Tutorial on whistle species

By Dale

If you are just getting into playing the tinwhistle, you may want to pay attention to this because some of the usual rules about selecting musical instruments do not apply to whistles. For example, if you buy a guitar...you'll want to spend some time in the store either playing the guitar or having someone play it for you. Chances are that will not be possible when shopping for a whistle. Most people do not live near a store that stocks a

The problem of buying whistles in stores: The Questionable Saliva Effect

variety of whistles, knows something about them, and allows you to try them out in the store. (This latter restriction is due, of course, to the Questionable Saliva Problem). Another exception to the usual instrument-purchasing rule is that, in Whistle World, "inexpensive" does not necessarily mean "bad" or "second-rate." (A cheap guitar is usually, well...a cheap guitar). An under-$10 tinwhistle can be a very useable, beautiful sounding, durable instrument. Beginners need not spend a lot of money to be playing a good whistle.

In Whistle World, inexpensive doesn't mean shoddy.

Furthermore, some of the best players in the world (Mary Bergin, Paddy Maloney, Cathal McConnell) often prefer the inexpensive instruments.

So, on to our tutorial about the varieties of whistles:

Whistle Morphology:

Particularly when we focus on the less expensive whistles, there are five fundamental types :


1.  Plastic mouthpiece, Cylindrical Shaft. This type has metal shaft and a plastic mouthpiece (often called a “fipple”) that looks like..well…a whistle. The tone of these whistles tend to be more direct, less breathy. Examples are: Generation, Feadog, Walton’s, Clare. They can sometimes be tuned by sliding the mouthpiece on the shaft. So to speak. Here’s a Clare, as an example of this type of whistle.  Unfortunately, most have mouthpieces if bright, primary colors.  Red, Green, Yellow, Blue.  The coolest LOOKING of these is made by Oak (It’s not MADE of Oak).  It has a polished nickel shaft and a black mouthpiece.


2.  Metal, conical, wood plug. These usually are made from a single piece of metal. The mouthpiece is continuous with the shaft and the diameter of the whistle tapers down from the top to the bottom (conical=like a cone). The top end (mouth end is plugged, usually with wood, and, when you blow into it, the wind passes over the wood plug and under the metal. The finger holes tend to be smaller. These are not tunable in the expensive models. They tend to have a breathier sound. Best know (only?) inexpensive models are the Clarke and the Shaw. Pictured some Shaws, probably a D, C and Low D.  Some of the great craftsmen of handmade whistles prefer a conical shaft.  The most famous of these would be Michael Copeland.





3.  Plastic mouthpiece/Conical Shaft

A recent innovation by the Clarke tinwhistle folks is a hybrid of the two types described above. The Clarke Sweetone is the only whistle in this category, but it is an important development. (Well, it's as important as any development CAN be in when you're talking about whistles.) This is a whistle with the tapered metal shaft but a plastic mouthpiece, instead of the built in fipple usually associated with conical whistles. This allows for a tunable whistle. The tone is a kind of cross between the direct tones of the first type and the breathier sounds of the second type. This has been an enormously popular inexpensive whistle.


4. All Plastic Whistles

There are two makes of good, all-plastic whistles. Both are tunable, cylindrical. The Susato (Eb, D, C, Bb, A) and the Glenn Schulz Water Weasel (D, C, I think, and a set that consists of one mouthpiece and three interchangeable shafts (Eb, D, C)). The Susatos range in prices from about $10 to $20. Some are tunable and some are not. Avoid the nontunables. The Water Weasel is usually about $50 for a single whistle and $100 for a set. It is made of PVC plumbing pipe.

This is another area where the normal rules don't apply in Whistle World. These are fine whistles. Great sound, durable--they get uniformly good reviews. I count them among my favorites.

Susato whistle set. Photo courtesy of Melody's Melody's Traditional Music and Harp Shoppe


5.  METAL, CYLINDRICAL:   These are much like 2 above except the shaft doesn’t taper, it’s straight.  The most famous example is a more expensive handmade instrument called the Overton.  I’m starting to see less expensive models of these being made by newer makers.

Here’s an example.  This is supposed to be a photo of a new-defunct but legendary whistle made by Hohner.  It became the main instrument in a variety of South African whistle music .

Whistle keys; high versus low whistles:

Tinwhistles are diatonic, meaning, not naturally made to play sharps and flats (although, happily, it can be done). Fortunately, most folk music is diatonic. Whistles are available in a variety of keys, designated by the lowest note the whistle is capable of playing. The most popular key is "D", because so much Irish/Celtic music is in D. The next most popular key is "C". These are your standard tinwhistles which are about a foot long. If you learn to play a tune in D on a D whistle, you can turn around, pick up a C whistle and play the same tune in C with the same fingering.

Different whistle makers offer whistles in different keys. Here's a semi-complete listing of keys available. Some day, when I have time, I'm going to try to make a table of what keys are available by what makers. In the meantime, in the whistle guides (Inexpensive, Expensive, and Low) I try to list these keys accurately by maker.

Highest key down to Lowest

G Rare and not very useful. Generation makes this key and I don't know of anyone else who does. My youngest daughter likes it because it's easy for her small hands to handle. Only certain species of dogs can hear the higher notes

F Generation makes an F and I think that's the only inexpensive F whistle. Jon Swayne makes one, I think. Mary Bergin plays the Generation some on Feadoga Stain. I adore the high F whistle and they were made by other makers. Gimme an "F".

E Rare key. Shaw makes one, which I like. I can't think of another.

Eb A bit more common. Generation makes one which I don't care for. Susato makes the best inexpensive one in my opinion.

D The workhorse. Everybody makes a D.

C The second most popular. MOST makers make a C. I generally do not like C whistles, my O'Riordan being an exception. I don't know why I don't like Cs but I just don't.

B Somewhat rare. Michael Burke makes a beauty in this key.

Bb I think these sound great. Fairly inexpensive models include Generation, Susato, Shaw. The middle range of keys, say, B, Bb, A to me have a special appeal and a real sonic advantage. Copeland told me that his favorite pitch is A.

Most people designate keys at A and below as "Low Whistles." (Although I think the proper place for this dividing line is between A and G. However if you see a whistle listed as "A", you can be sure it is a Low A because no one makes a high A. But, there are some LOW, LOW A whistles usually called baritones. There are relatively few really inexpensive Low whistles. The exception is the Susato line of plastic whistles, which are quite good and $40-55 US.

Low A. Susato makes an excellent Low A. Shaw makes a beautiful Low A, which requires a lot of breath.

Low G A pretty popular key. Susato, Thin Weasel, Copeland, O'Riordan, Overton, etc.

Low E (rare)

Low Eb

Low F (Shaw makes a moderately priced one)

Low D (the most popular low whistle. Riverdance!)

Low C, C# (somewhat uncommon and must be a beast to play.)

Low Bb, Low B, Low A These Ultimate Freudian Models are pretty much peculiar to three makers: Bernard Overton's Overtons, Colin Goldie's Overtons, and Phil Hardy's Kerry Pros. The sound of these whistles, played properly by big-handed people, upset continental plate tetonics.



And, finally, "Expensive Vs Inexpensive" Whistles

I have seen people get into fistfights in pubs about the relative merits of the inexpensive vs. expensive whistles. Actually, I haven't really. But I have seen people get into fistfights over this on the rec.music.celtic newsgroup. Here's the scoop:

There are many brands of inexpensive tinwhistles (I arbitrarily put this it about under $20. There are also many makes of carefully hand-crafted whistles made by great craftsmen, usually out of finer materials. These whistles tend to cost between $100-400. More about this later. The inexpensive whistles vary in quality, but they are very popular AND tend to be favored by many of the world's finest players. There is a common attitude among Irish-music enthusiasts that this kind of music ought to be a little rough and rowdy, and that a plain-vanilla inexpensive whistle is somehow more compatible with that ethic. These people sometimes argue that the expensive whistles really sound too pure and sweet for the kind of music spilled out in pubs. They would regard expensive whistles as kind of "sissy," almost. Other people argue that expensive whistles don't really sound THAT much better than the best of the inexpensive whistles. The debate rages on. (Please...can't we all just...get along??)

A little more about expensive whistles, for you beginners out there. Generally, these whistles are made by individual craftsmen, and bear the names of these craftsmen. Examples include Michael Copeland, Overton, Patrick O'Riordan, and Chris Abell. There has been an overall increase in demand for whistles in general since Riverdance and Titanic. Demand for the hand-made (expensive) whistles has increased as well, and for this reason, the best-known of the expensive whistles are in high-demand, low-supply Hell. You generally have to contact these people and get on a waiting list. Sometimes the wait amounts to years. Rarely do people sell used instruments of this caliber. I do not recommend these whistles for beginners. Get a few good-quality, less expensive whistles to start out on.

 For more help for beginners, check out The Chiff & Fipple Message Board

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