The Folk Woodwinds

Common woodwinds in Folk Music, Reed-Type Woodwinds, fall within the general category of wind instruments whose sound is initiated by the wind of the artist Reed instruments produce sound by focusing air into a mouthpiece which then causes a reed, or reeds, to vibrate. This is different than a flute where the artist's wind produces sound by blowing across the edge of a hole in a cylindrical tube. In both cases, however, the resonating sound from the air vibrations within the sound chamber produce the characteristic sound of the instrument, depending on the design and the types of materials used. Finger holes are strategically placed for changing the pitch. Despite the name, a woodwind may be made of any material, not just wood. Common examples include brass, silver, cane, plastic and tin. Woodwinds, especially ocarinas, are even made out of earthen materials. There are hundreds of kinds of woodwinds used in traditional folk music around the world. However, we are only featuring those common in western music: pennywhistle, recorder, North American flute, ocarina, bag pipes, harmonica, accordion and the concertina.


Modern tin whistles, aka penny whistles, have been around since the 1840's when Robert Clarke began selling them for a penny in Manchester England, hence the nickname "penny whistle". The pennywhistle is a traditional end-blown woodwind instrument, similar to the recorder in appearance and use. Its origins are in Ireland, but it since has become very popular in many branches of traditional folk music, namely: English, Scottish, Irish and American traditional music, being among the most common melody instruments in Celtic music. Due to its affordability, the tin whistle has become a popular household instrument, and is a good starter for children. It often adds a powerful accompaniment to vocals, and it's high natural tone provides a balance of range in multi-instrumental arrangements. The construction of a pennywhistle is very simple, as the whistle consists of only two parts. The first is the bore, a 1-2 cm tube where 6 holes are located. these are covered by the fingers to create the different pitches. The second part is the mouthpiece where air is introduced into the bore by the player. The whistle is tuned diatonically, which allows it to be used to easily play music in any major key. The whistle is identified by its lowest note, which is the tonic of the major key that it can play. The most common whistles are pitched in the key of D (the "Irish key"), G and C.


A popular woodwind found in traditional folk music is the recorder. This instrument is the most highly developed member of the ancient family of end-blown duct flutes. The oldest surviving recorder dates from about 1400 A.D. and early paintings show the recorder in use during the Middle Ages. The recorder came into tremendous popularly in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries being played among kings and queens and country gentlemen as well as the common man. It was even used by major composers of the day, such as Bach and Handel. During this time it was frequently used in lively performances, and it was continuously modified and often used to accompany soft instrumentation, such as the psaltery, lute, harp and voice. In the 19th and early 20th century, the recorder was all but forgotten as our modern orchestral flute grew in importance, but in recent years the recorder experienced a great revival. The recorder made its way to America at a relatively early date and many of the early settlers were no doubt familiar with it. The recorder adds its characteristic medieval tone to arrangements of early folk music, especially the music from the British Isles. It recorder is distinguished from other end-blown duct flutes by having holes for seven fingers and a single hole in the back for the thumb which also serves as an "octaving" vent. It can play all notes of the chromatic scale. In normal play, the player blows into the windway which directs a stream of air across a narrow gap to modulate the sound. Playing the recorder is more complicated than the pennywhistle but it is easy to play once you master the basics of fingering, blowing and tonguing effects. Most recorders are made in the following sizes: soprano in C; treble (alto) in F; tenor in C and bass in F.

Native American Flute

The Native American flute has been reported to be the third oldest known musical instrument in the world, with bone flutes dating back over 60,000 years. Drums were discovered first, and then various rattles were made, followed by bone whistles. Eventually more holes were added and the instrument was made larger. Over time the instrument evolved with different materials using whatever was available in the area. All types of hardwoods and softwoods were used at some point in time including cedar, juniper, walnut, cherry redwood, bamboo and river cane. Native American flutes evolved through many different configurations (2,3,4,5,6,7 or even 8 holes). In parts of the southern United States, river reed was used to make the flutes because it has a natural joint that serves as a barrier to help create the sound chamber. These types of flutes are relatively easy to make and play and led to the more modern design of what is commonly known as the "plains style" North American flute, which according to Richard Payne an authority on this subject, originated with the Ute tribe in North America and which is the type that most flute players use today. The Native American flute, like the recorder and pennywhistle is an end-blown flute that is held in front of the player. The player breathes air into one end of the flute and places fingers over the holes to produce the characteristic tones. Native American flutes comprise a wide range of designs, sizes, and variations - far more varied than most other classes of woodwind instruments. Modern versions of traditional flutes are mostly designed to play a minor pentatonic scale. The instrument was used to play the indigenous music of native American tribes throughout North America where singing and percussion were the most important aspects of the music, The development of the Native American flute added a new unique voice to their music and many songs were created simply for sacred and ceremonial purposes.


A typical ocarina is basically an enclosed body with four to twelve finger holes and a mouthpiece that projects from the body. It is traditionally made from clay or ceramic, but other materials are also used such as plastic, wood, glass, metal, or bone. The ocarina belongs to ancient family of end-blown flutes believed to date back over 12,000 years. Ocarina-type instruments were of importance in Chinese and Mesoamerican cultures in which the instrument played an important role in their long history of song and dance. The expedition of Cort├ęs to Mesoamerica resulted in the introduction of the ocarina to Europe. Both the Mayans and Aztecs produced versions of the ocarina, but it was the Aztecs who brought Europe the song and dance that accompanied the ocarina. The ocarina went on to become popular in European communities as a toy instrument. Then, in the 19th century, an artist from Bologna, Italy transformed the ocarina from a toy, which only played a few notes, into a more comprehensive serious musical instrument known today as "classical" ocarinas. From multiple developments across the world, there have emerged many different styles of ocarinas varying in shape, size, material of construction, and the number of holes. The best known style of ocarina, "the sweet potato" has a rounded shape and is held with two hands horizontally. Depending on the number of holes, which is generally 10-hole or 12-hole, the player opens one more hole than the previous note to ascend in pitch. By contrast, pendant-style ocarinas are very small and portable, and use a 4-6 hole fingering system devised by the Englishman John Taylor. Peruvian-style ocarinas with animal designs and 8-9 holes date back to the Incas where they were used as instruments for festivals, rituals, and ceremonies. Beginning in the late 19th century, several makers produced ocarinas with keys and slides. These mechanisms either expand the instrument's range, help fingers reach holes that are widely spaced, or make it easier to play notes that are not in the native key of the instrument. An ocarina works by blowing air into a windway where it strikes a labium or fipple within an internal duct to produce the sound. Air pulses in and out of the ocarina, as the vessel resonates a specific pitch. Covering different holes with the fingers lowers the pitch; uncovering holes raises the pitch. Blowing softly lowers the pitch; blowing harder raises it. Breath force can change the pitch by three semitones. This is why ocarinas generally have no tuning mechanism or dynamic range, and why it is hard to learn to play one in tune.


About the same time America was moving west in the covered wagon, a little musical instrument called a "mouth organ" or "French Harp" was introduced to America from Europe. Because it was small and portable, inexpensive and easy to play, it soon became a favorite folk music instrument of the pioneers, the western cowboys and the riverboat crews. Many of our traditional American folk songs were born on the harmonica. In the evenings, the sound of harmonica music could be heard from the campsites, as pioneers families would get together and share their music. Out on the prairie, lonely cowboys would entertain themselves by playing sweet lonely melodies on their instrument to pass the idle time. The blues harmonica, or so called "blues harp", is most often the type of harmonica used in folk blues music. Based on a pentatonic scale, the blues harp's lovely melodic sound and whining blues tones gives the instrument a special folk character not heard in any other musical instrument. The ease at which one can master the blues harp makes it an almost perfect instrument for accompaniment as well as solos. It's a favorite choice to take a break. Many a singer/guitarist of the Folk Revival period positioned the harmonica in a holder which fitted around the neck, so they could simultaneously add the flavor of the instrument to their guitar music. In particular, many old gospel songs are very expressive and emotional, and the harmonica lends itself perfectly to this type of music, for it expresses the feelings of the heart close to the human voice. Just a few bars of a good gospel tune, like Amazing Grace, is a tremendous way to bring a feeling of satisfaction to your soul. Harmonicas are unique since sound is produced by free reeds - small metal tongues arranged in rows within a metal or wooden frame. The airflow necessary for the instruments sound is generated by the player's breath. A harmonica is played by using the mouth (lips and tongue) to direct air into or out of one (or more) holes along a mouthpiece. Behind each hole is a chamber containing at least one reed. The reed is a flat, elongated spring typically made of brass, stainless steel, or bronze, which is secured at one end over a slot that serves as an airway. When the free end is made to vibrate by the player's air, it alternately blocks and unblocks the airway to produce sound. Reeds are tuned to individual pitches by changing a reed's length or weight distribution. Longer, heavier, and springier reeds produce deeper, lower sounds; shorter, lighter, and stiffer reeds make higher-pitched sounds. On most modern harmonicas, two reeds are affixed per slot for either blowing air or drawing air in the same air chamber. An important technique in performance on chromatic and other harmonica models is bending, causing a drop in pitch as the player applies the mouth to the mouthpiece. The many types of harmonica include diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, orchestral, chord harps and bass. The harmonica as we know it today, originated in Europe in the early part of the 19th century and modeled after the ancient Chinese reed instrument - the sheng - common in East Asia. The sheng was introduced to Europe around 1820 by a French missionary who had lived in China, and by the end of the Century, harmonica production was a big business in Europe. By the 1920s, the diatonic harp had largely reached its modern form. Diatonic harmonicas were designed primarily for playing German and European folk music and have succeeded well in those styles, and over time this basic design and tuning proved adaptable to the American types of folk music such as the blues, country, old-time and more. US president Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and the instruments provided solace to soldiers on both sides during the American Civil War. Frontiersmen Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the instrument, and it became a fixture of the American musical landscape. During the early 20th century in America, harmonicas were used in jug bands but the instrument represented a toy instrument in those years associated with the poor. But it was also during those years that musicians started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp which highlights harmonica playing today.


Accordions are a different kind of free-reed woodwinds where air is driven by bellows, referred to as a "squeezebox". The concertina is a related instrument. The accordion is one of several European inventions of the early 19th century that uses free reeds driven by a bellows. The accordion's basic form is believed to have been invented in Berlin in 1822. It was introduced from Germany into Britain 6 years later. The accordion's popularity widely spread across the world due to the waves of immigration from Europe to the Americas and other regions and it became a favorite of folk musicians who integrated it into traditional music styles all over the world. The accordion is played by compressing or expanding the bellows (often called the squeeze box) while pressing buttons or keys to allow air to flow across the reeds. These vibrate to produce sound inside the body. The accordion's body consists of two wooden boxes joined together by the bellows. These boxes house reed chambers for the right- and left-hands and facilitate the transmission of air in and out of the instrument to allow the sound to project better. The bellows is the most recognizable part of the instrument, and the primary means of sound production which is in direct proportion to the motion of the bellows by the player. The bellows is located between the right- and left-hands, and is made from layers of cloth, cardboard, leather and metal. It is used to create pressure and vacuum, driving air across the internal reeds and producing sound by their vibrations. Accordions have many configurations and types. The most obvious difference between accordions is their right-hand manuals; for example, piano accordions use a piano-style musical keyboard, while button accordions use a button board equipped to play chromatic or diatonic scales. Accordion size is not standardized, and may vary significantly from model to model. Accordions vary not only in their dimensions and weight, but also in number of buttons or keys present in the right- and left-hand manuals.


A concertina is a specialized free-reed musical instrument, similar in function to the accordion. It consists of expanding and contracting bellows, with buttons (or keys) usually on both ends, unlike accordion buttons, which are on the front. The concertina was developed independently in both England and Germany between 1829 and 1834, respectively. Both the German and the English forms of the concertina were used for the traditional music of eastern Europe, Ireland and England. Both systems continued to evolve into the current forms as the popularity of the instrument increased. The German concertinas were regarded as a lower-class instrument while the English (or Anglo) concertina had an air of bourgeois respectability. English concertinas were most popular as parlor instruments for classical music, while German concertinas were more associated with the popular dance music at that time, particularly polka music. The concertina was popular throughout the 19th century, but in the early 20th century, this popularity rapidly declined as demand for the accordion increased along with mass production of other instruments which were more suited to chromatic forms of music. So by the middle of the century, few concertina makers remained. Yet, the various forms of the concertina survived in some areas: Anglo concertinas in Irish traditional music, the Anglo in English Morris dancing, and the Chemnitzer concertina in the United States as a polka instrument. The folk revival of the 1960s led to a modest resurgence in the popularity of the Anglo-concertina in America and more recently, the concertina's popularity again seems on the rise.

Bag Pipes

Bagpipes are a unique woodwind instrument using enclosed single or double reeds (the reeds are never in direct contact with player's lips) fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. The Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are the best known examples in the Anglo world; however, people have played bagpipes for centuries, and they occur throughout large parts of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. There are bits of evidence of bagpipes dating to 1000 BC and some Greek and Roman writings suggest the presence of a bagpipe-like instrument as well. In the early part of the 13th century definite clear attestations of bagpipes appeared in Western European art and literature. They are explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (written around 1380). The first clear reference to the use of the Scottish Highland bagpipes is from French history, which mentions their use at a battle in 1547. This period saw the creation of the real music of the bagpipe, which reflected its martial origins, with battle-tunes, marches, gatherings, salutes and laments. Today, bagpipes are frequently used during funerals and memorials, especially among fire department, military and police forces in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the US. During the expansion of the British Empire, the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe became well known worldwide. This surge in popularity was boosted by large numbers of pipers trained for military service in both World wars. The surge however coincided with a decline in the popularity of many traditional forms of bagpipes which began to be displaced by traditional classical instruments. And due to their limited range and function, bagpipes in many regions fell out of favor. In recent years, however, often driven by revivals of native folk music and dance, many types of bagpipes have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. A set of bagpipes minimally consists of an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and usually at least one drone. Many bagpipes have more than one drone (and, sometimes, more than one chanter) in various combinations, held in place in stocks with sockets that fasten the various pipes to the bag. The most common method of supplying air to the bag is through blowing into a blowpipe or blowstick. In some pipes the player must cover the tip of the blowpipe with their tongue while inhaling, but most blowpipes have a non-return valve that eliminates this need. In recent times, there are many instruments that assist in creating a clean air flow to the pipes and assist the collection of condensation. The bag is an airtight reservoir that holds air and regulates its flow via arm pressure, allowing the player to maintain continuous even sound. The player keeps the bag inflated by blowing air into it through a blowpipe or pumping air into it with a bellows. Materials used for bags vary widely, but the most common are the skins of local animals such as goats, dogs, sheep, and cows. More recently, bags made of synthetic materials have become much more common. The chanter is the part of the bagpipe upon which the player creates the melody. It consists of a number of finger-holes, and in its simpler forms looks similar to a recorder. Almost all bagpipes have at least one chanter and it is usually open-ended, so there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. Thus most bagpipes share a constant, legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, technical embellishments are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of articulation and accents. Because of their importance, these techniques take many years of study to master. Most bagpipes have at least one drone, a pipe which is generally not fingered but rather produces a constant harmonizing note throughout play (usually the tonic note of the chanter). A drone is most commonly a cylindrically-bored tube with a single reed which may lie over the shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or may run parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which effectively alters the length of the drone by opening a hole, allowing the drone to be tuned to two or more distinct pitches.

Pitch pipe

The pitch pipe is a simple specialty harmonica that provides a reference pitch to singers and other instruments. The only difference between some early pitch-pipes and harmonicas is the name of the instrument, which reflected the maker's target audience. Chromatic pitch pipes, which are used by singers and choirs, give a full chromatic (12-note) octave. Pitch pipes are also sold for string players, such as violinists and guitarists; these pitch pipes usually provide the notes corresponding to the open strings. However, traditional pitch pipes are being rapidly replaced by digital electronic tuners with far more range and accuracy.