Forget the house or the car. The most important decision a piper has to make is in the instrument he/she buys. Get it wrong and face years of wasteful and expensive plumbing trying to make something out of a very bad situation. Get it right, and you can have hours of musical satisfaction from an instrument that is easy to reed, steady, and an all round pleasure to play. In short, a friend for life.
Every piper should play on the very best possible instrument they can afford. Sentiment is nice but it is also expensive. If the family bagpipe is the worse for wear, don’t persevere for fear of suffering the wrath of your relations. Explain the problem, keep it for a beginner and get a new instrument.
By Robert Wallace
As you progress up the grades you will more and more realise that tone is 90% of the battle. A poor pipe and it matters not that you play like Patrick Og MacCrimmon; it still sounds terrible. Conversely, the average player with a beautifully toned pipe can turn heads in any company.
When the pipe is going well the tuning notes themselves can mesmerise. What’s more, when you have that sound your confidence grows, you relax, the fingers are lighter on the chanter, the blowing’s steadier; everything improves.
For all these reasons spare no time, and spend as much as you can afford, on getting the best instrument possible.
Well then, how do we determine what a good instrument is? One rule of thumb is this: is it easy to reed? Invariably when this is the case you can be sure that the pipe has passed the first hurdle.
The next thing to look for is steadiness in the drones. Do they stay for the length of a piobaireachd, a seven-minute selection or twice through an MSR, or are you constantly stopping to tune?
A fundamentally unsteady set of drones will never go well no matter how good the reeds are that you put in them – or how much time you spend fiddling with the bridles.
Check the drone tops. They should tune at the bottom of the hemp on the tuning pins, no lower. It is not always the reed that is at fault. Bass drones in older sets may need a new bottom section to accommodate the modern bagpipe pitch commonly heard on the competition platform. Nowadays it is certainly well over concert Bb.
As far as chanters are concerned, these too should be easily reeded. Test them with a reed you know works well. Listen for brightness and trueness of scale. Test thoroughly in the bagpipe. If in doubt seek a second opinion or consult an expert. Generally speaking, the harder it is to set up a chanter – the more tape you need, the more you need to use the knife on the holes – then the less satisfactory it is going to be.
That said, chanters do vary tremendously depending on the reeds used in them. Moreover, you’d be hard pressed to find any of the top bands or soloists who haven’t had to tape and cut the holes of their chanters at some time to get that perfect scale and pitch.
So which bagpipe should you go for? Second-hand or new? Everyone wants an old set of silver and ivory Lawries, Hendersons, or MacDougalls. No wonder. Many of the top competitors today play on these instruments. If you come across a set you may be quid’s in. The fact is though, they are becoming rarer all the time.
A bagpipe has a limited shelf life. Anything over 120 years old may not be up to the job irrespective of who made it; even less so if the bagpipe in question is one of the lesser sets made by these expert craftsmen of yesteryear.
Be very careful, therefore, when buying a second hand set. You could be buying someone else’s trouble. Check carefully for cracks. Look for signs of authenticity (a name under the cord stops of the drones).
If there is silver, have the hallmarking examined by a silversmith. You may get some pointers as to the town of manufacture from that. Look at the combing on the bass bottom joint. It can be like the accelerator pedal on a car. Well worn and you know that the pipe is indeed as old as the seller says it is. Variations on the other drone joints can indicate that a particular part has had to be replaced.
Don’t get too hung up on brass lined drones. Bagpipe makers, notably MacDougall of Aberfeldy, added these to protect against cracking in the tropics. If this occurred a pipe with lined drones was still playable. In the UK and other wet climes they can be a condensation nightmare for wet blowers, though modern moisture control can offset the worst.
Before you finally decide on a set of pipes, try them with reeds you know go well. That way if something is wrong it’s unlikely the reed that’s causing it. Ask if you can get the pipes on approval (you will probably have to offer some security).
Take your time with them; listen carefully; get a second opinion. Once you’re happy with them, try a different set of reeds and see if you’re still as happy. Remember that once you’ve handed over the cash there’s no going back.
The advantage of buying new is that you are much less likely to get problems over cracking, distorted drone bores, and loose mounts. Furthermore, a new set will probably have been made to accommodate the modern pitch of chanters and require less work to get the drone tops well up the tuning pins. I can recommend all of the bagpipe manufacturers who advertise on Piping Press. In the unlikely event of any issues, these companies are more than willing to offer after-sales help.
The small downside in a new set is that it may take a while before it fully matures, and develops that smooth sound, that essential balance and depth of harmony heard in some of the very best older sets, and so vital at the highest level of piping performance. However, if your new pipe is rock solid and easy to reed, the harmonic subtlety won’t be long in shining through.