We have many different types of whistles; the choice and range can be confusing. This is an overview of what is available and some information on each.
The focus is on D whistles, sometimes referred to as soprano whistles. These are the ones most useful for playing Irish traditional music. We’ll look at the lower and upper areas of the market and also consider shapes, materials, different keys and low whistles.
More detailed reviews of inexpensive whistles, high-end whistles and low whistles can be found at Chiff and Fipple, although some of the information and links are not totally up to date. Check their discussion boards for more details.
One of the many beautiful things about the tin whistle (or penny whistle, or just plain whistle) is that quite often the first whistle that you buy to get you started can be the only one that you will ever need. That’s a rare thing for a musical instrument, particularly one that is inexpensive to begin with, since by and large you get what you pay for. This is certainly true of flutes, for example.
Entry-level whistles are the ones that you see in music shops and I have taken the £30 mark as my cut-off point for these whistles. Anything more and they are becoming serious in my opinion.
Clarkes and then Generation used to be the only ones that were available, but over the years they have been joined by other makers. They come in a variety of finishes, brass and nickel-coated brass being the most common.
Clarkes: the original makers. These used to be in C only, but they have widened their range. They used to have a conical shape (a tapered bore, getting narrower at the bottom) and a wooden block at the mouth piece. They tend to be fairly quiet and breathy-sounding and are not tunable, but can be enjoyable to play. The range has been extended to include the Meg and Sweetone models, which both have improved mouthpieces. The Meg has slightly higher manufacturing standards and tone, while the Sweetone comes in a wide range of colours. There has been some discussion on the internet about these, including this thread on Chiff and Fipple.
Generation: these were the first makers to come up with a range of different keys and the choice of finishes — brass (red mouthpiece) or nickel-coated (blue mouthpiece). For many years these were the only ones that people played and were sometimes tweaked and modified by the players to improve them. I have a number of these and they are still popular. However, I have heard of declining quality control, so don’t be afraid to try out a few in a shop until you are happy with the instrument. That statement is probably true for any of the instruments. Try before you buy if you can.
Feadóg: Pronounced “fa-dohg”, these are more readily tuneable, warm, soft tone, not as loud or bright-sounding as Generation due to mouthpiece design. I have a couple of their early models and while there are now a range of designs and colours, they are still dependable it seems.
Walton (was Soodlum): I used to see a lot of Soodlum whistles about. Good volume and a tone similar to a Feadóg, people swore by them, but they were bought out by Walton’s, the Dublin-based music publishers who seem to brand and package the instruments for tourists. Underneath this however, the instrument gets good reviews on Chiff and Fipple.
Shaw: Northumbrian pipe maker Dave Shaw remodelled the classic Clarke design to create a more crafted, more reliable and better-playing instrument. The design range extends to low whistles. These are all non-tunable but very playable with the complexity of tone of the original Clarkes. These whistles are at the top of the price range for this category.
Dixon: Tony Dixon makes a broad range of flutes and whistles that sit at the top end of this price category. They are made from a range of materials that includes polymer. My personal experience is that the quality of the whistles is better than the quality of the flutes. They require more air than the Generation-type models and therefore have more volume, but are also better made. Again, there is a review on Chiff and Fipple which goes into more detail.
Susato: These PVC/polymer whistles are the most expensive whistles that are readily available. They have a strong low register and require lots of air to play in tune, particularly in the upper octave, where breath support is important. As such they are more technically demanding than the other models. The result is that they have a lot of volume such that they can dominate a busy session. The bottom notes are clear and can sound like a recorder and there is a slight bright reediness to the top notes. The model I have has a particularly wide bore, which makes it particularly loud — so much so that I cannot play it at home as it brings on tinnitus. However it is very useful in a session. While other models do exist and a narrow bore design has been produced, they are the loudest of this category of whistles and opinion is very much divided on them. Not for the faint-hearted.
Which instrument should you buy?
Much of this is a question of personal choice and will naturally vary. However, there are a few points to consider.
Budget: If price is an issue, go for a Generation-style instrument: Generation, Meg, Sweetone, Feadóg, Walton or Oak.
Tuning: If this is to be your only instrument, then you need to be able to tune it to play with others. This may not be too much of an issue if you are learning, but eventually it might become so. Fiddles, flutes, guitars, pipes are all capable of drifting out of tune depending on the local conditions and sometimes it is easier to go with them. Whistles also warm up and their tuning changes too and you will wish to adapt to that. So that means a Generation-style, Dixon or Susato.
Volume and air: Some of the instruments require lots of air to sound correctly, others less so. This can be important if you are a beginner or have breathing difficulties since part of your playing effort will go on just sounding the instrument. The other issue is that more air tends to create more volume and if you are a beginner then you may not wish to sound so loud if you are practicing or trying to play with someone else. Bear in mind as well that the upper octave requires further air and can’t be played quietly. On the other hand, an experienced musician may wish to be heard better, particularly if playing acoustically with loud instruments or in noisy environments, such as a pub session. Conical-bored instruments tend to play more quietly, so Clarke, Meg, Sweetone, Feadóg andShaw may be good here. If you require volume, then and instrument with a wide, parallel bore such as Dixon andSusato models would be worth considering. Other whistles sit in between.
Tone: Not least of the considerations is how pleasant the instrument sounds to your ears and those of others. People talk about the brass instruments sounding mellower than the brighter nickel-coated ones. There is possibly something in this, but I think it it may be quite subtle. The wooden parts of the Shaw andClarke designs bring a more obvious complexity to the sound, along with an airiness and “chiff”. The Oak and Generation models tend to be bright-sounding, the Meg andSweetone sweet, while Feadóg and Waltons whistles could be considered more mellow. The Susato can sound more like a recorder than a traditional whistle, perhaps lacking the brighter harmonics of the other instruments. However it is worth noting that some very expensive wooden whistles can share this property. It seems that volume and tone are in any case tricky to balance in the same instrument design.
Those are just some of our opinions and there are lots of others out there. It isn’t straightforward and people use different whistles in different settings, for different reasons. For that reason, there is a significant market for low whistles and higher value, hand-crafted instruments and I’ll look at those another time.