Chanters, bags and drones, oh my!
Ok, so of the bagpipes that I actively play and teach, there are two main categories.
So first of all, let’s look at and discuss the parts that are pretty much universal between ALL bagpipes:
- the chanter
- some sort of blowpipe
- the bag
Let’s look at the chanter first. This is the fingering part of the bagpipe, so (with very few exceptions) it’s impossible to play a tune melody on a bagpipe without it. A chanter will have several holes on it for the player’s fingers, and in some cases there are also keys on it in order to allow the playing of extra notes. Common pipes that might have keys on the chanter include Irish uilleann pipes, Scottish smallpipes and Northumbrian smallpipes.
There’s a reed inside, at the top of the chanter—this is what will produce sound. As long as there is air flowing through the reed, the chanter will make sound. Changing which holes are covered/open will change the sound, which is how the melody is made.
And one more term that’s helpful to know: bore. That’s the hollow area inside of a tube.
All “pipes” in a bagpipe have a bore … if they didn’t, well they wouldn’t be a “pipe,” now, would they? =)
Next, there’s the blowpipe. The form of this will vary, depending on the type of bagpipe. In the case of Highland pipes, it’s a fairly long pipe that reaches up to the player’s mouth. Highland pipes are a mouth-blown instrument— as the term suggests, the source of air going into the instrument comes from the player’s mouth.
With bellows-blown pipes, such as smallpipes and border pipes, the player’s mouth/breath isn’t used at all. Instead a pump-like device called a bellows is used to supply air for the instrument (yes, same sort of bellows you might use in your fireplace).
With bellows-pipes, the blowpipe is very small and short, as it doesn’t need to reach all the way up to a player’s mouth. Instead, the blowpipe will attach to the bellows, which normally can be found strapped under the arm.
All blowpipes within the bagpipe will have a valve inside of it— this prevents air escaping from where it came in. This means that (if things are working correctly) there’s only one way for air to escape from the instrument—through the reed(s).
Let’s face it though … one can only blow (or pump with the bellows) into the instrument for only so long without something else needing to take over. People who are blowing will need to breathe if they want to live to play another day. And once it’s been pressed empty, a bellows will need to be inflated once again before it can continue doing its job.
That’s where the bag comes in. The bag acts as a reservoir of air—when squeezed, it will force air inside of it out through the reeds, giving the player the opportunity to inflate their lungs/bellows.
All pipes that are part of the bagpipe are tied into the bag, and most “pipes” separate into several parts/portions. The portion that attaches to the bag is called a “stock.” Once a stock is attached to the bag, the rest of the pipe can be inserted into it. In addition to acting as an attachment spot for the various pipes, the inside of a stock usually serves as a housing chamber for any/all reeds and valves.
Here’s where things really start to get interesting—and different.
Overall, drones do precisely what their name suggests … they drone. One note, and only one note … on, and on, and on. Think about that school teacher who’s voice could render us all inert. =)
Just like the chanter, it’s a pipe with a reed at one end, and the passage of air through it will produce a sound. The drone pipe will transform the sound produced with different chambers, and the pitch can be adjusted (tuned) by changing the drone’s length as needed.
I know, it seems kind of boring, really—that the drones will simply produce one note, and nothing else.
But when they’re tuned correctly and operated skillfully (good, steady blowing pressure), the drones provide a magical-sounding umbrella of sound. Every note from a well-tuned chanter will interact with the drones in a unique manner. The result is a harmonically rich sound that can make the listener’s skin crawl.
Not wanting to get too technical here, but the drones are also quite deceiving. Good drones produce powerful “overtones”—subtle musical tones that are difficult for listeners distinguish, but rest assured, they’re there.
The magic from a good set of drones is something awesome to behold, but further discussion here is beyond the scope of this article. Stay tuned for another article or two (hopefully quite soon) where I’ll delve more into this exciting subject—lots of pipers really overlook the importance drones play in their sound.
Different drones for different pipes
Drones can take a number of different forms/shapes. With Highland pipes, there are traditionally three—two tenors, and a longer bass. All three of them sound the same note as the chanter’s “low A” note. The tenors are tuned to sound a pitch that is one octave (8 notes, which is a full scale) lower than the chanter’s “low A,” and the bass is tuned to sound one octave below that. The drone pipes are tied directly into the bag, on their own. Each will have it’s own reed, and an individual stock.
Smallpipes and borderpipes will often have at least one tenor and bass for drones. Often there are additional drones present, such as a “baritone” or an “alto.” These sound harmonizing notes (i.e., notes other than what’s made by the tenor/bass), and are often turned on or off depending on the wishes of the player. Baritone drones will play a note that is pitched between the bass and the tenor. Alto drones will sound a note that is pitched higher than the tenor.
Smallpipes and borderpipes also don’t normally have an individual stock tied into the bag. Instead, they’re often grouped together in what’s called a “common stock.”
By the way, anywhere pipes join to either a stock or other pipes is simply called a “joint.” Any part of a joint that goes INSIDE of another is called a “tenon.”
Then there are some of the really interesting things that can be found with Irish uilleann pipes. These are also a bellows-blown pipe, and a full set features “regulators,” which are essentially drones with keys on them. A skillful player can sound different notes from regulator pipes with their wrist, while also playing the melody on the chanter. Simply incredible.
For something that’s designed to only sound one note, the complexity of the drone is really quite surprising. Not including the stocks, bass drones are generally made up of three separate pieces, and tenor/baritone/alto drones are made of not less than two. Inside, there are several differently sized bores and chambers, all of which helps to transform the sound into something rich and harmonic.
Where ever tuning adjustments are designed to be made, there’s a “tuning pin.” A bass will usually have two of these, and the others all usually have only one.
The parts of the drones which hold the reeds and fit into the stocks are simply called “drone bottoms.” The outermost parts that are farthest from the bag are simply called “drone tops.” At the very end of the drone tops (the farthest point from the bag) where the air comes out, the drone tops widen significantly. This wider area is often called the “bell.”
With all drone bottoms, they end with a tuning pin. For tenor (and baritone/alto) drones, this pin joins up with the drone top. With bass drones, there’s one more piece in the middle, it’s quite aptly named—the mid-piece. The mid-piece joins up with the tuning pin from the drone bottom, and has its own tuning pin at the other end. The mid-piece tuning pin connects with the bass’ drone top. Essentially, you can think of the mid-piece as an adaptor, or extender.
Fittings are extra bits that are added onto the pipes as the maker is creating them. Many of them are purely decorative, though some of them do also have a functional part to play. As discussed in the How Much Things Cost section, fittings can often make a tremendous difference in the cost and appearance of a set of pipes.
For the fanciest of options, I often refer to the fittings as “bagpipe bling.”
On any set of pipes, you’ll have some kind of:
- Caps (or rings & bushes)
Additionally, there’s sometimes a “sole” or a metal band on the very end of the chanter. Older chanters in particular usually have a sole of some kind. Modern chanters will most often not have any. Some argue that the presence of a sole can have some effect on the sound, though most seem to feel otherwise. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that if there’s any tonal change produced from a chanter’s having a sole, said change would be minimal at best.
Materials vary. Now-a-days, plastic/wood/alloy metals are what you’ll more frequently find. Things get much pricier (and fancier) when there’s real antique ivory, and/or sterling silver with the fittings (especially with hand-engraving).
Long ago, ivory was seemingly the fitting material of choice. But due to the brutal ivory trade, it’s now a heavily regulated material. Consequently it’s been banned outright in many countries (including the U.S.A.). So hardly any sets are made with ivory fittings today. If they are it’s likely from a documented and legal source (of which there are very few). Owning vintage pipes with ivory is not technically an issue, so long as the pipes can be certified to have been made before bans were enacted. But traveling with these sorts of pipes can get really tricky—they can be confiscated and you could even face heavy fines.
First, we have the mounts. The shape of them can vary, though they tend to be one of two shapes: button or projecting. Along with being decorative, mounts also provide the player with something to grab or push against. This really helps tuning, and assembly/disassembly.
Button mounts are smaller, and only stick out from the pipes a bit. Projecting mounts are much larger, and often look like little plates/saucers. Aside from how they serve as a grabbing/leverage point, mounts are simply decorative. Mounts are usually made from an extra material that’s added onto the pipes during manufacturing, but they can sometimes also be turned as part of the pipes themselves.
A mount should be present at just about every joint, with very few exceptions.
Chanters don’t usually have mounts present, so don’t expect to see one there. The only other exception I can think of would be on some makes of smallpipes, where the drones meet the common stock. So apart from those, opposite of every stock there should be a mount. Likewise, with every tuning joint there should be a mount present.
Also largely decorative are the ferrules. They’re a mostly flat ring of material that goes around any end that faces a mount. This is probably the only functional purpose of the ferrule, to help protect pipes parts that are facing a mount.
Individual stocks should always have a ferrule of some kind present. Also, they should be present on all tuning joints, opposite of mounts.
Caps, rings and bushes
Lastly, on the very ends of the drone bells, there can be either “caps” or “rings & bushes.” A cap is one whole piece with a hole in the middle that will cover the entire end of the bell. Otherwise, there might be two pieces present: a ring on the outside, and a separate piece at the hole called a bush.
The size of the hole in the bush or cap will dramatically affect the sound produced. The smaller the hole, the sound will be flatter and quieter, and of course the opposite for a larger hole. One-piece caps are usually metal, whereas rings & bushes will usually be ivory, or some sort of ivory substitute (such as plastic, wood, etc.).