Introduction: Choosing a Tin Whistle

In this article you will find some practical advice about choosing and buying a tin whistle in 2024. The information presented here is meant to be objective and impartial, and I have no connection to any of the models or brands mentioned. The recommendations are my own based on the whistles I use myself and have played over the years.

Recommended Whistles

If you’re just looking for some quick pointers, here are some whistles I recommend on a budget of from about €15 to about €100:

  1. On a budget: A Generation or Feadog. I prefer the sound of Generations, but Feadogs seem to have more consistent quality control.Either are fine for beginners, and for more advanced players it’s always useful to have a couple in the bag.
  2. Mid-price: Tony Dixon Trad Whistle, available at around €30. A new take on “traditional” whistles, with a pure sound and low backpressure.
  3. More expensive: The Killarney whisle, excellent value at around €100 and one of the best whistles I’ve tried in recent years. A reactive whistle with an pure sound and just the right amount of backpressure that is a pleasure to play.

See at the end of the article for links to each makers website.

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Price categories

Whistle prices can vary wildly, from a few to a few hundred euros. Here I have categorised whistles by budget into “Entry Level“, “Mid-Range” and “High End“. This correlates to some extent to a continuum between mass-produced and hand made, but is not necessarily a quality judgement. As mentioned above, a cheaply priced whistle is not by definition a low quality instrument, and on the contrary can even be very good; on the other hand, an expensive instrument can be of excellent craftsmanship but not correspond to an individual’s playing style.

I’ve also tried to avoid classing whistles as “beginner” or “professional” as often done seen as I believe it can be misleading, with the term “professional” in particular being much thrown around and corresponding more to a marketing term than anything else.

The practical upshoot of this is that it’s not necessary or even advisable to rush out and buy the most expensive instrument possible in the beginning; on the contrary the beauty of the whistle is that a small €10 instrument has the potential to create world-class music.

Your choice of instrument will of course depend on your budget as well as on other considerations; I’ve given some extra examples of recommended whistles at each budget point, as well as the 3 main recommendations mentioned in the introduction. My own advice regarding budget is simple: buy the best instrument that you can afford at the time and concentrate on playing the instrument you have. If you can afford a higher end whistle, it’s also useful to have a Generation or two in your music bag.

Category Price Range Characteristics
Entry Level
Under €20 Basic quality, mass-produced. Sound quality can vary from adequate to excellent.

Examples: Generation, Feadog, Clare, Oak.

Mid-Range Up to €100 More reliable than beginner whistles, with a more pleasing sound.

Examples: Dixon whistles, O’Briain tweaked whistles, Freeman tweaked whistles, Susato

High End
Above €100 Hand-made or hand-finished, high-quality sound and craftsmanship

Examples: Killarney, Sindt, Goldie, Burke

All things being equal, a more expensive instrument will be of better quality; this is not to say that cheap equals bad

dixon trad nickel - tin whistle buying guide
Dixon Trad

What to look for in a Tin Whistle

An ideal whistle have a good sound, and be in tune both internally and externally; the volume should be in the sweet zone between too quiet and too loud, with a good volume balance between the lowest and highest notes. The whistle should be reactive, with a decent amount of backpressure. Personal preferences will apply: some prefer a more chiffy tone, while others will prefer a pure tone, for example. In this section I’ll discuss these elements, read on for more information.

Sound

As mentioned above, the sound of a tin whistle is a function of its design, particularly the fipple design, rather than the materials used or manufacturing process. The choice of a whistle based on sound & tone is a personal preference with no one sound being objectively “better” than others (to an extent of course).

Tuning

A tin whistle needs to be in tune, both to its root note (D in the case of a standard tin whistle) and internally. If a whistle sounds sharp or flat, it can be tuned by sliding the head in or out. Sliding the head out effectively lengthens the instrument and flattens the tuning; while sliding the head in shortens the tube and sharpens the tuning.
If a whistle is out of tune internally, i.e. the notes are out of tune in relation to each other, this is more of a problem and difficult to resolve without expert knowledge. In the case of a cheap whistle, it unfortunately means the whistle is to be consigned to the scrap heap. In the case of a hand made or expensive whistle, the best option is to get in touch with the maker. Fortunately this problem is quite rare.

Volume

Volume can vary, depending on models. The volume of models like the Generation or Feadog is adequate in most situations. There is a recent tendency towards louder instruments.

Volume Balance Between Octaves

For comfort of playing (and listening) a whistle should have a balanced volume across its octaves – some models can have an extremely loud high A, B & C#, for example, compared to the rest of the scale

Tone

The tone can range from pure and clear to chiffy and breathy. The choice depends on the player’s preference and the style of music they intend to play. The traditional sound is more “chiffy” than pure – chiff being the extraneous sound that gives the whistle some grit or bite in its tone. Models can be more or less chiffy, with the Generation having a chiffy tone and the Dixon Trad being more pure, for example. The Clarke Original has a characteristic breathy sound.

Playing Characteristics

The choice of whistle based on playing characteristics is also a personal preference, but in the beginning it’s advisable to choose a whistle that will be easier to play. Here are some characteristics to look out for when choosing a whistle. As always the best option is to actually try a whistle before buying; realistically this is not always possible, so the descriptions below may help in doing internet research.

Backpressure

“Backpressure” refers to the resistance experienced by a player when blowing air into the instrument; whistles will have more or less backpressure. Backpressure affects the amount of breath required to play the whistle and can influence tone stability. Higher backpressure can provide more control, while some players prefer lower backpressure for a more relaxed, easy-blowing experience. Note that whistles with higher backpressure require less air than whistles with low backpressure (contrary to what you may think)

Reactivity

Reactivity refers to how quickly the whistle responds to the player’s breath and articulation, an important factor when playing faster tunes or ornamentation.
A well-designed whistle allows for smooth transitions between octaves, crucial for playing dance music.

The ideal whistle would have a good tone & be in tune, reactive, with adequate backpressure & a good volume balance between octaves. The tone can be “pure” or “chiffy”.

killarney detail - tin whistle buying guide
Killarney
whistle fingering new en Page 1 - Tin Whistle Buying Guide 2024

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Types of Tin Whistle

Mass-Produced

Mass-produced tin whistles are a popular choice for beginners and those on a budget. They are widely available and offer a standard level of quality. Brands like Generation and Feadog fall into this category. While they lack the unique character of handmade whistles, they provide a solid introduction to the instrument for learners. “Mass produced” doesn’t necessarily mean low quality: a good Generation for example is as good as anything you could play. Many professionals still use basic models and, bar any glaring manufacturing errors, they are usually at the very least perfectly acceptable. In the video below, Donncha O’Briain plays what appears to be a Generation whistle.

Handmade

Handmade tin whistles usually offer a better quality of fabrication than mass-produced models. The sound can also be better, as well as the playing characteristics. Whistles can be “hand-made” to a greater or lesser degree, with some models using moulded plastic heads, for example. In general with handmade whistles the materials are of better quality and the whistle will “feel” like a better instrument (playing characteristics aside).

“Tweaked”

Tweaked tin whistles are mass-produced whistles that are re-worked by instrument makers to enhance their sound and playability. They are an excellent compromise between mass-produced and handmade instruments, and usually are good value for money. Jerry Freeman (US) and Cillian O’Briain (Ireland) make excellent tweaked whistles using Generation & Feadog base models.

Materials

Metal with Plastic Head

These whistles combine a metal body with a plastic mouthpiece. This combination is often found in entry-level whistles and is a good choice for beginners. Generations and Feadogs fall into this category, as well as the Dixon Trad whistle.

Plastic or metal

All-plastic whistles are lightweight and generally more affordable than all-metal whistles. Susato whistles and some Tony Dixon models fall into this category.

Many all-metal whistles are hand made, and their particular advantages will come from the mode of fabrication rather than the material. Goldie, Chieftain and similar whistles fall into this category; these makers also have low whistles.

Whistles such as Sindt, Killarney or Burke feature a mostly metal construction with some elements in plastic, wood or other materials.

Wood

Some makers provide wooden whistles but in general they are in a minority.

With a variety of models available; the “best” whistle is a subjective choice rather than an objective parameter.

Tweaked Generation tin whistkes
Tweaked Generation tin whistkes

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Some Pitfalls to Avoid

When buying a tin whistle, it’s important to be aware of several pitfalls to ensure you make a satisfying and suitable choice:

  • Choosing the Wrong Key: The standard key for tin whistles is D, especially for beginners and for playing traditional Irish music.
  • Ignoring Material Quality: While beginners often start with inexpensive whistles, extremely cheap models from unknown brands may have poor material quality, leading to issues like improper tuning or rapid wear. It’s best to stick with known brands like Generation, Feadog, Clarke, Clare, Oak, etc rather than choosing an unnamed brand online. If a price or offer seems too good to be true, it probaby is!
  • Not Researching Brands: Different brands have varying characteristics. Researching and reading reviews can help you understand which brand might suit your needs best. The forums at Chiff&Fipple are an excellent source of archived information about various whistle brands.
  • Ignoring Personal Preference: Ultimately, the best whistle is one that feels good to play and suits your musical style. Don’t overlook your personal preference in sound and feel to choose something that you feel “should” be better.
  • Buying Without Trying: If possible, try out different whistles before buying. Realistically this isn’t always feasible, especially when buying online, but trying a whistle can be the best way to understand its feel and sound. Again, check your seller’s return policy before buying.
  • Changing Models too Often: In searching for the “perfect” instrument we can often get caught up in the search itself and neglect the music. It’s best to spend some time with a model to get to know it’s idiosyncracies, rather than “whistle-jumping” too often. You may find that what initially seemed to be a problem with the instrument, was actually a problem of technique!

Some Misconceptions to Avoid

  • Cheap instruments are for beginners: While budget-friendly whistles are often suitable for beginners, some inexpensive whistles can be of high quality and used by experienced players as well.
  • Generation whistles are bad: Generation whistles are actually popular and well-regarded. Their affordability and availability make them a common choice.
  • Louder is better: No
  • More expensive is better: Price doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality or suitability of a whistle for an individual player. Personal preference and playability are crucial.
  • If there’s a problem with the sound, it’s automatically the instrument: Player technique often plays a significant role. Issues like breath control, finger positioning, and maintenance can affect performance, not just the instrument’s quality.

 If a price or offer seems too good to be true, it probaby is!

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