Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ceolas Tin Whistle Guide

1. Introduction
2. Tutors
3. Recordings
4. Buying, Brand Comparison
5. Tuning
6. Sources

1. Introduction:

The tin whistle or pennywhistle is a simple and cheap wind instrument used
widely in Irish traditional music. The most common type has a moulded
plastic mouthpiece attached to a cylindrical brass tube with six finger
holes. It is diatonic though accidentals can be played by half-covering
holes, and is available in different sizes for almost every key. Sometimes
it is played in the key a fourth above the tonic (e.g. G for a D whistle).
The most common key is D (an octave above middle C) and the fingering is
standardly referred to as though for a D whistle. Mass-produced whistles
are very cheap (less than US$10) and there are several tutors availble that
make it an easy instrument to start off on for playing traditional music.

2. Tutors

There are several good beginners books. The most reccomended include:

* "Geraldine Cotter's Traditional Irish Tin Whistle Tutor". Ossian
Publications, Cork. 1983, reviesed 1989. ISBN 0 946005 12 5. Includes
notes on ornamentation and 100 Irish tunes. The Ossian catalog lists it for
IR6.50 (about US$10) with a companion tape for IR3.99. Ossian also
publishes Tom Maguire's "The Tin Whistle Book" for IR2.25; this is much
more simple and basic than the Cotter book.

* Robin Williamson: "The Penny Whistle Book". Oak Publications, New York.
1977. ISBN 0 8256 0190 8. Not as detailed on ornamentation as the Cotter
book but has a good description of the modal basis of traditional music.
Has many international tunes, though some of the arrangements are a bit

* Cathal McConnell, flute and whistle player with Boys of the Lough has a
book+tape set available from Homespun tapes (Box 694, Woodstock, NY 12498).
I've heard good reports about it.

* John and Eithne Valley: "Learn to play the Tin Whistle" books 1-3. Armagh
Piper's Club. 1976 (7ed.).

* Traditional Highland Tin Whistle is a tutor based on Scottish tunes,
including some transposed bagpipe tunes.

For more advanced players, probably the best book around on the whistle,
including lots on ornamentation, phrasing and articulation is:

* L.E. McCullough: "The Complete Irish Tin Whistle Tutor". Silver Spear
Publications, Pittsburgh, PA 15217, first published in 1976, revised since
then. (see his website:

3. Recordings

These are all recordings featuring solo whistles.

Mary Bergin Feadoga Stain Gael Linn 071
Shanachie 79006
Mary Bergin Feadoga Stain 2 Gael Linn 149
Cathal McConnell On Lough Erne's Shore Flying Fish 27058
Paddy Moloney/Sean Potts Tin Whistles Shanachie 79033
Donncha O'Brien Donncha O'Brien Gael Linn 083
Various Artists Light Through the Leaves Rounder 6014
Sean Ryan Take the Air Gael Linn 142
Micho Russell The Man From Clare Trad HC 011

4. Buying a tin whistle

Most of the mass-produced tin whistles vary a lot in quality, so it helps
if you can try out a few before buying. Check the mouthpiece for bits of
plastic left over after moulding, play it to check the tone and bring
another instrument or an electronic tuner to check that it is at normal
pitch and that it is in tune with itself (if the holes are badly bored,
then just some notes will be out).
If you end up with a dud that has left-over plastic on the airway or wedge,
you can try to remove it; a jewelers flat file is a good tool for the job,
a sharp thin knife will also usually work.

Brand Comparison

There are three categories: cheap cylindrical whistles, the older-style
conical whistles, and high-end whistles.

Cylindrical Whistles

This is the most standard tin whistle, cheap and very popular. Many of the
top players, such as Mary Bergin chose this one over all the fancy
expensive models. It is cheap, comes in almost every key and is available
in brass or nickel-coated brass, which looks fancier but makes for a rather
slippy surface. About $7. Red plastic mouthpiece. Their precise, sweet tone
is often mentioned. The nickel-plated versions reportedly have a shriller

Made in Ireland. Like the Generations, some say sweeter-sounding than them.
Brass, with green plastic mouthpiece, which is said to be more comfortable
than that of the Generation.
Cillian O' Briain in Ceardlann na Coille (craft centre) Dingle, Co. Kerry,
is a pipe maker who adapts Feadog's, by "voicing and boxing". producing an
instrument which is quiet, but clear and in tune. Cost is about 12 punts,
up from 5 for the original feadog. He does business by mail order; I'm not
certain, but the above address should get to him.

American made, (difficult to get in Ireland), nickel-plated, with black
mouthpiece, several people say this is their favourite. Gives a mellow tone
in lower register, but harder to play in upper register.

Irish made, with green head and a 2-part brass body, which dismantles into
less than 6" long.

This is a plastic whistle (less likely to be crushed), with a removable
headpiece, about $18. Tuning is not always reliable.

This is a very cheap-and-cheery brand, only about $4 and made of very thin
metal which easily dents. They are coloured a rather ugly bright orange but
have a clear, bright sound that many like.

Green mouthpiece, brass or nickel-plated body. Low notes harder to get,
require more air than the Generation or Feadog brands.

This Dublin music store has recently come out with a matt black whistle,
cheap and very similar to the Gererations. They are very light (aluminium)
and visually striking, a bit on the quiet side

Conical Whistles

The only two inexpensive conical tin whistles made these days are Shaw and
Clarke. Both of them have a wooden block set in the mouthpiece and taper in
from there on down. Compared with cylindrical whistles, they are easier to
play, with a soft, breathy tone which requires more air and tonguing,
especially in the second octave. The Shaw seems to be the better made and
liked of the two. In the US, Clarke's are availabe in C and D, ($6-13) and
the Shaws in D,C,A,F and low G, low D for about $15-50.

High End Whistles

Expensive pennywhistles may seem a contradicion in terms, but there are now
several brands of handmade whistle, running up to several hundred dollars.
For your money, you get excellent construction, good tuning (usually
adjustable), volume and clear tone. Some swear by these instruments, but
some of the best players, such as Mary Bergin and Cathal O' Connell stick
with the cheap and cheerful Generation brand.

Makes whistles of blackwood, with a silver mouthpiece and tuning slide.
These also have a conical bore and are much louder than cheap whistles,
standing up well in sessions. Round sound. He makes some with a C natural
hole in the back, like a recorder. Cost is about $200.
Chris Abell, Concord, MA ph. 617-369-7114
Chris Abell, 111 Grovewood Road, Asheville, NC 28804, ph./fax 704-254-1004

Brass whistles ; run about $130-180. Very clear, loud, tunable. Some say
the loundness detracts in slow airs and solos. One person had one whose
fipple blocked frequently.
Michael Copeland, 609 Pine St. Philadelphia, PA ph. 215-545-5574.

Steve Harper of Buckingham also make aluminium whistles like the Overton,
but are louder and tunable. Makes a C and D body that fit the same head.
Sold through Hobgoblin.

O' Riordan makes a tunable brass-lined whistle with a wood or imitation
wood finish. Good volume. I have heard both that it's a little harsh and
that it is pure and sweet, maybe it's variable.

Aluminium line of whistles by Bernard Overton of England. The low D is
popular, played by Davy Spillane. Soft tone. There is one report that they
tend to 'wear out' with time and start to sound fuzzy.

Sweetheart flageolet
Sweet as the name. Look and sound more like recorders than whistles, made
of different woods. Requires fairly careful attention to breath pressure.
I've heard of two people who's Sweethearts had poor tone and didn't like
them, so there may be variablilty in the quality.
Ralph Sweet, 32 S. Maple Street, Enfield, CT 06082, ph. 203-749-4494

Thin Weasel
Wooden, with steel mouthpiece, tuneable, handmade by GA Schultz. About

5. Tuning Tin Whistles

The pitch of a regular tin whistle can be altered by sliding the barrel in
and out of the head. Many whistles have the head glued or securely jammed
into the barrel. To loosen the head, you can try holding the joint under
running hot water and twisting; holding it with a dishcloth will help for
traction. Be careful not to overheat, or the plastic head will melt. If you
get the head off, smear it with vaseline or grease to make further tuning
easier. Another possibility is to hold a lighter under the joint while
turning it, for 5-10 seconds. The plastic will blacken, but this can be
cleaned off later. Both of these techniques have been used successfully
with the glued-together Generation whistles.
To flatten individual notes, you can tape over a little part of the hole in
question, or close it down with a little glue or varnish. To sharpen, you
could try to file away and make the hole bigger.

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