Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I’m looking to hire a piper for my event, how can I go about finding one?
A: Please refer to our Pipers for Hire Page for information on finding a piper in your area.
Q: What is a Great Highland Bagpipe?
A: The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) is an instrument native to Scotland and is the pipe most people think of when bagpipes are mentioned. Main pipe components include a bag, a blowstick, a number of single-reed drone pipes (usually three), and a double-reed chanter. The GHB is usually played in a standing position with the bag held between the piper’s arm and side. The drones rest against the piper’s shoulder and point upward. The bag provides a constant supply of air to the pipes, and is inflated by blowing into it through the blowstick. The piper produces sound by inflating the bag and applying pressure to the bag with the arm. The air escapes through the drones and chanter, via reeds placed within each pipe. The drones produce a constant tone in accompaniment to the chanter. The GHB usually has three drones: two tenor drones tuned an octave below the chanter’s low A, and a longer bass drone tuned one octave below the tenor drones. The chanter usually has eight finger holes, two tone holes, and a range of nine notes from low G to high A.
Q: How hard is it to learn?
A: The GHB is a complex instrument, and the initial learning curve is rather steep. A fair amount of dedication and perseverance is required to develop the initial skills necessary for playing the pipes well. It is definitely not an instrument to be learned easily and lightly, but it can be accomplished by most people who are willing to put in the required time and effort.
Q: How do I learn to play the GHB?
A: You will want to locate a teacher or instructor. Yes there are people who have been “self taught” on the pipes, and there may even be one or two that became good pipers, but the vast majority will contribute to the common misconception that the pipes are untunable noise makers only suitable as the punch line to jokes. Please don’t be one of those people.
There are various ways of finding an instructor, but one of the easiest is checking with the closest pipe band to where you live. (A listing of the pipe bands in Montana can be found by clicking on this link). You may have to drive a fair distance to get to a teacher, but this is Montana and most of us have gotten used to this. If you are one of those unfortunate people who live multiple hours away from any pipers in a true piping dead zone, never fear, modern technology has given you another option. There are a number of pipers, including some of the best players in the world, who will provide on-line lessons, typically over a service such as Skype. Although this is rather difficult for beginners due to the limitations imposed by not being present with the instructor, it is still a better option than going it alone.
Q: Do you learn to play on the GHB, or do I need to buy a GHB right away?
A: No, to both questions. The first thing you will learn on is a practice chanter. The practice chanter is just that, a pipe chanter which is used for practice. It consists of a chanter body, a mouthpiece, and a reed. Practice chanters come in “short” and “long” sizes, where “long” practice chanters are those which approximate the size of the real pipe chanter. Many people advocate the use of a long practice chanter, claiming that it’s easier to transition to the pipe chanter, but this is something to be discussed with your instructor.
The practice chanter is used to learn the fingering techniques required to play pipe tunes, and then to learn the pipe tunes themselves. The practice chanter is much quieter than the GHB chanter, and is suitable to play indoors, even while there are other people in the same building doing other things.
Q: How much will all this cost me?
A: While all quality instruments cost a bit of money, bagpipes are actually one of the cheaper instruments to take up. A practice chanter can usually be found for somewhere between $50 – $100 depending on the material it is made out of and other options. A fully setup GHB (including bag, drones, drone reeds, chanter, chanter reed and carrying case) can often be found used for about $550, while a new set will typically start around $1,000 and go up from there. Most instructors utilize a tutor book or other teaching aid, and they can run anywhere from $20 – $120. And the final cost is the cost of tuition. Some bands offer free or discounted group lessons, but private lessons are often billed per lesson at a cost agreed upon by the instructor and student.
A word of caution concerning buying GHB and practice chanters. Cheap “Bagpipe Like Objects” can be found on Amazon, Ebay, and other on-line sources worldwide. While having a shape that is often similar to actual GHB, these object’s resemblance often ends there. They are often made in Pakistan out of “Rosewood”, and while they make a nice set to nail over the fire place, or some would argue they should be used to feed the fire, they often cannot be used as a musical instrument due to poor internal construction or components. While some people have invested the time and money required to make these Bagpipe Like Objects into actual instruments, our advice is to avoid the headache altogether. The same companies make practice chanters as well, with similar results, and those should be avoided as well. The easiest way to identify a set is their red colored wood (although more and more are being painted black), shiny metal fittings, bright white fake ivory mounts, and they almost always have a tartan bag cover.
Q: What is the scale of the GHB?
A: The chanter plays a nine note scale from low G to high A. The intervals differ from the standard western (diatonic) scale so that all notes sound harmonize, or sound good, against the drones. The tenor drones sound an octave below the low A and the bass drone is an octave below the tenor drones. The absolute pitch can vary over a substantial range. Today, the low A on most instruments falls between 472 Hz and 482 Hz. Thus low A is sharper than B-flat on the standard A=440 Hz scale. This is also why you don’t often see GHB playing with other instruments. While it can be done, it often requires, at a minimum, a different chanter and a significant change to the drone reeds.
Q: What key is the GHB?
A: This is an ambiguous question since people mean different things by the “key” of an instrument. If you mean what is the natural scale of the instrument (the one with the key note at or near the bottom of the range and with simple fingering) then the actual key is approximately B-flat (notated as A in GHB music) with a flattened 7th (written high G). If you want to know what standard scale the instrument best apporoximates, then it is E-flat (notated as D). Remember that in GHB music, two sharps are understood. By “key” some people are referring to the relationship between the written and actual music. An instrument which plays as written is said to be in the key of C. In this sense the modern GHB is approximately in the key C-sharp.
Q: What keys can a GHB play?
A: Some might doubt the validity of this question for a non-chromatic intstrument like the GHB, but it is clear that most light music for the GHB is written in one of the nominal (as written) keys of A (with flattened 7th), D, or B minor. These approximate the standard keys of B-flat (with flattened 7th), E-flat, and C minor. Ceol Mhor (piobaireachd) is written in one of three pentatonic scales A (A, B, C-sharp, E, F-sharp, A), G (G, A, B, D, E, G, A), and D (A, B, D, E, F-sharp, A). Each of these scales can be used to give the effect of two or more keys.
Q: I want a piper at my event, and I want them to play a non-pipe tune, is that going to be a problem?
A) Maybe. The GHB chanter is not designed to play any notes outside of its nine basic notes, and the missing notes, e.g. C natural, G sharpe, etc, are often used in many tunes. The limit of only 9 notes (an octave +1) is also severely limiting as most modern tunes utilize at least 2 octaves. While notes can be transposed (played at a lower or higher octave than originally written), it often changes the tune’s sound and depending on the note, can make the tune unrecognizable. There are literally thousands of pipe tunes from tear jerking laments, to rousing marches, foot tapping dance tunes, and stately salutes, so even though you might not be able to have the current top 20 hit played on the pipes at your event, there is probably something suitable that could be used instead.
Q: Why was I told that the piper couldn’t play the tune from Braveheart (or insert a whole host of other tunes with this same issue), but I know that it was played on the pipes in the movie?
A: There are many different types of bagpipes in the world, and they are not all the same. The pipes used in the movie Braveheart’s sound track are the Irish Uilleann pipes which share about as much in common with the GHB as bicycles have with cars. Yes, its a musical instrument that uses a bag, drones, chanter, and the same basic types of reeds, buts that where it ends. The Uilleann pipes have two octaves and can play many of the sharps and flats missing from the GHB scale, making the range of music available to it much greater than the GHB. The Uilleann pipes are also much more complex requiring a bellows to air the instrument and the player to be seated while playing. While each instrument has its own unique sound, they still sound like “pipes” to the general public, and the Uilleann pipe’s range and ability to play the various notes make it much more popular in Hollywood for sound tracks. As for the piper playing in the forest after the funeral scene in Braveheart, yes, they showed him playing the GHB, but the sound you hear was done in a studio on the Uilleann pipes.