About the Pipes
Bagpipes are an ancient instrument, with roots in the middle-east. (In nativity sets at Christmas, it is not uncommon for one of the shepherds to be a bagpiper, a reminder of the roots of the pipes.) Today bagpipes may be found in a variety of places, but are perhaps most often found among the descendants of Celtic people, and particularly Scotland and Ireland. My French neighbor loves the pipes, having grown up in the Celtic part of France and heard them as a child (there was a revival in Breton post-WWI of a variety of pipes).
The Great Highland Bagpipes
I play the great highland bagpipe (GHP) or, commonly, “bagpipes” – a sound like no other! The pipes are called piob mhor in Gaelic, which means great pipe. These are perhaps the instrument most people think of when they hear “bagpipes,” although there are many other types of pipes. Highland bagpipes have a very distinct sound and volume and are best suited to outdoors or large indoor spaces. The pipes are both a solo and ensemble or band instrument.
The Highland bagpipe comprises a chanter on which the tune is played, three drones, including two tenor drones and a base drone (all tuned either one or two octaves below the low ‘A’ on the chanter), a blowpipe and of course, the bag. The piper blows into the bag, filling it and keeping a full, constant pressure to sustain steady air flow through the four reeds. The piper’s rhythmic fingering on the chanter creates the tune.
A Few Notes on the Notes of a Bagpipe
The chanter has just nine notes to work with, and the sound is constant. So the fingering with various embellishments give the accents, rhythm, and variety to the music. The octave plus one also limits what can be played on the pipes, along with the pipe scale, which is not a standard western scale. The pipe scale goes from a low G up the scale to a high A (G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A); the C and E are sharp – making it a Mixolydian mode. The tonic A, however, roughly equates to between a B-flat and a B of other instruments. Modern chanters tune higher but specially made B-flat chanters enable a piper to play together with other instruments.
Most notable among other bagpipes are Irish uilleann pipes, often heard in movie soundtracks (even Braveheart), which produce a wonderfully evocative sound, softer than the GHP. They are bellows-driven rather than blown pipes and have a greater range. There are also a variety of small pipes, border pipes and shuttle pipes, available in different keys.
The great highland pipe developed in Scotland around the 15th century. Its prominence grew later through its use in the Scottish Highland Regiments of the British Army, a tradition that carried it forward as other pipes waned in popularity. Happily today there has been a resurgence of interest in Celtic music in general and in the great highland bagpipe along various other kinds of pipes as well. And the Highland pipe repertoire has expanded over the last several decades.
About My Bagpipes
For bagpiping geeks: David Naill ABW (African blackwood) pipes are among the best pipes made today. My pipes are decorated with silver ferrules and slides and imitation ivory mounts. I play a Naill blackwood chanter, and a Gannaway cowhide bag. I am typically playing a MacPhee chanter reed, Kinnaird bass and tenor drone reeds. I also have a 1960s-era set of Grainger and Campbell pipes, with a Kron medalist ABW chanter.