What kind of instrument is a Bagpipe?

The Bagpipe belongs to the woodwind family.  A bagpipe consists of a bag, a chanter and usually one or more drones.  The chanter is the part of the instrument which carries the melody and the drones play a chord.  There is also some way to fill the bag, either with a blowpipe which allows the piper to fill the bag by blowing into it, or with a bellows which allows the piper to pump air into the bag.  On most types of bagpipe, the chanter uses a double reed similar to an oboe or bassoon reed, and the drones each use single reeds that are related to those used in a clarinet or saxophone.  A few kinds of bagpipe use double reeds for both the chanter and the drones.  Each drone uses a separate reed.

What is the bag made from?

There are several kinds of bags used by pipers.  The traditional bag is made from sheepskin, but other types include elk hide (which is actually a variety of cowhide) and synthetic materials such as Gore-tex.

Are there different kinds of Bagpipes?

There is a very wide variety of pipes played throughout the world.  The most popular is commonly known as the Highland Pipe or the Irish War Pipe, or sometimes as just the Great Pipe (Piob Mhor in Gaelic).  Other kinds from Britain and Ireland include the Scottish Small Pipes, the Irish Uilleann or Union Pipes, and the Northumbrian Pipes.  Nearly every culture in Europe and the Middle East has a native bagpipe, though some have nearly died out.  

Where were Bagpipes first invented?

Nobody really knows.  The ancestral instrument clearly came from one of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, probably before 100 BC, and was carried throughout Europe by the Romans.  The earliest examples consist of just the chanter portion, possibly with a companion drone tube, which was often played by the technique of circular breathing to maintain a constant tone.  Various forms of pipes were played throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, until modern orchestral instruments started to displace some of the older traditional instruments about the time of the Renaissance.  

Can you make them play any louder or softer?

No, sorry.  Most pipes, including the Highland pipe, have no way to play at different volumes without going off-pitch.  A piper may set up the pipe beforehand to accommodate the location, but you can’t change the volume while you’re playing.  

What kind of pipe does a pipe band play?

Pipe bands almost invariably play the so-called Highland or Irish War pipe;  most other pipes are played only by soloists.  The J.P. Fell Pipeband players use the Highland pipes.  A

What is a Highland Bagpipe?

The Highland Bagpipe is the most familiar kind of bagpipe.  It has three drones, two tenor drones each tuned one octave below the chanter, and one bass drone tuned two octaves below the chanter.  The drones on the Highland pipe have no means for adjusting the pitch while playing, so they play a single background chord.  The scale on the chanter is adjusted to make it blend against this constant chord.  It is a mouth-blown pipe:  the piper blows into the bag through a blowpipe to supply the air.  A one-way valve in the blowpipe keeps the air from escaping.

For more information on the Highland bagpipes, including an in depth history and examples of their use, select the link below


How much does a set of pipes cost?

A set of pipes can cost anywhere from $750 up to over $5000 for a new bagpipe.  The cost will depend on the maker and the amount of ornamentation.  The more expensive models tend to be heavily ornamented with a lot of silver and so forth;  this has no effect on the tone, it’s purely for show.  

How do you learn to play the bagpipe?

The best way to learn to play the bagpipe is to start out on the practice chanter, an instrument that looks much like a recorder.  That way you can learn the fingerings and embellishments without having to worry about keeping the bag going steadily, which is a considerable distraction at first.  Pipers continue to use the practice chanter throughout their career, to do fingering exercises and to learn new tunes.  

Do I need anything besides a practice chanter?

A good tutor book is very helpful.  Sandy Jones’ “Beginning the Bagpipe” is considered to be one of the best available, and is the one that we use in the classes;  Seumas MacNeill’s “College of Piping” tutor book is also good.  A metronome is also very useful, especially if you don’t have much prior musical experience.  

Where can I find lessons on the bagpipe?

Most pipe bands provide some kind of teaching program for interested students. We hold regular classes in North Vancouver at the J.P. Fell Armory, and welcome anyone who is interested in learning.  If you are not interested in playing with a band, it can still be worthwhile to contact a local band to ask about recommendations for teachers.  Even if you don’t think you ever want to play with a band, most bands are quite happy to refer you to a private instructor.

How long does it take to learn to play the bagpipe?

That depends on how well you want to play it!  Generally, most beginners require at least 6 months on the practice chanter before they move onto the full pipe;  more is usually better.  Once you move onto the pipe, it usually takes several more months before you reach an adequate playing level on some of the easier tunes.  Some of the things that can affect how long it will take an individual to learn to play include:  Age:  Few beginners younger than about 9 have large enough hands to play the chanter.  Teenagers will generally make the fastest progress, with young adults sometimes not too far behind.  Older adults tend to progress more slowly but even then there are exceptions.

Previous musical experience:  Always a plus, even if you just know how to read music.  Woodwind players may find that they have to unlearn some old habits when playing the pipe, though their previous experience is still helpful.

Motivation:  Obviously, the more motivated you are and the more you practice, the more progress you will make.

Instruction:  Proper instruction will prevent the student from falling into bad habits that must be unlearned.

Aptitude:  As in most areas, some people just seem to catch on quicker than others.

Do you have to be male or Scottish or Irish to play the pipe?

No.  The Great Pipes are played in nearly every country of the world and by people of all ethnic backgrounds.  Countries as diverse as Germany, Jamaica, Jordan, Japan, India, and China all have bands playing Highland pipes, often with adaptations of their own music as well as traditional pipe music.  The only advantage that you might have by being Scottish or Irish is that you may be more familiar with some of the musical styles used on the pipes before learning the instrument.  Likewise, many women are quite accomplished pipers.  Hopefully these old stereotypes are dying out!