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Flutes & Whistles

In the world of Celtic instrumentation, the domain of flutes and whistles is divided between the tin whistle and the Irish flute.

The Tin Whistle

The tin whistle has been (and still is) known by many different names, such as pennywhistle, fipple flute, Irish whistle, vertical flute, tin flute, flageolet, and feadóg stáin. No matter what you call it, the mechanics are the same: it is a simple six-holed instrument played with by blowing through the fipple (mouthpiece) attached to one end.

The tin whistle belongs to the woodwind instruments known as "fipple flutes," a group that includes many other wind instruments found in traditional music, such as the recorder and Native American flutes. Referred to in their early days as "vertical flutes", they were originally crafted from clay or bone. In the 17th century, the term "flageolet" was born, and was coined to describe a fipple flute with two thumb holes in back and four finger holes in front.

Typically, today’s tin whistles are made of brass or brass plated with nickel; the fipple is usually made of plastic. Also widely produced are Clarke's style whistles, made of conical sheet metal tubing with a wooden fipple in the wide end. Additionally, all-metal whistles and plastic whistles made from ABS or PVC are available.

Whistles are made in a single key, usually D for Celtic music, and may or may not be tunable. Tunable models employ a mobile fipple, which can be slid up and down the whistle tube, or are fitted with a slide. Some whistles are bundled together in a set, with a single interchangeable mouthpiece that can be attached to the multiple differently keyed bodies that make up the set. Low whistles—twice as long as conventional tin whistles—are an octave lower and more expensive to purchase.

Due to factors of low cost (under $10) and ease of use, whistles are the ideal instrument for beginners taking up the practice of Irish traditional music.

The Irish Flute

The Irish flute is an example of how instruments evolve. As they get more complex, old models become obsolete and very cheap, and are embraced by the masses and used to play traditional or folk music.

Before Theobald Boehm developed the first models of modern flute in the 1830s, the Irish flute was popular throughout Britain but was relatively expensive. Within a century of Boehm's flutes becoming the norm, however, the price of Irish flutes fell to almost nothing, and they became a mainstay of Irish traditional music, alongside the fiddle and the Uilleann pipes.

Unlike the model Boehm-style flute, with its all-metal body, the Irish flute is typically wooden, and may be enhanced with metal keys. The basic flute without keys, however, is all that is needed to play a large variety of traditional Irish tunes, and can be played in the keys of D and G without requiring complicated cross fingerings.