If you hang around bagpipers in a band long enough and pay attention, you’ll eventually learn all these things. Curious people pick this up quickly and ask questions, some individuals actively seek out additional info online and elsewhere and some folks who don’t pay attention never really catch on.
When tuning, being tuned, or watching others being tuned, it becomes obvious who is playing their pipes regularly and who pays attention to maintenance. A properly maintained set of pipes should be easier to tune, be generally more reliable and less troublesome, and, less apt to let you down at a gig.
As a piper, you should be interested in the details of how your instrument works and understand how to make most adjustments, even if you need help doing so at first.
The goal of this outline is to provide a consolidated reference and help a new piper get up to speed more quickly.
Bags: it’s called a bag pipe, right? Bags come in a number of styles and sizes but they are all simply air reservoirs to enable supplying a constant stream of air to the four reeds in a Great Highland Bagpipe. Bags were historically made from hide, now they come in multiple types of hide (sheepskin, cow, goat, and elk leather) and several variations of “synthetic” which is typically Gore Tex.
Some bags have zippers which allow you to get inside the bag to install things like moisture control systems or to retrieve a reed which may have accidentally fallen in. Some bags are “tied in” and some have rubber grommets the “pipes” are inserted through. Some people believe that certain types of hide or tied in pipes sound better than grommeted pipes but for a beginner, these things are largely unimportant.
The bag does need to be air tight! This is tested by removing the chanter and drones and plugging the holes where they were and then, with the blow stick in, inflating the bag as tight as you can get it and observing any obvious leaks and remedying them. There are a number of places where a bag can lose air, we won’t get into all of those here but let’s say if your bag stays inflated and hard for over a minute, it’s fairly air tight and shouldn’t give most players an issue.
For an extreme demonstration of airtightness, watch this Piper’s Dojo video! Top players want their instruments in absolutely the best possible playing condition and this means a goal of close to zero air loss, meaning every breath you put in that bag is air for playing at the highest levels and not lost energy. Keep it up Andrew, Carl, and the rest of the Dojo crew!
Hide bags need to be seasoned in order to stay air tight and soft and not dried out and stiff. The frequency of needing to season depends on many factors such as climate, how often the pipes are played, etc. Synthetic bags do not require seasoning. The debate over bag types will likely go on forever and is not something we can solve here. Some people think hide bags sound better but it’s fair to say that any high-level player could get good results from either and for a beginner, this isn’t a major factor.
Fully synthetic bags do feel slightly flimsy vs. a hide bag and manufacturers have answered that with “hybrid” bags which have a suede like material bonded to the synthetic bag which provides some body and what many might consider a better feel. These differences really all come down to personal preferences.
Bag covers: a bag cover is exactly what it sounds like, it’s like a pillow case. Bag covers can be decorative but they are also functional. In addition to simply protecting the bag from sunlight, perspiration, and general wear and damage, many times, a bag cover has non slip patches that contribute to keeping the pipe bag solidly under the arm and not slipping down to an undesirable position.
Drones: this is what pipes are really all about, right? Made of certain types of wood like cocus wood, ebony, or African Blackwood, sometimes plastic, they generate the deep buzzy sound which compliments the melody being played, if properly tuned.
The single large drone is the bass, the outer two matching drones are tenors. The drones are tuned to the chanter but in lower octaves.
Most are ornamented with nickel or silver, some are engraved. Other areas such as the tops or caps have imitation ivory, stone or bone. Actual ivory is now illegal unless the pipes are older than a certain age but transporting those can be difficult due to restrictions. Many pipes with older plastics turn yellow, or orange; that older material is generally referred to as Catalin.
Bass drones have three sections, tenors have two. The top section of the bass drone is generally left in the same place with the hemp just showing and the lower section is moved up and down slightly to tune.
Drone reeds: like many other pieces of the bagpipe system, drone reeds are available in many variations. Originally, and now in resurgence among top pipe bands, drone reeds were hand made from cane. It’s equally common nowadays to see different shapes and sizes of “synthetic” reeds made out of plastic, carbon fiber, and moisture absorbing materials.
These reeds have adjustments we won’t get into here but they should definitely be seated very tightly into the drone so as not to come out at an inoppertune time and to make sure their vibration correctly resonates correctly through the drone. Some pipers like to leave a small tail of hemp still attached to them hanging out of the bag so if one falls out, it might be easily caught.
Drone cords: these are the thin rope like connections between the drones. They are functional in that they keep the drones equidistant and prevent them from flopping about out of control. They come in many colors and typically have ornamental tassels on the ends. Bands usually use a color that compliments their uniform. Sometimes they are covered with a tartan ribbon.
Look at how other pipers space them and look at yourself in a mirror while playing. Decide how you’d like to space yours and adjust them to your liking. it’s definitely a preference but at least pay attention and put some thought into how you’ve set them!
Keep an eye on them; when they get faded or frayed, have some pride, replace them!
Stocks: there are five stocks, one for the blow stick, one for the chanter, and three for the drones. They come with a set of pipes and match the material the drones are made from. Since stocks are an important part of where main pieces of the pipes come together, the hemp joints must be snug but not too tight. Joints that are too loose can come apart and joints that are too tight may be difficult to get apart when needed, it’s a balance and the fit should be regularly checked and corrected if needed. A seized joint can also possibly crack if moisture within it expands.
Blow pipe stocks are sometimes “split” into two sections to allow a water vapor tube trap to be inserted into the bag. Keep an eye on what other pipers are doing when assembling and disassembling their pipes; ask questions!
Some blow pipe stocks may also have a fitting threaded into them to allow for a quick connect / disconnect of a gauge to show blowing pressure in order to practice steady blowing.
Blowsticks: it’s a simple part of the pipes, it does exactly what the name implies. Some have round holes, some have oval holes, there are little rubber protectors on the ends of some and some have adjustable lengths and angles. Somewhere in the blow stick, at its end, or in the stock it’s inserted into, is a valve. The valve keeps air that’s already been blown into the bag from coming back out. I’ve heard that pipers used to make their own out of a piece of leather or rubber; I’m glad I don’t need to do that. The valve is an important part of the bagpipe system, it needs to be air tight.
The length and angle should be comfortable to enable optimal playing.
Like many other things, pipers have strong opinions on valves too. Use what works for you!
Pipe Chanter: there are many pipe chanter makers and pipe chanters also come in wood and plastic. A full set of pipes doesn’t need to come with a chanter from the same company and most bands typically play with matching chanters, and usually reeds as well, especially bands who compete. It seems generally accepted that wood and plastic sound the same or pretty close though most bands issue plastic ones, maybe somewhat do to cost (wood costs more) and maybe plastic is a more stable material from chanter to chanter when you are interested in tuning a band to sound as one.
Chanter caps: chanters are not kept in the pipes when they’re not being played since the bag is a moist environment and reeds, which are made of a natural material (cane) will mold if not allowed to dry out a bit. A chanter cap is basically a protective cover secured over the end where the reed is to keep it from being damaged when out of the pipes. You can use almost anything that works but there are caps made for this purpose and many have humidification / drying systems built into them to keep the reed in a stable environment when not being played. This makes tuning quicker and easier and may even make reeds last longer.
Most caps have some sort of screw that keeps it secured on the chanter. You should put it on with the screw facing the same direction each time because the screw will create a flat spot where it contacts the hemp on the chanter. Facing it the same way each time will keep the flat spot in the same place rather than creating multiple ones across the entire surface of the hemp. A common practice is to align the screw with the high A hole so it’s easy to find and remember.
Chanter reeds: more than almost anything else, chanter reeds are frequent source of mystery and frustration for many pipers. Do players of other wind and reed instruments have the same problems? It’s simple, two pieces of cane shaped in opposing halves bound to a small metal tube tightly with something like hemp. Inserted or “seated” in the chanter, it’s what makes the pipe melody. A little too dry, a little too moist, it’s sharp or flat, it’s always changing. Some are too hard to blow, some are too easy, some have single notes that sound bad, some don’t last very long. Even when non-pipers hear a bad or poorly tuned one, they know it! When people say they hate bagpipes, this is generally why. A piper obviously needs to be able to play a tune well but even a well played tune on a poorly tuned chanter will sound awful.
A successful synthetic pipe chanter reed has yet to be made.
Reed strength is sometimes tough to get right and as reeds age, they “brake in” meaning, they get easier. The strength of a reed can be measured by a gauge. It’s not really a precise measurement, more like a range. If you find a reed you can play comfortably, ask someone with a gauge to help you measure what you’re able to play and then in the future, at least you have a number to shoot for. Places that sell reeds or Pipe Majors & Sergeants will be able to set you up with a reed near your playing ability.
Playing a reed that is too difficult to blow will impair your ability to play well. It’s OK to ask for an easier reed and reeds can be slightly altered to make them easier. This can also shorten the life of a reed. A weaker reed may also not sound as loudly.
Hemp: it’s called hemp, it was probably actual hemp in the past, who knows what it actually is now, it’s more like heavyweight cotton thread. It currently comes it three basic types; yellow unwaxed, yellow waxed, and black waxed. There is some black magic and strong preferences here too but at the most basic level, it’s meant to be wrapped around pieces (joints) that go together to keep them snug and air tight. Unwaxed hemp will absorb more moisture and waxed versions repel it a bit better. Things like cobbler’s wax or beeswax are sometimes used in the piping world to moisture proof hemped joints.
Hemp should be wrapped neatly, evenly, and tightly around any joint where its used. Its importance can not be overstated, it’s a very important part of proper pipe maintenance. With a little experience, you’ll learn to hemp joints that slide somewhat easily but are tight enough so they do not move or come loose on their own.
You should be very adept at adding hemp as needed or removing all hemp from a joint and completely reapplying it in a neat manner appropriate for differing connection points.
Tuning: there’s no question, tuning is a black art! Well, not really, but it does take some practice. You will need to do it a lot and ask questions and maybe watch some videos and ask more questions.
Electronic tuners, specifically some of the apps on mobile phone devices, are a pretty helpful tool as you learn to tune your ears to tune your pipes. Practice makes perfect!
The low A on the chanter is basically an octave apart from the high A and the tenor drones are an octave below the chanter and the bass is an octave below the tenors.
re: the above, that’s my non music educated understanding, if I got it wrong, please explain it to me.
The notes in between the low A and high A should sound like a natural progression up and down the scale; it may take a bit of listening and practice to identify an individual sharp or flat note but your instincts will develop quickly if you listen to pipe music.
Sinking a reed further into the chanter will make it slightly sharper and raising it will flatten all notes. Tape is used on the top end of chanter holes to make individual notes flatter. Sometimes it is necessary to carve the tops of individual note holes to make one sharper but this should generally be avoided.
Drone reeds have some tuning adjustments as well but they are more for fine tuning, most drone tuning is done by simply moving drone segments up or down.
As previously stated, you should care about this stuff. There are a number of piping podcasts. YouTube channels, and websites which share this sort of info. Watch the pipers around you, ask questions, and experiment. Have a look at the online pipe supply stores such as Henderson’s, Piper’s Hut, Lone Star Piper, Lee and Sons, etc. Familiarize yourself with options and learn what other pipers are doing!