Beginner's Guide to Buying a Tin Whistle

by Howard Fosdick ©

A Set of Tin Whistles
A Set of Tin Whistles

In several ways, the tin whistle is the perfect musical instrument. Also called the penny whistle, it's about as easy to play as any instrument you can imagine.

Whistles are quite inexpensive. Most are highly portable at only a foot long and weighing only a few ounces. And, as they're essentially just hollow metal tubes, one should last you a lifetime.

You can get everything you need to learn and play the penny whistle for free on the internet. I'll show you where.

What's not to like?

Regardless of all these positives, it can be daunting to know where to begin with this fun little instrument. There are so many different makes and models available. Whistles come in tin, brass, wood, plastic, and even other materials. There are many different sizes and pitches. Some have detachable mouthpieces, others don't. And there are many more decisions to be made than I list here.

So, where to begin? This review tells you what you need to know to buy your first whistle. You can get everything you need to start playing for the grand sum of about $20 USD.


The tin whistle is a fipple flute. You blow into a hole at one end of the flute that automatically splits your breath to play a note. This differs from the transverse flute one plays sideways. Fipple flutes are much easier to get started with than transverse flutes, which require you to learn how to precisely split your breath across the blow hole.

Transverse flutes are a bit like blowing into a pop bottle to create a sound. You have to direct your breath exactly right to get the sound. Tilt the bottle wrong, and you get no sound but breath.

In contrast, the little fipple mouthpiece on the tin whistle automatically directs your breath to the right place to make a sound. So, it's much easier to start playing.

Tin whistles have exactly six fingering holes on top, and none beneath. Contrast this to the recorder, which has seven fingering holes on top, and one underneath (for your lefthand thumb).

Whistles date back into antiquity. Robert Clarke standardized them with his invention of the modern tin whistle in 1840s England. The company he founded, Clarke, is still one of the major manufacturers of the product today.

Start with the D Whistle

The most popular size of tin whistle -- by far -- is the D whistle. It's about a foot long and high-pitched. Its lowest note (or base note), sounds one note above that of the soprano recorder. Another way to put this is that the tin whistle is keyed in D major, while the soprano recorder is keyed to C major.

Sometimes beginners hear whistles other than the D whistle on Youtube or elsewhere and decide to start with one of them. For example, the low-D whistle -- pitched one octave lower than the D whistle -- sounds ethereal and spooky. It's quite appealing.

But, please, if you're a beginner, start with the common high D whistle. It's much easier to learn as a first whistle. And it'll set you back only the price of a meal. After you get a feel for the instrument and develop a bit of proficiency, you can take on more challenging whistles like the low-D or others.

The Basics

Materials: Though popularly called the "tin whistle," whistles are produced from a variety of metals like tin, brass, nickel and various alloys. Eastern Europe and Russia boast a proud tradition of carved wood whisltes. Plastic whistles and even home-made instruments from PVC pipe are also popular.

The result is that whistles have a variety of sounds. Some are rough and raw, others more soft or mellow. Part of the fun of whistling is discovering what you like best.

Fingering and Range: To play a scale, cover all the holes with your fingers. Then progressively remove them, one at a time, from the bottom-most on up. Here's how simple that is:

Tin Whistle Fingering is Simple

To play in the higher octave, you finger exactly the same. You attain notes in the higher scale by overblowing (blowing harder). Using this simple technique, whistles feature a two-octave range.

Sharps and Flats: You'll often hear that whistles are "diatonic," meaning that they don't play sharps and flats. This is not strictly accurate. You can play a full chromatic scale on a whistle. But it takes some serious practice because it requires "half-holing" -- covering a precise fraction of a hole with your finger.

Rather than learn half-holing, most players just buy a set of whistles in common keys. Then, they use the proper whistle for the key of the song at hand. Voilà! No complicated fingering.

Tuning: Some whistles are tunable. They have a separate mouthpiece you can move in or out a bit to tune the instrument. Most can't be tuned because the mouthpiece is glued into place. You probably won't need a tunable whistle for your first purchase, as this feature only makes sense if you're playing in a group.

Which Whistle Should Be Your First?

Search "tin whistles" at a website like Amazon, and you'll run across dozens of popular D whistles. While any of them might work for you, I recommend starting with the very popular Clarke Sweetone. The reason is simple -- you'll be able to easily hit all the notes.

This is not true of all other whistles. Some make it challenging to hit the highest notes. Others play a weak lowest note. Some require too much breath. With the Clarke, you get the best chance to start with an instrument you can easily play. Once you've achieved some basic proficiency, then try out some other whistles.

Clarke Sweetone Tin Whistle

The Clarke Sweetone Tin Whistle     (Courtesy of Clarke)

In my own case, I bought a pair of cheap plastic whistles for my first go with this instrument. I couldn't hit the highest notes and thought this was due to my inexperience. As I later learned, it wasn't me, it was the whistles. I bought a Sweetone and had no trouble with the high notes at all.

If you do ultimately move on to some whistle other than the Sweetone, you'll only have spent less than two tenners to get a good start. And note, many stay with the Sweetone as their primary whistle. I have for many years now. It's name tells you why -- it truly features a more mellow, less rough or windy tone than many other whistles.

Be certain that the Clarke you buy is labeled "Sweetone." Clarke make other whistles -- including their "Original Clarke" model -- that are much more difficult to play.

For a comparison of beginner tin whistles, including sound samples for the Sweetone and others, watch some of these reviews at Youtube.

Learning To Play

With your new whistle in hand, you can start learning how to play. There are tons of free resources on the web -- you needn't buy anything beyond the instrument itself.

Click here for our list of free self-taught online courses and other community resources.

Click here to find lots of free instructional material over at Youtube.

Click here to see a ton of freely downloadable sheet music.

The Bottom Line

Is the Clarke Sweetone the "best" tin whistle? Well, that all depends on what you consider the best. Different people use different criteria to determine this. And so they come up with many different answers.

What one can say for certain is that the Sweetone is probably the easiest-to-learn, most popular penny whistle you can buy. At less than $20, it's a no-brainer to select as your first whistle.