The following information about getting started with the uilleann pipes is courtesy of Matthew Horsley - thanks Matt!
Uilleann Pipes – Buying and getting started
Practice set – Most beginners start with a practice or starter set (chanter, bag and bellows). Since chanter playing is by far the most important and difficult part of uilleann piping this is all you need to get started.
Half set –the same as a practice set, with the addition of three drones. A definite option for beginners who can afford it. The drones can be switched off, so the half set can essentially function as a practice set to begin with. Drones are an essential part of piping. The disadvantage is that a half set costs more and you may have to wait longer. Most practice sets are built so that drones by the same maker may be added at a later date.
Full set – this adds three regulators to the drones, chanter, bag and bellows. Regulators are used for accompaniment and should really only be introduced after spending a few years on the chanter. Some players use them extensively, others barely at all. As above, expect to pay (substantially) more and wait longer for a full set. You also encounter three-quarter sets which have only the upper two of the three regulators.
The most common key for a set of uilleann pipes is D, also known as concert pitch. A D set allows you to play easily with other Irish musicians. Concert sets can be heard in the piping of Johnny Doran, Leo Rowsome, Paddy Keenan, Davy Spillane, John McSherry and Liam O’Flynn (usually). Flat sets in C#,C, B or Bb are also available. These are quieter and have a different tone that was favoured by many of the older pipers. They do make it harder to play with other musicians, however. Pipers such as Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck and Mick O’Brien (usually) are associated with flat sets.
For a beginner I would usually recommend getting a D set and moving to a flat set at a later date if you feel you like that sound. Regardless of what you end up playing by yourself, a D chanter is very handy for playing in sessions and with other musicians.
Some makers make a narrow bore D chanter. These are quieter and sound a little more like flat sets (though still quite different) than the more common wide bore D chanter.
Most makers will offer the option of keys on your chanter. A fully keyed chanter consists of 4 or 5 keys, (F natural, G#, Bb, high C natural and sometimes third octave D) which allows it to play all of the notes of the chromatic scale. 99% of Irish tunes can be played without any of these keys so they should be considered an optional feature. And, of course, they cost extra.
In some cases, blocks will be provided allowing keys to be fitted later. Many makers will provide the C natural key, which is probably the most commonly used of the keys, with all practice sets. Generally, my recommendation would be not to bother with extra keys on your first chanter. A stop key is also available allowing you to easily silence the chanter while tuning the drones. It is handy but by no means essential.
If you are left handed, I would generally recommend learning pipes in the conventional (“right-handed”) way. In my opinion, there’s no major advantage to be gained in getting a custom left-handed set, since both hands are used fairly equally. The disadvantage of getting one is that you’ll be ruling yourself out of the market for second hand sets, almost all of which are right handed, and meanwhile paying a premium for custom made instruments. The only situation in which I’d recommend a beginner getting a left-handed set made is if they have extensive experience playing flute or whistle the unconventional way.
The following are Australian makers whose pipes I can personally endorse.
Malcolm McLaren (Brisbane) - firstname.lastname@example.org
My first practice set was made by Malcolm. It cost $1100 (in 2009) and is very well made. I’m not sure if he makes full sets but his practice and half sets come recommended.
Dave Goldsworthy - email@example.com
Dave learnt much of his pipemaking with Malcolm so the product is relatively similar. I have played Dave’s chanters and drones and can recommend them as well. Again, he may not make regulators.
Ian McKenzie - firstname.lastname@example.org
A lot of Australian pipers play Ian’s sets and recommend them highly. I am not so familiar with them but I trust his reputation. He does make full sets as well and half sets and practice sets. However, as of early 2013 his wife had passed away and he was taking some time off from pipemaking.
There are a lot of overseas makers and you can find sound samples and photos of their work easily enough. A list is available at http://pipers.ie/resources/pipemakers/
Generally, the level of craftsmanship around is high and unless you’re buying from a completely unknown maker (or on eBay – see below), the chances of getting a total dud are very low. In this day and age it’s very hard to get away with shoddy workmanship and if a quick internet search doesn’t throw up stacks of complaints and bad reviews, that’s probably evidence of a good quality product. I certainly can’t boast intimate knowledge of the work and reputation of every pipemaker in the world but I’m happy to share what experience and knowledge I do have, if you have any questions about a particular maker.
The following are worth mentioning for those on a budget.
David Daye - www.daye1.com
David makes what he calls the penny chanter (practice set) and penny drones (half set). As the name implies, they are intended for beginners on a tight budget. In terms of sound and looks, they are not the equal of many other maker’s sets (they’re not really meant to be) but they play in tune and easily and are absolutely fine as a first set of pipes. David also sells them as kits, where you have to assemble the bellows and other pieces. You can save a bit of money this way and I believe you don’t need any particular technical expertise.
Patrick Skye - http://www.patricksky.com/
A similar product to David Daye’s pipes, and available for a similar price. The same comments apply.
There are many, many more makers and I encourage you to do your own research. Do contact me if you’d like my opinion on anything.
The following sites and forums frequently have second hand pipes for sale.
It’s also possible to find sets on eBay, but PLEASE BE CAREFUL! A lot of sets that appear on eBay are Pakistani made replicas and basically worthless as musical instruments. They will leak, break, not play in tune and in some cases not play at all. Buying one will most likely only lead to immense frustration, and they have put many potential pipers off playing for ever.
On the other hand, even with the cheapest of the above makers, you will get an instrument that will function properly and enable you to begin learning without unnecessary frustration and confusion. It’s not an easy thing to learn at the best of times so make sure you get an instrument that won’t hinder you.
If you are even slightly unsure, please talk to me before you buy anything… I’d rather spend a few moments answering some questions that see you stuck with a poor quality instrument.
I’ve seen many people spend a great deal of money on their first set of pipes –getting a full set from a highly regarded maker with a fully keyed chanter and so forth. I’m certainly not going to advise against getting a really good quality instrument to start with if you have the cash but it’s worth bearing a few things in mind.
Uilleann pipes are not a standardised instrument and different sets of pipes will suit the playing style of different pipers. So you could spend a lot of money on a beautiful instrument only to find that as your own style and tastes develop you actually want something quite different. Whereas if you start with a well-made but not excessively priced practice or half set and play that for a few years, you’ll save money and be able to make a much more informed decision down the track. Waiting lists for some of the more respected makers are also prohibitively long, especially if you have nothing to practice on in the meantime.
Once you’ve ordered a set of pipes you might be waiting for at least a couple of months. If you want to get started straight away you could buy a cheap tin whistle in D (<$15) from most music shops. Virtually every piper can play the whistle and you’ll be able to get a few tunes and techniques under your belt by the time the pipes arrive!
If you have any questions let me know. It is an important and potentially overwhelming decision and I’d like to help you out if possible.