Feeling overwhelmed with the choices available when buying your first whistle? Or are you a seasoned player looking to explore different tonal qualities and styles? Worry not, I’ve got you covered. I’m here to introduce you to the most popular instrument in traditional Irish music – the humble tin whistle. No matter your experience level, I promise to help you choose the perfect whistle and guide you through mastering this timeless instrument. In this post, I have many words of wisdom for whistle buyers of our online Irish whistle store, I simplify the buying process and break down everything you need to know. 

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. 

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.

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, 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

Tonal Qualities

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 whistlean 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.

 Setanta Low Whistles by John O'Brien

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
  • 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’re playing outdoors in colder temperatures, chances are your whistle tuning will flatten also.

McNeela Wild Whistles

Quality vs Budget

Beginner Whistles
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. 

Intermediate Whistles
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.

Premium 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.

Wild Irish Whistles

One question I’ve been asked frequently since the launch of my new Wild Whistle range is “what distinguishes Wild Whistles from other whistles on the market?”

The short answer is, Wild Whistles are premium high-standard whistles.

What makes a high standard whistle?

There are a few factors… 

Wild Irish 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 just read the reviews! Surprisingly not all whistles are in tune with themselves or other instruments.

Another pleasing feature of the Wild tin whistle is that the body has a slightly thicker wall  which makes them sturdy, without adding too much extra weight. This makes them wonderfully easy to play. 

Most importantly however, what really sets Wild whistles apart is that they provide professional quality instruments at an exceptionally affordable price. 

By comparison, Goldie Whistles start at €215 for a soprano whistle, or €275 for the low whistle range.

Wild Whistles offer huge savings without compromising on quality. 

Setanta Low Whistles by John O'Brien

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:

Novice

  • 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.

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.

Getting Started

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.

With the right tin whistle in hand (any whistle from our online whistle store will see you right) and a little more know how, you’ll be flying in no time!

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. 



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  1. Hello I’m flying over from glasgow on Saturday December 10th with my granddaughter to purchase a tin whistle for her in high d probably in the 80- 100 euros range. Do you have anything suitable in stock, and if so how do I visit your shop by public transport

  2. Many thanks for this website. Yes! I did hear the echo of a tin whistle calling my name. Clearly, you know what goes through the minds of many of us caught up by this marvelous instrument. Something from the ancient past stirs in this soul.
    Kawasaki Japan

  3. I'll be teaching a beginning tin whistle class this summer at a summer Camp for Senior Citizens who already play other instruments. This guide will be a wonderful help to them.
    Thanks.

  4. I'd love to start playing the whistle, but am totally confused on which one. I think a lower range D would be good, so i could join a sesdion, & im in a band w/ guitars, a harp & an auto harp, but as to which specific one…?? Help? I've been playing violin/fiddle since I was a kid & had the usual encounter w/ the recorder in school, so I'm not a total novice musically…

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