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Andrew's Tips: My New Bagpipes Won't Play!By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2008
"Help! I can't get my new bagpipes to play!"
I can't tell you how many times I've received pleas from people who have received bagpipes as a gift or bought a set on eBay. Unfortunately, very often these sets are made in Pakistan. Good bagpipes from reputable dealers usually come set-up and functional. Expect to pay at least $600 for a new good plastic ("poly") set and up to $1,000 or more for a new good African Blackwood set. Used sets can be found for significantly less and may be a good solution for someone on a budget—just make sure you know what you are really getting.
Most of the bagpipes listed on eBay and many folk instrument web sites are of Pakistani origin. Pipes that originate out of the Middle East region are usually of poor quality. Often made of rosewood or cocus wood, you will sometimes see some Pakistani pipes made of preferred African Blackwood but this is far less common. "Blackwood" may simply mean that the wood has been painted black! These wood pipes are typically sold for as much as $500 (African Blackwood), but can sometimes be found for as little as $150 (Rosewood, etc.). If your spouse bought you a new set for $300, look out. Typically, you will end up replacing the chanter, bag, and reeds at a cost of hundreds of dollars. In the end, a reconfigured cheap set of poor-sounding bagpipes may cost you more than a good set.
Ok, so you want to see if you can get this set of bagpipes working.
Several bits of advice:
• If you insist on teaching yourself bagpipes, try to get your set of bagpipes inspected and set up by an experienced bagpiper. They may be unplayable even under an experienced hand, and if they are, you won't know this, you'll just be frustrated.
• Don't expect to learn on the full set of bagpipes. Basics are taught and learned on a practice chanter which vaguely resembles a recorder or whistle.
Here's what an experienced bagpiper will look for:
1) The make and performance of the drones. If the drones are Pakistani, this will tip him (or her) off that the drones may not strike-in (start) correctly and may not be stable and hold the proper tone. He may also look to see the quality of the turning/lathe work. My article Identifying Quality Bagpipes and also Appraising Bagpipes (which includes information about identifying Pakistani pipes) will give you a clue of what he is going to look for. A beginner will have a very difficult time determining if a set of drones performs well or not since they need to be correctly set up and tuned, played steadily (even tone), and then heard by someone who knows what to listen for—something a beginner can't do.
2) The condition of the drones, chanter, and stocks. If a part is cracked, split, bored significantly out of round, or warped, this can often be a serious problem requiring replacement or professional repair.
3) The fit of the assorted joints on the bagpipe. The drone tops need to fit and slide correctly on their corresponding tuning pins and the drones and chanter need to properly mate with their stocks. It's typically just a matter of re-hemping the fittings. (My article Hemping Tuning Pins may come in handy or you may want to know how to assemble a set of bagpipes.)
4) The bag. Pakistani pipe bags are usually a thin slick leather bag which may remind you of Naugahyde. These are often not airtight. (You can read my page discussing bagpipe efficiency and troubleshooting bag air leaks to help determine if it is or not.) If it is airtight, you may still opt to change it as it is expected to fail sooner than commonly used bags. If the bag leaks, you may attempt to seal it with bag seasoning, such as the Airtight brand. (You can read my page telling how to season a bagpipe bag.) The tie-in of the stocks will also need to be checked for leaks and if necessary a stock may need to be retied. (See my article on tying in a bag.) A new traditional hide bag will run around $100 and a synthetic bag will often run between $200-$300USD.
4) The drone reeds. Cheap sets of pipes will often come with cane drone reeds, since these are relatively inexpensive to make. While some very good pipers play sets of traditional cane drone reeds, not all are well made plus they are always more difficult to set up and play by a beginner. (My pages identifying drone reeds and adjusting drone reeds maybe helpful.) A new set of synthetic drone reeds will typically cost between $75-$150USD.
5) The chanter. The chanter is the lifeblood of a set of bagpipes. A poor chanter will not yield a proper scale and notes will sound out of tune relative to each other. Depending on how bad the chanter is, an experienced piper may be able to carve out the finger holes to achieve a proper scale. (You can read my page on how to carve a chanter.) If the chanter is too poorly made, it will need to be replaced. A new chanter will run from about $125 for a plastic chanter up to $300-$400USD for an African Blackwood chanter.
6) The chanter reed. Chanter reeds often will arrive in a condition that is too hard to play for a beginner. An experienced piper can shave or sand a reed to make it easier to play. Done incorrectly, the scale on the chanter will be negatively affected and the reed may need to be discarded. (See my articles Chanter Reed Basics and Modifying Chanter Reeds.) Using a manometer to determine the pressure required to play your chanter reed may be useful to you. (My article how to make a water manometer offers insight on construction and use of a manometer.) Fortunately, chanter reeds are relatively inexpensive, running between $10-$20USD.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a new piper won't have the stamina to play a set of bagpipes, particularly if the pipes are not set up properly—with some practice and an efficient set of pipes, they can be played by a 10-year-old girl. On the other hand, a professional football player won't be able to play a poorly set up set of bagpipes . . . and sometimes not even a well set-up set of bagpipes! It takes months to build up your muscle strength to play bagpipes, so don't expect to successfully play a complete set from the start.
Hopefully this article has provided some insight for you.
If you have comments or suggestions about this page, please contact me.
This page last updated Sunday, March 14, 2010.