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Bagpipes and Bagpiping

The Great Highland Bagpipes (a.k.a. Irish War Pipes, A' Phiob Mhòr):


    I began studying the bagpipes with John Sprague in March/April 2001, taking lessons at his home in Springfield, VA.  John is an excellent piper, a former top EUSPBA competitor in Grade I, and the Pipe Major for the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums.  I have been grateful to study with him; a curmudgeon, skeptic, and iconoclast, John cuts through the nonsense seen all too often in the piping world, and approaches music, technique, and equipment with an analytical eye.  In my quest to become a "folk piper", I could easily have given over to sloppy technique, but John's keen Regimental ear keeps me in line, right where I need to be.


    I graduated from Gr. IV Sr. to Gr III in the Eastern US Pipe Band Association in fall 2005, after placing 4th in overall points out of 787 pipers in the grade, with 2 Above Grade Level marks.


    In April 2005, I was inducted as a member of the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums as a piper, after rehearsing with the band off and on for about 16 months. CAPD is a competitive Grade IV band, and is undergoing an intensive building program. The band is a staple of events in Alexandria, VA and the greater Washington DC area, and is one of the few band in the area that parades in full dress.


    Pipers place a lot of stock in their equipment, but no two pipers can agree on precisely what makes a good set of pipes!  So rather than editorialize on that, I'll just talk about what I use.

My Pipes     I play a set of bagpipes from C.E. Kron and co., which I received in the spring of 2002 (left).  Kron calls these their "#1b, standard pattern" set.  With silver on the ferrules and tuning pins, and artificial ivory on the projecting mounts and drone tops, and featuring a fancy blowpipe with an artificial ivory bulb and and silver mouthpiece tube, these pipes are eye-catching to say the least.

    These truly are a magnificent set of pipes.  The quality of manufacture is incredible.  When I first got the "sticks" for them, I showed them to a co-worker of mine, who designs spacecraft instrumentation for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.  He simply couldn't believe that they'd been turned by hand. The grain of the blackwood is dense and well seasoned, the fittings are both threaded and glued on, the bores are perfectly round.  And they sound magnificent.  

    I play with a synthetic bag now on this instrument, for ease of maintenance and replacement. I am also playing with the CAPD's signature green bag cover and silk cords.  

Rockets     To get the most out of the drones, I use a set of Mark Lee's Rocket reeds, which my teacher ordered for another student who never claimed them. So I threw down the cash, and they were mine.  Rockets are custom built for each set of bagpipes, and generally don't work as well if swapped out.  So while the tenors were fine, the bass drone reed tuned too high on the pin, and Mark made me a new one, after my instructor took measurements of my drone.  The tenor drone reeds use glass tongues, while the bass drone reed uses a carbon fiber tongue, easing some of the "buzz" of my bass drone.  The Rockets are well designed (and widely imitated).  They're meant to be easily disassembled for cleaning, and easy to adjust.  The bridles are a standard size rubber O-ring, and can be easily replaced.  I love them!  I also sometimes play cane reeds, and was perfectly happy with cane before I got the chance to  pick up the Rockets, but if ever I went more than 3-4 days without playing the pipes, the cane reeds would become unmanageable for several days until they reabsorbed enough moisture to play properly, and often required a new bridle.

KronTone band chanter     For playing with the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums, I've been issued a KronTone delrin band chanter (left), which tunes to a typical band pitch, somewhat sharper than B-flat (A = 474 Hz).  It's got a bright, piercing tone, perfect for playing in a band, but sharper than my would be to my taste.  I don't use this chanter except for playing with the band, whether in practice, or in a performance.  Because of its high pitch, this chanter doesn't really play nice with other instruments.

Medallist     The chanter I play most of the time is a Medallist solo chanter (right), in blackwood with artificial ivory sole and bulb, also from Kron.  It's a bright chanter, and very loud -  but very pleasant.  It is easy to reed, and very well tuned.  In fact, I'm not currently using any tape on it at all.  As an added bonus for me, it tunes very low, at about concert B-flat (A = 468 Hz), which may be flatter than most judges like, but would make it a lot easier to play with other instruments. 

Brian Boru chanter     Another chanter I own is called a Brian Boru, or keyed chanter (right), which I purchased from the great ethnic music store, Lark in the Morning.  The Brian Boru chanter is generally associated with Ireland, and has been played by Irish bands, though it is currently out of favor.  This chanter is made in ebony, with pin-mounted nickel silver keys and nickel silver sole, and is pitched at about A = 467 Hz.  I finally figured out the fingering for this chanter, which is one note above that of the Highland chanter. That is, to play an A, I finger a B. The range of the chanter is a chromatic major scale from low F# to high D (or from low G to high Eb in concert tuning). This extended range allows for a number of tunes otherwise unaccessable on the pipes, such as Amhran na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem.  Reeding it has been a challenge, and I'm still looking for the right match for it. Learning tunes for it is even harder, because of the different fingering. I have found the best success when I transpose tunes up a whole step, suppress the key signature, and play the tune as if I were fingering a Highland chanter. Furthermore, there's no ornament system for playing in this chanter, so a player has to invent his own. Because of my other obligations, I don't spend much effort on this chanter, though I imagine I'll want to have the kinks worked out for my first St. Patrick's gig, I think!

    The pride and joy of my pipe collection is a set of karanda (a brown Indian hardwood) pipes turned in the early 18th century style. This particular set of pipes began life in 1993, made by a newer Edinburgh pipemaker called Kilberry. In their original incarnation, these pipes were essentially a modern set, with heavy beading and combing, but had 18th-century inspired chalice tops and wooden mounts and nickel silver ferrules. Inquiries to Kilberry to get pictures of their original condition were a dead end - though they were bought as-is in Kilberry's shop in Edinburgh by their original owner, Al Saguto, Kilberry's representative claims that any chalice-topped set would have been a custom order, and they made very few karanda sets period. Kilberry was a brand new maker at this time, and Al speculates that the company had developed a number of experimental sets to try to capture their own niche in the bagpipe market. Al, a reenactor portraying the French & Indian War period, saw their potential for use for living history. He took them to George Wilson, the Master Musical Instrument Maker of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1994 to be remade. George took off the thin nickel-silver ferrules and mounts, and replaced them with pewter, poured directly onto the wood in molds, then turned to shape. In addition, he turned out all the beading and combing, making the pipes match 18th century examples, like the famous Waterloo set, plain turned with simple gouges for decoration. Because of some small cracks he noticed, Al had the the stocks and blow pipe reinforced with brass sleeves in 2005.
Kilberry Custom 1 Kilberry Custom 2 Kilberry Custom 3 Kilberry Custom 4 Kilberry Custom 5 Kilberry Custom 6
    The only other pipe maker producing a similar reproduction is Julian Goodacre, whose prices and backlog are legendary. Goodacre makes an exact copy of the Waterloo drones, horn mounted, and this set is played by the famous piobaireachd player, Barnaby Brown. Wanting to stand out on his own, and perhaps tired of being asked if he was playing the "Barnaby Brown" pipes, Al had a new set commissioned from scratch, copied from the Gordon Highlanders drones. Soon he found he was playing the older Kilberry set less and less, and felt it imperative to find them a good new home. I met Al when he dropped by my Jacobite unit's encampment at the Williamsburg Highland Games in September 2006 to chat with his old friends, Dan Gilbert and Gerry Orvis. He watched me playing piobaireachd in my 18th century garb on my pseudo-period Dunbars (below), and told me of his pipes, offering to sell them for 1/7th the price I would have paid Julian Goodacre. I borrowed them for a week to play on a trial basis, reeded them up, and quickly sent him a check.
    This is truly an amazing set of pipes. I've reeded this up with cane, and it has a plain leather bag and green wool cords. The drone bushings are actually quite small, and produces a wonderful, warm tone - the lower pitched, the better. Al also had a horn mouthpiece turned, colored a wonderful blend of black and cream-white, which I use for reenacting events. For practice, I use a Delrin mouthpiece. Like 18th century pipes, I chose to tune these very low, around concert A (A = 440 Hz). This set of pipes is especially good for piobaireachd - the low warm sound is quite pleasant, especially when played with the chanter below. Beyond the sound, the level of historical accuracy on this set is amazing, down even to the short blowpipe, and are a valued addition to my reenactor's kit. While karanda wood would probably have been available in the 18th century, its brown color is identical to that of 18th century pipes in Scottish museums made of local fruitwoods.

A440 chanter     For these pipes, I play a chanter in A from Hamish Moore (left).   This chanter is a reproduction of an 18th century chanter, so it pitches naturally much lower than the modern chanters.  This is a very mellow blackwood chanter, but it's much more difficult to reed, though I found that the Gilmour reed is a good match. Despite the reeding issue, I really like this chanter, especially for piobaireachd.  The accidentals sound great on this one too. My ear (which is a fiddler's ear) really responds to the lower pitch and warmer tone of the A-chanter.  My teacher, a strict band piper, was skeptical of pitching pipes to this intonation, but he agreed to help me reed them up nonetheless. He spent almost 30 minutes tuning the chanter, playing it until the reed settled in, and I could see in his eyes the instant he "got it", and understood why I love this intonation. He finished tuning, and said, "Can you imagine a whole band playing like this?" Ultimately, I'd like to get a second chanter of this type turned with Karanda wood, to match the Kilberry pipes.

Dunbar Poly P1     I also play a second set of pipes pitched around concert A. This set of pipes is a set of Poly P1s from Dunbar Bagpipes, turned in the style of 18th century bagpipes. The synthetic construction makes these pipes inexpensive and very durable, less sensitive to temperature, and totally insensitive to moisture. The period styling permits me to play them in reenactments in poor weather or at rowdy bar gigs (when I don't want to bring out my Kilberrys), and as long as one doesn't look too closely, one might think they're made of ebony, as pipes began to be in the 18th century, so would serve as decent reenactor pipes. I now play these with a MacCallum A-440 polypenco chanter and a hybrid Gortex/hide bag, with blue silk cords and a blue bag cover with a white fringe. The joints use cork, rather than hemp (modified for me by my friend Lydia Mackey), and will ultimately use custom synthetic drone reeds. The goal is to have a set of pipes I can leave unplayed for six months, grease the cork joints, stick in a chanter reed, and be ready to play in ten minutes.

Reedpipe     Another chanter I own, but rarely play, is a Highland Reedpipe (right).  I own two, actually, also from Lark in the Morning.  Essentially, it's a pipe chanter with a mouthpiece, looking for all the world like a practice chanter.  This one appears to be made of rosewood and is likely of Pakistani manufacture.  It tunes low, close to A = 440 Hz, and has a timbre much like that of a shawm or bombarde - a sound that is somewhat unpleasant to a piper's ear.  I'm hoping the right reed will improve that.  I suspect that the Reedpipe in its various forms (such as the bombarde of Brittany and the piffaro of Italy) is the cousin of the conical bore chanter bagpipe.  To be honest, I bought them for the reedcaps, to use with my other chanters as a combination mouthpiece/reed protector.

Deger Pipes     From the primitive to the modern... I learn most of my tunes on a Deger electronic chanter (left), and before my pipes arrived, did almost all my practice on them.  Now, I mainly use them for practicing where I don't want others to hear or can't play the full pipes, such as on a plane or the Metro.  But these pipes are fantastic.  They have a great sound, a built-in metronome, can change the pitch of the fundamental across more than an octave, adjust the volume level for the drones, and switch to a Scottish smallpipe sound.  I've also plugged them into a PA system and a 15W practice guitar amp, and they sound awesome.  Next to try: effects pedals.

Scottish Small Pipes:

Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 1 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 2 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 3 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 4
Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 5 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 6 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 7 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 8 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 9 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 10 Tidy Cottage Smallpipes 11
    In January 2004, I purchased a set of Scottish smallpipes in cocobolo from EJ Jones, the piper for The Rogues of Scotland and Jiggernaut (formerly with the Willow Band and Clandestine), who has just opened a smallpipe shop. These are the sixth set of pipes EJ has ever made, and look and sound great! The smallpipes came with a chanter in A, and EJ has also made me a chanter in D as well. There are 4 drones, an alto D/E (can be tuned to either), tenor A, baritone D, and bass A. The change in humidity in moving from Houston to DC in winter was very hard on them, especially on the reeds, so EJ has spent a lot of extra time tinkering with them for me. While in EJ's hands, these smallpipes started the process of becoming more famous than I am, as EJ played them with my new D chanter in "Broom of the Cowdenknowes" on the Ed Miller album, Generations of Change! After their second servicing (this time to fix a cracked mount from the dry DC winters), they came back better than ever, with the reeds taking very little air, making the instrument a joy to play.

I now have a border/reelpipe chanter for this set on order from EJ, to play as an interim solution while I wait for him to make me a set of drones. EJ assures me that the border chanter will work with smallpipes drones, though it will tend to drown them out.

Uilleann Pipes (Union Pipes, Piob Uilleann):

Practice Uilleann     Daye ChanterI don't have a true set of Uilleann pipes yet, and probably will not have one for a while. I may even skip the Uilleann pipes altogether, and instead learn their antecedant, the Pastoral Pipes, which are very similar, but are played with an open end and have a foot that extends the range a whole tone below the Uilleann's. I do own a set of all-synthetic practice Uilleann pipes made by Bagpipes Galore (left).  This is a nifty practice instrument, a great way to learn the instrument. However, after many attempts with it, I found I was never happy with the chanter. I bought a synthetic penny chanter from David Daye (right), a brass chanter with a cosmetic polypenco exterior that uses real cane Uilleann chanter reeds, and used it with the existing bag, bellows, and chanter top. This was a huge improvement, though it's a tricky compromise on the reed bridle to get the low D to sound quite right. But the second octave is great. The next improvement to this set is to make a wood fitting and black leather cover for the plastic air tube so I can use it with the much more comfortable smallpipes bellows above.

The page background is the Walker family tartan, registered by Robert Walker Hawks of Tennessee in 1991.

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Last Updated 25 December 2006, 11:02 PM ET