Advice on Buying a Fife
Hello! My 13-year-old son has been trying to learn to play the fife. We had purchased a maple fife from a sutler, and my son's frustration with it led me to do some research, where I discovered that the fife we bought wasn't really a good choice.
Now we're looking at getting a fife from www.beafifer.com, but we're not really sure which of the Model F fifes would be best. On the website it says that the 'Grenadilla wood with long brass ferrules' is the most popular among CW reenactors. It also says that 'Cocobolo wood with long brass ferrules' fifes were played during the CW and ever since.
We're not sure which fife would be a better choice. Does anyone have a recommendation on either of these fifes? Any good/bad experiences? It's a chunk of change, so we want to be sure and make a good choice.
I have a rather old Cocobolo fife which is fantastic. I'd do this before you make the plunge into buying one of those - buy one of the plastic ones Ed has for sale (heresy I know, but that's what Ed has a lot of his students start out with). They're a heck of a lot cheaper so if your son, like so many other 13-15 year olds I used to play with back in the day, move onto other things as they get older you're not stuck with the investment. Heck I'll do this, I have one of those plastic guys floating around somewhere I'll send you just for the cost of shipping if you're interested...just send me a PM. Others will have varying opinions on this I'm sure, this is just one guy's.
The black plastic fife is an inexpensive musical instrument. Good for beginners.
The maple fifes from Cooperman are toys.
The Model F fife is a copy of a fife designed in the 1940s.
The Peeler Firth, Pond, and Co. reproduction is a copy of an actual Civil War fife. Firth, Pond & Co. had an Army contract on September 26, 1862 for 1,000 cocoa wood fifes. www.peelerfifes.com
Most fifers say that the Model F fife is easier to play than the Peeler Firth-Pond repro or original Civil War fifes. The choice comes down to authenticity or playability because the Model F and the Peeler both cost around $100. The Peeler Firth-Pond repro is about what the fifers during the Civil War had to play on. For a proficient fifer, the Peeler Firth-Pond repro should be just fine. Although not on his website, Ron Peeler also produces a copy of an original Ditson fife, which plays a little better than the Firth-Ponds, but costs more. Liberty Hall owns one of Peeler's Ditson repros, and the fifers who have played it think it is superior to Peeler's Firth-Pond. According to Ed Boyle, who sells the Model F, the original Ditson that Ron Peeler owns "plays far better than any fife I have ever tried that was made prior to 1867."
The term "rosewood" generally referred to Brazilian Rosewood in the 1860s. Brazilian Rosewood was probably the most commonly used wood for fifes in the 1860s, but unfortunately it is now commercially extinct.
African Blackwood aka Grenadilla resembles ebony, which was used to make fifes in the 1860s. True ebony would significantly add to the cost of fifes today.
Fifes and drumsticks were made from "cocoa wood" in the 1860s. The modern term is cocus or cocuswood. Cocus is also very expensive, if not commercially extinct.
Cocobolo, a true Rosewood, is a substitute for Brazilian Rosewood.
Liberty Hall Drum and Fife Corps
Thanks for your kind offer of the plastic fife, Matt, but my son is pretty dedicated to learning -- he was practicing very regularly on the sutler fife before we realized it wasn't really a musical instrument -- so I think we're going to go ahead and spring for a Model F. His birthday is in a couple of weeks, too, so the timing is good!
Thanks also to you, Will, for the information on the Peeler-Firth and the different types of wood. My son wants to be as historically accurate as possible, so he was fascinated to hear the historical background of the different types of wood used in the fifes. We're choosing a Model F right now for ease of playing, but will be keeping the Peeler-Firth site for future reference.
Thank you both for your helpful answers!
Keep an eye out on Ebay also. I picked up my Peeler-Firth used on there by someone with the intent to learn and never got around to it. Please post updates on his progress and ask away any questions you or he may have about fifing. There are tons of resources and sheet music available on-line free. Will Chappell's contact info is someone you really will want to keep in your back pocket. He is a wealth of knowledge and can tell you all about different tunes and which collections of music are correct for Civil War time peroid and which are not.
A tooter who tooted the flute
tried to tutor two tooters to toot
said the two to the tutor
"Is it tougher to toot
or to tutor two tooters to toot?"