Different Types of Smallpipes

If you were to mention smallpipes to a knowledgeable player they would most likely think you were talking of the Northumbrian smallpipes, an instrument specific to the county of that name. Indeed, the true modern Scottish small pipe has only been with us for a few decades, although examples of such exist from over two hundred years ago.

The Northumbrian smallpipes are an altogether older instrument, and were very much the source of inspiration for the modern Scottish smallpipes. Many consider the Northumbrian smallpipes to be a much more appreciable instrument than most pipes; the instrument has a much greater octave range and a sound that is more mellow and less harsh to the listener. Also, the constant drone is not so much a feature of the Northumbrian smallpipes, and therefore it is a different sound altogether.

There is a notable difference between designs in that the traditional Northumbrian smallpipes employ keys – most types of bagpipes do not. This enables a greater octave range and a much clearer sound to be obtained, and the popularity of smallpipes in modern folk music shows no signs of abating, with artists such as Kathryn Tickell taking the use of this much underused instrument to greater heights and selling records in surprising quantities.

There is some crossover in style between the Northumbrian smallpipes and the Border pipes, another instrument that uses the bellows method rather than the blown and differs in size and sound to the smallpipes.

Pipers who play traditional pipes will look on the smallpipes in much the way the player of the Grand Piano views the upright – it is not considered the proper pipe, but many will argue – particularly in its traditional homeland – that the Northumbrian smallpipes offer a much more traditional sounding pipe than any other.

There is, in fact, an award winning museum dedicated to bagpipes – and in particular the Northumbrian smallpipes – in the county town of Northumberland – Morpeth – and it is well worth a visit for anyone in the area who wishes to hear the sound of these beautiful pipes played to perfection. Used as accompaniment to acoustic guitar the smallpipes provide a haunting and beautiful distraction from everyday instruments.