Type a keyword and hit enter to start searching. Press Esc to cancel.

Getting to know: Bagpipe anatomy

Chanters, bags and drones, oh my!

I’m borrowing this excellent diagram from Ron Bowen’s website until I can get one together of my own. Ron (often called Ringo) is a paragon in the world of piping. His expertise is highly revered, and he’s a genuine human being to boot.

For a treasure trove of information on the Highland Bagpipe, head over to his websites … thebagpipemuseum.com and thebagpipeplace.com

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

The chanter

This is a Highland Pipe chanter and stock made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes. The large silver piece on the left (bottom of the chanter) is called a sole. Not all chanters have a sole present.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.

Close up of keys on an uilleann pipe chanter. This set is made by Bruce Childress.
Image: bcpipes.com
A series of Highland chanter tops with their reeds showing.
Image: caldwellreeds.com

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? =)


The blowpipe

This is an example of a blowpipe and stock for a set of Highland pipes.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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).


The bag

A Highland bagpipe bag made from cow hide. This one is made by Begg Bagpipes, a popular bag manufacturer. 
Image: Piper‘s Dojo

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.

This is a full set of stocks for a Highland bagpipe.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.


Drones

A full set of Highland pipe drones, a bass on the left, and two tenors on the right.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.

A view of my set of smallpipes, made by Nate Banton. Here you see two chanters, a short ‘D’ chanter on top, a longer ‘A’ chanter in the middle, and a cluster of four drones. As you can see, the drones with the smallpipes look comparable in size to the chanters. The drones are clustered together because they all go into one “common stock.”
Image: bantonwoodson.com

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.

Here’s a nice video that gives an overview of what regulators are, and how they’re used. Simply amazing.
Here’s something REALLY cool … a demonstration video of a phone app that simulates the use of regulators.

Drone parts

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.

This is a bass drone for a Highland pipe, broken down to it’s individual pieces. Starting on the left and going right accordingly is the drone “top,” the “mid-piece,” the bottom, and lastly the stock.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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

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:

  • Mounts
  • Ferrules
  • Caps (or rings & bushes)
Prime example of a chanter sole. This made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes, including the hand-engraving on the chanter sole.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.


Mounts

Close-up of projecting mounts on a set of Highland pipes (white-ish material). This set also has engraved silver tuning slides.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.

Closeup of a set of Highland pipes with button mounts. The “button mounts” are carved out of the dark wood of the pipes themselves, instead of being a separate material (such as the white ferrules).
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com
Closeup of a set of Highland pipes’ stock joints and mounts. Here, both the ferrules and mounts are made of antler (white-ish material).
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.


Ferrules

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.

Closeup of a single silver ferrule being worked on.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com
A set of Highland drone tops with engraved silver ferrules. These ferrules cover over the wood on the bottom, whereas some others won’t.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.

Closeup of engraved silver drone caps, and the bottom of a chanter sole (top) on a set of Highland pipes.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com
Closeup of the bells of two Highland pipe tenor drones. As opposed to the above, this set has rings and bushes to end off the drones (the white bits). The black ring you can see in the middle is part of the same wood of the whole drone—it’s not a separate piece.
Made by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: ckpipes.com

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.).