During the 1970s and 1980s, David V. Kennedy was a prolific contributor to the pages of both the Piping Times and The International Piper. His article here, on the subject of cane drone reeds, has been taken from the January 1980 edition of The International Piper.
Clearly, if you play synthetic drone reeds then this article may not pertain to you. However, devotees of cane – and there are many who still believe that cane produces the best sound – should read this article.
Cane certainly produces more harmonics than most – most but not all – brands of synthetic reeds. However, those who insist on placing paper clips inside their reeds – and we have seen a lot of this in recent years – should think again: all this does is produce a ‘foghorn’ high A, something we’ve heard from even Grade 1 bands. The answer to producing a great drone sound from cane reeds, as David Kennedy’s piece suggests, is in the bridle.
By David V. Kennedy
For pipers who like to have resonant, sweet sounding drones, bridles on the reeds can be extremely important. For pipers who like roaring, blasting, loud drones with air rushing through them like a factory whistle, read no further! This article is not for you.
For the novice piper who knows not what a bridle is, let us define it here and now. A bridle on a pipe drone reed is a device which holds the tongue of that reed in a certain vibratory position, such that if you move the bridle up and down on the reed, the reed will alter its pitch and tone when played in the drone. On drones of the Great Highland Pipe, the reeds are single-reeds of a rather primitive design. The bridles, traditionally, have been of a thin hemp, waxed with a sticky wax (brown or black wax), and tied to the single reed so that the bridle is located near the end of the tongue, away from the waxed tip. In recent years, some reed-makers have been using resined hemp instead of waxed hemp.
The general idea of the bridling device is to restrain the horizontal movement of the tongue (i.e. the potential to lengthen under the vibratory process) and to hold the vertical distance of the tongue constant (i.e. the up and down movement of the tongue as it vibrates off its cut position). Devices like O rings; elastic bands from the orthodontist; unwaxed orange hemp; dental floss … to name but a few, are, in my opinion, entirely unsatisfactory … except, perhaps, in the initial stages of ‘breaking in’ a new drone reed where constant movement of the bridle and readjustment have been considered necessary. They do not work well, because they tend to slither around, up and down on the drone reed, and because they allow too much vertical motion of the tongue in an irregular oscillation (e.g. elastic bands, however tightly tied on). I realise that I am ‘butting heads’ against many competent pipers, professionals and amateurs, who do believe that devices other than orange hemp, waxed up with the brown wax or something similar, will do perfectly well for a bridle. I have tried them all; and they have never worked well for me. So frankly, I have faith only for the hemp and wax technique.
Most reed-makers tie the bridle with either a single half-hitch looped under or with two half-hitches. This is a fast, easy to dc tie-on which doesn’t use much hemp. The resined hemp tied this way falls off or loosens pretty easily once it has been moved. If it has been brown-waxed or orange hemp, it will stay on somewhat longer after movement.
Another tie-on which I use, shown t¢ me by John D. Burgess, which (I believe) he called the “Willie Ross tie-on”, uses more hemp, has two knots fore and aft, and stays on for quite a while even after movement of the bridle.
Why move the bridle?
The bridle is moved to ‘tone’ the drone. Drone reeds which are too ‘open’ may howl and snarl in some drones. One of the possible remedies is to move the bridle towards the waxed tip of the reed, thus closing the aperture between tongue and the cut part of the reed. The bridle is moved also to open up the reed, when the tongue appears to be tightly closed and will not vibrate. This does not always work; and the old remedy of inserting a hair under the tongue may be the solution. If a hair is used, it should be pushed down to as close to the bridle as possible. Eventually, the tongue of the reed will take a “set” and the hair can be removed. Amusingly enough, the coarseness of the hair can be a factor … soft, willowy Celtic hairs may not do as well as one wiry Pictish hair. Ca depende que… as the French might say!
‘Springing’ the tongue
Some pipers like to take the end of the tongue of the reed and lift it up forcibly and then let it snap back again position. Old Fred ‘’Scotty’’ Bowden, a Boer War piper from the 42nd who used to live in Sacramento and now has gone to Tir nan Og, always said to us: “Never snap a reed, boys!’’. I agree with him. If the tongue must be lifted and almost ‘sprung’, then lift it gently and let it back again gently. But better still, the tongue and insert a hair under it.
The tightness of the bridle
A very tight bridle can produce results different from a moderately tight bridle.
No bridle should be so loose that you can roll it off the reed fairly easily. But tightness is a factor which can affect a reed significantly.
Some reeds require a moderately tight bridle in order to function at peak efficiency. The same bridle tied tightly in the same spot can give dismaying results. The way to test this is to make the preliminary tie-on at mode tension. If it ‘claps up’ or squeaks, you have either gone too far up in ‘siting’ the bridle or the bridle is simply too tight where it is located. Loosen it up a bit and then try it. If the drone double tones well, to suit your blowing, you got the right tension and position. Make the final tie-in and blow it in the pipe. It may require moving up or down either way. Do this while the wax is fresh.
Older, well-played drone reeds usually require a tight bridle sited quite far towards the waxed tip … and need hairs under the tongue. New seem to need the bridle moderately and sited down towards the butt end of the reed.
‘Bridling’ old drone reeds
Old snorters, snarlers, bellowers can rarely be cured by a bridle. After a while, some drone reeds take a very open ‘set’ and very little can be done about them as
far as putting bridles on them concerned. The cane has been wetter thoroughly over the hours of blowing that it has become raspy in tone … putting a bridle 2/3 of the way up the reed towards the tip isn’t going to give you a well toned reed. A temp remedy is to insert a very thin blade under the tongue and massage the tongue back to a closed position.
Usually, this won’t last long.
In dry climates bridles do not last forever. I assume that in moist climates they have a certain longevity also. When the drone starts to ‘act up’ then one place go to investigate is the bridle. If the has lost its tension, it may well be the time to re-tie another one on.
As the reed matures, the bridle may have to be moved to compensate for the curvature of the tongue; but after a bridle is moved a number of times, it becomes loose fitting, and the best course is to tie another one on in the appropriate place.
In dry climates, and with the use of a water-trap in the blowstick, the wax on the bridles dries out and becomes brittle and non-sticky. In moist climates, the hemp of the bridle becomes moist because the wax has been penetrated by water molecules … and at that stage the bridle tightens up after a time of playing and may start to ‘act up’ because of it. This may require a frequent re-tuning of the drones. In either case, as stated above, a re-tie of the bridle may solve a lot of problems for the piper.
Apart from bridles, other mechanical features of the pipe must be in top shape. If your tuning pins have been poorly hemped or your drone stocks are gummed up with ‘glog’ or the stocks leak anywhere, the finest bridles in the world are not going to give you a nice, steady, in tune, resonant drone sound. The bag itself, should be good and tight with no leaks. The flapper valve, if you use one, should be close fitting and with no leaks … and so on and so on!
But assuming that all else is in class A shape and the pipe is still difficult, then have a look at the drone bridles … they just might be the problem.