What's a Bagpipe?

At a glance, a bagpipe doesn't appear to be a very complicated instrument, notwithstanding its unique appearance. The chanter (the melody pipe), with its simple open finger holes, might remind you of a recorder. The drones look like simple, if decorated, tubes. Compared to, say, a clarinet or a guitar, there's nothing visible that looks particularly intimidating.

Glossary of Basic Terminology

ARUNDO DONAX ~ a species of cane native to large areas of Western Europe used for reed-making.

BAG ~ a flexible but airtight structure, its only openings are an air inlet (see blowpipe) and one or more outlets that feed air into the sound-producing pipes. A bag does not stretch when inflated, like a balloon - thus it must be squeezed, or more air must be blown into it, for air to flow to the pipes.

BAG COVER ~ a more or less elaborate cloth covering of the bag itself that serves a primarily decorative function.

BELL ~ the flared outlet portion of some chanters and drones. The final opening of a bell may be wide, like a trumpet, or it may narrow back down to a small opening. See also Cow horn Bell.

BELLOWS ~ bellows, usually more or less of the familiar fireplace configuration, are used on various bagpipes as an air supply. One side (cheek) of the bellows is usually attached to the player's waist by a belt, the other to the upper arm by a strap. A short hose or pipe connects the outlet of the bellows to the bag.

BLADE ~ the vibrating element of a reed - see also tongue.

BLOWPIPE ~ the pipe through which the piper inflates the bag and supplies air for the reed, except in the case of bellows - blown pipes. Usually fitted with a flap-valve to prevent air from backing out while the piper takes a breath.

BORE ~ no, not the slide show of your cousin's camping trip, but rather the hollow passage running through a chanter or drone in which the sound is produced, fitted at one end with a reed and either open or closed at the other. The bore shape is usually circular in cross-section, while lengthwise it may be either tapered (conical) or not (cylindrical).

BRIDLE ~ a tuning device for a reed, often nothing more than a few turns of thread looped around the reed and knotted. By sliding the bridle up or down the length of a drone reed, the length of the vibrating tongue and thus the pitch of the reed is altered.

CANE ~ the raw material, botanically a group of grasses having stiff tubular bamboo-like stems, of which reeds, or in some cases entire pipes are made. The most common cane used in bagpipes is Arundo Donax, but other varieties are used as well.

CLOSED BORE ~ refers to a chanter bore that has no outlet at the end opposite the reed. This means that when all the finger holes are covered the pipe produces no sound, thus allowing silences to be "played" between notes.

CLOSED FINGERING ~ refers to a chanter configured so that the finger holes are normally closed, except for whichever ones are opened to play one or another note. Often found in conjunction with closed bores.

COMBING ~ decorative turning consisting of more or less tightly spaced narrow circular grooves, found here and there on many pipes, particularly on drones and particularly on Great Highland pipes.

COWHORN BELL ~ a bell on the outlet end of a chanter or drone, made from a cow horn, often decorated, or made from wood and/or metal in the shape of a cow horn. Most often found on Eastern European and Mediterranean pipes, cow horn bells provide a visual link to one of the bagpipe's very early ancestors, the hornpipe.

DOUBLE CHANTER ~ chanters with two bores and two sets of finger holes are found on a number of bagpipes and in several variations. On some, both bores have the same finger hole spacing and so sound in unison. On others, one bore may have only a single finger hole and is used as a sort of alternating-tone drone. An altogether different use of the term applies it to pipes with two separate chanters (for example the various Italian Zampognas).

DRESSING ~ well, no, probably mayonnaise is not a good choice - dressing refers not to something for a salad but to one or another usually more or less liquid concoction intended to keep or restore the air tightness and suppleness of the leather bag. Substances used include milk, honey, whiskey, vinegar etc. etc., and it behooves the novice piper to be cautious about accepting some of the suggestions heard.

DRONE ~ a pipe that produces - usually - a single uninterrupted note, tuned to a specific relationship to one of the notes of the chanter (for example, an octave below the chanter keynote). Some drones have devices by which an alternate note can be sounded, either during play or by performing an adjustment between tunes. All drones have some provision for tuning, commonly by adjusting the bore length via sliding joints or other mechanical arrangement, or by adjusting the reed - either by changing its depth of seating and/or by altering the weight and/or the effective length of the reed's vibrating blade(s). Drones may be mounted alone, together with one or more other drones in a common stock, in a common stock next to a chanter, within a chanter, or within an assembly containing multiple drones.

ELDER ~ in regions where cane is (or was) unavailable, other materials are used for reeds. The Elder tree is one of these.

FERRULE ~ a band, usually of a metal such as brass, copper or silver, mounted around the ends of stocks, drone joints and blowpipes to be both decorative and to reinforce thin-walled areas of these and similar parts.

FINGERHOLES ~ holes that intersect the bore of a chanter or (rarely) a drone and that when covered or uncovered by the player's fingers alter the effective length of the bore and thus the pitch of the tone produced. Finger holes may be undercut or bored at a slant to the bore axis, and vary widely among different bagpipes in size and shape.

Flap Valve ~ a simple but important device that keeps air from backing out of a blowpipe when the piper takes a breath. The name comes from the fact that the valve is nothing more than a flap of leather that is mounted so as to occlude the airway when air pressure becomes greater on the inside than on the outside. Bellows-operated pipes commonly have two flap valves, one in the air-inlet of the bellows (usually in one of the cheeks) and the other in the connecting pipe between the bellows and the bag.

FLEA-HOLE ~ a very small - thus the name - chanter finger hole that when opened causes the notes played to jump upward above the nominal range of the pipe.

FONTENNELLE ~ a rigid tubular cover that fits over the lowest key on some bagpipe chanters (notably Italian Zampognas), covering all of the key except the very end of the actuating lever. Usually made of the same material as the chanter or the chanter's trim work.

GOAT ~ the bags of many bagpipes, especially Eastern European and Mediterranean pipes, are made of goatskin. Carved goat heads, sometimes elaborate, are found on some of these pipes, serving as chanter stocks.

GOOSE ~ a bagpipe, usually a Great Highland, equipped with only a chanter and no drone (or with the drones plugged), intended to allow beginning players to practice and develop their ability without having to deal with too much at once.

GRACE NOTES ~ because most bagpipes have no silences available between notes it is necessary to separate notes - especially when the same note is played twice in a row - with a short note between. In some traditions, notably that of the Great Highland Bagpipe, groups of grace notes are sometimes used, with their own nomenclature and notation. HORN ~ horn of various kinds is used in construction of many bagpipes, as bells, ferrules etc. Most common is cow horn, but sheep and goat are also employed.

HORNPIPE ~ an ancient mouth-blown reed instrument that is clearly related to some sorts of bagpipes. The term is also applied to a form of music.

JOINT ~ rather than referring to the connection between two parts, it is the entire section of drones that are so called. Thus, for example, a typical three-piece Western European drone has (in addition to its stock) a bottom (or lower), a middle and a top (or upper) joint.

KEY ~ as with other woodwinds, the term applies to a mechanism, usually simple and made of metal and a bit of leather, which serves to open or close holes in the bore of a pipe in order to obtain certain notes. Bagpipes in general do not have much key work; often a single key is fitted near the lower end of large chanters, which effectively serves to extend the reach of the piper's fingers. There are notable exceptions - few woodwinds have more keys than some Uilleann pipes (with their auxiliary drone-like pipes called regulators), and the French Musette de Cour and some Northumbrian Small pipes are loaded with elaborate key work.

MOUNTS ~ in general refers to the trim work on the wooden parts of a bagpipe - some of it functional, some not. Pipes are sometimes referred to as full-mounted, meaning that all terminations of all the component wooden parts are fitted with metal, ivory, horn, various plastics and so on, or half-mounted, meaning that certain parts are left in plain wood (for example the tuning tenons of the drones).

OPEN FINGERING ~ refers to a chanter on which most, if not all, notes are generally sounded with various, again if not all, of the finger holes below the note open, rather than closed. See also closed fingering.

OVERBLOWN NOTES ~ are notes above a chanter's normal range, produced by momentarily increasing air pressure, certain fingerings, or a combination of both.

PICK ~ many bagpipes' chanters are commonly brought into tune by applying bits of wax to the finger holes, thus effectively changing their position slightly along the bore. This is necessary at times because of changes in a reed, the weather or sometimes (it seems) the phases of the moon. A short pointed tool - a pick - is handy for applying and removing wax, and nicely carved ones are more or less standard equipment for some pipes.

POPPING VALVE ~ the Irish Uilleann pipe, played with closed fingering, can be silenced between notes by pressing the chanter outlet against the top of the seated player's thigh. Uillean pipers often wear a sort of small leather apron on their thighs against which to seal the chanter. A popping valve is a mechanical device at the chanter's end which accomplishes the same task more positively and with less fuss.

PRACTICE CHANTER ~ a chanter, especially designed and constructed to be both quiet and somewhat hard to blow, with which a piper can learn fingerings and/or tunes while also either developing or maintaining necessary lung and mouth power, all without drawing small-arms fire from the neighbors. The finger hole placement is the same as on an ordinary chanter, but practice chanters usually are pitched an octave lower. Commonly, practice chanters are associated with the Great Highland pipe, but there are ones made for other bagpipes as well.

REED ~ a device that opens and closes (more or less) rapidly as air passes through it into the bore of a woodwind, thus creating a vibration in the bore which is perceived as sound. Bagpipe reeds are of two basic types - single-blade, similar in action to a clarinet reed, though constructed differently, and double-blade, similar to an oboe reed. The exact configuration of reeds varies from type to type of pipe. In general, reeds are the "heart" of a bagpipe, and because with a few exceptions they must be made by the piper they are the objects of a great deal of time and attention. A little later on we plan to have a section of this site focused on them.

REGULATOR ~ a closed pipe on a Uillean pipe fitted with a reed and normally closed keys that can be operated with either the fingers or the edge of the lower hand, thus sounding accompanying notes (or in the case of pipes with multiple regulators, chords) to the chanter.

RUSH ~ a tuning device inserted into the bore of a melody pipe, consisting, classically, of a straw-like plant stem shaved along its length so as to be thicker at some selected spots than at others. Its function is to tune selected notes along the melody pipe, by effectively narrowing the bore more in some places than others. Sean Folsom has developed a modification to this system that is more convenient and quicker to apply - rather than using a straw, he applies blobs of beeswax to selected spots along a stiff wire.

SEAT ~ the socket at one end of a chanter or drone into which the reed fits. A seat may or may not have the same cross-section as the adjacent bore. Some degree of tuning is possible by changing the depth of a reed in its seat.

SOLE ~ the disk-like trim, made of ivory, plastic or metal (sometimes silver) mounted at the outlet end of a chanter.

STANDING PARTS ~ generally refers to the bottom drone sections of a bagpipe, that is, those that are not moved in relation to the bag when the drone is tuned.

STAPLE ~ a small usually metal tube, either cylindrical or conical in shape, onto which the blades of a reed are tied.

STOCK ~ a short hollow part of a bagpipe acting as a connection between the bag and the various pipes. Stocks are usually tied into the bag with stout thread or cord, in such a way that the seal around them is airtight. Stocks may be turned or carved and may accept one or more pipes.

TENON ~ in general, an end of a pipe, of diminished diameter, which fits into an adjacent part. Thus, for example the tenon of a chanter fits into the chanter stock. Many bagpipes are equipped with drones having multiple sections (see joints) that have very long tenons and correspondingly long sockets in the adjacent sections. This arrangement allows the overall length, and thus the pitch, of the drone to be adjusted. All tenons have some provision to keep them from falling out of their sockets and for making an airtight connection - most common is thread wrapped around the tenon, but cork, o-rings, and other materials are also employed. Some systems use the shape of the tenon to create a firm sealed connection - notably, various Italian pipes use bare tapered tenons mating into tapered sockets, and screw threads carved into wood or ivory are also seen.

TIE IN ~ refers to the process of attaching components - usually various stocks - to a bag by tying them into holes made in the bag (or there naturally in the case of bags made of whole animal skins).

TONGUE ~ the vibrating part of a reed; the term is somewhat interchangeable with blade, but is usually reserved for the blade of a round-body single-bladed reed of the sort commonly employed in Western European drones.

VENT HOLE ~ a hole (or holes) found on some chanters below all of the finger holes and keys that determines the low note of the chanter. Also sometimes called a "voicing hole."

WAX ~ of various sorts, often beeswax, is used in assorted places on many bagpipes, most noticeably to fine-tune notes by application around the edges of finger holes, but also less visibly to change the pitch of reeds by adding weight to their blades. Rushes are another place wax may be found, and waxed thread is often used as a wrap on tenons and in sewing bags. Finally, beeswax is sometimes a component of bag dressing concoctions.

YOKE ~ a structure designed to hold two pipes - for example a chanter and a drone or a pair of drones - together.