Grey Larsen


The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle


Mel Bay Publications; paperback; 479 pages plus 2 CDs; 2003


Two of Irish traditional music’s essential dicta are that the best way to learn an instrument is from another musician and then hone your skills in the company of others at a session. However, this, of course, is not always possible, so the wannabe piper or fiddler might be forced to investigate other possibilities.  Recent tutorial developments, such as the series of interactive CD-Roms produced by Mad for Trad and Scoiltrad (the latter even offers a disc for budding spoons players!), have begged the question whether there is still a place for the old-fashioned instrumental tutorial book.


On the one hand, the CDs bring you as close as you can get to renowned musicians such as Cathal Hayden, Conal Ó Gráda and Seamus Egan, but, on the other, there is still something intimate and challenging about working your way laboriously through a written tutorial.


Then again, Grey Larsen’s gargantuan manual (some 480 pages and two accompanying aural CDs) is far more than your typical “here’s the tune transcription and fingering, now go ahead and play the damned thing” publication. To be blunt and, for once, use the cliché accurately, it is a sheer labour of love and about as intimate as such a publication can be.


Larsen is absolutely exhaustive in his approach, covering everything from the most efficient way to hold and blow either a flute or whistle to the delicacies of ornamentation and phrasing. Added to this are many excellent and informative photographs and illustrations together with transcriptions of numerous tunes with accounts of musicians who have played and recorded them, with telling details on their individual styles and approaches. So the reader can learn everything from the extremely intricate (e.g. triple-tonguing in jigs) to why Matt Molloy chose to play an E flat or spend time ensuring the correctness of their embouchure while reading about the best recorded performances of flute or whistle music.


Larsen’s website –  – has even more tunes and transcriptions while Mad for Trad and Scoiltrad can be found at and respectively.


This review by Geoff Wallis originally appeared in Songlines magazine.

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