Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part one


A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

THE GREAT Highland Bagpipe is a versatile instrument capable of producing breathtaking music in the hands of the finest solo performers and Grade 1 bands, or of stirring the emotions of the listener when a pipe band parades down the street with a bit of pomp and swagger.

Those are the situations we most associate with Highland pipes, but over the last 40 to 50 years there has been a growing interest in playing the Highland pipes alongside other traditional instruments, and for the past 25 years, the piping degree course at the RSAMD and now at the RCS has been producing Highland pipers who are quite comfortable in the folk band idiom.

The early folk scene piping pioneers in the 1970s were Jimmy Anderson and then Tom Johnstone in Glasgow band, The Clutha; Duncan MacGillivray in Battlefield Band; Iain MacDonald and then Dougie Pincock in Kentigern. Neil Fraser, from the BBC Gaelic department was also an influential person at the time. He produced TV programmes such as Se Ur Beatha and promoted pipe music on radio in the early 70s. Neil brought over the Bothy Band from Ireland and wanted a similar band from Scotland, and thus gathered piper Angus MacDonald, Alasdair Fraser, John Carmichael, Charlie Cowie (fiddle) and Alasdair MacDonald (guitar) as a group. In another series they formed the group, Alba, with Mike Ward, Tony Cuffe, Sean O’Rouke and Angus MacDonald. When Angus left to do his final medical exams (and become Dr. Angus), Allan MacLeod took over in Alba and then went on to join Tannahill Weavers.

It may sound like a long time ago, but it seems that the tradition moves at a slower pace and the skills and techniques of piping alongside other traditional instruments have not been widely passed on and are not common knowledge to the majority of pipers.

•Griogair Labhruidh playing Highland pipes with fiddler Gabe McVarish of Dàimh at Piping Live! 2014.

The whole subject of playing pipes with other musicians is a massive topic and Tim Cummings’ excellent Theory Top-Up series is a spin-off from this very feature and explores the related music theory in great detail.

Part one of this feature is taking it very slowly, giving you simple instruction on how to pitch your pipe chanter, a little of the music theory involved and some knowledge of what other musicians need to do to play along with you.

You don’t need to have a strong grasp of musical theory to follow steps one to three, but it does assume you are a piper who can read pipe music; you know the names of the notes on the chanter; you understand how to set the pitch of your pipe chanter by sinking or raising the reed and how to check the pitch using a tuner.  

If you are able to do those things, the steps below should allow you to set your pipe chanter, and knowing you are at concert pitch, give you the confidence to find a willing musician to share a tune; even if only to encourage you to share a few tunes with a friend who plays guitar… and everyone has a friend who plays guitar!


1. You must have a B-flat concert pitch pipe chanter, and these are now available from many bagpipe makers. 

2. Your low A needs to tune to 440 Hertz (Hz) — that is not strictly true (it actually tunes to 466Hz) and we will find out why in the next article. However to keep things simple for the moment, get a calibratable chromatic tuner, such as a Korg C-30, and set it to 440Hz. 

•Example 1. Chromatic tuner set to 440 Hertz showing the B-flat note ‘in tune’ when a low A is played into it. 

3. If the chromatic tuner shows B-flat ‘in tune’, see example one above, when you play your low A into it when set to 440Hz, then your chanter is where you want it to be.

So if you have followed the points above, your pipe chanter should now be at concert pitch. The following points, from four to 10, start to explore the music theory, but don’t give you all the answers. The various topics and theory will be explored in future articles.


4. Your low A note actually sounds a B-flat and that is why the tuner shows a B-flat when you play a low A into it.  All the other notes on the chanter sound one semitone higher than what they are traditionally named: see example two below.

Example 2

So in theory, if you were trying to check that you and another musician were in tune with each other, you would ask them to play a B-flat and you would play a low A.  

5. There are seven conventional keys available on the pipe chanter: A-flat major; B-flat major & B-flat minor; C minor; E-flat major & E-flat minor; and F minor. Many pipe tunes are not in conventional major or minor keys, but rather in modal keys, eg. mixolydian, and these will be explained in future articles. In the usual piping scenarios, pipers don’t need to know the key of a tune and most will only have experienced keys by the feel of different tunes. Once you start to play with other musicians, you will inevitably be asked the question, “What key are you in?”

6. The most commonly used keys for pipe tunes are B-flat major, E-flat major and C minor. 

7. In the majority of traditional/pipe music, you can find the key of a tune by looking at the last note of the tune.

8. Other musicians who change the tuning of, or transpose, their instruments (fiddle, guitar, whistles, and most other stringed instruments) to be the same pitch as the pipes do not think in the actual keys the pipes are playing, but rather in the keys which are more familiar to them: G major; A major & A minor; B minor; D major & D minor; E minor: see example three.

Example 3. The top line shows the keys which the Highland pipes actually sound. The bottom line shows the names of the top line of keys changed to suit other musicians who tune up or transpose their instrument.

9. If you are looking to find which key a tune is in and you use the method at number 7, and find that the last note is a low A, you can tell the fiddler/guitarist you are in the key of A major, (or A minor if you have been crossfingering the C note). See example four below.

10. Pipers who want to play with other musicians should learn to think and speak in the keys that other musicians use, as well as being familiar with the names of the keys that the pipes actually sound.

These are the very basics of the theory which will be explored further in future articles. 

The following points below give you the basics of what a few other instruments need to do to be in tune with Highland pipes.  So if you have a guitarist friend who has never accompanied Highland pipes, just give him the instruction below and tell him to use his usual chords for whatever key the tune is in.


11. Many instruments will adjust their tuning, or transpose, to allow them to play more easily with Highland pipes. The techniques for tuning/transposing the most common instruments are as follows:

12. The fiddle will tune up by one semitone. 

13. A whistle or flute in the key of E-flat should be used.

14. A guitarist can put a capo on the first fret, or the guitar can be tuned up by one semitone. This also applies to a bouzouki or mandolin.

15. Most keyboards can transpose electronically to suit any key.

16. A piano or an accordion can not transpose or tune up, so the musician needs to play in the same keys that the pipes actually sound: see example three.

17. Sheet music for Highland pipe tunes can be read by any musician who tunes up or transposes their instrument, but mark in the C sharp and F sharp in the key signature, and tell them that the G note is a natural — and to ignore the grace notes: see example four below.

Example 4. A pipe tune with the C# and F# marked in the key signature and guitar chords added above the bars.  This music can be used by any musician who tunes up, or transposes, their instrument, e.g. a fiddler who is tuned up one semitone or a guitarist who is tuned up or using a capo on the first fret.  The final note of the tune is a low A, and as is the case with many traditional/pipe tunes, indicates the key of the tune — which is also A.

Sincere thanks to Jim McGillivray of for his permission to use the tune above and sample below, and to Janette Montague for her advice and work in typesetting the tune samples.

18. If providing music for a piano or any other instrument which does not tune up or transpose, then the music needs to be rewritten, moving every note up one place on the stave and indicating B-flat and E-flat on the key signature: see example five below.

•Example 5

So that is it in a nutshell and I hope I have interested you enough to try it for yourself.  Part two will explore the above points in more detail — and related articles to be posted over the coming weeks will give you tips and tricks from musicians who have made a living playing Highland pipes in folk bands.

This feature was only made possible thanks to Calum MacCrimmon, Finlay MacDonald,
Dougie Pincock, Mike Katz and Angus MacKenzie, by the generous sharing of their
extensive musical knowledge and experience of piping in folk bands.