The bagpipes are an iconic instrument that is dear to Scottish culture. This instrument has travelled across many countries and has evolved in design many times. If you are interested in learning how to play bagpipes, this guide is for you.
Today we will be examining the origin of the bagpipes as well as the basic technique for playing them properly.
What are Bagpipes?
You don’t need to be familiar with woodwind instruments to know what the bagpipes are. This instrument consists of a series of reeds enclosed around a “bag” portion that feeds them air.
Bagpipes are commonly associated with Scottish culture. However, it is believed that different versions of these instruments have existed in different parts of the world such as Western Asia, South Asia, Northern Africa, and Europe.
How Do Bagpipes Work?
You may have seen videos of people playing bagpipes, but without understanding how exactly the instrument works. Bagpipes do have a certain mystical quality to them. However, they function in a very simple way.
As with any woodwind instrument, air is essential for bagpipes to produce music. All bagpipe players must first blow air into the instrument via the blow tube. This tube supplies the instrument’s bag portion with air. The air is then channelled through the instrument’s various pipes and produces their distinct sound.
Bagpipe players must blow in the correct quantity of air to ensure the sound produced is continuous. Failing to do so causes the sound to become weak before eventually cutting off.
The chanter is one of the essential components on any bagpipe. It is typically located at the bottom of the instrument and consists of a thin tube with nine holes. Bagpipe players must press down on certain holes while breathing in air to produce their desired melody.
The Drone Pipes
Bagpipes contain pipes other than just the blow tube. The “drone pipes” help produce the instrument’s eerie but distinct tone. The air the player blows into the bag exits through the drone pipes and creates their haunting sound. Most modern bagpipes have either two or three drone pipes in their design.
The common Great Highland Bagpipe has three drones consisting of two different types. Two of these drones are “tenor” drones that produce the sound of the chanter’s lowest note. However, the tenor drones make an incredibly deep sound because they play the note at an octave lower than standard.
The third drone pipe is known as the bass drone. This drone plays notes at one octave below that of the tenor drones. When combined, these three drones along with the chanter produce a rich and complex sound that is difficult to describe without hearing it yourself.
The bag is probably the most distinct portion of the bagpipes. This is the reservoir where the air blown into the instrument is stored. Air enters the bag through the blow tube before exiting via the chanter pipe or through one of the drone pipes. Traditional bagpipes featured bags made from animal skins. However, modern iterations of this instrument feature bags made from synthetic materials.
What Do You Need to Get Started With Playing the Bagpipe?
If you intend to learn how to play the bagpipe, you will need to get a hold of a few things. This includes:
- A practice chanter
- An instructor
- A guidebook
The first item is a special instrument that you must practice before moving onto an actual bagpipe. Most practice chanters are made from either wood or plastic and can be found at most music stores.
Chanters are great practice instruments that require little to no maintenance. You also don’t need to learn any special handling techniques before using them. The bottom features holes for practicing your finger technique while the top has a hole for blowing into.
Practicing the Basics
Let’s go through some of the basic things to practice when learning the bagpipe.
Creating a Steady Air Supply
As mentioned above, a steady air supply is crucial when playing the bagpipe. If you fail to fill the bag with enough air, the instrument won’t produce a continuous sound. Traditional versions of the bagpipe required players to place their tongue over the blowpipe’s top to prevent air from escaping. This method made playing the instrument incredibly difficult and was phased out during future redesigns.
Modern iterations of the bagpipe feature a non-return valve in the blowpipe. This prevents air from escaping back out, and makes the lives of bagpipe players much easier.
You can also find bagpipes with special “bellows” that feed air into the bag. This is similar to how an accordion channels air. However, you may still prefer to blow air into the bagpipe through the blow tube manually.
So how does one create a steady supply of air while playing the bagpipe? The term “steady” is vital here, as any variation in the air flow rate will affect the instrument’s sound and produce undesirable results. You should also note that pressure changes can affect the bagpipe’s pitch and make it sound out-of-tune.
Supplying the correct amount of air and at the right time does take some practice. As a musician, you may feel tempted to blow air in rhythm with the tempo of the music you are playing along with. However, this usually creates the incorrect amount of air pressure, and throws off the instrument’s pitch. The trick is to remain focused on supplying a steady quantity of air.
Learning Finger Techniques
Playing notes on the bagpipe can be a unique experience due to the continuous nature of the sound. However, this also means that there won’t be any silence between the notes you are playing. This is where special “grace notes” come into play. A grace note is defined as a “short” isn’t included as part of the melody.
Playing the Bagpipe
The steps for playing the bagpipe are given below:
Step 1: Hold the Bagpipe
Start by holding your instrument so that the bass drone is laid over your nondominant shoulder. It should be resting on the pocket near which your shoulder blade meets your neck.
Step 2: Blow into the Blow Stick
Next, blow into the blow stick and inflate the bag. You will likely need to blow several times to inflate the bag. Ensure the bag remains inflated to produce a steady sound through the drone pipes.
Step 3: Grip the Chanter and Play Notes
You can then grip the chanter. Use your right hand to hold the chanter’s bottom half while your left hand holds the top half. Four fingers on each hand should be covering one hole on the chanter. You should then lift a finger off a specific hole to play its note.
Step 4: Varying the Pitch
It is possible to vary the pitch of each note by controlling your breath. Blowing harder produces a high pitch, so adjust your airflow pressure accordingly.
Playing the bagpipes can seem quite complex at first. However, this instrument becomes much easier to play once you understand the dynamics between each of its components. Be sure to look up tutorials and videos online to improve your skills. Learning the bagpipes may not be easy, but it can certainly be rewarding!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.