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Buying a Bagpipe

  1. Okay, my teacher says I´m ready for the bagpipe. What brand should I get?
  2. Wow, there are so many options. What does it all mean?
  3. When I buy a bagpipe, what all is included?
  4. What about mixing and matching components?
  5. What other bagpipe supplies should I get?
  1. Okay, my teacher says I´m ready for the bagpipe. What brand should I get?

  2. First off, don´t buy ANYTHING without first seeking advice from your instructor or some other competent player! And you should expect to pay $1,000 or more - perhaps a bit less for a decent used instrument.

    Brand preferences are subjective, but if I were shopping for myself I would consider Naill, Kron, Soutar, Dunbar, MacClellan, and MacCallum among others. There are a lot of good bagpipes being produced nowadays, and this is by no means a complete list.

  3. Wow, there are so many options. What does it all mean?

  4. Most of the best bagpipes are made of African blackwood or some other dense tropical wood such as cocobolo. A given manufacturer will make the less expensive instruments to the same internal dimensions as the more expensive ones, which means that the $1,000 set should sound the same as the $7,000 set. The difference is primarily the level of ornamentation - it"s "lipstick on the pig", as one industry insider puts it. The cheaper set might have plastic (imitation ivory) and/or nickel fittings, whereas the more expensive set might have real ivory or engraved silver. If you like the appearance of the more expensive bagpipe, and if money is not a problem, go for it. Otherwise, get the less expensive model and play it well and nobody will be able to hear the difference.

    Take as an example a typical middle-of-the road bagipe. The catalog description will say something like: "African blackwood, fully combed and beaded, with nickel ferrules and imitation ivory projecting mounts." Combing and beading refers to the decorative lathe work on the drones. The alternative is partial combing/beading or none at all, i.e., "plain." Ferrules are bolster rings - usually metal, designed to prevent the wood splitting. Projecting mounts are decorative knobs (plastic, metal or wood) on the drones. None of these features have any effect on the sound of the bagpipe. Some of the more economical bagpipes have what are known as "button mounts", which means that instead of plastic or metal knobs fitted onto the drones, there are small, integral knobs turned in the wood itself. It takes less work to produce a plain turned, button-mount bagpipe; hence the smaller price.

  5. When I buy a bagpipe, what all is included?

  6. The price you pay for a bagpipe will include the "sticks" (i.e., chanter, three drones and a blowpipe), a bag (which will be leather or, more likely, synthetic), a decorative cloth bag cover in some standard color, wool or silk drone cords, and a set of (hopefully) compatible reeds that have actually been tested in your bagpipe before it was shipped. The dealer (sometimes the manufacturer) should:

    1. install the bag,
    2. ensure that the pieces are hemped up to fit properly,
    3. select compatible reeds, and
    4. package everything so it will arrive to you in good condition.

    This is why it matters that you buy your bagpipe from someone who knows what he´s doing.

  7. What about mixing and matching components?

  8. Components can be mixed and matched and customized up to a point, so if you want a leather vs. synthetic bag, or a bag cover in some unusual tartan, or silk cords instead of wool, or an optional moisture control system or whatever, or one brand of drones and a different brand of chanter, you can have it your way if you´re prepared to pay the difference and possibly wait a bit longer for delivery. Consult with your instructor to learn what´s available and to better understand the ramifications of the various options.

    Size is also an issue. Bags come in different sizes and blowpipes come in different lengths. So if you´re an unusually small or large person, you´ll want to take that into account when placing your order. I´m 6 feet tall and I like a medium sized Bannatyne bag and a 10" blowpipe (measured from the bottom of the projecting mount to the end of the mouthpiece.) A standard sized blowpipe can have a longer or shorter mouthpiece installed if what you bought is off by a couple of inches.

    Most bagpipes nowadays come standard with a poly chanter. If you want a Blackwood chanter you´ll have to pay extra, maybe $150 - $200 more. Poly is okay for most players; only a real connoiseur will be able to tell the difference. Poly chanters are often issued by pipe bands because they are less expensive, dimensionally consistent (which aids in tuning a pipe band), and less fragile. Top-notch soloists tend to prefer a Blackwood chanter.

    In addition to the standard set-up, you should consider some kind of moisture control system. (I prefer the tube-style - preferably flexible - water trap such as the one made by Gannaway.) This will allow you to play longer without your reeds getting saturated. I also like the Peter Chrisler (or other similar brand) adjustable-length blowpipe.

  9. What other bagpipe supplies should I get?

  10. In addition to the bagpipe itself, you should get:

    1. A carrying case. Dimensions vary. As with everything else, get advice from your instructor.
    2. Miscellaneous maintenance supplies, including:
      • chanter cap ("reed protector") - get two: one for the chanter and one for the blowpipe; get the kind with a vent hole in the end)
      • stock stoppers (five size #3)
      • drone top stoppers (three size #0)
      • drone swabs and/or pull-through
      • hemp (I like pre-waxed yellow for most purposes)
      • cobbler´s wax (black wax) or a small piece of tar
      • beeswax
      • paraffin
      • tuning tape (1/2" electrical tape or similar)
      • reed scraping tool and/or fine sandpaper
      • bag seasoning (if you have a hide bag)
      • spare reeds
      • tie-in cord (nylon seine twine or synthetic sinew)
      • plummer´s teflon tape
      • cigarette lighter
      • woodwind bore oil
      • a conveniently sized box to put all this stuff in
    3. A comprehensive bagpipe maintenance manual. I like the College of Piping Tutor Vol. 2. This book has no tunes, just advice on how to make the transition from the practice chanter to the bagpipe. Other books worthy of note are The Pipe Major´s Handbook by Royce Lerwick, and The Care and Maintenance of the Great Highland Bagpipe by Ringo Bowen. The Jim MacGillivray videos are also very good and fun to watch: Volume 1 (Pipes Ready!) deals with setting up and maintaining the instrument; Volume 2 (Pipes Up!) is all about tuning.
    4. The Scots Guards collection of pipe tunes. These two volumes are the Bible of bagpipe music, and no complete piper should be without them.