Learning to play the Bagpipes

It remains so that in Scotland a bagpiper is awarded certain honours; required for traditional ceremonial duties such as the Burns Supper, weddings and funerals, a piper is a man (or woman) who is called on with respect, and it is heartening to see that Scotland's traditional musical instrument, the bagpipes, is still played by many today.

While a complex instrument in makeup, bagpipes – once mastered – are satisfactory to play and very versatile; the sound of the bagpipes is not to everyone's taste, but is one of the most distinctive of all musical instruments, and being able to play the bagpipes is part of many Scottish families heritage.

Many people learn to play the bagpipes using a specially made practice chanter, this being the fingerboard of the bagpipes, the part that is held by the piper with the holes that are covered to induce the different chords and notes.

This is helpful because unlike many musical instruments the bagpipes need the player to perform three different operations in order to be played – the piper must blow into the mouthpiece to inflate the bag, keep pressure on the bag to put air into the drones, and finger the chanter to make the tune. Learning all three at once is, quite clearly, a problem, so once the fingering is mastered the rest can be practised too.

Once a learner gets to grips with the bagpipes they are a very impressive instrument to master, and there are many teachers of the bagpipes who continue to teach in the traditional way today and pass this ancient Scottish rite down through families to younger generations.

How are Bagpipes made

Traditionally, bagpipes were handmade instruments that took a great deal of crafting, and as with many other crafted instruments there are certain makers who were always revered above others. The use of traditional materials is still very much evident today, but the modernisation of the bagpipe has led to improvements in the way the instrument is crafted rather than losing any of the innate quality.

It was traditional in the early days of bagpipe making – and when we talk of the Scottish bagpipes with which we are all familiar we are referring to the 1700's – to make the bagpipes out of oak, but in the years after the emergence of the colonies the use of hardwoods from more exotic climes became prevalent.

The tone of the bagpipe itself depends on the quality and type of wood used, and this is why certain woods have been carried through to bagpipe manufacture today. It is interesting that the chanter – the piece of the pipe used as the finger board – can often be made from different wood to the drones, the pipes that emerge from the bag, and this is also down to the use of different types of wood making different resonance.

The bag itself, perhaps the vital part of the instrument, is traditionally – in the UK – made from sheepskin, but more modern materials are used for some bagpipes and these are said to have satisfactory results. As a complex instrument of many parts the bagpipe is never going to be an item suitable for mass production, and this is why the traditional methods of bagpipe production will always prevail.

Common types of Bagpipes

Mention bagpipes to anyone and the same image comes to mind – it is the picture of a man in full tartan regalia playing the traditional Scottish bagpipes – the highland bagpipes – that are the best known of all the bagpipe family.

In truth there are many different types of bagpipes, even within the highland bagpipe family there are subtle variations, but the most familiar is the one with the big bag, several tall pipes and a fingerboard, and the mouthpiece into which the player blows to inflate the bag.

All bagpipes will have the same parts to a point – the bag, the chanter, or fingerboard, and the drones which are the tall pipes emerging from the bag – but some bagpipes do away with the mouthpiece altogether.

While the highland bagpipes, the traditional Scottish bagpipes, are the most common sight there are several other types of bagpipe that do not use a mouthpiece at all.

These include the Northumbrian small pipes, a relative of the highland pipes in which the mouthpiece is replaced by a set of bellows, and these in turn are very similar to Border pipes, another set of much smaller Scottish and northern English bagpipes. Likewise the Irish – or Uilleann – pipes, the traditional pipes of Ireland that are a more complex version of the Northumbrian small pipes.

All use the characteristic drones to achieve that famous sound, and all of these bagpipes have a different tone, range and musical ability to the rest. It is interesting to note, too, that bagpipes were recorded on mainland Europe – particularly in the Spanish regions – long before they were in Scotland, highlighting the widespread influence of this large family of musical instruments.