Traditional Construction of the Bagpipe
Traditionally the bagpipes were created from entire animal pelts, animals such as the goats, dogs, sheep and cows have all been used as construction material for the bag of the bagpipes. Today the materials used are more likely to be synthetic.
The Chanter is a melody pipe that is affixed to the bag of the bagpipes and is the part of the pipes that creates the melody. Usually the chanter is a simple pipe with holes that resembles the recorder and by covering the holes it will create different notes.
Most people learning to play the bagpipes will start by mastering the practise chanter in which they blow directly into it. This is an easy way to learn the different finger positions to create the notes before attempting to move on to mastering the technique of controlling the bag and air supply.
The drone, or sometimes drones as more than one can be attached to the bag, creates a monophonic effect of a continuous note or chord that is carried continuously throughout playing and gives the bagpipes its unique dual sound.
The traditional bagpipes are an instrument of many different parts, and one of the most important is the blowstick. Picture a kilted piper in action and this is the part of the instrument that he is blowing into.
The blowstick is used to get air into the bag, the part that is compressed to create the airflow to the musical part of the bag, and is traditionally made from one of a number of types of wood. In recent years there have been developments in the shape and style of the blowstick, the intention being to get the most air into the bag in the quickest time.
The increased need for efficiency in blowsticks has led to the advent of wide bore designs, those that are hollowed out to a wider degree than most, that enable a greater amount of air to be transferred to the bag. Many types of wood are used for blowstick manufacture, but generally it will be a hardwood that the stick itself is created from.
From which the pipes get their name, the bag is the familiar part from which all the various pipes, the blowstick and the chanter emerge. The purpose of the bag is to hold air – sent to it via the blowpipe from the piper – which is then compressed continuously, and the air is sent through the drones and the chanter to create the familiar sound that we hear when bagpipes are played.
In traditional terms bags were made from animal hides – sheep or cow generally – and while many pipers still insist on playing pipes with a traditionally made hide bag there are many advantages to using a modern synthetic bag. These may not be for the purists, but they do require less maintenance and are longer lived than the standard high maintenance hide bag.
This is a vital part of the bagpipes and is the equivalent of a fingerboard on a standard woodwind instrument. Picture a clarinet and the player holds their fingers over a series of holes, changing the airflow and thus creating different notes and chords.
This is what the chanter does and it is one of the tubes that emerge from the bag itself. The piper uses the holes to open and close different combinations, this creating the different sounds that combine to help the piper play one of the famous tunes that bagpipes are legendary for.
Many people who are learning the pipes begin with a special practice chanter, a separate version of the chanter designed to enable them to become used to the fingering required for playing.
A standard set of bagpipes has three drones; of the five sticks that emerge from the bag the longest is the bass drone – the lowest tone – and the two identically sized ones are the tenor drones, the remainder are the chanter and the blowstick.
The drones are essentially the music making parts of the bagpipes, the vessels through which the noise itself is emitted, and the drones can be tuned to certain pitches to allow for a range of varied tunes to be played.
Generally all the drones are tuned to Low A, and when perfectly tuned should provide a constant non-wavering pitch that is the characteristic droning background sound the pipes are famous for.