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.