The Bagpipe


Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument, aerophones, using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. The Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe have the greatest international visibility. It is the one used in the pipe bands and breton bagadou.


The piper blows in a blow pipe so as to block the air in a leather bag (or in "Goretex") maintained under the arm. This air is sent in four elements each with a reed .

On the pipe with eight holes (chanter) the melody is played, the sound is produced by a double reed.

The drones, two tenors and one bass, thanks to reeds with beating plate, produce a continuous sound playing the role of a pedal of organ. The air pressure received by these elements is constant so to separate the notes of same pitch, the piper uses a specific fingering technique (grace notes, doublings).

The fingering

Bagpipe maintenance (by Hobgoblin Music)

Advice for beginners

Bagpipes can be troublesome instruments and require good care and maintenance. In time you will need to become familiar with the workings of reeds, but when your pipes are new and you are in the first stages of learning, it is best to leave the reeds well alone if at all possible. It is unwise to remove the chanter from its stock to expose the reed unless you really have to, as it is extremely easy to cause damage when reassembling.

Always ensure the chanter is supported so it can not fall out of the stock when you pick up the pipes. Dropped cracked chanters and consequently mangled reeds are not covered by the guarantee! If any of the joints should dry out and become loose, extra waxed thread can be applied, and Vaseline or cork grease to lubricate and seal. Don't overdo the thread - it should be an easy push fit.

Always keep the pipes in a case except when actually in use.

Care of the Wood

Woodwind instruments should never be submitted to extreme changes in temperature, or placed near any form of heating or in direct sunlight. The woodwork should be oiled occasionally with olive oil - in hot or dry climates this should be done every week. Other oilings needed, using neatsfoot or olive oil, are as follows:

  • Pads - Weekly
  • Bellows - Six Monthly
  • Bellows valve and blowpipe valve - three monthly

Seasoning the bag

WARNING! The bag should not be treated with seasoning if it is made of plastic If a natural skin bag starts to leak, you can usually make it airtight again by seasoning it. There are generally instructions on the can, but the basic procedure is to heat the seasoning in a saucepan, remove all the drones and chanter from the stocks, stop up all but one hole, pour in the seasoning and work it in - particularly into the seam. Leave for at least 24 hours before reassembling.

Reed Maintenance

Setting the Irish Chanter Reed

The exact position of the reed in the chanter is of great importance in determining the pitch of the notes. If the reed is too far down in the reed-seat, then the upper notes of the scale will be too high - that is, they will be "sharp". On the other hand, if the reed is set too high, the upper notes will be "flat", or too low a pitch compared with the other notes of the scale.

To begin with, put the reed firmly in the reed-seat, put the chanter carefully in the pipes and play some slow tuning phrases. (Don't blow the chanter in your mouth because your ear may make you cheat. and your damp breath will ruin the reed.

All we want at this stage is that the low D and high d will be an octave apart. If you remember the singing lessons you had at school low 'D' is the "doh" and high d is the "high doh".

If the high d seems too high - that is, if it is sharp - then take the chanter out and raise the reed slightly in the reed-seat. To do this, take the reed out, wrap the hemp a little lower down, and replace the reed. make sure the reed is firmly in the chanter.

If the high d is flat (too low a pitch) take some of the hemp off the reed (or move the hemp higher up the reed) so that the reed can be put further down in the chanter. Keep altering the setting of the reed until the two 'D's are properly In tune

The use of the tenor drone may help you. Start drone going and by moving the joint up or down try to tune the drone to low 'D'. When the drone and the low 'D' chord together , then if the high 'd' and the low 'D' are in tune, the drone and the high 'd' will chord perfectly together.

Reed Problems

The back "D" is weak and breaks, this usually means the reed is weak, and it can be strengthened by:

  • 'Trimming 1/16" off the tip of the blades with a sharp knife.
  • Opening the lips by squeezing the sides of the bridle.

A weak back "D" can also be caused by a badly made chanter. Check that the bore is conical up to the base of the reed-seat, - A cylindrical portion of bore is often the cause of weak high notes.

The Bottom D has a Gargle:

  • Try opening the blades a little.
  • If that fails, carefully shave the base of the reed.
  • A combination of (1) and (2).

The reed is erratic

  • The sides are leaking, - use bridle to close reed slightly, if this fails, use a small amount of P.V.A. adhesive to seal the sides.
  • The corners are leaking, - trim the corners at 45 degrees slightly, this will often improve a reed and make it easier to blow.

Some interresting links

This Wikipedia article defines a number of terms that are exclusive, or whose meaning is exclusive, to piping and pipers.