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.
Most Irish traditional and folk music for whistle is written with the ‘Concert Pitch D Tin Whistle’ in mind.
Irish Whistle Ranges:
Generally whistles are divided into 3 categories:
- Low (tenor) Whistles
(eg. Bb, B, … , D, Eb, … G)
Alto Whistles – generally considered Low F to Low A
(eg. Low F, G & A)
(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:
- Nickel Plated Brass
- Plastic including Delrin or polymer
- Aluminium (Aluminum)
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
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.
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.
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.