So, you’re considering or have already made the wise decision to become a kilted god/goddess among other mere mortal musicians. Congratulations! Bagpipes are without doubt the most challenging yet rewarding instrument you could ever learn to play in our completely unbiased opinion.

We’ve compiled some words of wisdom and resources we wish we’d been told when we started playing. Hopefully you find them useful.

If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments, we’d love to hear them, so please contact us.

So you want to play the pipes?

First, let’s quash some common misconceptions:

Ok, I’m learning pipes. I’m at my first lesson. Um, so where’s my set of bagpipes?
Guess again, newbie. The long road to piping begins with a practice chanter, a plastic or blackwood instrument that looks similar to a recorder but sounds like hell on earth when played with any other practice chanter (they’re never in tune!).

Ok, so I’ll start learning on this practice chanter thing then progress to pipes in a few weeks.
Sorry, but no. You’ll find it takes a bit longer than that—you’ll have to learn how to place your fingers, how to make a sound from your chanter, how to play scales, arpeggios, embellishments, and a score of other techniques before you will even start learning tunes, and then you’ll need about six of those to memory perfectly before you even think about starting on the goose. If you’re on this path, be prepared to take the long way…because pipes require determination and constant practice, and there are no quick fixes. Progressing onto pipes for most learners takes a year at best. Most pipers practice on a chanter for 18–24 months before even starting on a set of pipes, which can take a few months again to even get a decent sound out of. Patience is a virtue.

I can’t play because I don’t know how to read music.
Untrue. Piping is actually a great way to learn to read music. We only have nine notes that are in one scale in one key, so you can learn the basics without too much interference on the theory side of things (though don’t be fooled, there’s still plenty of that to learn). Take heart—pipers of old learned by ear, which tells you that a firm grasp of music literacy is not a must…though it definitely helps. Pick it up on the way!

Well, good, learning to play should be a piece of cake because I do know how to play music.
Wrong again. As mentioned above, there’s a lot to playing pipes that other instruments simply don’t have. Embellishments require muscle memory, which takes practice. Even playing your chanter for longer than a few minutes takes practice to build up muscles in your lips, and yes, playing pipes can be painful at times. Your lips will ache. Your fingers will lock up. But that feeling you get when you play your first tune on pipes without stopping or missing a note—you’ll know you’ve earned it, and it feels sooooo good.

I’m finally on pipes, woohoo! The first time I blow into my blowpiece I’ll hear that beautiful haunting sound.
Again, not the case. Picture trying to blow up a car tyre like a balloon and you’ll get an idea of the kind of fitness you’ll need to build up to get an hour’s march. The chances of you getting any sound at all from the chanter the first couple of times you play are slim to none, and once you do get a sound, the first few weeks will be spent just on trying to make that sound steady enough to play a tune without sounding like an inebriated quadruped is dying right next to your ear.

Practice chanters: the long and short of it

Practice chanters are an essential part of piping. They’re the first thing you’ll learn on, and every piper uses them to practice tunes on. They are different to a pipe chanter, which is part of a set of bagpipes (look at the Bagpipe Anatomy section below).

Size: Practice chanters come in a shorter and longer length. Shorter versions are more popular, as most learners and pipers find they have a more comfortable posture playing on one. However, longer length chanters have the same finger spacing as the pipe chanter that plugs into your pipes, so some players prefer these. Personally, we prefer shorter ones.

Materials: Practice chanters usually come in rosewood, poly penco (plastic), or blackwood. They increase in price in that order, and arguably the sound quality also gets better in that order. Given that practice chanters (and any piping instrument, part, or accessory, really) can be expensive, we would recommend that you start with a rosewood or poly chanter, which you can pick up for under $100 if your band or tutor doesn’t supply one, and upgrade to a nicer blackwood chanter down the track—it never hurts to have two; one for the car and one for the case!

Sound: Let’s not beat around the bush—practice chanters sound awful. They don’t always sound in tune, and will rarely tune to anyone else’s when you practice with your tutor or other pipers. However, if you are fussy about producing a nicer sound, the better the timber, the better the acoustics. Rosewood chanters are cheap and fine to get started on, but they sound terrible. Poly chanters sound good enough, but blackwood chanters do produce the best sound.

Reeds: Practice chanter reeds are generally plastic and look like a flattened drinking straw (pipe chanter reeds can also be made of plastic, but are usually Spanish cane or another timber). When you’re learning, make sure you regularly separate and empty your chanter for moisture (also known as spit and lots of it) as too much moisture can block the reed. This is particularly bad in poly chanters, which don’t absorb any moisture; timber chanters do absorb some but still need regular drying. You may also need to try a few different reeds to find one that suits your fitness, muscle memory, and ability. When you get onto pipes you’ll notice the same thing—the harder the reed the louder the sound, but the harder it is to play as well.

Purchasing: As with any specialist instrument, be wary of what you buy and from whom. New chanters are best, as you know what you’re getting and most come with a guarantee from the manufacturer. We recommend you try one at a festival, with the band/tutor you are learning with, or in a store if there’s one close enough for you to get to. Most vendors will be happy to let you have a go to see which material and length you prefer. Second-hand chanters can be a bit trickier—they can be great or terrible, and although the price is better it’s not always easy to know what quality you’re getting if you buy from the likes of eBay or Gumtree. Look at our Buyer’s Guide below for advice on how to avoid disappointment when buying the unknown.

Bags

Piping bags, aka your external lungs once you get onto pipes.

Size: Size does matter when it comes to choosing your bag. Standard sizes are small, medium or large, and choosing a bag is a bit of a Goldilocks situation for most pipers. A medium size is usually “just right”, and that’s where we’d recommend beginners start. Contrary to popular belief, the size of the bag does not affect your volume (this is controlled by your reed) or sound of your drones (the pressure that you apply to any sized bag affects this), so it’s not ‘better’ to have any size over another. Choose what’s most comfortable for you.

Materials: Pipe bags are usually made of goretex or synthetic materials, though some older/heirloom pipes may still have leather bags. Although some say that leather or skin bags produce a better sound, synthetic bags are increasingly the norm, as they’re cheaper, less prone to bacteria and health hazards, more durable, more flexible, and allow for easy drying and access to parts of the bag.

Moisture control and hygiene: Given the amount of wet air you’ll be blowing into your pipes, it’s important to have moisture control, such as a drying system. The ‘spitty litter’ in the system absorbs the moisture from the air you blow in, which keeps your bag dry and makes it last longer. It also improves your tuning, as wet reeds can go flat very quickly, which won’t make you popular when your Pipe Major has to constantly retune you at a gig. There are also horror stories about bacteria thriving in damp pipe bags, so it’s not an idle warning. There are many drying systems out there, including Australian-made Moose Tubes. They largely do the same thing but can feel a bit different in the bag, so try your tutor’s or band-mates’ pipes if possible to see how they feel, and choose wisely.

Anatomy of a bagpipe

Term Definition
Bag The bag that a piper blows air into as a reservoir for air to squeeze through the reeds. Sometimes called a ‘goose’.
Cover (pyjamas) Separate outer cover that covers the bag, usually has band insignia/ logo on it and a non-slip patch that sits under arm to prevent pipes from slipping.
Cords The plaited cords and tassels that tie the upper drone sections together.
Chanter Section fingers sit on, like a practice chanter, to make a melody. Usually made of blackwood or poly.
Bass drone Biggest of three drones (three drone sections). Large drone reed and deeper sound than other drones.
Tenor drones Two smaller drones (two drone sections). Smaller drone reed and same higher sound.
Drone reeds Reeds that sit in bottom of drones, vibrate air to make drone sound.
Chanter reed Reed that sits in top of chanter, takes more pressure to start than drone reeds.
Finger holes Holes on chanter that correspond with your practice chanter.
Sound hole Hole at bottom of chanter allows chanter melody to project. Always ensure this hole is free from obstruction.
Stocks Sections that protrude from bag to hold drone/ chanter.
Split stock Chanter stock that allows chanter to be removed without exposing reed.
Drying system ‘Kitty litter’ tubing system inside bag that connects to drones/ chanter to keep bag dry.
Hemp Waxed string that is wrapped tightly around movable sections of pipes to tighten them.

“What’s under your kilt?”

Once you do make it to piper status, one sunny march or dingy pub gig soon you can bet that you will hear that drunken question… Here are some of our favourite ways to reply:

  • “Socks and shoes.”
  • “You’ll die wondering.”
  • “$10 gets you an answer; $50 gets you a feel.”
  • “Would you go jogging without a bra?”
  • “I am a man/woman of few words so give me your hand.”
  • “A bigger set of pipes.”
  • “My mother said a lady/gentleman would never ask that question.”
  • “Are we trading information? You first.”
  • “Not you!”
  • “Nothing is worn; everything is in fine working order.”
  • “The same thing that’s under your hat?”