Tin Whistles

 Everything you need to know about the legendary folk musical instrument

The Irish tin whistle is one of the most popular instruments in the folk scene.  Learn all about the tin whistle here – the history, the makers, and the musicians who have made the tin whistle famous all over the world.

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“It is the best whistle I have bought, now on my fifth make. Love to get any opportunity to play it, it has such as wonderful melodious sound, I only play my Howard whistle now”

Daithí Mac an Aircinn-via Email

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Tin Whistle Buying Guide

If you look in the instrument bag of most whistle players and pipers you will more than likely see a selection of tin whistles, both low and high from different makers. So it’s not so much a case of finding the best tin whistle or best low whistle but rather of having a selection of tone colours and finding whistles that feel and sound right to you.
Tuneable or Non-Tuneable

The main difference between a beginners tin whistle and a professional tin whistle is tune-ability. If you intend to play with other instruments or along to music then you need a tuneable whistle. Non-tuneable whistles are generally cheaper, good to get started on but for serious playing some tune-ability is essential.

Whistle Body Material (bore)

The material of the bore does to a certain extent affect the sound of the whistle it can be conical or straight. The resonant quality as well as the hardness of the material affects the sound. Standard plastics and some woods are softer materials creating a more absorptive surface for the resonating body of air, Aluminium is harder but softer than brass or tin. Carbon fibre is hard and stiff. The reality is much more complex but you get the idea! Some woods for example are almost as hard as metal.

Most whistle bodies are made of one of the following materials. 

-Aluminium
-Brass
-Wood
-Carbon Fiber
-Tin
-Plastic

Some physicists argue that the body material of a bore wind instrument such as whistles and flutes has no affect on perceived sound quality as long as they are of sufficient hardness, the determining factor being only the dimensions of the bore.

Most musicians think otherwise. Do fluotists spend 30,000 on a gold flute just because they look nice and so that they can brag about it? Atsui finish- In Japan Atsui means hot or deep, powerful and strong and is used to refer to a layer of precious metal (usually gold or silver) added to the body of an instrument in order to enhance and tailer the tone.

Aluminium

A new material when it comes to musical instruments. Examples, MK whistles, Goldie, Tony Dixon and Kerry.

Advantages- Light Weight, because of this a thicker tube can be used which makes the body acoustically quit inert, this allows the design to dominate. Aluminium is a soft metal so the sound is quite mellow while still being strong.

Disadvantages- Acoustically quite inert, the sound is not particularly enhanced by the resonant character of the body.
Aluminium is reactive to saliva, over time corrosion can occur in the head and body of the whistle, this appears as a white layer. There are also potential health questions with regards to putting Aluminium in contact with saliva.

Brass

Brass has been a metal of choice for instrument makers for hundreds of years because of its excellent resonant properties. Examples- Howard, Copeland, Alba and Burke.

Advantages- Superb sound

 -Internal finish can be very smooth helping acoustically

Disadvantages- If thick walled brass is used the instrument can be heavy, using a thin walled tube solves this problem.

-If unfinished brass tarnishes.

 

Wood

Wood also has excellent acoustic properties and has always been used to make instruments from. Examples- Abell, Bleazy, Bussman and Galeon.

Advantages-Superb sound

Disadvantages– Wood is very sensitive to humidity, in an instrument such as a whistle this can affect tuning as well as playability. As you play a whistle a certain amount of saliva comes into contact with the head and the body further exasperating the problem. 

Carbon Fiber

The use of carbon fiber has steadily increased to the point where it is affordable to use it in more applications. Examples- Carbony, Erik and GRflutes.

Advantages– Exstreamly hard and resonant, similar in some ways to the hardest hardwoods.

-Easily shaped

Disadvantages– Expensive

-Man made material.

 

Tin

The original Clark penny whistles were made from tin sheet and then formed into a conical shape. Example- Clark. 

Advantages- Cheap 

-See below for more information. 

-The acoustic characteristics are more forgiving of any acoustic design imperfections.

Disadvantages- A meal with few desirable acoustic properties.

Plastic

Plastic whistles are generally cheaper and have a more mellow sound. Examples- Susato, Chirs Wall, The Irish Whistle, Parks and Hermit Hill.

Advantages- A good design can be achieved. 

-Cheap

-The acoustic characteristics are more forgiving of any acoustic design imperfections.

Disadvantages- The body is not acoustically resonant in a beneficial way, little positive tone colour is added to the sound.

Straight or conical bore?

A conical bore allows for holes that are closer together and smaller than on straight bored instruments. It can also help with the upper octave. Examples- the Clark Tin Whistle and Carboy whistles. Straight bore examples- Overton and Howard.

Flutes used to have conical bores until Boehm discovered that an increased volume of air produced a clearer and more powerful tone. In 1847 he introduced a cylindrical flute with a parabolic contraction of the bore near the embouchure hole that improved the instruments low register.

Straight Or Curved Windway?

When you look into the end of a whistle head you will see either, something that looks like a letter box (straight wind way) or an upside down smile (curved wind way).

A straight wind way is cleaner from a fluid dynamics perspective but the most important aspect of any instrument is sound, so its better to think of the two different design approaches as producing different sound signatures rather than as one being better than the other.

Iceland, Suffolk and Island- just some of the places that have played a role in the history of the penny whistle.

The humble tin whistle is a direct descendent of the oldest instrument known to man. Flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, estimated to be between 40,000 and 80,000 years old, have been found.

The whistle has had many names in its lifetime, penny whistle, tin whistle, Irish whistle, flageolet, low whistle, high whistle, Belfast hornpipe, feadóg stáin. It is a type of fipple flute similar to an Irish Flute but with a fipple instead of a simple opening, so related to the recorder, Flabiol, Txistu and tabor pipe. The breath is transformed to sound and thus music in a most elegant way.

The first high whistle was made in Suffolk by Clark in 1780. The modern low whistle is most directly related to a victorian vertical flute, it was first made by Bernard Overton in the early 1970s. Brian Howard making the first brass low whistle, using modern production techniques a few years later.

The popularity of both high and low tin whistles have increased massively in recent years. Low whistles due partly to the success of river dance and the titanic theme tune, my heart will go on. There are now over 70 penny whistle makers worldwide! The high whistle has gone from being made by a handful of makers in the 1970s to over 60 today. The low whistle from only a couple of makers in the 1970s to over 30 today!