Many tin whistle players get familiar with the instrument at a very young age, as their entrance into the world of Irish traditional music. The tin whistle (also called penny whistle) has always been a great starter instrument, very affordable, and not hard to learn. However, due to contradictory beliefs about the whistle being too humble for a professional, some people switch to other musical instruments. Luckily, those who took the tin whistle seriously can now do wonders with it.
The tin whistle became very popular over the last century, especially in the UK & Ireland, where it’s taught in many schools. And in the past few decades, it spreads all around the globe. The list of notably good players is huge, however, these are the ones to know about as probably the most influential. They are great to listen to and learn from, or just to enjoy the music!
1. Brian Finnegan
It takes only a single tune played by Brian Finnegan to understand why he is considered the best tin whistle player on earth by many critics. A true wizard on the tin whistle, low whistle, and Irish flute, with the fast-tempo playing and crispy ornamentation, which is hardly achievable. Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland, he is most known as the leader of top trad group Flook, and later his other amazing group, Kan. At the same time, he occasionally cooperates with many big names in not only traditional Irish music.
Recommended music featuring Brian Finnegan:
2. Mary Bergin
Mary Bergin is recognized as the best female tin whistle player to date by many. A winner of many competitions at both junior and senior levels, her playing style is very passionate and usually fast, with a strong Irish trad character. Her two albums Feadoga Stain 1 & 2 are still considered “the tin whistle 101”, simply a must-hear. Interestingly, unlike most players, she holds the whistle left-handed, meaning her right hand is on top.
Recommended music featuring Mary Bergin:
3. Joanie Madden
Joanie Madden is considered one of the most influential personalities in Irish music in the USA. She is best known as a member of the group Cherish the Ladies and is still actively performing. Joanie has also recorded and performed with various other musicians such as Sinead O’Connor, Vince Gill, Pete Seeger, etc…
Recommended music featuring Joanie Madden:
- Cherish the Ladies – The Best Off
- Cherish the Ladies – Christmas In Ireland
- Joanie Madden – Song Of The Irish Whistle Vol. 1
- Joanie Madden – Song Of The Irish Whistle Vol. 2
4. Kevin Crawford
Kevin Crawford is another whistle wizard, known for his trad style learned in the county Clare, equally good on high whistles, low whistles, and Irish flute. His name is best recognized through the work with top trad group Lunasa. He also cooperated with quite a few professional musicians on Irish traditional scenes such as Tomy Peoples, Martin Hayes, and John Doyle…
Recommended music featuring Kevin Crawford:
- Kevin Crawford – Carrying The Tune
- Kevin Crawford – Music And Mischief
- Lunasa – Cas
- Lunasa – La Nua
- Lunasa – The Merry Sisters Of Fate
5. Spider Stacy
Peter Stacy, better known as Spider, is one of the most prominent members of The Pogues, a legendary folk-punk group founded in London in the early ’80s. While not being a virtuoso in the same way as other traditional musicians, his playing style and attitude are unmatched. He’s been a pioneer who inspired many musicians to introduce the tin whistle as an instrument in various modern rock bands later.
Recommended music featuring Spider Stacy:
- Pogues – 30 Years (anniversary pack)
- Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace With God
- Pogues – Rum, Sodomy And The Lash
- Pogues – Red Roses For Me
- Pogues – Peace And Love
6. Alan Doherty
Alan Doherty has gained the reputation as the whistle player on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Besides that, it’s worth mentioning his work with the band Grada, another great trad group. Alan is great on low whistles and flutes too and has an exciting playing style, which originates from trad roots all the way to crossovers that sound quite modern, even jazzy.
Recommended music featuring Alan Doherty:
7. Cormach Breathnach
Cormach Breatnach is another great tin whistle player with a very distinctive playing style. His music has been highly influenced by jazz and blues, especially in accompanying harmonies, which you can easily hear on the recordings he’s done so far. Even though he’s mostly connected with traditional Irish music, he also cooperated with some non-trad music names such as Bernard Purdie, Elvis Costello & Vanessa Williams.
Recommended music featuring Cormach Breathnach:
- Cormac Breatnach & Martin Dunlea – Music for Whistle & Guitar
- Cormac Breatnach – Musical Journey
- Cormac Breatnach – Ealu
8. Collin Farrell
Collin Farrel belongs to a bit younger group of musicians who made the breakthrough over the past ten years. He owns a Masters Degree in Music from Limerick University, with the fiddle being his native instrument. However, his whistle playing skills are quite striking, and there are certain recordings where he plays both fiddle and the whistle. He is currently performing with Lunasa and has been working with many other names such as Caren Kasey, Michael McGoldrick, Tim O’Brian… His second solo album, Make A Note, was awarded instrumental album of the year in Ireland.
Recommended music featuring Colin Farrell:
9. John McSherry
You will rarely hear John McSherry playing high whistles, but he is a true master when it comes to low whistles and uilleann pipes. He is also a composer and studio musician and has worked with many prominent groups and artists such as Clannad, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, etc.. At the age of fourteen, he was the youngest ever winner of the All-Ireland pipping championship and is known as the founder of excellent trad groups Lunasa and Tamalin.
Recommended music featuring John McSherry:
- John McSherry – The Seven Suns
- John McSherry – Soma
- John McSherry & Michael McGoldrick – At First Light
- Tamalin – Rhythm & Rhyme
10. Micho Russell
A true legend, and as usually called “Ireland’s whistling ambassador”, Micho Russell (1915 – 1994) was one of the first famous whistle players of the last century. He won the Ireland Tin Whistle competition in 1973. and was well-known for his very characteristic rhythmic style of playing the whistle. Micho was also a great music teacher and entertainer, one of the most beloved personalities in Ireland.
Recommended music featuring Micho Russell:
- Micho Russell – Rarities & Old Favorites (1949 – 1993)
- Micho Russell – The Limestone Rock
- Micho Russell – Traditional Country Music of County Clare