The humble penny whistle is one of the easiest musical instruments to learn, yet incredibly versatile for traditional folk music. With a high-pitched, reedy tone perfect for fast jigs and reels, the penny whistle is a staple of Irish and Scottish music.

If you want to join a local session or busk on the streets, learning the penny whistle is a quick and fun way to start playing tunes.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Hold the penny whistle up to your mouth and blow gently across the fipple. Cover the holes with your fingers and lift them to play different notes. Start by learning simple tunes using the main notes.

Choosing Your First Penny Whistle

When starting your journey to learn how to play the penny whistle, it’s important to choose the right instrument that suits your needs and preferences. Here are a few key factors to consider when selecting your first penny whistle:

Key of D is standard for Irish music

The key of D is the most commonly used key for Irish music, making it a popular choice for beginners. It is also the key in which most tutorial resources are written. Choosing a whistle in the key of D will allow you to easily follow along with instructional materials and play along with other musicians.

Consider a wooden whistle for better tone

While penny whistles are traditionally made from metal, wooden whistles have gained popularity due to their warm and rich tone. Wooden whistles are often preferred by musicians looking for a more traditional sound or those playing in acoustic settings.

Additionally, wooden whistles are generally more comfortable to hold and play for longer periods of time.

Pick a whistle with a plastic mouthpiece

When choosing a penny whistle, it is beneficial to select one with a plastic mouthpiece. Plastic mouthpieces are generally more durable and easier to clean compared to metal ones. Additionally, they tend to be more comfortable for beginners as they are softer on the lips and require less effort to produce a sound.

Remember, selecting the right penny whistle is a personal choice, and it’s important to try out different options to find the one that feels and sounds the best to you. Websites such as and offer a wide range of penny whistles to choose from, providing detailed information on the materials used, key, and other specifications to help you make an informed decision.

Learning the Notes and Hand Positions

Memorize the notes from lowest to highest

When learning how to play the penny whistle, it’s important to start by memorizing the notes from lowest to highest. The penny whistle typically has six holes, and each hole can produce a different note when covered or uncovered.

By memorizing the notes in sequential order, you’ll have a solid foundation for playing melodies and songs.

Use a fingering chart as a reference

A fingering chart is an essential tool for any beginner learning to play the penny whistle. It provides a visual representation of where to place your fingers on the instrument to produce specific notes.

By referring to a fingering chart, you can quickly learn the hand positions required for each note. There are many online resources that offer free fingering charts, such as Penny Whistle Club. Make sure to keep a copy of the chart handy as you practice.

Play tunes slowly at first

Once you have a basic understanding of the notes and hand positions, it’s time to start playing tunes. However, it’s important to start slow and gradually build up your speed. Playing tunes slowly allows you to focus on accuracy and proper technique.

As you become more comfortable, you can gradually increase the tempo. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t get discouraged if you make mistakes in the beginning. With time and dedication, you’ll be playing beautiful melodies on the penny whistle in no time!

Mastering Basic Techniques

Learning to play the penny whistle can be an exciting and rewarding journey. To start off on the right foot, it’s important to master some basic techniques that will lay a solid foundation for your playing. Here are three essential techniques that every beginner should focus on:

Get a clean start with tongue articulation

Tongue articulation is a technique that involves using your tongue to produce clean and distinct notes. To do this, place the tip of your tongue lightly against the back of your upper teeth and blow gently into the whistle.

When you’re ready to play a note, release your tongue quickly and cleanly, allowing the air to flow through the whistle. This technique helps in producing clear and precise notes.

Control your breathing for longer notes

Controlling your breathing is crucial for playing longer notes on the penny whistle. Take deep breaths and exhale slowly and evenly while playing. This will allow you to sustain notes for a longer duration without running out of breath.

Practicing breath control exercises, such as holding a note for as long as possible, can greatly improve your ability to play longer phrases and melodies.

Improve tone by adjusting lip pressure

The tone of the penny whistle can be influenced by the amount of pressure you apply with your lips. Experiment with different lip pressures to find the sweet spot that produces a clear and pleasing tone.

Applying too much pressure can result in a sharp or shrill sound, while too little pressure can lead to a weak or airy tone. Adjusting your lip pressure will help you achieve a balanced and resonant sound.

Remember, mastering these basic techniques takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the process of learning. With dedication and perseverance, you’ll soon be playing beautiful melodies on your penny whistle!

Building Up Your Repertoire

As you begin your journey of learning how to play the penny whistle, one of the most important aspects is building up your repertoire of songs. This will not only help you improve your playing skills but also provide you with a wide range of tunes to entertain yourself and others.

Here are some tips on how to expand your repertoire:

Start with simple folk tunes like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’

When starting out, it’s best to begin with simple folk tunes that are easy to grasp. A popular choice among beginners is the well-known nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. This tune allows you to practice the basic fingerings and get comfortable with playing the penny whistle.

Once you have mastered this simple tune, you can move on to more challenging pieces.

Progress to jigs, reels, hornpipes, and airs

Once you have become comfortable with the basics, it’s time to broaden your repertoire by exploring different genres of music. Traditional Irish music offers a plethora of tunes that are perfect for the penny whistle. Jigs, reels, hornpipes, and airs are common forms of music in this genre.

These tunes will challenge your playing skills and introduce you to new rhythms and melodies.

Once comfortable, embellish tunes with rolls and slides

Once you have mastered a variety of tunes, it’s time to add some flair to your playing. One way to do this is by incorporating rolls and slides into your tunes. Rolls involve quickly repeating a note, adding a lively and dynamic quality to your playing.

Slides, on the other hand, require smoothly transitioning between two notes, creating a beautiful and expressive sound. Experiment with different techniques and see how they can enhance your repertoire.

Remember, building up your repertoire takes time and practice. Start with simple tunes and gradually progress to more complex pieces. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and try new genres of music. The more songs you learn, the more enjoyable your penny whistle playing will become!

Playing in a Group

Playing the penny whistle in a group setting can be a fun and rewarding experience. Not only does it allow you to showcase your skills, but it also provides an opportunity to learn from other musicians and improve your playing. Here are some tips to help you navigate playing in a group:

Join a local session to gain experience

One of the best ways to gain experience playing in a group is to join a local session. These sessions are informal gatherings of musicians who come together to play traditional tunes. It’s a great way to meet other musicians, learn new tunes, and improve your playing.

Look for local sessions in your area and don’t be afraid to join in!

Learn to play by ear instead of sheet music

When playing in a group, it’s important to be able to play by ear rather than relying solely on sheet music. While sheet music can be helpful, playing by ear allows you to pick up tunes more quickly and adapt to the tempo and style of the group.

Practice listening to tunes and try to play along without looking at the sheet music. It may take some time to develop this skill, but it will greatly enhance your ability to play in a group.

Match tempo and volume to blend with other instruments

When playing in a group, it’s essential to match your tempo and volume to blend with the other instruments. Pay attention to the rhythm and speed of the group and adjust your playing accordingly. If the group is playing a lively tune, play with energy and a slightly faster tempo.

If the group is playing a slow, melodic tune, play with a softer volume and a more relaxed tempo. By matching your playing to the group, you’ll create a harmonious sound that enhances the overall performance.

Remember, playing in a group is a collaborative effort. Be respectful of other musicians, listen attentively, and be open to feedback. With practice and experience, you’ll become a valued member of any musical ensemble!


With regular practice and commitment to learning new tunes, you’ll soon be ready to jam with other musicians. The penny whistle is the perfect traditional folk instrument for beginners and experts alike. Let the reedy tones transport you to idyllic country pubs and rollicking ceilidhs.

Just have fun and the skill will come in time!

So grab a cheap and cheerful penny whistle in the key of D. Look up some simple arrangements of folk classics to start out. With the tips in this guide, you’ll be playing delightful Irish reels and Scottish jigs in no time at all!

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