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The Tin Whistle and Low Whistle

On its long journey from ancient China to present-day Ireland, the whistle has picked up a confusing array of names and nicknames. Some of these are pennywhistle, fipple flute, Irish whistle, vertical flute, tin flute, flageolet, cuisle, cuiseach, feadan, 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 is one of the 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.

Current Whistle Models

Today, whistles are available in any key—but for Celtic musicmaking purposes, the keys of D and G are standard. (Virtually all of the music and tutorial materials are written for D or G whistles.)

In the area of component materials, whistlemaking has kept pace with the times. The first Asian models were bamboo flutes, and flutes made of bamboo and other woods are still played today. Due to advances in materials technology, whistle buyers can now select from a bewildering array of choices in materials--from brass and sheet metal to aluminum and ABS plastic. Some models have wooden fipples, some plastic; some have a cylindrical tube, some conical. In addition, whistles may or may not be tunable. Tunable models employ a moving fipple; the mouthpiece can be slid up and down the whistle tube, or fitted with a slide.

With dozens of manufacturers and options, selecting a tin whistle can seem a daunting challenge to the buyer. Still, the tin whistle remains an excellent choice as first instrument for beginners taking up the practice of Irish traditional music. They’re inexpensive and easy to learn.

The Low Whistle

The Low whistle has been around since the 1970s, but achieved new heights in public recognition relatively recently. Most of the credit for the heightened interest in the instrument is given to Davy Spillane for his landmark low whistle performances in Riverdance and on the Titanic film soundtrack.

Finding it odd that whistles had never evolved the full range of other instruments—bass, tenor, alto and soprano—Bernard Overton developed the first low whistle in 1971, as a replacement for a damaged bamboo flageolet of Finbar Furey. The Overton low whistle was an aluminum model with a sound that reminded some of the South American pan pipes (another branch of the whistle’s family tree).

The low whistle plays an octave lower than the conventional tin whistle (hence its name), has a larger bore, and is fully twice the length. It has significantly larger finger holes as well, making it exponentially more difficult to master. The tin whistle and low whistle also differ in matters of price; while a brand-new (and high-quality) tin whistle can generally be had for around $10, the retail price of a top-quality low whistle is many times that figure.