The Irish Low Whistle

A Complete Introduction

Introduction to the Low Whistle

Origin and History

The low whistle, a relatively modern addition to the Irish music tradition, emerged in the late 20th century. Unlike the tin whistle, which in its present form has a history dating back to the 19th century, the low whistle is a more recent innovation. It was popularized in the 1970s by Finbar Furey and later Davy Spillane.

The instrument itself was developed to extend the range and depth of the traditional tin whistle. While the exact origins are somewhat nebulous, the crafting and popularization of the modern low whistle are often attributed to Bernard Overton in the 1970s. Overton, working with Finbar Furey, created an instrument capable of a deeper, more resonant sound, effectively expanding the expressive capabilities of the traditional whistle in Irish music.

Distinctive Sound

The low whistle is characterized by its deep, soft tone, which differs significantly from the higher-pitched, brighter sound of the traditional tin whistle. This tonal quality allows for a more emotive and contemplative style of play, often used in slower tunes.

Comparison with the Traditional Tin Whistle

The primary differences between the low whistle and the traditional tin whistle lie in their size, pitch range, and tonal qualities.

Size and Pitch Range: The low whistle is larger than the traditional tin whistle. It is designed to play in lower registers, typically an octave below the standard tin whistle. This size difference affects the fingering technique and breath control required.
Tonal Qualities: The low whistle produces a deeper, more resonant sound. This is in contrast to the tin whistle, which is known for its bright, clear tone. The low whistle’s sound is often described as warm or haunting.
Musical Context: While both instruments are used in a variety of musical contexts within Irish music, the low whistle’s deeper tone makes it particularly suited for slower, more expressive pieces. The tin whistle, with its higher pitch, is often favored in faster, more lively tunes.
Playing Technique: The technique for playing the low whistle can be more challenging due to its larger size and the need for greater breath control. Players often adapt their style to suit the instrument’s unique qualities.

Low Whistle Tunes to Learn

Paddy’s Gone to France – Low Whistle Tune

Paddy’s Gone to France, a reel to learn on low whistle with sheet music and [...]

Maguire’s March – Low Whistle Tune

Maguire’s March – Irish tune for Low Whistle with sheet music, tabs & audio

The Clare Reel – Low Whistle Tune

Sheet music & recording of The Clare Reel, an unusual reel played on low whistle.

Low Whistle Christmas Songs – Tabs & Sheet Music (with Video)

Contents Some easy Christmas songs that go well on the low whistle. The low whistle [...]

Characteristics of the Low Whistle

The parts of the Low Whistle

The low whistle shares a basic design with the traditional tin whistle:

  • Head / Mouthpiece: This is where the player blows air into the whistle. The mouthpiece includes a fipple, similar to that of a recorder, which splits the air stream to create sound.
  • Fipple: The fipple is a crucial component of the mouthpiece. It’s a block within the mouthpiece that directs the air through a narrow channel and across a sharp edge, causing the air to vibrate and produce sound.
  • Body: The main tube of the low whistle, typically much longer and wider than that of a standard tin whistle. This extended size is what gives the low whistle its characteristic deep, resonant tone. The tube is usually made of metal, but plastic or even wooden versions exist as well.
  • Finger Holes: There are six finger holes along the tube. The player covers or uncovers these holes to produce different notes. The spacing of the holes can be quite wide and necessitates a flat-fingered grip or “pipers grip”
  • Tuning Slide (in some models): Some low whistles include a tuning slide, which allows for adjustments in pitch. This is particularly useful as the instrument’s tuning can react to cold or warm temperatures and it’s important to be able to adapt. Some low whistles have plastic heads that can be slid in or out to tune (Howard for example), while others such as Goldies have a dedicated tuning slide.
parts of the low whistle - head, mouthpiece, tuning slide, body and finger holes

Materials Used in Construction:

Low whistles are made from a variety of materials, each affecting the instrument’s tone and playability. The quality of the instrument is more dependent on the maker’s process and the instrument’s design, than on the material itself:

  • Metal: The most common material, typically aluminum or alloy. Metal low whistles produce a clear tone and are durable; however a metal head can be more prone to clogging with some players. Colin Goldie whistles are made of aluminium alloy.
  • Hybrids: Combining different materials, such as a plastic fipple with a metal body, hybrids aim to blend the qualities of each material, often seeking to balance warmth of tone with durability and playability. Howard low whistles fall into this category.
  • Plastics and Composites: Some low whistles are made from plastics or composite materials. These are often more affordable and less susceptible to environmental changes. The sound quality can vary, with some high-quality plastics producing a very pleasing tone. Tony Dixon makes entry level low whistles in plastic that have a good sound quality for the price.
  • Wood: Wooden low whistles are in a minority. The tone is richer, but wood requires more maintenance and can be affected by humidity and temperature.

Key Variations and Musical Ranges

Low whistles are available in various keys, each offering a different range and character:

  • D Key: The standard & most common key for low whistles, suitable for the majority of traditional Irish tunes and for playing with others.
  • Eb, F & G: Higher than D, these low whistles have a mellow sound and are often used to in dance music, for example the group Lunasa who uses 2 or more f whistles playing harmonies to excellent effect
  • C : Slightly larger than D, the C low whistle offers a deeper tone, but is more challenging to play.
  • B♭ and Lower: These keys provide even deeper tones and are less common. Their larger size can make them more challenging to play, but they offer a rich, sonorous quality ideal for slow airs and solo performances.
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How to Play the Low Whistle

Basic Finger Techniques and Posture

Holding the Low Whistle: Grip the low whistle lightly but securely. The left hand is typically placed at the top (near the mouthpiece) and the right hand at the bottom. Ensure that your fingers are comfortably covering the holes.

Finger Positioning: Use the pads of your fingers, not the tips, to cover the holes. This creates a better seal and more control over the notes. Due to the larger size and wider spacing of the holes on a low whistle, it might require stretching your fingers more than on a tin whistle – using what is called a “pipers’ grip”, see the image examples below:

Posture: Maintain a relaxed, upright posture. Avoid hunching over the instrument as it can restrict breathing. The whistle should be at a slight angle away from your body.

Breath Control and Tone Production

Breath Control: The low whistle requires less air than one might expect, given its size. However, controlling the flow of air is crucial for maintaining a steady tone. Start with gentle breaths and gradually increase the air pressure to find the sweet spot for each note.

Tone Production: The quality of tone on a low whistle is sensitive to how you blow into it. Experiment with the angle and strength of your breath. Soft, warm tones are often produced with slower, warmer air, while brighter, louder tones require a more forceful breath.

Dynamics: Practice varying your breath pressure to create dynamics in your playing. This can add expressiveness and emotion to the music. The degree of dynamics obtainable will depend on the individual instrument model’s characteristics.

Ornamentation and Style in Low Whistle Playing

  • Ornaments: Ornaments used on the tin whistle, such as cuts, rolls, and slides, are also used in low whistle playing. The execution might be more challenging due to the size of the instrument.
    • Cuts and Taps: Briefly lifting a finger or tapping a hole to create a quick, percussive grace note.
    • Rolls: A combination of a cut and a tap on the same note, providing a rhythmic accent.
    • Slides: Gradually transitioning from one note to another for a legato effect.
      Phrasing & Breath Control: Some models demand more breath than others, which will effect the phrasing. As a generality, phrasing tends to be long and flowing.

For more detail about ornamentation, see the page Ornamentation in irish Traditional Music

  • Style: As it’s a recent addition to the tradition, low whistle styles tend to be personal rather than regional. Listen to different players to understand how they interpret the instrument.
  • Practice Slowly: Start practicing ornaments and style elements slowly. This will help in mastering the coordination required for these techniques; with its larger finger stretch, the low whistle demands good finger coordination.

Regular practice, listening to accomplished players, and perhaps guidance from experienced teachers are key to mastering the low whistle.

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Choosing a Low Whistle

When selecting your first low whistle, several factors should be considered to ensure you find an instrument that suits your needs and preferences.

Guide to Choosing Your First Low Whistle

  • Key: The standard key for a low whistle is D, which is versatile and widely used in Irish music. It’s a good starting point for beginners. A higher key such as F will be easier to play, but not useful in a group or session context.
  • Material: Consider whether you prefer the sound and feel of metal or plastic, both for the head and the body. Metal instruments can be of a higher quality but more prone to clogging; plastic can be less so.
  • Size and Finger Hole Spacing: Make sure the low whistle is comfortable for your hands. If you have smaller hands, look for whistles with ergonomic design or closer hole spacing.
  • Tuning Mechanism: A tuning slide (like Goldie low whistles) or moveable head (Howard) is not only helpful, but in my opinion necessary to avoid tuning problems. Low whistle tuning can be sensitive to ambient pressure – for example, the heat of stage lights, or colder temperatures in an outdoor concert.
  • Mouthpiece Design: The design of the mouthpiece can affect how easy it is to produce a good tone. Some designs may be more suitable for beginners.

Price Ranges and Recommended Brands

The table below outlines the price you can expect to pay for a low whistle.

Price Range Quality Description Materials Notable Brands/Makers
Entry-Level (Around €100) Often made of cheaper materials but still playable Various cheaper materials Tony Dixon
Mid-Range (€100 – €300) Better craftsmanship and materials Better quality materials Chieftain, Howard
High-End (€300 and above) Professional-grade, exceptional quality in tone and craftsmanship High-quality materials Colin Goldie

Relationship Between Price, Quality, and Ease of Playing

  • Price and Quality: Generally, the more expensive the whistle, the higher the quality of materials and craftsmanship. Higher-priced whistles will offer better tone, volume, and consistency.
  • Ease of Playing: While not always the case, more expensive whistles can be easier to play due to better design and craftsmanship. They often have more consistent and responsive airflow, and the tone can be easier to control.
  • Consideration for Beginners: If you are a beginner on a budget, there is no disadvantage in starting with a less expensive model. As your playing develops, you will get a better sense of what you want in a whistle, and you can invest more at that point. For beginners I would advise choosing one instrument using your best judgement with the information at hand, and playing this instrument at least a year which will allow you not just to discover the explore the instrument’s particularities, but also to hone your skills and develop a deeper understanding of your preferences and needs in a whistle. In my opinion, there is little to be gained in “whistle-jumping” from one instrument to another in the beginning.
  • Test Play if Possible: If you have the opportunity, try playing different whistles before purchasing. This can give you a better sense of what suits your playing style and preferences.

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Notable Low Whistle Players

  • Finbar Furey: A pioneering figure in popularizing the low whistle, known for his emotive style and versatility on multiple instruments.
  • Davy Spillane: Renowned for his haunting low whistle sound, Davy Spillane gained fame with Moving Hearts and his impactful solo career.
  • Cormac Breatnach: An influentual musician & key member of Deiseal, Cormac Breatnach is celebrated for his lyrical and expressive low whistle playing. Deiseal’s album “The Long Long Note” is a seminal low whistle release.
  • Michael McGoldrick: Acclaimed for blending traditional Irish music with diverse influences, Michael McGoldrick is a master of both the flute and low whistle.
  • Brian Finnegan: A member of Flook, Finnegan stands out for his innovative and technically advanced low whistle playing, pushing the boundaries of traditional music.

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Maintenance and Care of the Low Whistle

Daily Maintenance Routines

  • Cleaning After Use: Always clean the inside of your whistle after playing. Use a soft cloth or pull-through swab to remove moisture and prevent build-up.
  • Mouthpiece Care: Regularly inspect and clean the mouthpiece (fipple) to ensure clear airflow. Gentle cleaning with a small brush or cloth can remove any residue.
  • Exterior Wipe Down: Wipe the body of the whistle with a dry, soft cloth to remove fingerprints and dirt, maintaining the finish and appearance.

Long-Term Maintenance Routines

  • Periodic Deep Cleaning: Every few months, perform a deeper cleaning. If your whistle disassembles, take it apart and clean each section thoroughly.
  • Check for Wear: Inspect the whistle for signs of wear, especially on the fipple and around the finger holes, as these areas are crucial for sound production.
  • Storage: Store your whistle in a dry place, away from extreme temperatures and humidity. A dedicated case or pouch can protect it from dust and accidental damage.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

  • Clogging or Poor Airflow: This is often due to moisture or dirt in the mouthpiece. Cleaning the fipple area can resolve this. There are some commercially available liquids for the windway that help reduce clogging – this may be an option for metal or plastic heads. To clear condensation from the windway, cover the window and blow sharply.
  • Inconsistent Tone or Tuning: Check for air leaks between the head & body, or in the windway. Ensure all parts fit together correctly and that there are no cracks or gaps
  • Difficulty in Playing Higher/Lower Notes: This might be a technique issue, due to poorly covering the finger holes. To check this, play a descending scale from C# down to low D. this may help identify the finger(s) involved.
- The Irish Low Whistle - A Complete Introduction

Low Whistle References and Resources

Recommended Listening

Low Whistle Albums

  • Deiseal: “The Long Long Note”: This seminal album is a fine showcase of Cormac Breatnach’s work, highlighting the low whistle in a setting that blends traditional and contemporary Irish music. Listen on Bandcamp
  • Cormac Breatnach: “Music for Whistle + Guitar”: Featuring Breatnach’s skillful playing on whistles in various keys, this album pairs the low whistle with guitar. Listen on Bandcamp
  • Joe McKenna: “The Low Whistle”: Joe McKenna presents an album of traditional tunes dedicated to the instrument.

Albums Featuring Low Whistle

  • Paddy Keenan: “Poirt an Phiobaire”: Though primarily a piper, Paddy Keenan’s work here includes notable low whistle playing.
  • Davy Spillane: Discography: Spillane’s albums are seminal in the world of the low whistle, with a discography that includes landmark recordings like “Pipedreams”, showcasing his style.
  • Lunasa: “Otherworld” (& rest of their discography): Lunasa, known for their innovative approach to traditional Irish music, features the low whistle across their albums, notably pairing 2 F low whistles in harmony.
  • Mike McGoldrick: “Fused”, “Wired”: McGoldrick’s albums are a fusion of traditional and modern styles.
  • Brian Finnegan: “The Ravishing Genius of Bones”: showcases his innovative and technically masterful tin whistle & low whistle playing.
  • Realta: “Open the Door for Three”: This album features the low whistle in a vibrant mix of traditional Irish tunes.
  • Cillian Vallely: “The Raven’s Rock”: Known for his work with Lunasa, Vallely’s solo album presents the low whistle and pipes in intricate arrangements and compelling performances.
low whistle

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