Even for the experienced piper the variety of different bagpipes and prices can make buying a new, bespoke instrument seem a daunting process. Today, there are a healthy number of manufacturers and it’s fair to say that, in contrast to a generation or two ago, most are producing excellent instruments. That makes the job of selecting which pipe to buy a difficult one for the prospective purchaser.
Whether you wish to buy a set with or without a pipe chanter – you may be content to play your pipe band chanter – the first consideration is the instrument’s most important function: sound. The job of the drones is to project and amplify sound harmonically. The width of the bore can have an effect on producing a satisfactory sound. Most – if not all – drones made in the modern era have a slightly narrower bore than those of yesteryear and the width is fairly uniform regardless of the manufacturer.
Variances in bagpipe construction are minor with the differences really only being cosmetic. Engraved silver/nickel mounts look great but they’re heavier and more expensive. Clearly, the factors that will influence you here are price and taste. Just remember: the sound is produced inside. Outside is simply decoration.
If you can have a blow of a new set of the pipes you are interested in buying that can also give you a feel for the volume and quality of the drones. It’s always good if you can ‘test drive’. Maybe you have a friend who has a set? If not, you should always try to obtain impartial advice from a knowledgeable piper/teacher who has no links to a brand. This can be difficult to come by but The National Piping Centre in Glasgow is probably the best place for this. The staff play pipes made by a variety of manufacturers and there are always new sets hanging on the walls of the shop. These pipes, of course, can be tried and then purchased immediately but bespoke pipes take time. However, you may want to visit in order to try these pipes for yourself with a view to choosing how bespoke you want your instrument to then be. The staff will offer completely impartial advice and you can then take it from there.
Too many pipers listen to other pipers rather than to their own ears. You should listen very carefully to the sound produced by the instrument. Does it sound right to your taste? Do you prefer a sound that’s sweet and quiet yet still harmonic or one that’s harmonic but louder and deeper? Many of our leading solo pipers play old instruments but many do not. They have modern sets. Make it a priority to listen to those that play modern instruments and are having success with them. Without naming names or manufacturers, many leading pipers are having great success with modern instruments. Listen to them and compare their sound. Which sound do you prefer?
We now come to the bag. The size of your bag is a crucial factor and you should be aware that it is the length of your upper arm that determines the width of the bag for you, not the length of your forearm. When you play, your wrist should not be squeezing the bag. Rather, it should be free. If your wrist is squeezing the bag then the bag is too large for you and your playing will suffer.
“Sheepskin or synthetic?” I hear you ask. Sheepskin certainly feels great under the arm – and it somewhat moulds into your body shape over time – but the common belief that it produces a better sound is nothing more than a myth. Therefore, your decision should be based on whether you are prepared to season your sheepskin bag regularly and renew it every few years or if you prefer the ease of a synthetic bag. Of course, if you play in a band, your Pipe Major’s preference may influence your decision. If you are a beginner, you could opt for synthetic or hide. Both give you the rigidity of a sheepskin bag but are also more convenient. Whatever you prefer, just remember: the bag is a reservoir for air and the sound goes one way: out via the reeds. The drone reeds and drones are of far more importance than the type of bag.
Blow stick length is also important. Too short and you will stoop and develop a pain in your neck and back. Too long and your marching may be affected and the chances are you’ll also develop a sore neck. It needs to be of a comfortable length for you. A long blowstick may not have done Dr John MacAskill any harm but many instances of pipers complaining about their bag being too big or small are, in fact, down to the length of their blowstick, e.g. a long blowstick was keeping the bag too low under their arm.
For obvious reasons, an adjustable blow stick is a good idea if the instrument is for a youngster but for adults it’s best to visit the NPC and speak to its shop staff who will help you choose one that’s the correct length for you. Alternatively, of course, you could talk to a pipe-maker to obtain a block stick measurement that fits you comfortably.
Lastly, another important aspect to consider is type of drone reed. There are certain myths surrounding the issue of cane v synthetic and to discuss these here will open up the proverbial can of worms. Suffice it to say, you should simply try a few varieties in your pipe. They should be airtight, steady, and harmonic. Listen – or have your tutor listen – to the drone sound very carefully. You will arrive at your own preference.
Once you’ve taken delivery of you new instrument, inspect it carefully. The first thing you should do it to check each section for any discrepancies such as rough turning, hairline cracks, waxy polish, turning mounts/ ferrules etc. The wood should be well turned. Rare is the new instrument that has any hairline cracks or poorly finished, loose ferrules, but it can – and does – occur.
• Order a new bespoke set of pipes from The Bagpipe Shop by 12noon on Monday, October 28 at the latest to ensure delivery in time for Christmas.