From the Archives…..Advice on Working With Reeds and How to Test a Chanter’s ‘Resistance’

This article headlined ‘A Few Words for Novices’ is from ‘Piping and Dancing’ magazine of December 1935. Eighty-four years may have passed since it was written but the author’s advice still holds true today……

My last article was written with not a few misgivings. One naturally hesitates before giving advice of any kind to pipers – even to novices. Most pipers hold very definite and hard and fast ideas on the question of reeds, and to make any attempt to alter these ideas seems to me to be asking for trouble. Still, I excuse myself on the point that what I am about to say is necessary.

If I remember rightly, my last notes ended with the injunction, ‘leave them alone’, which, in my opinion, is very sound advice. To leave them alone is certainly the best thing to do, but, unfortunately, few of us have patience enough to do so. I propose, therefore, this month to devote my space in answering a correspondent. His difficulties are common enough.

Before I begin, I should like to point out that I shall not be able to deal with all the various situations which might arise. I shall content myself by merely dealing with a general case. He asks if I will give ‘further and fuller advice as to the treatment of a new chanter reed, and the proper setting of same’, adding, ‘I have always great difficulty in this matter’.

Of course a great deal depends on the chanter. If the chanter is badly balanced, no amount of setting the reed will rectify this deficiency. If there is the slightest possibility that the chanter is to blame, I should send the chanter, or take it, to the pipe-maker, and get the expert there to select a suitable reed, and at the same time get his advice on the chanter.

A good chanter, among other things, should possess ‘resistance’ – a quality which is not properly understood by scores of pipers. The word is self-explanatory, and can be tested by closing on the low G, and blowing until the reed skirls. The chanter, which takes most wind before skirling, possesses the greatest resistance.

There is no need to go into all the advantages which ensue. The chief one is that the chanter can take a weaker reed. I should advise pipers to try this experi­ment on several chanters, in each case, of course, using the same reed. It might explain a lot. If your chanter has little resistance, get a new one as soon as you can afford it. It will pay you in the long run.

Regarding the balance of the chanter, I leave that to each individual piper. His ear will tell him. Peculiarly enough, reeds possess or do not possess, similar qualities which can be tested in like manner. Should the new reed possess no resistance, scrap it at once, because it will never be of any use. Instead of improving, it will get worse as the blades become weaker.
What I have just said about resistance in chanters and reeds should be tested, as I consider it of vital import­ance. Try it out !

Let us assume, then, that our chanter possesses a fair amount of resistance, and that we are about to insert a new reed. What kind of reed do we require? In the first place, let us remember that a new reed gets weaker with playing, and so the new reed, therefore, must be stronger than we finally require it.

There are two alternatives. Firstly, to pick a new reed slightly stronger than we require or, secondly, to pick one much stronger than we require. In the first place, do nothing to the reed except to adjust it in the chanter until it is roughly at the pitch required, and play it like that for several days. If, at the end of that time, it is too flat, as it should be, lower it in the chanter until it suits. Afterwards, continue the same treatment. If the reed is a good one, it should give no further trouble. I believe this method is the safest and best, mainly because it necessitates, except for a few minor adjustments, very little actual tampering with the reed.

An advert for MacRae Bagpipemakers from the same magazine confirming their founding in 1910. The firm was later absorbed into Grainger & Campbell based at the same address and where P/M Donald MacLeod went to work after he left the Army in the 1960s. MacRae pipes are still made today but by McCallum Bagpipes

Perhaps a few words of explanation and warning are necessary at this point. A new reed, after exposure to moisture, almost invariably opens, and thus becomes flatter. It follows, then, that if the new reed is sunk too far in the beginning, and then becomes flat, it cannot be sharpened unless it is cut. By this I mean a fraction cut off the length of the blade, and this is not advisable unless done by one who understands reeds well.

The ideal reed is one which sits high up in the chanter at first. It is then a simple matter to sink it until it is right. It is impossible to buy a perfect reed; it must alter after being played, since it is in the nature of the cane to alter when damped. So the safe rule is to have the new reed slightly flat, and on no account to buy one on the sharp side.

As I have explained, the flat reed can be easily remedied, either by sinking or cutting, but it is a far more intricate business to meddle with a sharp reed. The latter can only be put right by opening or scraping – ­both dangerous operations – and the results are liable to weaken the reed. Briefly, buy a reed slightly stronger and slightly flatter than you require.

World Champions in 1935 were the MacLean Pipe Band, P/M Willie Sloan (front, left), founder and first President of the RSPBA. Third from the left on the back row is Bob McCreath who himself was to become President of the Association. Eagle eyed readers will spot Alex MacLeod front row, second from the right. Alex was to become P/M of the World Championship winning band of 1953, Clan MacRae Society

The second method of treating a new reed is to choose one much stronger than required, and close it by means of a string [bridle] until it becomes weak enough. Then, as the reed becomes weaker, slacken the string accordingly. Otherwise, treat it as in the former case. This method requires much more attention, and is much more difficult to carry out. I certainly do not recommend it to a novice.

‘Regarding drone reeds. Is there any special method to prolong the life of them, and keep them in good condition and tune?’ This is a further extract from the letter already mentioned. In answer to the first part of the question: no, not that I know of. A good drone reed, carefully looked after, lasts quite a long time, so long that I cannot see any reason for wishing it to last any longer.

The second part can be answered more definitely (if I can presume any longer on the Editor’s space). Drone reeds will be found to go better if they are selected thinner than the bore of the drone and packed to make up the deficiency. Further, they should not be forced too much – or not at all – at the start. The best results will be obtained from a big drone cut upside down. Once the initial difficulty of starting it has been surmounted, it will be found to be much more satisfactory. All drone reeds should be treated very gently at first. Provided one begins with average reeds, the policy of ‘leave them alone’, which I have again attempted to uphold, will prove the right one.

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2 thoughts on “From the Archives…..Advice on Working With Reeds and How to Test a Chanter’s ‘Resistance’

  1. Hi Rab,

    Just a small correction to the article about the Clan MacRae Pipe band,the person pictured in the Clan MacLean PB is my uncle Alex Macleod,not Angus,and he was the P/M when they won they worlds in 1953.My dad Jimmy was pipe sgt in the MacRae when the won the worlds too.

    All the best,

    Kenny Macleod
    McCallum Bagpipes

    1. Don’t know where the Angus came from Kenny. Should of course have been Alex. Will correct. I remember him judging me in my first chanter contest. He didn’t give me a prize!

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