Basics: Key and Materials Choice

Traditional Key of Bb

The majority of our fifes are in “Folk Bb”, the equivalent of “Concert Ab”.  This is overwhelmingly the most common key for fifes.  We have adopted the “folk” vs. “concert” terminology because it has been effective shorthand for us as we work with our clients who range from classically trained musicians to oral tradition musicians.

  • In the “folk” nomenclature, the fife is named for the note you hear with “all fingers down,” even though fife finger charts have traditionally been written with “all fingers down” showing as “D” on the staff.  Thus the fife is “folk Bb” because when you play the first note on the finger chart, with all holes covered, you hear Bb.
  • In the “concert” nomenclature, the fife is named for the note you hear when you play “C” as written on the finger chart.  When you play that note, you will hear Ab.  This is in keeping with the “naming” of classical woodwinds, and so flute or piccolo players may find this nomenclature more familiar than the “folk” style.
  • Regardless of how you name them, fifes are sharp to a standard piano or flute, with A447 or thereabouts depending on the model and maker.

The range of a fife is generally acknowledged to be 2 ½ to 3 octaves.

Choices of Wood

We offer our professional level fifes in grenadilla and rosewood, and our student models in persimmon wood and black plastic.

  • Grenadilla is also known as African Blackwood, and we source only the highest instrument grade material for our fifes.  Fifers who prefer grenadilla tend to describe it as “bright” and “clear.”  It is just a bit more delicate than rosewood, but requires just a bit less routine oiling; the color is very dark brown to black, and may have lighter brown streaks when new.
  • We use the best instrument grade Honduran Rosewood for our fifes.  Fifers who prefer rosewood tend to describe it as “warm” and having good “tone color.”  It is a bit more stable than granadilla, but requires a bit more routine oiling.  The color is reddish brown, and varies from quite light in shade to very dark.
  • Persimmon wood, also known as “American Ebony,” is a hard domestic wood that is light brown in color, ranging from blond to oatmeal color, with or without dark streaks.  While the exotic hardwoods are the best choice for a wooden fife, persimmon is a very good lower-cost alternative, with its tight grain producing a good quality bore.
  • We use FDA approved black plastic for our entry level plastic fifes.  Plastic is actually a very good choice for a student instrument; it is inexpensive, durable, washable, and plays easily.