Getting started with ethnic woodwinds: your holiday wish list

I’ve got ethnic woodwinds on the brain lately, and no end in sight since they are the topic of my doctoral dissertation research. If you haven’t added any ethnic instruments to your arsenal yet, here’s what I recommend for a relatively easy to play, low-maintenance, inexpensive, and versatile beginning to your collection.

1. Pennywhistles by Susato.

There are two schools of thought as far as what kind of pennywhistles are best. Some players swear by inexpensive whistles (of which Generation whistles are the quintessential example), because of their traditional, breathy sound. The disadvantage of these is inconsistency—you may have to play quite a few before you find one that plays in tune and responds well throughout its range. The advantage of these is that they are cheap, often under $10.

The other school of thought favors expensive, handmade whistles. These tend to play well in tune, respond well, and otherwise behave like a fine musical instrument should. They are also available in a wide variety of materials and styles to suit your taste. My favorites are the brass whistles by Michael Burke. But, of course, such craftsmanship comes at a price, from maybe $100-$400, or more for some rare and desirable whistles that aren’t in production anymore.

The plastic whistles by Susato are an excellent compromise for the serious musician on a budget. Here’s what I like about them:

  • They have a pleasing tone, though some players complain that their sound is too “recordery”—a little more complex than some whistles.
  • They play dead-on in tune, and are available in either tunable or non-tunable versions. The non-tunable are perfect if you know you’re going to play at A=440; personally I choose the tunable “Kildare” models.
  • They are available in any key you want. This is huge overkill for Irish traditional music, but a real lifesaver for the woodwind doubler who might be asked to play something very non-traditional. Some keys are also available in more than one bore diameter, with the narrower bores giving a sweeter tone and the wider bores having a little more power.
  • They are reasonably loud, which some trad players dislike but which suits most woodwind doubling situations.
  • They’re quite inexpensively priced, between $30-$80 for the tunable versions and less for the non-tunable.

While I maintain collections of both “cheap” and “expensive” whistles, the Susatos are ideal for the situation when you need a whistle in an odd key, need it to play reliably in tune, and need it quickly without a large outlay of cash.

If you’re buying your first whistle, get one in “D.” I would suggest the Kildare small bore. Second and third whistles, probably one in C, then one in low D.

2. Recorders by Aulos or Yamaha.

While the recorder isn’t really an “ethnic” instrument, it should be at the center of every ethnic-woodwind player’s collection. The smaller recorders (soprano/descant and sopranino) work very well for evoking a medieval or Renaissance sound, and the alto/treble is a major voice of the Baroque period. Since they are fully chromatic instruments, they can also serve in a pinch when you don’t have a pennywhistle in the right key, or otherwise need a generic ethnic-sounding instrument that can do what a chromatic instrument does.

The finest recorders are handmade from expensive woods, and might cost several thousand dollars. But there are plastic instruments that give all but the most expensive recorders a run for their money, at a tiny fraction of the price. My personal favorites are by Aulos, and are replicas of Baroque instruments by Richard Haka. I recommend the slightly more expensive versions with the faux woodgrain, which dramatically improves their appearance but also adds a slight texture that makes them easier to hold. The soprano can be had for under $40, and the alto for under $60. I like the Aulos instruments for their complex, reedy tone which works well for solo playing, especially if you’re interested in tackling some authentic Baroque solo repertoire. The comparably-priced 300-series recorders by Yamaha are, to my ears, more pure-toned, and maybe a better choice for ensemble playing.

3. Flutes by Doug Tipple.

I’m a big fan of these transverse flutes made by Doug Tipple. They are made from regular hardware-store variety PVC pipe, but they are seriously playable instruments, and have even been used in Broadway productions of “Tarzan” and “The Lion King.” In a blind test, I think these can easily pass for wooden or bamboo flutes, with the advantages of tunability, stable pitch, and consistent response.

The “Tipple-Fajardo wedge” is a nice touch, and for a few extra dollars makes a nice improvement to pitch in the second octave (which is otherwise a problem with cylindrical flutes). Mr. Tipple also makes available an optional lip plate, which apparently makes the tone more like a thicker-walled wooden flute; personally I skip this option since I’ve got wooden flutes and I like the Tipple flutes for their slightly more rustic sound. Additional options are to have the flute made with a joint between the left and right hands and to have the bell end extended (the “eight-hole” flute). These are only necessary if you prefer the ability to adjust the hand position for comfort or like the balance of a longer flute.

The Tipple flutes are available in almost every key (no B flute—maybe if you asked nicely?) at prices ranging from $55-$85. Start with a low D model if you don’t already have bamboo or wooden flutes.

Happy holidays!


2 responses to “Getting started with ethnic woodwinds: your holiday wish list”

  1. Great suggestions, Bret!

    I’ve got the first two covered, but the Tipple flutes are new to me. Thanks for the tip.


  2. […] possibilities are endless when it comes to instruments. If you play a woodwind, there are tons of ethnic woodwinds that you can […]

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