The bagpipes seem like an unusual instrument, don’t they?
From parades to festivals and funerals, you must admit that this is quite a versatile musical instrument.
Once, purely associated with England, Scotland, and Ireland, bagpipes are now played worldwide by people of all tribes and nationalities.
For instance, there is no way a St. Patrick’s Day parade would be complete without playing the bagpipes!
Just as well, we now have pipe bands in numerous universities and high schools across America.
You must be feeling pretty excited about starting on this instrument, huh?
But how do you go about buying your first bagpipe? Well, I’m here to teach you all you need to know.
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Things to Consider for Beginners When Buying Bagpipes
How does a bagpipe work?
Well, the piper blows air through the blowpipe and into the bagpipe bag. This action results in the air getting pushed through the reeds. The reeds then vibrate and project a sound through the drones and pipe chanter.
The rich, resonant harmonics coming from a bagpipe are a result of a harmonious blend of the chanter and drones.
Now that we have that general idea in mind let us take a closer look at the workings of bagpipes.
Bagpipes are complex musical instruments, comprising a variety of parts. The main components you need to pay particular attention to are the pipe chanter, the drones, the blowpipe, and the bag.
1. Chanter / Pipe Chanter
This is the section that actually produces the melody notes.
To play, the piper holds the chanter vertically and fingers it similarly to how one would play the clarinet. The action of opening and closing holes by covering or uncovering them with the fingers is what produces different notes.
You’ll find that nearly all bagpipes have a chanter. Some sets even have two chanters.
The chanter has eight finger holes and two sound holes and is capable of producing nine notes.
You want to look out for nice drilled holes that are recessed. This recessed design makes it easier to keep the holes covered while playing.
Chanters come in three different sizes: long, regular, and junior.
Long and Regular Chanters have similar finger spacing, which is generally the same finger spacing found on a full bagpipe.
This design makes it easier to make the transition to the full bagpipes. Which also explains why most people prefer buying a long or regular practice chanter.
Though the finger spacing is similar, the length of the chanter isn’t.
Long Chanters have an added length that is nice for tall pipers. The extra length allows them to rest the chanter on the table as they practice.
Also, long practice chanters tend to have a more balanced sound.
Junior Chanters are the smallest, and also, the finger spacing is closer together.
Generally, these chanters are only used by pipers with tiny hands or children younger than 9 years old.
A reed is installed at the top of the chanter, and this reed is responsible for the high-pitched melodic notes coming from the chanter.
Air is pushed from the bag through the reed, thereby producing the sound for the chanter notes.
The norm is to have the chanter reed as a double reed design.
A double reed chanter comprises two tightly woven blades secured together and vibrating against each other.
The reeds may be made from Spanish cane, bamboo, or synthetics.
Cane is what was traditionally used and is known for its perfect tone. Synthetics are a modern approach, and they have exceptional reliability.
If the chanter reed fails, the bagpipe’s music cannot go on. Whereas, if a drone reed fails, the music can still go on.
The internal boring of a chanter can be such that the inside walls are parallel or cylindrical for its full length. Alternatively, the chanter can also be bored conically.
Double reeds are used in both conical- and parallel-bored chanters.
On the other hand, single reeds are generally limited to parallel-bored chanters.
Special Polymer Plastics are often used to make some pretty decent quality chanters. This material is famed for its durability and tonal qualities.
Additionally, plastic chanters have gained a reputation for their projection, pitch, and stability. Also, there is the fact that they can be used in bad weather.
One poly plastic may create a rich, mellow tone suitable for a solo piper, while another poly plastic creates a robust tone suitable for pipe bands.
African Blackwood is what’s commonly used for very high-quality bagpipe chanters.
This material has a high density and fine texture and produces musical instruments with an excellent tone. The durable hardwood is stable, stands up to metalwork processes, and it also takes an excellent finish.
Practice chanters don’t tune very well. So, if you are buying one intending to join a band, make sure you check to see if all members of the group use the same brand.
Nobody wants to have the chanter that creates a conspicuously higher or lower sound than the rest of the group.
As a beginner, you might think you would be better off with a low-quality chanter at first, but this is not the case. A low-quality chanter would inhibit your learning process, so you’d rather start with a higher quality chanter.
It’s pretty easy to get a decent quality chanter that doesn’t cost too much.
The drone is a pipe that generally produces a constant harmonizing note throughout the play. The role of the drones, therefore, is to project and amplify sound harmonically.
Depending on the type of bagpipes in question, the drones may lie over the piper’s shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or run parallel to the chanter.
Usually, there are three drones in a set: one bass drone and two tenor drones.
The Bass Drone is responsible for the characteristic low ‘humming’ sound that comes from the pipes.
This is the longest drone on a set of bagpipes.
The tone of a bass drone is one octave below that of a tenor drone, and precisely two octaves lower than Low-A on the chanter.
The Tenor Drones are responsible for the ‘humming’ sound that comes from the pipes.
The tenor drones are tuned one octave above the bass drone, and precisely one octave lower than the Low-A on the chanter.
Tuning Pin / Tuning Slide
Each drone is generally designed in two or more parts with a sliding joint so that the pitch of the drone can be adjusted.
The Tuning Pin, also known as a slider, is whereby an upper portion of the drone fits over a thinner diameter portion of the drone and can be adjusted for tuning.
Typically, there are four tuning pins found on a set of bagpipes: one on each tenor and two on the bass drone.
The Tuning Slide is the metal ornamental decorative sleeve that slides over the tuning pin, serving a purely cosmetic function; and doesn’t have an impact on the sound of the pipes.
This portion may be ornamented with nickel, silver, imitation ivory, imitation horn, etc.
Shortening or elongating the drones’ length allows the piper to tune the drones and find the desired note.
Tuning is done so that the drones can match the pitch of the chanter reeds. Shortening the length gives a higher pitch while lengthening it gives a lower pitch.
A Tuning Screw may be found on some bagpipes. This screw is inserted at the unseated end of a synthetic drone, and it alters the reeds’ pitch when screwed in or out.
The major difference is that with a tuning screw, the piper may shut off a drone altogether.
Similar to the chanter, drones also have reeds. The big difference is that drone reeds are single reeds, while chanter reeds are double reeds.
Single reeds only have one vibrating tongue.
Regardless of whether the reeds are made from cane or synthetics, your focus should be on reeds that are airtight, steady, and harmonic.
Drones have a parallel-bored (cylindrical) design, which is why they make use of single reeds.
The geometry and concentricity of the bore affect the quality and vibrancy of sound produced by the drones.
Also called a bushing, this is an inner disc that encircles the sound opening at the very top end of a drone.
The bush mellows the sound coming from the drone. A smaller bush opening results in a drop in the effective pitch of the drone.
This disc may be made from silver or synthetic ivory.
This is the silk rope-like material with tassels on both ends.
Drone cords are used to secure drones in position so that they don’t cross or fall apart from each other while playing.
This seemingly decorative feature, therefore, serves to keep all drones in an upright position for a comfortable playing posture.
3. Blowpipe / Blow Stick
The blowpipe is what gets air from the piper’s mouth to the bag.
To sound the pipes, the piper must continuously fill the bag, which takes a tremendous amount of physical endurance.
On one end of the blowpipe, you have a replaceable mouthpiece, and on the other end, you have a valve.
Blowpipe Valve / Flapper Valve
The purpose of the valve is to keep the blown air inside the bag, preventing it from coming back out through the blowpipe.
The one desirable feature, therefore, is that the valve be perfectly restrictive to airflow.
Traditionally, the valve would be made from leather, but modern blowpipe valves are made out of a combination of metal, plastic, and rubber.
The goal is to find a comfortable blowpipe length for you.
A blow stick that’s too short will have you stooping, thereby giving you back and neck pains. On the other hand, a blowpipe that’s too long will affect your marching and also lead to a sore neck.
In many instances, when pipers complain about their bag being too small or too big, the issue is, in fact, the length of the blowpipe.
An adjustable blow stick will be a good idea if the instrument is being bought for a youngster because then, they will grow with the bagpipe.
What’s the correct blow stick length?
With the right length, your head will be straight on your neck while holding the pipes, and your shoulders will be comfortably down.
The bag is an airtight reservoir for holding air and can be used to regulate airflow, thereby enabling the piper to maintain a continuous sound.
The keep the bag inflated; the player may blow air into it through the blowpipe, or pump air into it using bellows.
Once the bag is filled, the player squeezes the air out using his arm. This action pushes air through the chanter and drone reeds, thereby producing sound.
When the player is pushing air out using their arm, constant and steady pressure must be applied to the bag to maintain a steady tone from the drones.
You, therefore, need a tremendous amount of control and physical endurance.
Bags were traditionally made of sheepskin or cowhide. Now, they can be made from the skins of animals (sheep, goat, cow, dog, kangaroo, etc.); or from synthetic materials such as Gore-Tex.
Hybrid Bags are whereby the outside is made of animal hide, and the inside of the bag is a synthetic material.
Sheepskin Bags feel great under the arm seeing as they somewhat mold into the player’s body shape over time.
Also, these bags are a good option for pipers who need excess moisture to quickly escape the bag.
On the downside, sheepskin bags require to be seasoned regularly and renewed every few years.
Synthetic Bags are much easier to care for and maintain. However, this also comes at a disadvantage.
Because this material may not need to be cleaned frequently, fungal spores can form in the bag, consequently leading to lung infections.
Whichever material has been used, the bag has to be very airtight.
Synthetic and Hide will both give you the rigidity of a sheepskin bag, and have the advantage of being more convenient to clean and care for.
Bags that have been cut from larger materials are usually saddle-stitched.
An extra strip of material is folded over the seam and stitched (for skin bags) or glued (for synthetic bags) to enhance airtightness.
Holes are then cut to accommodate the stocks.
When a bag has been constructed from animal skin that’s mostly intact, the stocks are typically tied into the points where the limbs and head joined the living animal’s body.
This construction technique is commonly used in Central Europe.
The length of your upper arm determines the right bag width for you – not the length of your forearm.
This is because while playing, your wrist should be free; and not squeezing the bag. If your wrist is compressing the bag then that bag is too large for you.
5. Decorative Elements
Different bagpipe sets use different materials to create different looks.
Ferrules are metal rings found at the end of the stock or drone cylinder. Their role is to keep the wood from swelling and splitting.
Often engraved, these components may be composed of silver, nickel, or synthetic ivory.
Projecting Mounts are disc-like pieces that stick out on the drones and blowpipe. They can be little button mounts or standard large mounts.
Typically, they are made from silver, wood, or imitation ivory/horn.
Ring Caps are the ends of drones. This round piece of material encircles the top of a drone and is made from a material that matches the bush inserted into the top of the drone.
This material may be metal, decorative wood, plastic, imitation ivory, or horn.
Combing and Beading refer to the decorative turnings that consist of more or less tightly-spaced parallel ornamental ring groves carved into the drones.
The grooves are what’s known as combing, whereas beading is the wider sections between the combing. In contrast, plain-turned (unturned) bagpipes are mostly smooth.
Difference Between Beginner and Professional Bagpipes
Beginner Bagpipes are designed to be affordable, which is why the chanter, drones, and blowpipe are constructed from high-quality poly plastics.
At the same time, beginner sets are meant to be simpler to learn and easier to play. This is why synthetic or hybrid bags are preferred because they require less maintenance and are more durable than all-hide bags.
Their design is often more unadorned, to the extent that some beginner bagpipes do not even come with drones.
You just have the blowpipe, bag, and chanter, which allows you to focus on developing the right techniques first.
These techniques include learning finger patterns on the chanter, blowing air through the blow stick, and squeezing the air from the bag with your arm.
Even if the bagpipes have drones, the setup would still be an elementary set devoid of the bells and whistles.
Don’t expect to have projecting mounts or tuning slides or even combing and beading.
Professional Bagpipes are beautifully crafted complex full-size sets. The bagpipes are constructed from Blackwood and not only do they look beautiful, but they play magnificently as well with a more refined sound.
The excellent craftsmanship and higher quality materials used mean that you don’t require a lot of air to play. These sets offer better endurance and are more stable.
For all this, keep in mind that the price of the bagpipes also goes up, costing much more than what you’d pay for a beginner set.
Of course, you’d also get all the bells and whistles, seeing as professional bagpipes are very well adorned.
Very ornate sets can set you back up to several thousand dollars! Then again, many would consider this a small price to pay for a lifetime set of bagpipes.
Second-Hand Bagpipes: Is It A Good Idea?
I wouldn’t vouch for it.
Yes, used bagpipes are usually available for less, which is a good thing if you want a quality set but cannot afford to buy a new one.
However, a used set of bagpipes comes with a fair share of challenges, including:
- The bagpipes might need repair or restoration.
- The maintenance history is unknown.
- Some parts may not be original.
- The manufacturer could be unknown.
- There is no warranty or recourse.
At the same time, for health reasons, buying a new set of bagpipes would always require you to scrap the bag and buy a new one. Another precaution would be to re-hemp all the joint of the second-hand chanter.
New bagpipes are far less risky than used bagpipes.
With a new set, you know where the instrument came from, and you also know that it hasn’t been abused or neglected.
Buying a 100% original set that’s fully backed by the manufacturer’s warranty would be a much better option when purchasing bagpipes.
What Is the Best Brand of Bagpipes?
McCallum is a well-known brand, and their bagpipes are among the best in the market. This brand is known for its good volume and a solid tone on all their bagpipes.
At the same time, McCallum is dedicated to the best customer service, and if any issue arises with your set, they will work tirelessly to fix it. The fact that this brand is backed with a great warranty is another reason why McCallums are worth investing in.
For a first beginner set of bagpipes, McCallum would be an excellent choice.
Dunbar has poly (plastic) bagpipe sets that sound incredibly amazing. Being plastic also means that the pipes are affordably priced suitable for the beginner piper.
Just as well, Dunbar practice chanters are ideally suited for beginners. The pipes are thin, which makes it easy to hold, and they have small holes that even a kid can manage to cover entirely while playing.
You really can’t go wrong with Dunbar bagpipes.
Henderson pipes sound immaculate. The bass is big and stable while the bright tenors blend so well, you’d think you are playing on a single drone.
A classic rich, seamless, and robust sound is characteristic of all Henderson bagpipes, which is why the brand is so popular amongst pipers. Tonally, you would be hard-pressed to do better.
Naill makes heirloom-quality pipes that can be very costly, but incredibly worth it. The durable craftsmanship is spectacular, complete with hand-cut engravings, which is a nice touch.
These bagpipes deliver a nice bold sound that balances the bass and tenors, not to mention that the drones are easy to play.
FAQs About The Best Bagpipes for Beginners
Is It Hard to Learn the Bagpipes?
Bagpipes have a steeper learning curve than most musical instruments.
The physics of the instrument are a bit challenging and takes a while to master. Basically, don’t expect to play a beginner song on a full bagpipe until at least 6-12 months after your first lesson.
On the plus side, bagpipe music theory isn’t as complicated as most orchestral instruments.
How Much Does A Good Set of Bagpipes Cost?
A good set of bagpipes for beginners could cost you between $500-$1,000, on average. This is if the set is constructed using plastic.
For beginner-friendly Blackwood sets, you might spend about $1,200-$1,700 depending on the brand and features included.
When it comes to higher-end sets, don’t be surprised if you part with well over $3,800.
Are the Bagpipes Irish Or Scottish?
The kind of bagpipes that come to mind when you think of bagpipes are associated with the Scots, not the Irish people.
Irish people play a kind of bagpipe known as the Uilleann pipes, which is very different from the bagpipe we often relate to.
In Scotland, these Uilleann pipes are referred to as Union pipes.
Can You Teach Yourself Bagpipes?
You can, but your progress will be extremely slow, and you might not grasp the proper playing techniques.
It’s always advisable to take lessons if you can, as this also allows you to network and exchange notes with fellow pipers.
How to Play Bagpipes for Beginners
The most vital aspect of a bagpipe is the ability to produce a rich tone that’s steady, which you should always be on the lookout for.
Each set is going to sound different from the other, so pay attention to what sound appeals to you before choosing to buy a particular set.
Buying your first set of bagpipes will be a money- and time-intensive venture. Please don’t rush into a purchase.
Bagpipes- even beginner bagpipes can potentially last you a lifetime without needing to upgrade to fancier pipes. So, you’d want to take the time to make an informed choice.