Frequently Asked Questions

      General Questions about Pipe Bands Pipe Band Drums
      General Questions About Bagpipes The Side Drum
      The Highland Bagpipe The Tenor Drum
      Learning to Play the Bagpipes Words to Popular Pipe Tunes
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      General Questions About Pipe Bands

      1.  What Instruments do you play in a Pipe Band?

      The instruments played in a typical Pipe Band are Bagpipes, Side Drums, Tenor Drums, and Bass Drums.  Ideally, there are about twice as many Pipers as Drummers;  for example, a typical band might have 12 Pipers, 4 Side Drummers, 2 Tenor Drummers, and 1 Bass Drummer.

      2.  Why do you guys march so slowly?

      The traditional Pipe Band marching tempo is about 80-88 beats per minute.  This is taken from some of the older military bands such as the Fife and Drum Corps which also march at this tempo.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, roads were not as good as they are today and faster marching tempos were usually not practical.  The music has been adapted to this older tempo and it is mostly too complex to be played properly at what is nowadays considered to be a typical marching tempo, which ranges from about 100-120 beats per minute.  If you ever visit some place like Colonial Williamsburg you will hear the Fifes and Drums playing at tempos very similar to those of a Pipe Band.  But Pipe Bands do play at faster tempos as well, when playing dance music.

      3.  Why do the drummers in some bands wear checked hats and the pipers wear plain?

      In some regiments of the the British Army, the Pipers were personal employees of the Commander of the Regiment rather than the Crown, while the Drummers were always soldiers employed by the Crown.  The soldiers employed by the Crown wore the checked (more properly called "diced") hats.  Some military and even civilian bands maintained this distinction long after it had any basis in reality, though the practice is now dying out.

      4.  Why do you sometimes see one or more of the Drummers wearing a leopard skin?

      This is likewise an old British Army tradition.  Strictly speaking, the privilege of wearing the leopard skin was granted to specific Army regiments as a regimental honour for meritorious service, usually in Africa.  Because of this background, the use of the leopard skin in civilian bands is in somewhat dubious taste.  (Note that modern bands usually do not use real leopard skins but imitations, because of the endangered species acts).

      5.  Are there different levels of pipe bands?

      Pipe bands often compete against each other at Highland Games or other contests.  These contests are offered under the auspices of the local Pipe Band Association, and the exact rules differ between each Association.  In most countries, the Associations are national, but in the United States and Canada they are regional.  You can find some of these Associations on our links page.  In most of the world, there are 4 levels of pipe bands, from Grade 1 (the highest level) to Grade 4 (essentially a training level).  In a few Associations in the United States, the levels are from Grade 1 (the highest level) to Grade 5.  Essentially, these Associations have split the Grade 4 training level into an upper and lower training level.

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      General Questions About Bagpipes

      6.  What do you call those things?

      The preferred name for the instrument is a Pipe or a Bagpipe.  You can specify a particular type of pipe by calling it a "Highland Bagpipe" or a "Uilleann Pipe", for example.  Some pipers will use the plural to refer to a single instrument (pipes or bagpipes or a set of pipes), which is also considered acceptable.  Some of the other names you sometimes hear tend to annoy modern pipers, especially if they include references to a "stand" of pipes.

      7.  What kind of instrument is a Bagpipe?

      The Bagpipe belongs to the woodwind family.  A bagpipe consists of a bag, a "chanter" which carries the melody, and usually one or more "drones" which play a chord.  There is also some way to fill the bag, either with a "blowpipe" which allows the piper to fill the bag by blowing into it, or with a bellows which allows the piper to pump air into the bag.  On most types of bagpipe, the chanter uses a double reed similar to an oboe or bassoon reed, and the drones each use single reeds that are related to those used in a clarinet or saxophone.  A few kinds of bagpipe use double reeds for both the chanter and the drones.  Each drone uses a separate reed.

      8. What is the bag made from?

      There are several kinds of bags used by pipers.  The traditional bag is made from sheepskin, but other types include "elkhide" (which is actually a variety of cowhide) and synthetic materials such as Gore-tex.

      9.  Are there different kinds of Bagpipes?

      There is a very wide variety of pipes played throughout the world.  The most popular is commonly known as the Highland Pipe or the Irish War Pipe, or sometimes as just the Great Pipe (Piob Mhor in Gaelic).  Other kinds from Britain and Ireland include the Scottish Small Pipes, the Irish Uilleann or Union Pipes, and the Northumbrian Pipes.  Nearly every culture in Europe and the Middle East has a native bagpipe, though some have nearly died out.  For example, the Spanish play a type of bagpipe that they call a Gaita, and the Italians have a pipe called a Zampogna.  The different kinds of pipe often have different numbers of drones and use different note fingerings on the chanter.  Some, such as the Northumbrian and the Uilleann pipe, have a large number of keys on the chanter;  others have few or none.  A few pipes, such as the Uilleann pipe, even have simple valves ("regulators") on some of the drones to allow the piper to alter the chord of the drones while playing.

      10.  Where were Bagpipes first invented?

      Nobody really knows.  The ancestral instrument clearly came from one of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, probably before 100 BC, and was carried throughout Europe by the Romans.  The earliest examples consist of just the "chanter" portion, possibly with a companion "drone" tube, which was often played by the technique of "circular breathing" to maintain a constant tone.  At some point, some unknown person got the idea that this could be made easier by attaching the chanter to a bag with a blowpipe.  Various forms of pipes were played throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, until modern orchestral instruments started to displace some of the older traditional instruments about the time of the Renaissance.  However the Bagpipe continued to be played in rural and more isolated regions to this day.

      11.  Can you make them play any louder or softer?

      No, sorry.  Most pipes, including the Highland pipe, have no way to play at different volumes without going off-pitch.  A piper may set up the pipe beforehand to accommodate the location, but you can't change the volume while you're playing.  This, combined with the fact that the bag produces a continuous stream of air, produces a need to provide more emphasis on some notes than others, and to separate different notes of the same pitch.  Most such effects (including "staccato" effects) are produced by fingering techniques, which traditionally vary between the different kinds of pipe.  The exception to this is the Uilleann pipe, which allows the piper to close off all of the holes in the chanter so that the chanter produces no sound.  All other pipes rely completely on "grace notes" or similar techniques to separate notes and provide emphasis.

      12.  What kind of pipe does a pipe band play?

      Pipe bands almost invariably play the so-called "Highland" or "Irish War" pipe;  most other pipes are played only by soloists.  A few bands in Ireland play the "Brian Boru" pipe, which is an adaptation of the Great Pipe that adds keys to extend its range;  and some bands in Brittany in France play the French Biniou pipe along with Bombards, which are shawm-like instruments.

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      The Highland Bagpipe

      13.  What is a Highland Bagpipe?

      The Highland Bagpipe is the most familiar kind of bagpipe.  It has three drones, two tenor drones each tuned one octave below the chanter, and one bass drone tuned two octaves below the chanter.  The drones on the Highland pipe have no means for adjusting the pitch while playing, so they play a single background chord.  The scale on the chanter is adjusted to make it blend against this constant chord.  It is a mouth-blown pipe:  the piper blows into the bag through a blowpipe to supply the air.  A one-way valve in the blowpipe keeps the air from escaping.

      14.  What is the history of the Highland Pipe?

      The Highland pipe was played by the Scottish army (and, later, Scottish regiments in the British army) as more or less their equivalent of the bugle.  It was also played for dances and parties by both soldiers and civilians.  The Irish War Pipe was originally a similar instrument but had only two drones, a single tenor and a bass.  In more recent years, the use of the two-drone pipe has nearly died out and today the terms "Highland Pipe" and "Irish War Pipe" are used interchangeably to refer to the three-drone Great Pipe.  Like the Highland pipe, the Irish War Pipe became familiar to the rest of the world because of its use in the British Army.

      15.  How much do those things cost?

      You can pay anywhere from around $750 up to over $5000 for a new bagpipe.  The cost will depend on the maker and the amount of ornamentation.  The more expensive models tend to be heavily ornamented with a lot of silver and so forth;  this has no effect on the tone, it's purely for show.  Some very nice instruments can be found at the lower end of the scale, and you can often get a bargain on a used pipe.  You often see new bagpipes available for under $500;  these are almost always inferior instruments that are never worth buying, especially if you're a beginner and don't know what to look for or how to deal with setup problems.  Sometimes a good used pipe becomes available that is worth buying for that price or less, especially if it has only cosmetic damage that does not affect the tone or playability of the instrument.  This is almost always a better deal than trying to get by with a poor instrument.

      16.  What are the names of some good makers of Highland Pipes?

      This is a subject that can cause a good deal of controversy even between top pipers.  Some of the most widely respected names of older pipe makers include MacDougall, Henderson, Glen, Starck, Robertson, and Lawrie.  None of these companies is still in business.  Some of the most respected modern makers include Naill, MacLellan, Kron, and MacCallum.  Many other companies also make good instruments, so this list should not be considered exhaustive.  Also, many good pipers find that some of the makes on this list would not be in their top choices.  Henderson, for example, made pipes with a very "big" drone sound that is not to everyone's taste.  If you're not sure what you like, you should discuss such a choice with someone you know and trust and also make a point of listening to a variety of instruments.

      17.  Are pipe makers equally noted for their dones and chanters?

      In general, no.  A few makers such as Naill are widely regarded as both excellent drone and chanter makers;  others, such as Henderson and Lawrie, are noted primarily for their drones;  and still others, such as Sinclair, primarily for their chanters.  Accordingly, it is not uncommon to find a pipe whose chanter and drones are made by different makers, or to find that a piper has more than one chanter to use in a single pipe.

      18.  What is meant by "matched chanters?"

      In a pipe band, it is quite common to have all of the pipers play the same make and model of chanter.  There are several reasons for this:

      19.  Do bands ever try to match both drones and chanters?

      Many of the considerations mentioned above for matched chanters also apply to drones.  However, matching drones has usually been considered less important than matching chanters.  A few bands have tried standardizing on a single make of drones as well as chanters, but the vast majority (including most of the top-level bands) make no attempt to standardize on a particular brand of drones.  In general, the drones are less problematic since they only play a constant chord.

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      Learning to Play the Bagpipes

      20.  How do you learn to play the bagpipe?

      The best way to learn to play the bagpipe is to start out on the practice chanter, an instrument that looks much like a recorder.  That way you can learn the fingerings and embellishments without having to worry about keeping the bag going steadily, which is a considerable distraction at first.  It also means that you don't have to make a big outlay on a pipe immediately.  Good practice chanters cost from about $45 to about $150, though there is little advantage in buying one that costs more than about $75.  Pipers continue to use the practice chanter throughout their career, to do fingering exercises and to learn new tunes.  You can buy a practice chanter at any of the Pipe Band supply stores;  a few of them are given on our links page.

      21,  Do I need anything besides a practice chanter?

      A good tutor book is very helpful.  I find Sandy Jones' "Beginning the Bagpipe" to be one of the best available, and is the one that we use in the classes;  Seumas MacNeill's "College of Piping" tutor book is also good.  A metronome is also very useful, especially if you don't have much prior musical experience.  A portable tape recorder is also very helpful.

      22.  Can I teach myself to play the bagpipe?

      This is not recommended.  Many of the techniques used are unique to the pipes, and involve some fairly intricate finger work that few beginners seem to be able to find for themselves, even if they purchase a tutor book and tape.  Moreover, if you ever want to play with a band, proper technique is essential so that you are able to play with the other pipers.  It's much easier to learn it correctly in the first place than it is to go back and fix later!

      23.  I can already play several instruments, shouldn't I be able to pick up the pipe on my own?

      Read the answer to previous question again.  Because so many of the techniques are unique to the pipe, very few beginners are able to reach an adequate level of play on their own, even with prior musical experience.  There are, of course, distinct advantages to knowing other musical instruments (or other musical experience, such as choral):  reading music, learning to keep proper time with other players or singers, listening for tuning, and so forth.

      24.  Where can I find lessons on the bagpipe?

      Most pipe bands provide some kind of teaching program for interested students.  If you don't know of a pipe band in your area, you can look at the lists of pipe bands given on our links page.  We hold regular classes in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, and welcome anyone who is interested in learning.  If you are not interested in playing with a band, it can still be worthwhile to contact a local band to ask about recommendations for teachers.  Even if you don't think you ever want to play with a band, most bands are quite happy to refer you to a private instructor.

      25.  How long does it take to learn to play the bagpipe?

      That depends on how well you want to play it!  Generally, most beginners require at least 6 months on the practice chanter before they move onto the full pipe;  more is usually better.  Once you move onto the pipe, it usually takes several more months before you reach an adequate playing level on some of the easier tunes.  Some of the things that can affect how long it will take an individual to learn to play include:

      26.  How do you move from the practice chanter to the full pipe?

      Most students do not move directly from a practice chanter to the full pipe.  Even if it's only a pipe with the drones stopped up, most students find it best to move onto the full pipe gradually.  Stopping up the drones makes it somewhat easier to keep the pipe going at first.  Often a practice chanter is used in the pipe instead of a pipe chanter (this is often called a "goose"), or a "practice pipe" could be used.  These are similar to a "goose" but do not have the full drones, so that a full pipe still must be obtained as well.  Once the student is comfortable playing just the pipe chanter, then the drones are added one at a time until you're playing the full pipe.

      27.  Do you have to be male or Scottish or Irish to play the pipe?

      No.  The Great Pipes are played in nearly every country of the world and by people of all ethnic backgrounds.  Countries as diverse as Germany, Jamaica, Jordan, Japan, India, and China all have bands playing Highland pipes, often with adaptations of their own music as well as traditional pipe music.  The only advantage that you might have by being Scottish or Irish is that you may be more familiar with some of the musical styles used on the pipes before learning the instrument.  Likewise, many women are quite accomplished pipers.  Hopefully these old stereotypes are dying out!

      28.  Doesn't that thing take a lot of air?  It looks like it must be a lot of work!

      It can, or it can be very easy.  I've seen 10-year-old girls and 75-year-old grandmothers playing the Highland pipe.  It's all in how you set them up;   the grandmother wasn't playing a pipe that was as hard as one that a strong 25-year-old man might play!  The big problem isn't in the physical effort involved, but in learning how to set up the pipe for your playing strength and learning the coordination of blowing and squeezing at the same time to keep the tone steady.  This is a little like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time;  it takes quite a bit of practice at first to get the hang of it.  It also uses some muscles that most people are not accostomed to using much.  Fortunately almost everyone who isn't severely disabled can learn with practice.  The main difficulty with learning the pipes isn't with the physical effort required but with the fingering technique, which you learn on the practice chanter.

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      Pipe Band Drums

      29.  What kind of drums are played in a Pipe Band?

      There are 3 kinds of drums normally played in a Pipe Band:  the Side Drum, which is related to the snare drums found in a brass band;  the Tenor Drum, which is a drum about the size of the Side Drum but without snares and played with mallets rather than sticks;  and the Bass Drum, which is the large drum that makes the "heartbeat" of the band.

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      The Side Drum

      30.  Isn't the Side Drum just an ordinary snare drum?

      No, though it's closely related.  The Side Drum as played in a pipe band uses two sets of snares  (an upper set and a lower set) as opposed to a single set of snares used on a typical snare drum.  A "snare" is a band of wires and beads that make the sound of the drum sharper than just a simple drum head.  The drum heads on a Side Drum are also much tighter than the heads on many snare drums, so that the sound is much "sharper" than most snares.

      31.  I can play the snare drum, how hard is it to learn the Side Drum?

      Like the Snare Drum, the Side Drum uses "rudimental" drumming techniques.  This means that the drumming technique is built up from a set of standard "rudiments" like a flam, a roll, and so forth.  Many of these techniques transfer directly from the Snare Drum to the Side Drum, however rolls used on the Side Drum are almost always "closed" rolls rather than the "open" rolls used on the Snare Drum.  The drum scores played on the Side Drum also tend to be more ornamented than those usually played on the Snare Drum, and have a much more "pointed" and syncopated style than typical Snare Drum scores.  However previous experience on the Snare Drum is very helpful when learning the Side Drum.

      32.  What do I need to buy to learn the Side Drum?

      A drumming student needs to buy a set of drum sticks and a practice pad.  These will cost a total of about $40-60.  The drumsticks commonly used for the Side Drum are heavier than those usually used for a Snare Drum, but ordinary Snare Drum sticks are perfectly acceptable for learning.  These can be purchased at any good music supply store or from one of the stores that provide Pipe Band supplies.  The links page has references to some of our favorite Pipe Band supply stores.

      33.  How long does it take to learn the Side Drum?

      If you have previous experience on the Snare Drum and a good aptitude for the drum, you may be able to pick up the Side Drum in 6 months or less.  If you have no previous drumming experience, count on as much as a year or more before you are ready to play with a band.  As in anything else, it is impossible to make a general statement because of differences in aptitude, amount of practice and motivation, and so forth.

      34.  Where can I learn to play the Side Drum?

      As with learning the bagpipe, most pipe bands have some kind of teaching program for prospective drummers.  If you do not know of a pipe band in your area, you can check our links page for some of the pipe band lists.  We offer classes on the Side Drum in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, and welcome any prospective students.

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      The Tenor Drum

      35.  What is a Tenor Drum?

      The Tenor Drum is a drum that looks much like the Side Drum (often slightly larger) but has no snares and is played with mallets rather than sticks.  There are two styles of playing the Tenor Drum:  Flourishing Tenor and Rhythm Tenor.  The former puts more emphasis on twirling the mallets and only occasionally hitting the drum head;  the latter puts more emphasis on using the mallets to complement the rhythm of the Bass Drum.

      36.  How would I learn the Tenor Drum?

      As with the other instruments, most pipe bands have some policy for providing instruction on the Tenor Drum.  Our drumming classes do not teach the Tenor Drum but we are quite happy to arrange instruction for students interested in learning the Tenor Drum.

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