chiff & fipple presents: Guide to Inexpensive Whistles
One of the great things about the tinwhistle is that it is an amazingly inexpensive instrument. Unlike, say, cheap guitars which are generally are not in the same league as good guitars, cheap whistles really dominate the tinwhistle world and are often favored by fine players (Mary Bergin, Sean Potts of the Chieftains, etc.) Good, cheap whistles (not an oxymoron) found for as little as $5. Although, like anything else, one can spend about as much as one wants on a whistle, one certainly doesn't have to, even if one becomes proficient.
For basic information about the different kinds of tinwhistles, please read the tutorial.
Special thanks to Masami Yoshihara, who contributes many photos to this and other areas of chiff & fipple.
This is a detail from an antique Generation brand whistle that sold on e-bay. I wanted it bad, but it was too rich for my blood.
A note on researching various whistles, including inexpensive whistles:
Since these pages were originally put together in 1996 or so, Chiff & Fipple's message board community has gotten huge. That forum includes over thousands and thousands of posts about whistles. I recommend you join, it's free, and use the SEARCH function to find threads and posts about the whistle you're interested in. (Study the SEARCH system carefully, it's a bit complicated, but most useful). The address is http://chiffboard.mati.ca
Another tremendous resource is Greg Mahan's Wandering Whistle website. Greg is an active member of Chiff & Fipple and actually was writing about whistles on the internet before me. He writes thorough and thoughtful reviews. These are often published on the Chiff & Fipple message board, but there's also a complete set on Greg's website at
Clarke. Keys: C, D. Rolled conical, painted or unpainted. Nontunable. $8-13. Clarke website:
English-made since 1843. Made from one piece of metal with a wood plug in the mouth end. Conical. Easy to play. Pleasant, slightly breathy tone. Painted models are black with gold trim. An unpainted D was my first whistle and remains a favorite. The unpainted whistles are a little harder to find, but I prefer them, even though there is not notable difference in sound. The Clarke is a must for whistle enthusiasts because it is the closest we have to the old, traditional style of pennywhistle. The history of this important instrument (well, as important as any whistle can be) is detailed in Norman Dannat's wonderful little book, The Penny Whistle. I do wish they would stop putting those hideously tacky gold diamonds between the holes.
UPDATE! The people at Clarke read the above copy and have been good sports about my "hideously tacky gold diamonds" remark. Not only that, they just started producing the black version of the Clarke without the hideous diamonds (and will continue to make the traditional model with the diamonds.) (I suggested that they name the new ones "Dale's Naked Black Splendour" but they understandably declined.) Also new from Clarke, ongoing R&D regarding future products! Rumors of a Low D.
Dale's Naked Black Splendour by Clarke
Clarke SweeTone. C,D. Rolled conical with plastic mouthpiece, painted a variety of colors. Tunable. $6-8. A new, unique model. The only conical whistle with a plastic fipple mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is designed by legendary whistle-maker Michael Copeland. A really fine, substantial, black plastic mouthpiece. Widely praised for tone, playability. Norman Dannatt, with Clarke, wrote me a fascinating and entertaining letter that includes the history of this whistle. It was intended to be marketed for children (thus the colors). "What we needed was an inexpensive whistle especially for children," Norman writes, "It also needed to be one without a wooden fipple as children tend not to take care of their instruments...Nothing ruins the wooden fipple more than being blown soon after eating burgers or drinking coke.". Some say it is has tuning problems, especially in C. I've never checked the tuning on the C with a tuner, but it sounds a bit off to me. I've played several.
All kinds of wacky colors and more serious-looking black and unpainted models. Choose black or unpainted to avoid looking like you're holding a toy. Great for beginners, but remains a favorite of many players.. I would really like to see Clarke make this whistle in other keys. A Bb would be so neat. The Sweettone is an exceptionally good whistle. Smooth action, lovely tone, easy to play. The Copeland-designed mouthpiece is first-rate. The Sweetone is a perennial favorite. You can't really go wrong with it.
NEW! Meg by Clarke C & D. Brand new for 2002! The Meg is a new version of the Sweetone. It will hit stores soon and is made to sell very, very cheap. I've played prototypes and like them. See this link for information.
Special Clarke packages!
The Clarke people market specially packaged versions of the Clarke whistles under different names. I am aware of three such packages.
1. The Enchanted Whistle is a children's package which includes a Sweetone with special textured paint job, a little instructional coloring book about playing the whistle, and a few colored pencils.
2. The "Original Victorian Pennywhistle" includes an unfinished (natural) Clarke Original with a special flyer which includes Victorian Singing Games.
3. The "Celtic Tinwhistle", which is another Sweetone package. This has a paint job similar to the Enchanted Whistle and it is quite nice. It has it's one tunesheet.
A flock, gang, gaggle, of plastic-fipple-and-metal-tube style whistles
D Whistles: Soodlum, Feadog, Generation Brass, Generation Nickel, Oak
--Photo courtesy of Masami Yoshihara
Generation. C,D,Bb,Eb,F,G. Cylindrical, brass or nickel. $6-11. Tunable. Generally favored by the most traditional traditionalists. Good variety of keys. Some regard nickel-plated as louder. Also, one of the most widely available whistles. They are variable in quality both from key-to-key (I like the Bb and F a lot, but find the D and Eb unremarkable, at best) and within a key (One of my Eb's is fair, the other is almost unplayable). Everyone agrees there are quality control problems. These can be tuned, but you have to use heat to loosen the glue. Generations have done rather poorly in the poll we've been running here. I've come to believe that they have quality-control problems such that they vary in quality from poor to quite good. Many have e-mailed to say that the Generation manufacturing process often leaves loose bits of plastic in the fipple. At one time, Clarke's and Generations were virtually the only readily available whistles. I think Generation built up a good bit of brand loyalty among traditional players. And...To hear how these can sound in the hands of a master: Mary Bergin's Feadog Stain 1 & 2.
The difficult thing about Generation whistles is poor quality control, on the one hand, while on the other hand, if you can find a “good” Generation, you’ll often find yourself one outstanding instrument. L.E. McCullough, for example, recently retired a Generation D whistle which he bought for a couple of bucks in 1975, and which served as his primary instrument until 1999. I finally found myself a really good Generation D after about three years of looking. (Part-time. I DO have a regular job).
Generation whistles are made by Barnes and Mullins Manufacturing Ltd. of Grays Inn House, Unit 22, Mile Oak Industrial Estate, Oswestry, Shropshire, SY10 8GA ( Phone number is:- 44 1691 652 449). This is confirmed at their website: http://www.barnhide.co.uk/index.html .
Walton's (formerly Soodlum's) C,D Cylindrical, brass or nickel $6-10. Tunable. Cylindrical whistles with yellow or green mouthpieces. Fine tone, easy to play. Mine have an especially pure sound for an inexpensive whistle. However, my experience, which seems to be shared by many, is that they are often made so that the lowest note is noticeably sharp. In addition, the brass tubes are usually coated with a laminate that slowly peels away and is an irritant, really. : Some of these have a narrow bore that makes them resemble Feadogs. Others have a wide shaft which make them sound better, in my opinion. They are really quite different and you can't be sure which you are ordering if you can't see them. Some of the wide ones have the word "mello" on the label. As my friend Masami Yoshihara (who imports whistles to Japan) points out, whistle manufacturers occasionally redesign their whistles without notice. This makes the life of a whistle webjournalist like me A LIVING HELL!!! You people have no idea.
The two Secret Species of Walton's/Soodlum's
Forensic evidence courtesy of the great Masami Yoshihara
Oak. D, C. Cylindrical, nickel, $8-9, Tunable. American made, nickel, highly polished. Tunable via heat. (Note-7/28/97: Han Speek reports that he bought an Oak in Ireland that did not require heat to make tunable). The tone gets mixed reviews. In fact, this whistle may win the award for the most variable reviews of all. For proof, see the poll data at http://www.chiffandfipple.com/pollresults.htm. I recommend against this one for beginners. But, I've also heard from beginners who swear by them. Here's my review: It requires less air than most. Black mouthpiece and polished nickel makes for a neat appearance. It tends to be squeaky, because, I think it requires so little air. I hear they are in high demand in Ireland, but I frankly doubt it. The current Oaks have a redesigned mouthpiece which has improved it considerably, some say. I've never really taken to the Oak, although I like the C whistle quite a bit. Thanks, as always, to chiff & fipple’s Eastern Hemisphere Bureau Chief, Masami Yoshihara, for the photo of Oaks in D and C.
Acorn. D. $5-7. Potentially tunable. American made. The Acorn is a new product by Music Sales, who make the Oak whistle in the USA. It is made as a beginner's whistle and sometimes is packaged with an introductory book/CD. It comes in several colors, and also a brass model.
Now, here's the important thing to know about Acorns. The first production run included a mouthpiece which resembles (and may BE identical to) the Feadog mouthpiece. On this whistle, it just doesn't work and so these earlier Acorns were very problematic. Unfortunately, some of these are still out in stores. Newer models of Acorns have mouthpieces that are identical to the Oak. They are greatly improved and pretty nice little whistles. The way to tell them apart is to look at the mouthpiece in profile. If the top of the mouthpiece (the surface with the window) gracefully slopes up, AVOID it. If, on the other hand, the top surface is pretty straight and has an abrupt lip on between the window and the shaft, that's the new and improved model and feel free to buy it.
Shaw. E,D,C,Bb. (see also Low whistles)Conical w/ wood plug. "Nickel silver". $20-40. Nontunable. Made in England by pipe maker Dave Shaw. These are a little more expensive than most in this category. Really, Shaws occupy a shadowy zone between the inexpensive and the expensive. Neither light nor dark, good nor bad. Right nor wrong. Etc. They are much like Clarkes, but more solidly constructed and better made. Breathy tone. Require more air than most, especially in lower keys, and this is the major downside of the Shaws, although I think the breath requirement is necessary for the unique tone. I like mine for playing slow stuff. Some players have reported that they have been able to fix the high air requirement by adjusting the airway and blade. Others have reported screwing theirs up by doing that. Not for the faint of heart, this fipple-adjusting behavior. I've developed more and more of an appreciation for these whistles over time. The Shaw Low A that I own is among my favorite whistles. Note that they make an E, a rare key for whistles. I own one.
Dave Shaw has a website at http://www.daveshaw.co.uk/
Susato. High G, F, E, Eb, D,C,Bb,A. OVERALL WINNEROF OUR 1999 POLLAMONG INEXPENSIVE WHISTLES. All plastic, cylindrical. $10-20. Tunable and nontunable models. UPDATE: 2/22/99: Susato has a new line of wide-bore low whistles. See http://www.susato.com or see the low guide.
Susatos are plastic, but don't be fooled. They are fine whistles. They sell tunable (2-piece) and nontunable (1-piece) models. Make careful note of this if you order Susatos. However, I should note that the tunable Susatos, like most inexpensive whistles, is only barely tunable. The slide just isn’t big enough to adjust much.
It should be noted that Susato is always aggressively developing their product line. As of 2002, they have a new line of "Very Small Bore" whistles out which I hope to review soon. I'm hearing great things.
Also popular are sets they sell which include one mouthpiece and 3 shafts for different keys. Very nice, if unconventional tone with GOOD volume. (There is a version of "Women of Ireland" by the group Deiseal on the Celtic Twilight 2 CD that is played on the Susato Low A. I also believe that a D Susato is being played on the Lewis & Clark soundtrack recording) I would say of the Susato sound that it differs more from the norm than any other whistle I can think of, at least in the inexpensive group. I recently talked to Mike Copeland and he said he thinks the Susato's tone is similar to a recorder. I guess he has a point. I own a D/C/Bb set (about $40) and I love it. I also own a Low A and an Eb. The Eb is excellent. The Susato line has also done very well in our poll. Many people, however, just can't get used to a plastic whistle. The logic of this evades me, given that Generations, Feadogs, and Walton's all have plastic mouthpieces. I'm a fan of the Susato whistles. Susatos are made at Kelischek Workshop for Historical Instruments. Rt.1, Box 26, Brasstown, North Carolina 28902. Website: http://www.susato.com .
Clare. D. Cylindrical, brass, nickel. Under $10. Tunable. UPDATE: Clare's are now being sold at lower prices at House of Musical Traditions. 1) Brass D with red mouthpiece $8 2) Nickel D with black mouthpiece $9 3) Brass 2-part pull-apart pocket D with green mouthpiece $10. David LeBas of County Clare, Ireland makes the Clare Brass D (and the Eagle 2-part). I don't think they have a U.S. distributor, but David will sell them via Internet. . It comes in a blister pack with a nice introductory booklet on playing the whistle. It sells for $30 and can be purchased directly from David. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/lebasdavid/claretin.htm . The whistle is a standard plastic-fipple-cylindrical shaft D whistle of the Generation- Walton's Soodlum- Feadog- O'Grady type.. It has a plastic fipple which, by the way, appears to be identical to the O'Grady Brass D. (In fact, these two whistles are astoundingly similar in appearance and tone). The tone is good with a good bit of chiff and the whistle is well-balanced along the entire range. The upper register is nice and strong. This is a good whistle and I am pleased that it is made in Ireland. David recently dropped the price for $19.95, which includes shipping to the U.S. That may still seem a little on the expensive side, but I think the County Clare collection, the included shipping charges, and the booklet make this a fair price. Tinwhistle Collective member Steve Grahn has written to me about the Clare and, having expressed concern about the older price, recently wrote: I am finding, after my initial response to the price, that the Clare is a good whistle. It often comes out close to the top when I am making overall comparisons of whistles. Here's a Clare:
Eagle 2-part./Clare 2-part. D, Cylindrical, brass, $9 or so, Tunable. A 2-part model, made by David LeBas Manufacturing in County Clare. Makers of the Clare whistle. The shaft breaks into two parts for pocket storage. A great idea. It's convenient. Mine plays and sounds good. I'm very fond of this whistle, but it's another one that gets mixed reviews. I've talked to 2 other owners who don't like the sound at all and
the Clare/Eagle 2-part, photo courtesy of Kelly McGee.
who find it prone to squeak. I would recommend you get one and see what you think because the unique 2-part design makes it worth having. They sell these at House of Musical Traditions (http://www.hmtrad.com).
Feadog. D,C, Brass, Nickel, variety of painted colors.. Cylindrical, $7.50-$9.00. Tunable. Irish-made. Straightforward, brass or nickel shaft-and-plastic mouthpiece model. I prefer the Feadog D to Generation's D hands down. Feadog also has the coolest name, which I suppose is Gaelic for "whistle." Feadogs are pretty good inexpensive whistles. The sad thing, however, is that for the last several years they have been made under a different design and, reportedly, older Feadogs were much superior to the present models. UPDATE (2002) They've redesigned the mouthpiece again--this time with apparently good results.
Rob Sheard e-mailed on 5/20/97 to say: "Feadog is making painted whistles now. They have black fipples, and the tubes come painted a variety of colors including black, blue, red, and yellow. The design is the same as their standard brass whistles, and they sound almost the same, but I think the paint does make a very slight difference in tone. I bought mine at an Irish imports store called the Irish Walk in Alexandria, Virginia for about $7." Thanks, Rob.
Feadog Update 9/5/98: The painted Feadogs have surfaced in a couple of places including, I'm told , the duty-free shop in Shannon.
Feadog update 3/2002: Feadog has completely redesigned the mouthpiece. See this link for more information.
Feadog update 11/2004: Feadog has a fine new website. Watch for new products.
Feadog: The Cillian O Briain Modification. A few years ago, I acquired a Cillian O'Briain modified Feadog. I was glad to have gotten it, because shadowy rumors of the existence of this instrument were abundant, not very different from Loch Ness Monster and BigFoot sightings. The one I got is indeed interesting. Mr. O'Briain takes a stock Feadog & modifies the plastic mouthpiece. He closes the excess space below the airway with some kind of plastic material. (Not very different from the tweak I write about on this website. But he also layers some kind of plastic over the blade and creates a little ridge around the window. I find the improvement in sound and play rather subtle.
Cillian O'Briain's whistles, including his line of low whistles, are now available from Steve Power's excellent on-line shop Shanna Quay. I highly recommend you visit his website.
The Walton's Aluminum Group. Walton's has made four different whistles which are cylindrical and made from a thin and VERY lightweight aluminum. There's a substantial plastic fipple. All have gotten nice reviews and are inexpensive. The best known of these is the Walton's Little Black Whistle. Sadly, two models, the weird but wonderful Perri in D and the Goldentone in C are now extinct. The Perri was exactly the same as the LBW except for the strange colors. The Goldentone was the version of this whistle, and it is a shame it has been discontinued. It was the only non-D whistle in this family and was a very good whistle. Amazingly precise tuning. Anyway, if you ever run into one of these, grab it up. Here we go:
Perri. D,C. Cylindrical, aluminum. $4-5. Tunable. The cheapo award. But it turns out to be a darn good whistle. I own a D. It has a yellow mouthpiece and a very lightweight aluminum shaft painted nuclear-warning orange, making for an enormously weird appearance. Other than finish, it seems identical to the Little Black Whistle (below). Everyone tells me they are tunable, but I can't get the mouthpiece off mine. They're cheap and good enough, but ugly as sin. (There has to be a story behind the decision to make them this color). Aluminum shaft seems brittle. Take care in trying to remove mouthpiece. Don't put it in your back pocket and sit down or you could be horribly injured. Wendy at House of Musical Traditions votes this and the nearly identical Walton Little Black Whistle as her favorite for beginners. She thinks the thin aluminum makes for a nice sound. Update: 1/16/98: I think the Perri's are no longer being made. 2/27/98: Confirmed : The Perri is R.I.P. Gone. History. Vapor. If you ever see a bright orange whistle in a shop...grab it.
Walton's Little Black Whistle. D. Cylindrical, aluminum, matte-black finish. $6. Tunable. See Perri, above. This one looks great because of the all-black appearance. Gets good reviews. Nice tone, fun to play. A really different whistle at a great price. A good one for beginners. Walton's, the company that manufacters Walton's/Soodlum's makes this whistle. Walton's, by the way, publishes excellent tinwhistle tutors and books.
3 members of the Walton's aluminum group: The (defunct) Golden Tone in C (what was Walton's thinking when they discontinued this?), the over-priced Guiness (identical to the Little Black but for the label and cream-colored mouthpiece, but twice the price) and the now-defunct Perri, in all it's nuclear day-glo glory.
Walton's Guiness. D. Cylindrical, aluminum, painted. $10-12. This whistle, sold in some gift shops ( I spotted one in the Early Music Shop in Asheville, N.C.) is precisely the same as the Little Black Whistle, except it has a cream-colored fipple and is packed in a gift box. Walton's evidently has a licensing deal with the Guiness beverage people and they make this tinwhistle with a Guiness "Extra Stout" label. (They make a bodhran with the Guiness label, as well). It's higher priced than the LBW or Perri, and I can see no reason to buy one as long as LBWs are available. It does, on the other hand, come with a fold out paper with the music to several tunes. Unless you are a collector, there's just no reason to buy one of these at the higher price, as compared to the LBW.
Walton's Golden Tone. C, cylindrical, brass, $6, Tunable. This whistle is a C version of the Walton's Little Black Whistle. It's a gold-tone instead of black. It is no longer being made and this, in my opinion, is the Whistle World's version of the "New Coke". The Walton's Golden Tone, in my opinion, was the finest inexpensive whistle in the key of C on the market. So,naturally, they discontinued making it.
Matt Paul writes: It is fun and easy to play and I would recommend it for beginners and advanced players alike. The aluminum body and lower pitch give it a mellow tone, even in the upper octaves, that I like for slower tunes and aires. I keep this whistle in my "dent-proof" whistle box because of its aluminum body and because I only own one.
I, Dale, own a GoldenTone and it is one my favorite C whistles. It's delicate, but lovely. I cannot imaging why Waltons won't produce a C whistle in aluminum.
O'Grady. Brass D. This is a Generation/Feadog/Soodlum style inexpensive whistle made by Neil in Newfoundland, and brought to my attention by my friends Eddie and Anne Damm of Song of the Sea in Maine. (See Buying Whistles on the Internet), who were kind enough to send me one. On quick visual inspection, it looks very much like a Generation Brass D. But, like most whistles, it plays better. The tone reminds me of the Feadog with just a touch of the Oak. The mouthpiece is plastic, red and readily removable for tuning purposes. Nice little whistle. I've never heard of any source other than Song of the Sea, and they had only one last time I checked. And, I think that 's the one they sent me. I've since heard that Neil assembles these from parts made elsewhere...and it does look pretty much exactly like a Generation brass.
Mel Bay. Brass D. Music book publishers Mel Bay ( http://www.melbay.com )sell a D whistle in brass. I've not seen one yet live but it is on it's way. I've also looked at a good photo supplied by Thom Larsen. It's a Generation style brass whistle. The mouthpiece looks very, very close to the Generation mouthpiece, although Thom says he notes differences on close inspection. He also notes that the brass is polished, as opposed to the brush look on other whistles, including the Generation. So, we'll see. The significance of this whistle is that Mel Bay products are widely distributed, so these whistles could easily be popping up in music stores.
Calura. Another mystery whistle, which evidently is German. I've seen a couple of these sold on ebay. It looks like a Clarke Original, but with rather cool and ornate livery. I doubt these are still being made. By the way, "Ornate Livery" is one of many names I'm considering for my new band. Anyway, I think these have not been made in a long time. There is a rumor that Calura was a subsidiary of Clarke.
Feadan Here's another RIP whistle. Chiff & Fipple member Tom Gaul recently acquired a batch of Feadan whistles. I had not heard of these. Tom, God bless him, gifted me with one. The Feadan is basically a Generation-style whistle: Green plastic mouthpiece over cylindrical nickel body. Fairly nice and well-made. It came with little flyer. Working through my contacts in the Whistle Intelligence community, I was able to determine that Chiff & Fipple's Official Musicologist L.E. McCullough knew something about these dear departed whistles. So, L.E. was able to provide the following information:
Patrick Sky invented it. And manufactured it. In 1981 while living in Rhode
Island he came up with the first actual plastic whistle head that could be
easily slid up and down the metal tube. He got a business partner who owned
some lumber mill, and they created the Feadan — "the whistle the world's
being waiting for!" (that was my line). It was quite revolutionary at the time, when you think about it. Then Sky got a small stipend from the Irish government to start a factory in Clare. Which he did and moved his family to Ireland to run things. (Business problems..uh..happened) and Sky sold the whole thing off to one of the music stores in Dublin, I forget which, which then devolved the Feadan into some other models.
That there Feadan you've acquired is a veritable collector's item.
Just a quick word that Cooperman is a whistle that resembles the Clarke. Ditto for a USA patriotic motif whistle called the American Fife, or something like that. These show up occasionally in flea markets and antique stores. UPDATE: I now own a Cooperman in C. I don’t find it particularly well made and it is very breathy. However, a few readers have written in to say they are fond of them because of highly accurate tuning and because the quiet, breathy voice makes a good marriage-saving practice instrument.
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