By Claude J. Bauer
Even though it’s a simple instrument, buying a fife can be confusing—new players often ask questions such as: Which key should I get? What model? What vendor has the best fife? How many holes? One piece or two? What color, black or brown?
You can buy a simple plastic fife from several vendors such as Cooperman and Be a Fifer for around $12. These are good for beginners who are not sure if they’re going to continue and for kids, who may lose interest.
For the budget minded, there are “Student” level persimmon fifes available from Cooperman for around $50. Some people find these difficult to play, and some vendors counsel that you should avoid wood fifes that sell for under $100. On the other hand, some people have no problem with them and some schools and corps use them for their fife and drum programs—it’s a matter of personal experience. If you can afford it, however, it’s best to go straight to a professional level fife, since they aren’t that much more expensive.
Professional Level Fifes
There are numerous models of “professional” level fifes available from a variety of makers at reasonable prices. Any of the following 6-hole, one-piece, Bb instruments would be a fine choice for a Civil War era field musician:
"Cloos" Reproduction in Bb (http://musiquemorneaux.com/
Musique Morneaux sells a "Cloos" Reproduction fife, and says it is copied from a model fife made in the late 19th century by George Cloos of NY. Nickel-silver tapered ferrules, key of Bb only. Really popular design for some Civil War impressions and amongst fife & drums corps from the late 19th century through the 1950s. Prices range from $190 - $220 depending on the wood.
“Model F” fife from Be a Fifer (http://beafifer.com/)
The Model F is made from Grenadilla wood with short or long ferrules. The Model F is priced at $129.95. Long ferrules were more common to the Civil War era. Thousands of fifers have started with a Model F, and many never left it.
Cooperman Fifes (http://www.cooperman.com/fife-news/traditional-bb-models-professional/)
According to Cooperman, the visual design of “Traditional Model” fifes is patterned on museum pieces, and this simple shape with the swell at the mouth hole, a soft taper to the foot, and long brass ferrules is appropriate for 18th and 19th century representations. It is a powerful instrument for field music, and will provide both the authentic look and sound needed for this type of performance.
According to Peeler, during the mid to late 1900's the Ferrary fife was the instrument of choice for fife and drum corps throughout the Connecticut River Valley and beyond. It possessed a clarity that was distinctive to this instrument. Today, a fife made by Ferrary sells for two or three times its original asking price on auctions held online. To meet the need for such an instrument today, Ron Peeler has re-created the traditional Ferrary fife in both look and playability. The Peeler "Ferrary" Model fife has shorter polished ferrules that were a trademark of this instrument.
The Ferrary reproduction fife is priced at $125.
Cleaning and care
Fifes are very durable but require care like any other musical instrument—they need to be cleaned and oiled regularly and stored in appropriate conditions. You should get a cleaning rod for your fife and a supply of bore oil to maintain the wood. These are available from Be a Fifer, which also sells leather cases that attach to your belt—a good accessory to have.
Happy fifing! See you out there!