words of wisdom for whistle buyers at our online Irish whistle shop.

    Tin Whistles Through the Ages

    The tin whistle, also called the penny whistle, flageolet, Irish whistle, Celtic whistle, feadóg stáin (or simply feadóg) is a simple, six-holed woodwind instrument. 

    It is a type of fipple flute, putting it in the same class as the Native American flute, and other woodwind instruments.

    It’s closely associated with Celtic, Folk and World Music.

    Choosing a Key for your Irish whistle

    Tin whistles, also known as soprano whistles, are available in a wide variety of keys, generally from B flat to High G.

    The key of D tin whistle is considered to be the standard concert pitch tin whistle and is recommended for beginners and intermediate players alike.

    Most Irish traditional and folk music for whistle is written with the ‘Concert Pitch D Tin Whistle’ in mind.

    The key of Eb (E flat) whistle is also a very common ‘Session Key’ and great to have in your back pocket at a traditional Irish session.

    Read all about the traditional Irish session

    Irish Whistle Ranges:

    Generally whistles are divided into 3 categories:

    • Soprano
    • Alto
    • Low (tenor) Whistles

    Soprano Whistles (standard tin whistle)– would generally be considered Bb up to High G.

    (eg. Bb, B, … , D, Eb, … G)

    Alto Whistles – generally considered Low F to Low A

    (eg. Low F, G & A)

    Tenor or Low Whistles – generally considered Low C to Low E

    (eg. Low C, D, Eb & E)

    Alto and tenor/low whistles are particularly popular when accompanying singers.

    Materials used in Irish whistles:

    Tin whistles can be made from various materials. 

    The most common materials are:

    • Brass
    • Nickel Plated Brass
    • Plastic including Delrin or polymer
    • Aluminium (Aluminum)
    • Wood

    Each material produces its own unique timbre or tonal quality

    Nickel plated brass whistles are generally a shade brighter than their slightly more mellow brass cousin.

    Delrin whistles produce a surprisingly traditional woody tone.

    Tunable v Non-tunable Whistles

    The answers to the following two questions will probably convince you to buy a tunable whistle.

    Can whistles be blown into and out of tune?

    The simple answer is yes, within reason. 

    If you blow a note soft it will sound more flat

    If you blow a note harder it will sound sharper

    You should generally be aiming for something in the middle which should also give you nicer tone.

    Does temperature affect your tuning?

    Again yes is the answer. 

    The higher the temperature and the warmer your whistle the sharper it will be overall. 

    For example, if you started playing a session and your whistle was playing A = 440Hz (standard concert pitch). After about 15 minutes playing the chances are you’re now playing A = 442Hz (sharper) this is due to the likely warmer temperature at a session in full swing.

    The opposite also applies: 

    If you were playing outdoors in colder temperatures, chances are your whistle tuning will flatten also.

    Quality v Budget

    Beginner Whistles – if you’re not worried about tuning and you just want to play at home for your own enjoyment well then an entry level non-tuneable whistle might be just the thing for you. This shouldn’t cost you more than €20.

    Intermediate Whistles – if you play in sessions or in groups then you’re more likely  to be conscious of your tuning. Tunable whistles start from around the €25 mark.

    Advanced and Professional Whistles – As a general rule the more expensive whistles will have better internal tuning and will also have superior tone. There are exceptions to the rule but that’s for another post!

    A standard basic D tin whistle can cost as little as €6. 

    The professional end can cost over €250. 

    As with any instrument it depends on how fluently you’re currently playing and where you’d envisage yourself in the not too distant future.

    Style and Ornamentation

    Novice

    Cuts: Also known as ‘grace notes’ are short notes played from above before the main note using the same principle as acciaccatura.

    Taps: Taps are similar to cuts except that you sound the note below as briefly as possible.

    Intermediate

    Rolls: Combine a cut and tap and are played over two or three quavers. 

    Slides: Gradually shifting a finger up or down smoothly to raise or lower the pitch of a note

    Vibrato: a tremolo effect created by lower fingers or the diaphragm.

    Advanced

    Cranns: Borrowed from the uilleann piping tradition, they are similar to rolls except only a series of cuts are used.

    Tonguing: Briefly touching your tongue to the front of the roof of the mouth at the start of the note (as if articulating a ‘t’), creating a percussive attack. Generally used sparingly as a means of emphasising certain notes.


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