‘Pitching’ the chanter reed

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By David V. Kennedy

• From the August 1981 Piping Times.

Effective blade length
The effective blade length of the chanter reed is that dimension measured from the tip of the blades to the top of the bindings. But some makers will contend (and I am among them) that all the scraped cane of the blades has a bearing on tone and response, i.e. even the cane under the bindings is important, as well as the staple. But, in general, the pitch of the reed can be adjusted by establishing the correct effective blade length.

For chanters made within the last 10 years or so, the reeds that seem to pitch the best are those with effective blade lengths of about 44/64ths inch and a maximum width at tip of blade of about 32/64ths inch. For chanters made before, say, 1966 the effective blade length can be 48/64ths inch or even slightly longer, with no diminution in width.

Reeds are best made for a particular chanter. A reed that goes well in one chanter will not necessarily go well in another.
Reeds are best made for a particular chanter. A reed that goes well in one chanter will not necessarily go well in another.

The tendency for some reedmakers to decrease the width to about 28/64ths was, I believe, a mistake. The long, narrow reeds present considerable difficulties in older chanters from the aspect of getting the correct pitch.

For very old chanters, around World War One or the Boer War, I have a strong suspicion that the reed would have to be longer than 3/4 inch and wider than 32/64ths, but as I do not have a really ancient chanter in my possession, I cannot prove that supposition.

What is ‘pitch’?
Frequently reeds put into chanters and ‘set’ correctly will play the intervals modally and apparently correctly, but the overall listening impression is that the chanter is ‘flat’, which means that almost all the notes in the scale are flat. The player is bothered because the ‘pitch’ doesn’t seem right. And of course the player is absolutely correct. His discerning ear has told him that the harmonics with the drones are not sounding as they should.

If the piper resets the reed it may be that the lower hand ‘comes in’ but the top hand has gone way sharp. This often happens with older chanters; and it well may be that the reed is not long enough or wide enough for that particular chanter – the remedy being to seek another longer and wider reed with enough leeway so that the tip can be cut off without affecting the higher notes.

Fitting chanter reeds is a technique. It is time-consuming and it requires effort and patience, but when you get a good reed in your chanter, it is the difference between night and day.
Fitting chanter reeds is a technique. It is time-consuming and it requires effort and patience, but when you get a good reed in your chanter, it is the difference between night and day.

The pitch on the older chanters with the older designed reeds will start closer to A than to B flat, and the intervals will then agree harmonically with the drone tunings, so that even if the chanter is not pitched close to B flat it will still not sound flat to the ear. But trying to fit a short, stubby reed into an older chanter seems to me to be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

If I were to define ‘pitch’ at all, it would be something like this: The tuning of the chanter such that all the notes (and particularly the basic note of the chanter e.g. A or B flat or somewhere between them) are consonant with each other and with the harmonics of the drones at their best tuning positions. In other words the modal scale should not give the appearance of being flat or too sharp.

‘Pitch’ and cutting the tip off
If the piper has a more modern chanter, but is trying out a long, wide chanter reed, and the results are a flat impression on the scale, he may start to ‘pitch’ the reed by cutting the tip off. This is best done against a hard block billot with a very sharp reedknife; and the cuts should be as close to 1/2mm as possible. After every tip is cut off the chanter and reed should be played to see the results.

Just to mention a recent experience of mine in the light of this discussion, I had a reed which measured slightly more than 3/4 inch length and was about 32/64ths wide. This reed sounded flat in both my 1965 and 1969 Hardie chanters. I took about 1mm off the tip, and the reed went sharp on high A on my 1965 chanter; but it did not do so on my 1969 chanter. Further tip-cuttings reduced the length of the reed to about 44/64ths inch and the width to about 29/64ths inch and the pitch came up to avoid the flat sound in the 1969 chanter. Of course, there was no hope for this reed in the 1965 chanter. It is true that these were reeds which I had made myself, from the tube cane but I really don’t think that this had a bearing on the problem.

Quite rightly, someone is going to ask me: What do you do about the 1965 chanter?

For that chanter I make reeds which are definitely ‘oversized’, which play flat when first tested but whose overall configuration is different from those made for the 1969 chanter. I find that the length cannot go below a certain minimum – which is 3/4 inch – so another form of compensation has to be made to ‘pitch’ this reed. And this has to be done by scraping the blades very carefully to try to bring the pitch up just enough that the flat impression is avoided. This can be tricky because the scrape cannot be too much on the upper part of the blades, nor can it be great on the sound-box of the reed. My best results are obtained by scraping along the edges of the sound-box and taking some cane off the centre part of the reed just above the sound box, but not enough to weaken the spine of the reed, using the V shape transitional scrape concept.

Some generalities
Reeds are best made for a particular chanter. A reed that goes well in one chanter will not necessarily go well in another, particularly if there is a great age difference in the chanters. I do not believe that a universal reed can be made for all chanters (thus disagreeing with my mentors who taught me how to make chanter reeds).

If you have to tape up the holes to pitch the reed, you do not have the correct reed for your chanter, or you are blowing too strongly or too weakly for that chanter. Taping holes is usually done when the reeds are weak and give too sharp notes, but this should not be necessary if you get to know what kinds of reeds your chanter needs.

Fitting chanter reeds is a technique. It is time-consuming and it requires effort and patience, but when you get a good reed in your chanter, it is the difference between night and day.

I have a reed in front of me that I made three weeks ago from very fine French cane. It is slightly longer than 3/4 inch (effective blade length) and is maximum width 32/64ths inch. The reed is fairly hard to blow, but is pitched correctly for the 1965 chanter. Some pipers might like a reed like this; but I prefer to blow a moderate reed. So the question in my mind is: Do I try further scraping of the blades or do I just try ‘blowing it in’? (what a horrid thought!); or do I sell it to one of those stout hearted, hard blowing pipers? Because I do not believe in hard reeds for anyone, I must stick to my philosophy and do further scraping. I believe the reed will hold up – but that’s the chance we all take when we scrape to the borderline.