About the bagpipes
There are four principal types of bagpipes:
- The Great Highland Bagpipes which is the most commonly seen instrument as it is used in military performances and is also popular with civilian players. It has a range of notes which extends from Low 'G' to High 'A'.
- The Irish Bagpipes which operates in the key of 'C' or 'D Major' and is normally used to play staccato pieces.
- The Northumbrian Bagpipes are much smaller than the Great Highland Bagpipes and also produce a staccato sound. Their size means that they require very precise fingering. This instrument can be detuned to play in different keys.
- The French Biniou produces a very high-pitched sound.
How bagpipes work
Bagpipes are made up of four parts - an air intake pipe into which the player blows, the bag which stores the air and then releases it on the player's demand, the main pipes (drones) which produce the sound, and a separate, holed pipe which the player uses to adjust the pitch of the notes.
The bag would have traditionally been made from the skin of sheep, cows or goats but, these days, synthetic materials such as Gore-Tex are far more common. Pipes can be produced from a variety of materials but the best bagpipes are made from hardwoods such as Rosewood, Ebony, African Blackwood or Cocobolo - something which has the advantage of damping the irritating 'buzzing' sound that more cheaply produced bagpipes can generate. Bagpipes for beginners will normally have plastic drones fitted as these are easier to maintain as well as costing less.
In older bagpipes, it was normal for the player to have to close the tips of the pipes while he drew breath but modern pipes have a valve installed and this is no longer necessary.
The melody pipe, or chanter as it is called, can be played using one or both hands and is open-ended. This means that the natural pauses in the music that other wind instruments take advantage of are not possible, because the bagpipes generate a continuous legato sound that renders them unsuitable for many pieces of music. A skilled player can emulate breaks or accentuation to some extent by inserting grace notes.
Some instruments have two chanters fitted making them especially challenging to master however, when played correctly, their harmonies can add an extra dimension to the bagpipes' distinctive sound.
Since the bagpipes are notoriously difficult to play, many beginners start off with just a chanter - something that will only set them back £30 to £40 compared to a decent set of Great Highland Bagpipes which would cost them between £800 and £1,000.
If you are thinking of taking up the instrument, make sure that you have the space to play it in - not everyone will appreciate your taste in music, especially while you are learning. Also, if you have never played a woodwind instrument before (recorder, clarinet, saxophone etc) then consider starting with just a 'simple' plastic chanter.