I graduated from Gr. IV Sr. to Gr III in the
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
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
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
spacecraft instrumentation for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
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
and glued on, the bores are perfectly round. And they sound
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.
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
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
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
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
the pipes, the cane reeds would become unmanageable for several days
they reabsorbed enough moisture to play properly, and often required a
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
perfect for playing in a band, but sharper than my would be to my
don't use this chanter except for playing with the band, whether in
or in a performance. Because of its high pitch, this chanter
really play nice with other instruments.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
- a sound that is somewhat unpleasant to a piper's ear. I'm
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.
be honest, I bought them for the reedcaps, to use with my other
as a combination mouthpiece/reed protector.
From the primitive
to the modern... I learn most of my tunes on a Deger electronic
(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.
In January 2004, I purchased
a set of Scottish smallpipes in cocobolo from
, 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
! 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.
I 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
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
(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.