Traditional Instruments of Irish Music
Tin Whistle: Tin whistle is the most popular beginner’s instrument. It is fairly inexpensive with very good quality beginner models running $10-$15. They can be found online from many different retailers including amazon. When buying a tin whistle for our classes get a whistle in D (not low D). Some recommended models are the Clarke Sweet Tone, the Feadog, or Generation.
Fiddle: The fiddle is the same instrument as a violin. It comes in multiple sizes so that younger players can easily learn to play without straining their bodies. A decent beginner violin outfit will cost $300-$400. The cheaper violins you find online are very difficult to play and will only frustrate a student and hinder their progress. Please stay away from brands like Cecilio and Mendini, or anything that is painted a “pretty” color that is not an electric violin. They are junk. The first step in aquiring a fiddle is to go to a store where they sell and rent them. The student will be measured by professionals to determine what size they should get and then you can start shopping around from there. Many local shops offer rental programs! Skyline Music in Westlake, the Cleveland Violin Shop in Cleveland heights, and Royalton Music in North Royalton all have rental programs where all or a portion of your rental is saved to go to a purchase of your own violin when it is time to buy. I also recommend to all of my students to consider the Loft Violin shop out of Columbus. They are willing to ship their rentals to you, their quality is top notch, and unlike most retailers in the Cleveland area 100% of your rental payments can be used towards 100% of your purchase. It is a great deal.
Concertina: The style of concertina used for Traditional Irish music is called the Anglo Concertina. The two other styles are the English and the Duet their fingering systems are very different to the Anglo and they won’t be taught in our classes. The preferred model of Anglo Concertina for Irish music is the 30 key C/G. A decent beginner concertina will cost $400-$500. You can find cheaper models that only have 20 keys but they don’t have C#s a note that is very commonly played in Irish music and taught in our classes from day 1. The bottom line is that you need a 30 button C/G to play in our classes. The good beginner brands are the Wren made by McNeela Music in Ireland, the Rochelle made by Concertina Connection in the USA, and the Tina made by The Concertina Company in Ireland. One other consideration is the layout of your concertina. Newly manufactured concertinas will generally have one of two layouts the Wheatstone is the most common and is what we have in our books, and the Jeffries. If your concertina has a Jeffries layout you will need a different button diagram.
Flute: The Irish flute is different from the silver flute that you see in schools and classical music these days. While a silver flute can certainly be used to play traditional music, and is played by musicians like Joanie Madden, the majority of Irish flute players prefer a wooden flute. The best Irish flutes are made out exotic woods like grenadilla, rosewood, cocus, or ebony with six open holes. They sometimes have a few keys, but most beginners start on a keyless flute because most Irish tunes fit within its scale. When considering purchasing a flute consider that cost is a direct reflection of quality. PVC flutes are very affordable but incredibly difficult to learn on. A good quality beginner flute should cost around $500. If you are trying out Irish music for the first time and are already a flute player I recommend that you keep playing your silver flute. If you have never played Irish music or the flute before the tin whistle is a much better starting place. It is inexpensive and easy to play. The fingering on the tin whistle is the same as the Irish flute so when you do switch you’ll already have an idea of how it works.
Button Accordion: The Button Accordion also comes in many different configurations. But the one most commonly used in Irish music, and therefore taught in our classes is the B/C. The other configuration used is the D/C#. It also works well, but differently for Irish music. If you get one of these instruments you will need to use a different button chart. A decent beginner accordion will cost $500-600.
Tenor Banjo: The Tenor Banjo that is played in Irish music is different from the banjo found in American folk music. For starters it has only four strings instead of 5 and has a shorter neck. Specifically beginners on Irish Banjos need to look for 17 fret tenor banjo vs the 19 fret. The shorter neck of the 17 fret makes it a little easier for the beginner to get around. The younger beginner that is interested in learning banjo should also consider Ukelele. It has a much smaller neck and can be tuned the same. For a more “banjo” sound you can even find banjo ukes that will work for the beginner.
Uillean Pipes: Uillean Pipes are different than the Scottish bagpipes that are often seen in parades. First they aren’t as loud and as such are much more suited to indoor playing with other instruments. If you have never played Irish music before this is a very difficult instrument to start with. Many players come to the pipes after learning to play the whistle and then the flute. But, if you truly love the instrument don’t let the difficulty stop you from diving in! Another consideration for the uilllean pipes is the cost. A decent starter set will be over $1,000. Full sets can cost well over $10,000. If you are interested in playing pipes in our classes you need to have taken a few lessons with a private instructor to get you started. The pipes are finicky and are best learned in a one on one setting to start. Once you can play a few basic tunes, then join us!
Harp: The Harp has a long and rich tradition in Irish music. It is one of the national symbols of Ireland! If you are interested in learning to play the harp my first suggestion to you is to look for private lessons. You are welcome to join our beginner classes but harp technique is very different from any of the other instruments and is best learned by someone who is an expert with the instrument. It is also important to note that as with other instruments that are played for classical music classical harp technique is different from Irish technique. For the aspiring Irish harpist it is best for them to find a teacher that is at least familiar with playing Irish tunes.