Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part four


A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

Part four of this series is to give pipers some understanding of what other instruments need to do in order to be in tune with our concert pitch B-flat chanter, or even allow you to tell your musician friends what they should be doing in order for you to have a tune together.

“Some people believe that the pipes cannot be played along with any other instruments, but this mistake generally arose, in the past, from a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the true meaning of pitch among pipers generally.  We can, from our own experience, recommend piano and all other orchestral instruments as suitable accompaniment to the pipes, always provided that the Musical Director understands exactly what he is doing, and scores suitable parts for the orchestra. It is also essential that the piper takes the trouble to understand exactly about pitch, and takes a wider view of music generally.”
From the J & R Glen catalogue, January 1929


The simplest thing the fiddler can do is tune up their four strings by one semitone so that their open A string is tuned to a B-flat, and their other three strings tune up accordingly.  This allows them to use their normal finger patterns and ornamentation, and think in their usual keys of A, D, E minor and so on, even though the sound they are producing is in the same keys as the pipes; B-flat, E-flat, F minor etc.  Finlay explained the approach he and Chris Stout have: “Chris tunes up the fiddle by one semitone, though we did experiment with a few methods at first.  Chris has the ability to play in B-flat no problem without tuning up but we found that we lost the ringing string sound when playing open strings and the tunes sat better on the fiddle when it was tuned up.  

•Chris Stout and Finlay MacDonald at the Piping Live! post-Worlds Shindig in 2009.

“What we try to do with the pipes and fiddle is create a more dynamic sound, with Chris going down to the lower octave or jumping up to the octave above where the pipes are sounding.  So when we are playing as a duet, we won’t be playing the exact same notes as each other, and though that tightness of playing the same notes can be nice for a while, if you do it all the time it eventually sounds like just one instrument.  The pipes are constantly on the one level and don’t have any dynamic to go up or down an octave, so Chris interweaves the octaves on the fiddle to create a more interesting sound.”

It is worth mentioning the different approach a violinist would take to playing with Highland pipes.  The fiddle and violin are the same instrument but are mainly called different names depending on whether you are playing traditional music or classical music.  It would be natural for a classical musician to play a B-flat scale without tuning up to play alongside Highland pipes, as due to their classical training they can play in any key.  However, they would experience the same loss of ringing strings that Finlay mentioned earlier, and the less experienced violinist may struggle to play high tempo tunes in B-flat.  So it would probably make sense for a violinist to tune up as well.

•Pipe Major Craig Muirhead of The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland pictured with Irish fiddler, Naimh Ní Charra and the Carlos Núñez Band at Celtic Connections 2010.  

Acoustic Guitar

There are many ways that a guitar can play in tune with the pipes and an experienced player will have no problem choosing their preferred method.  

The less experienced player could tune up their strings by one semitone, though it is probably more likely they will use a capo. “The easiest thing for a guitarist is to put the capo somewhere on the neck which will allow them to use chord shapes they are most comfortable with,” said Mike Katz.  “Generally speaking a guitarist can put a capo on the first fret and play chords for the appropriate key of the tune whether it is G, A, Am, D, or Em etc.  Most of the tunes follow similar chord progressions, and you can sometimes play one chord all the way through a tune and it can be quite effective.  

“The accompaniment for minor tunes can be a bit repetitive using the Am, G and F chords — like the chord progressions for Stairway to Heaven — that fits most pipe tunes in minor keys, though ideally you would want to make a wee variation to that for the sake of taste.  

“For major keys there is a progression called I, IV, V and when playing in the key of A you would use the first chord, A, the fourth chord, D, and the fifth chord, E.  If you understand these basics and are willing to listen and experiment then you can get more sophisticated if you wish.  Lots of tunes work with the same style of accompaniment, and as I said you can just play one chord over a tune for a long time, and make it all about the rhythm, and it will create an interesting effect.

“So if a piper, fiddler and guitarist were all playing Scotland the Brave together the actual key they would be playing is B-flat, but as the fiddle is tuned up to match the pipes the finger patterns that a fiddler would use is from the A scale, and a guitarist with a capo on the first fret to match the pipes would be able to use the chords from the key of A.” 

Some guitarists might be more comfortable using other chord shapes in the keys of G or C for example, and if so, they can put the capo on the third fret and the G chords will give the key of B-flat and the C chords will give E-flat. 


The use of a capo also applies to any strummed string instrument like the bouzouki or mandolin and gives them lots of options for getting in tune with the pipes. “Bouzouki and mandolin players can all use capos,” explained Mike.  “If an accompanist was going to be playing with bagpipes all the time then they might well just tune-up their instrument.  Though using a capo does give a different colour of sound, so even an accomplished musician might want to use a capo high up the neck of the instrument just for the quality of sound.”


Pipers should not buy a B-flat whistle and expect to use similar fingering as they do on the chanter as it doesn’t give you all the notes, and you lose low G in particular.  

The best whistle to start with to accompany Highland pipes is an E-flat whistle, using the whistle’s lower octave A note (two fingers covering the top two holes) as the start of the pipe scale and this will correspond with the low A on the chanter. Mike explained: “An E-flat whistle will give you every note in the pipe scale, though for tunes that are in the key of B-flat an F whistle will allow you to play tunes starting from the the whistle’s lower octave G note (three fingers covering the top three holes) as the pipes’ low A.  Starting the scale at the G note can be a more natural way of playing the whistle, particularly in the Irish style, and the whistle can often be more in tune playing from this position.  The best sound from a whistle is the scale from that G note to the same note one octave up, and, unless you have a very good whistle, the tuning above and below these notes can be problematic.” However, it has to be added that playing the scale starting at the G note on an F whistle doesn’t naturally give a flattened 7th note of the scale, so the whistler would need to half-hole the A note to achieve a flattened 7th.

•Daimh at Celtic Connections 2011 with Angus MacKenzie on Highland pipes and Calum Alex MacMillan on whistle.

The same principle is used for the flute as Dougie Pincock explained: “An E-flat flute is what you need.  The keys of B-flat and E-flat are not impossible on the flute, but they are hard to play.  On an open holed wooden flute those keys are very, very hard to play, especially with any kind of speed.  I personally play a very nice keyless flute in E-flat made by George Ormiston, and all I ever use it for is playing along with pipes.  The nice thing about E-flat flutes is that they have a very bright sound, not
any louder than a normal flute but more of a cutting sound, so you can hear them really well and they are very enjoyable to play along with pipes.”


Renowned Gaelic singer and clàrsach player, Maggie MacInnes, kindly explained what needs to be done to bring a clàrsach into tune with the Highland pipes. She said: “It is easy for a clàrsach to play along with the Highland pipes as the clàrsach is usually tuned to A-flat or E-flat with all levers off. To play in their relative minor keys of F minor or C minor or the major key of B-flat will either involve putting on no levers at all or up to two levers depending on whether the clàrsach has been tuned to A-flat (with 4 flats) or E-flat (with 3 flats) to begin with. The levers of the clàrsach simply raise the note by a semitone.”


The piano has all the keys available to it and can’t be tuned up, so the pianist will need to play in B-flat, E-flat or whatever key to suit the pipe tune.  The keyboard obviously has all the same capabilities as the piano, but there is also the option to use the transpose function to allow the musician to tune up by one semitone and play in a key they feel most comfortable with.  Calum MacCrimmon had more to say on the subject: “I have never used a keyboard in a band situation with the Highland pipes as I would much prefer to use a piano, which you can if the Highland pipes are at concert pitch B-flat.  

“This is one of my passions when it comes to playing pipes with other instruments: the pipes are one of the most resonating, naturally made, instruments and if they are truly going to mesh with other instruments, the other instruments need to be resonating from wood and strings — not from an electrical source.  The keyboard will create an effect, and though it can do fine tuning, it is nothing in comparison to a grand piano with a set of pipes perfectly in tune — they will buzz and glow together in a way a keyboard never could.  I think most people would agree if they had the chance to hear the difference.  Not many people have done it though, and most that have didn’t bother tuning their pipes perfectly — it was more to do with the craic of pipes and piano in a late night session!”

Mike also had one extra point to make about pianos: “Quite often orchestral pianos are tuned sharp.  If you watch an orchestra you will see them tuning to the oboe as it has the purest A note — they will not tune to the piano.  I only found this out recently when doing gigs but orchestral pianos are often tuned very sharp to make it stand out from the other instruments.”

Various Squeezeboxes

Piano accordions are similar to a piano and can play in any key. Most accordion players will play traditional tunes in the keys of A or D, and as they can’t tune-up a semitone the way a fiddle can, they would need to be comfortable in, or relearn all their tunes in, B-flat or E-flat to suit the pipes.  Dougie explained: “Accordions can be hard to play in the flat keys, not so much on the right hand, but the left hand has a hard time jumping around the chords as they are a long way away from each other.  

“I played Highland pipes for years alongside an accordion in the ceilidh band Robbie Shepherd’s Nightmare but I used a pipe chanter in the key of A.  I didn’t specifically set my pipes up in A for that situation, it was more a case that I just wanted a set of pipes in A and they came in handy in some recording sessions. When the ceilidh band started up they really came into their own.”

Mike talked about his experience playing with button accordionist, Leo McCann. “We have played in B-flat together.  What he does is just open up the front of the accordion and move the reeds and then he can just play as normal.

“I have also played with Andy Cutting, the great English melodeon player. The melodeon has the sook / blaw thing going on where it plays a different note depending on whether it is being pushed or pulled and he could just play backwards to let him play in B-flat.  Most melodeon players would just move their hands a half step up and play as normal.”

Dougie also spoke of a similar situation he has seen with a squeezebox player using an unusual and labour intensive method of moving reeds to get in tune with Highland pipes: “I remember seeing Gordon Hotchkiss playing concertina with the Old Howff Band, and any time the band were using concert pitch B-flat pipes Gordon would open the concertina up and move the reeds to allow him to use the key of A finger patterns but play in B-flat.  I remember seeing him do his one time;  he had the names of every note written against the reeds, and he would take one reed out and painstakingly move every reed up by one semitone and then take the first reed and put it in at the end.  Then he flipped the concertina over, opened up the other end and did it all again.”

Electric Lead Guitar

Mike explained: “There are so many ways to play guitar and everyone will tell you something different. The way I was taught to play electric guitar was to never play an open string for the purposes of control.  If your finger is on the string then you can control the vibrato and when the note stops.  I was taught using closed scales and I would never use a capo on an electric guitar.  Most electric guitar players who play lead would have the capability to play in any key they were asked to.”

Brass Instruments

Brass instruments are naturally in the flat keys; trumpets and trombones are in B-flat; horns and saxophones are in either B-flat or E-flat so it is easy for these instruments to play alongside Highland pipes as we often see in military bands.  However, it is important that some effort is made to be in tune with each other, as Calum explained: “When you hear pipes and brass and the tuning is bang on it is incredible how much they can combine to create a wall of sound but all too often the pipes and brass are not in tune with each other.  When pipes are combined with other instruments it seems that the importance of being in tune has simply not been considered.”

This brings the first part of this series of four features to a close.  These features have focused on the practical aspects of playing your pipes with other musicians and hopefully allowed you to grasp the basics of the related music theory.  Future articles will explore the music theory in greater detail.

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part one

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part two

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part three

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments – extra interviews

This series of 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.

Sincere thanks to Janette Montague for her help and advice in preparing this feature.