Interested in Learning the Bagpipes? A Must Read Guide

If you are interested in learning to play the Bagpipes, there are many things you should know first. Learning the bagpipes requires a good quality practice chanter, a tutor book, and formal lessons with an instructor.

Practice Chanter

A practice chanter is its own instrument which is used to learn fingering for the bagpipe chanter. It will continue to be used after the student has moved on to the bagpipes to learn new tunes. It is also useful for practice when playing on a full set of pipes is impractical.

Some people aren't familiar with the differences between the bagpipe chanter and the practice chanter. The Practice chanter has a narrower cylindrical bore and comes with a plastic reed. It has a quieter sound than a bagpipe chanter. It requires less air and lower pressure to allow for longer practice sessions. It is also pitched one octave lower than a bagpipe chanter. The Bagpipe chanter, or Pipe chanter, has a large tapered bore and a cane (wood) reed. It produces a louder sound and requires a large volume or air and substantial pressure. It is not suitable for practice on its own.

The practice chanter consists of three parts- the practice chanter body, a reed, and the practice chanter top/mouthpiece. The Body looks like a bagpipe chanter with general size and finger hole location, but a narrow bore which lowers the pitch and volume. The reed is usually made of plastic and ensures a stable pitch despite wet blowing. The top/mouthpiece is a tube and air chamber that surrounds and protects the reed and allows the player to blow into the instrument. It is long enough to place the practice chanter and your hands in a comfortable position.

There are 3 different sizes of practice chanters available- Child, Regular, and Long. The size of the practice chanter will depend on the age and size of the student. Young children with small hands will not be able to reach the required finger spacing on a full sized practice chanter, but can still learn the basic fingering on a smaller chanter. The Child's practice chanter's holes are closer together and the overall length is shorter. A Regular practice chanter is most commonly used by youth pipers or pipers with smaller hands. The holes are very similar to that of a bagpipe chanter. Once your hands are big enough, you should practice with a Long chanter. It has the same finger spacing as a pipe chanter making the transition to pipes easier.

Practice chanters can be made of plastic, wood or a combination of both. Wood offers high quality sound, however they can be prone to cracking due to moisture. Quality plastic practice chanters are durable with good tone. A combination plastic mouthpiece top and wooden chanter body can sometimes be the best of both worlds.

Some practice chanters offer counter sunk finger holes, making it easier to feel where the holes are. The holes also feel larger which is similar to the finger holes on a bagpipe chanter. Some manufacturer's chanters are quieter than others. Some makers offer water traps.

Tutor Books

Your instructor will likely have a tutor book they prefer to teach from. If you are trying to teach yourself, there are many good options. The College of Piping Centre Volume 1 Book, or "Green Book" as it if often referred, comes with a CDROM. It is a good tutor book to start with as it begins with the very basics, assuming no prior knowledge or musical experience by the student. This allows the student to start in on it alone. It is structured so that the student piper can learn one lesson a week, making a complete course of just over six months. It explains all of the required first movements and when used in conjunction with the audio and video files on the CDROM, gives the student maximum benefit.

The National Piping Centre Tutor Book also contains rudimentary information and is a very good resource for someone who wants to learn on their own. It includes a CDROM with step-by-step guide to supplement book as well as an appendix that talks about the bagpipe in comparison to other instruments for those individuals who have previous musical knowledge.

Bagpipe Solutions are 7 highly detailed volumes from world class piper John Cairns. The first 3 volumes cover the practice chanter and the following 4 are for the bagpipes. Each volume is accompanied by a CD. They contain in-depth material on all aspects of piping including theory, maintenance, tone, tuning, band and instrument drill, technical playing, reading music (time and rhythm), the wearing of highland dress, music instructional training, bagpipe history and ear training.


It is strongly recommended that you get an instructor as the Bagpipes are a complicated wind instrument. Bad posture, poor fingering techniques, and poor tuning can be easily corrected with an instructor but difficult to learn after poor habits set in.

When finding an instructor, consider what your goals are and find an instructor to match them whether it is for competition, fun, or piobaireachd (pronounced "pee brock", which is the "classical music" of the bagpipes). Depending on what your goals are, your instructor's methods may or may not be a good fit. Inquire what grade level your potential instructor is (or was) and if he/she has ever competed. You should ask how long he/she has been piping and teaching, how many students he/she currently has, if he/she can provide you a list of references of his/her students for you to contact, and the cost.

There are also some instructors that offer courses and top quality training online. Ken Eller of Captain's Corner, for example, offers online instruction using a chat room type setting with video conferencing. This may be an option if there is no instructor within driving distance.

To find an instructor, there are many options. Check with local pipe bands. Some offer free instruction. Bagpipe Associations may have a list of instructors in your area. Highland Games or Scottish festivals are a great place to find piping contacts. Musical instrument retailers often have a good knowledge of the local music scene and although not all sell pipes or piping supplies, they should be able to refer you to someone. Piping suppliers will likely know instructors or bands that they can refer you to. Scottish or Celtic Goods stores will often know pipers in the area as well. When all else fails, search online. Bagpipe forums are great resources. You can also just search for key terms like "piping instructor" or "bagpipe teacher" and see if anything comes up in your area.

Rauncie Kinnaird owns Kinnaird Bagpipes & Reeds retailing Scottish jewelery, food, Guinness clothing, gift items, pipe band supplies, Highland dress, and bagpipes. Sign-up for free articles on Scottish history, events, and bagpipe tips at

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16 Dec 2016

By Rauncie Kinnaird