Review of Chieftain Thunderbird’s Low D Whistle

Chieftain Thunderbird is one of the most popular low D whistles available. It was designed and built by Phil Hardy, who learned to make low whistles from Bernard Overton, the inventor of the instrument. Hardier has created a fairly loud low D whistle with a fat, reedy tone, hence the name “Thunderbird”. About a year ago, I bought this whistle because I was looking for a low whistle with a bit of oomph. Check out my full review!

The Construction

The Chieftain Thunderbird is entirely made from aluminum, unlike most low D whistles, which are made from plastic, Delrin, metal, and/or other materials. Since it is very solid, I often joke that it could be used as a weapon if necessary. It hasn’t yet been needed for that purpose.

Other than that, there isn’t much to say about the construction. The silver bracelet is certainly not fancy, and it only comes in one color (silver). It has a very simple elegance to it, and I actually prefer it over busier/more colorful whistles. One thing to keep in mind is that the surface does show scratches pretty easily. Buffing them out and polishing them periodically will keep your whistle nice and shiny. In my opinion, I don’t mind scratches on my instruments since I like them to look like they are mine.


Review of Chieftain Thunderbird's Low D Whistle

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The Tuning

When I originally ordered it, I thought it was a fixed-pitch low D. However, upon receiving it, I discovered that it was sharp in concert pitch (A=440). The whistle played well, but because it was a fixed pitch, I couldn’t keep it. A very polite Phil Hardy replied to my email and offered to exchange it with me without charge. The store I bought it from had a good return policy, so I sent it back and bought a tunable whistle instead.

I think that’s a relevant anecdote when it comes to choosing between fixed-pitch and tunable low D whistles. I have no doubt that I got a rare lemon, but most fixed Chieftain low D whistles are accurate. However, without a tuning slide, there is no wiggle room. Especially when playing with others, I like having the safety of a tuning slide to adjust as needed.

The tuning slide on the Thunderbird low D whistle works smoothly and allows plenty of tuning room. The seal is made with synthetic cork, and it comes pre-greased.

Chieftain Thunderbird's Low D Whistle

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The Breathing Requirements and Playability

The Thunderbird requires a lot of air, as do all low D whistles. There is a bit more effort involved than with the usual low D whistle, especially on the top. Consequently, it would not be my first recommendation for a beginner. It’s definitely manageable for anyone already proficient in playing the low whistle. After an adjustment period, even newcomers are likely to be fine.

Additionally, the reach is a little wider than other low whistles. Thunderbird has a wide cylindrical bore, and its holes are rather large. There is no option for ergonomic hole spacing, and players with smaller hands might find that it’s a bit too far to reach. I do not have any problem using the usual piper’s grip with my average-sized hands.

Thunderbird Low D 2018 NEW MODEL

The Volume

Chieftain Thunderbird low D whistles are designed for loud volume. The whistle is still not loud in comparison to most instruments, and certainly not in comparison to Chieftain’s high D whistle. It does, however, have a good deal more volume than a low D whistle. Hardy

On Chiff and Fipple and The Session I hear a lot of variations on “what low D do you play during a session?” Because of their inherent lack of volume, it’s really difficult to play a low whistle at anything but the smallest session. If, however, you want a low D whistle that at least has a chance of being heard, the Chieftain is a good option. A good amount of volume is present in the second octave, and the top of the first octave is also adequate. There will be a lot of distortion (F# & down), but any low D will sound that way. All bets are off if you sit next to someone who plays the banjo or accordion!

Low D Whistle

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The Tone

The low D whistle of the Chieftain Thunderbird has a powerful, full tone. While it won’t be mistaken for a recorder, it’s not nearly as breathy as some other low D whistles. The low octave has a nice, round edge with a dark edge. While the upper octave introduces more “chiff,” the tone remains quite round for the most part.

Flute-like whistles with a richer, fuller sound are preferred by some people. low D whistles like the Thunderbird’s are designed specifically for this application. This may not be the whistle for you if you’re looking for a “cosmic drainpipe” sound, breathier and a little more complex. The Chieftain V5 is designed to be softer, with more chiff and a more complex tone.

The Conclusion

In general, I think this is a great whistle for what I’m looking for. Although the low whistle is not a great session instrument, the Chieftain Thunderbird is at least audible in smaller sessions, which is more than can be said for most. The tone of this low D whistle is fatter and more robust than other low D whistles I’ve tried. I like this, but those wanting something more complex might prefer another model, like the Chieftain V5.

This whistle has one disadvantage: its reach. I have average hands for a man, so it’s doable, but not necessarily easy. Large holes and wide bores make it challenging. Trying before you buy is definitely advised if your hands are small or you struggle to reach. Those who find the Chieftain too tough might benefit from a more ergonomic whistle like the Dixon tapered-bore low D.

Phil Hardy’s Chieftain high low D whistle is another great instrument he has made. The Chieftain Thunderbird is one of the best low D whistles I’ve played, and works well for sessions, gigs, or just playing around at home.

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