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 store.
Tin Whistle Through the Ages
The tin whistle, also known as the penny whistle, Irish whistle, Celtic whistle or feadóg stáin (the Irish term, pronounced fa-doge-stawn) is a type of flageolet or simple, six-holed woodwind instrument.
It’s a type of fipple flute, putting it in the same class as the recorder, the Native American flute, and many other indigenous woodwind instruments.
The tin whistle is closely associated with traditional Irish music, but also plays an important role in the folk music of many other cultures such as the Kwela penny whistle music of South Africa and Malawi.
Choosing a Key for Your Irish Whistle
Tin whistles are available in a wide variety of keys, generally from Low D to High G.
A tin whistle in the key of D is considered to be the standard concert pitch tin whistle and is recommended for beginners and intermediate players alike.
D tin whistles allow you to play comfortably in the keys of D major and G major – two of the most common keys found in traditional Irish music.
Irish Whistle Ranges
Modern tin whistles come in various sizes and a variety of different keys. The higher the key, the smaller the instrument, the lower the key, the larger the instrument.
Generally, these keys are are divided into three categories:
- Soprano Whistles – Bb up to High G
- Alto Whistles – Low F to Low A
- Low Whistles or Tenor Whistles – Low C to Low E
Soprano, Alto and Tenor are simply terms which refer to the key or range the whistle plays in.
The Irish Low Whistle
As you can see, the soprano tin whistle and low whistle are members of the same family and are technically the same instrument. The low D model is simply tuned an octave lower than the soprano D. Therefore, the body is wider and twice as long.
Like its soprano and alto counterparts, the low whistle also comes in a variety of keys, such as C, Eb and E. The most popular however is the standard low D as D major is arguably the most commonly used key in traditional Irish music.
To learn more about this popular variant, check out the McNeela blog post Everything You Need to Know About the Low Whistle
While it can vary from whistle to whistle to whistle, and maker to maker, here’s a quick breakdown of the tonal qualities of the different whistle keys.
A general rule of thumb is, the higher the key, the brighter the sound, while the lower the key, the more mellow the sound:
- Soprano G whistle – produces a very high, piercing treble tone. These whistles are particularly small in size and may be useful for very young children who want to try the tin whistle.
- Soprano F whistle – produces a soaring, bright tone. Tone can be quite piercing depending on the make of the whistle.
- Soprano E whistle – brighter than an Eb whistle while still offering a pleasant tone.
- Soprano Eb whistle – offers a clear, bright, joyful tone with a sweet high register. It’s perfect for breathing a new lease of life into your solo playing or confidently playing along at an Eb Irish music session.
- Soprano D whistle – the standard key for the majority of Irish whistles, produces the iconic tone associated with traditional Irish music.
- Soprano C whistle – produces a rich, sweet one that is more mellow than a standard D whistle. It will add warmth and depth to your playing.
- Soprano/Alto Bb whistle – offers a warm, mellow tone. It will add an air of sweetness to your playing or allow you to groove along at a Bb session.
- Alto A whistle – produces a bright yet mellow tone that will energise your playing, adding a vibrant depth to your sound.
- Alto F whistle – an incredibly popular key amongst professional whistle players. Produces a rich, warm, mellow tone.
- Low E whistle – produces a rich, warm tone.
- Low Eb whistle – offers a smooth, mellow tone.
- Low D whistle – the rich, iconic Irish low whistle sound that is recognised all over the world.
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
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’re playing outdoors in colder temperatures, chances are your whistle tuning will flatten also.
Quality vs Budget
If you’re not worried about tuning and you just want to play at home for your own enjoyment, then an entry level non-tuneable whistle might be just the thing for you. This shouldn’t cost you more than €20.
If you play in sessions or in groups then you’re more likely to be conscious of your tuning. Tuneable whistles start from around the €25 mark.
Advanced and Professional Whistles
As a general rule, more expensive whistles will have better internal tuning and will also have superior tone. There are exceptions to the rule but that’s a discussion for another day!
A standard basic D tin whistle can cost as little as €10. The professional end can cost well over €250.
As with any instrument it depends on how fluently you’re currently playing and where you envision yourself in the not too distant future.
One question I’ve been asked frequently since the launch of my new Setanta Whistle range is “what distinguishes Setanta Whistles from other whistles on the market?”
The short answer is, Setanta Whistles are professional standard whistles.
What makes a professional standard whistle?
There are a few factors…
Setanta whistles have an even tempered tuning, making them more versatile than midrange whistles. What does that mean?
You can play in any key, with other instruments, without tuning being an issue. With this more accurate tuning system, every note you play is in tune. This might seem like a given with all instruments, but surprisingly not all whistles are in tune with themselves or other instruments.
Another pleasing feature of the Setanta tin whistle is that the body is light, yet robust. This is important for many reasons. You want a durable instrument that can withstand any accidental bumps. The slightly thicker wall of the Setanta whistles makes them sturdy, without adding too much extra weight. This makes them wonderfully easy to play.
Why? The thinner and lighter a whistle it is, the easier it is to play. This ease of movement allows for faster playing, which is a must for modern players.
If you’d like to know more about the whistle making process, check out the video below:
Most importantly however, what really sets Setanta whistles apart is that they provide professional quality instruments at an exceptionally affordable price. Prices start at just €120 for the soprano range, or €210 for the low whistle range.
By comparison, Goldie Whistles start at €215 for a soprano whistle, or €275 for the low whistle range.
Setanta Whistles offer huge savings without compromising on quality.
How Does the Setanta Whistle Compare to Other Tin Whistles on the Market?
Setanta vs Killarney
Killarney Whistles are hugely popular and rightly so. These quality whistles are ideal for tin whistle players, particularly those at intermediate level, who want to take their playing to the next level.
Potential customers frequently ask me what the differences are between this whistle and the Setanta?
- Both whistles offer a clear, bright tone. The Setanta offers a more round tone however, particularly in the second octave where the Killarney can sometimes sound a little thin.
- Due to its wider bore, the Setanta also offers more volume than the Killarney.
- As I’ve previously mentioned, the Setanta is a professional standard whistle designed specifically to cater to the needs of advanced whistle players. This means a reliable instrument that offers a balanced tone throughout all octaves and doesn’t experience clogging.
Style and Ornamentation
There are many Irish tin whistle playing styles. You can learn about some of the most exciting modern tin whistle playing styles in The Evolution of the Modern Tin Whistle.
If you prefer to keep things a bit more traditional however, you can also explore the iconic playing style of the legendary Mary Bergin.
One element that is common to all whistle playing styles is the use of ornamentation. I’ve included a simple breakdown below to demystify these terms:
- Cuts: Cuts, also known as grace notes, are short notes played before the main melody note, using the same principle as acciaccatura.
- Taps: Taps are similar to cuts except that you sound the note by tapping the fingers on a 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.
Now that you’re well on your way to being a tin whistle expert, why not check out our recommendations for the best beginner tunes for Irish flute and whistle players.
If you’d like a little more guidance however, you can always sign up to my Ultimate Irish Whistle Course where I’ll teach you everything you need to know about the tin whistle. I’ll be with you every step of the way as I guide you along your musical journey, taking you right through from the beginner stage all the way to advanced.