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Buying your First Set of Bagpipes

Posted by Griffin Hall on

Making that first investment on an instrument is always a rollercoaster of thoughts. "Which model should I buy?", "Which bag is the right size?", "What reeds should I get?". These are all questions that you may have and hopefully by reading this blog, we'll help put your mind at ease. 

When am I ready for Bagpipes?:

After investing in a practice chanter (the practice tool for learning the fingering technique) and learning your first few tunes, you should be ready to begin work at the highland bagpipes. For some, this time could take a half a year, for others, it may take longer and upwards of two years. It is never recommended to begin learning on the actual bagpipes. This is easily one of the hardest instruments in the world to learn, and one of the few that requires a separate instrument for learning. By jumping straight to the pipes, you'll cause infinite problems for yourself that will result in bad sounds and frustration. It is also never recommended to tackle the bagpipes on your own. Trying to "teach yourself" will bring about problems in your technique and, over time, amounts to the instrument not sounding like it's supposed to. This can give the instrument a bad name. You will need some kind of instruction with either a live person or online lesson. Before making the splurge on a set of pipes, maybe a practice chanter is where you should begin looking. You can view our range of practice chanters here: 

https://www.jhiggins.net/bagpipe-supplies-and-acce...

Your First Set:

A new beginner piper will usually want a new instrument to play. While older/used sets can be purchased, it is almost always better to start with a clean slate and invest in a new set of bagpipes. Many people are of the thinking that you will need to upgrade from a starter bagpipe to a professional model as you progress. This is simply not true. While you can certainly upgrade to a fancier instrument later on, there is no reason that the first set you buy won't last you beyond your years. I personally learned on a loaned set of pipes from my local pipe band. After researching models, sound clips, and prices for almost 2 years, I bought my first and only set of bagpipes that I still play at a highly competitive level. We recommend buying a good quality instrument that will perform well and last you your entire piping career. 

Where to Start?:

Most first-time buyers have little idea of what to look for when buying an instrument. The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with reputable brands and thoroughly listen to these different instruments. Choosing an instrument is choosing a sound and if you intend to take your piping far, this is a very big decision. We at J. Higgins are proud to carry some of the best brands of bagpipes at competitive prices. Head to our blog "A Guide to Our Bagpipe Selection" for in-depth details of each brand and model that we carry. ( https://www.jhiggins.net/blog/a-guide-to-our-bagp...

Parts of the Great Highland Bagpipe:

On our website and throughout your piping career, you will see some terms concerning the different parts of the bagpipe. These different parts have strange names like ferrules, mounts, soles, and tuning slides. Some language to familiarize yourself with is as follows:

Does a More Expensive Instrument Sound Better?:

Different prices can be misleading at first. The difference in pricing within a maker is all purely for cosmetic additions. The more metal and engraving, the more expensive the instrument. Between one brand of bagpipe, the lowest costing instrument should sound identical to the most expensive (providing they're made from the same material). Comparing brands against each other, the prices will vary and range. Instrument craftsmen have differing methods for how they make their pipes and by choosing one brand over another, you are paying for that sound and it's own grounding in traditional crafting methods. Generally speaking, a more expensive instrument will involve more handcrafting techniques rather than computer programmed CNC machines. Not that this directly impacts the sound, but the attention to detail is usually regarded with more importance, thus, making a steadier instrument and a sound investment. It is also important to mention that most bagpipes come with a warranty and, generally speaking, these more expensive bagpipes have a longer and more extensive warranty should something happen to your new instrument.

The accessories and add-ons you choose will also impact the price. Items such as pipe bags, drone reeds, and chanters will cost more. Visit our supplies page for more information: ( https://www.jhiggins.net/bagpipe-supplies-and-acce... )

Plastic Instruments:

In general, wooden instruments are better than plastic. A common question we get asked is "Do plastic pipes sound different than wooden pipes?". The answer is yes. While plastic pipes are more wear resistant and usually cost less, the tone that they produce is not quite the same as a wooden instrument nor do they react or stabilize the same. Many pipers will tell you plastic pipes have a more buzzy and dull tone rather than the lively and resonant sound that a wooden instrument can produce. They also accumulate moisture at a much greater level than wooden instruments since the plastic is not a fibrous material. While the sound difference might escape the less experienced ear, it is important to remember the gravity of your purchase. On our site, you can purchase McCallum and Wallace pipes in plastic models. 

Beware Online Scams and Gimmicks:

In all honesty, who can blame someone for wanting a good deal on their first set of bagpipes? You may see prices online for a full set of highland pipes for as little as $200. Before eagerly heading to the checkout page you should be aware of some things. Firstly, a good set of pipes made of African Blackwood can be purchased for as cheap as $1,000 while a more inexpensive set made of Polypenco or Acetyl Plastic could be as low as $700. Both are good instruments but there are differences in tonal quality and stability. You'll always want an experienced piper to check these items for authenticity. Beware of pipes from Pakistan. These instruments, while cheap, are not made to be a functioning musical instrument; rather a decorative piece above the fireplace. Don't purchase this instrument thinking you will get a quality set. I myself fell into this very scenario when looking to buy my first set. When in doubt, always check with another piper to make sure this is a real instrument. With today's internet, there are plenty of online forums and Facebook pages available to someone who is looking to identify a set. 

Combing and Beading V.S Unturned Wood:

Most sets of bagpipes have a decorative pattern on the wood known as "combing and beading". This refers to the little grooves and beads you will see in the grain of the wood. While this is a popular option, you can also get "unturned wood" which is just the raw shape of the wood with no decorative tooling. The unturned wood is usually less expensive but is no less beautiful as this style shows the natural grain of the wood. On our website, you can purchase Shepherd and Wallace Bagpipes in unturned models. Neither of these styles affect the sound but you will want to be careful in your first few months with a new set of pipes. Taking good care to thoroughly clean the wood and remove moisture will prevent any cracks or splits. 

 Hide Bags and Wooden Chanters:

A beginner piper should start out on a good instrument, but one would want to wait before going for the "gold medalist" set-up. A new piper really shouldn't start out with a wooden chanter. Even experienced pipers can break these as the wood, while strong, is as thin as glass. Turning a wooden chanter from the bottom (or sole) can result in a spiral snap in the bore of the chanter. This destroys the chanter and cannot be repaired. A plastic chanter is best for beginners as you won't have to worry about replacing an expensive part early on into playing. Concerning hide and skin bags, a new beginner shouldn't start with this either. While hide bags will improve the sound of the instrument, they take a lot of dedication and knowledge to maintain. They require a manual installation and priming and will also need regular seasoning to keep the pores of the skin airtight. An investment like this should be for a more intermediate player who is looking to upgrade their tone. To begin learning, one should have a standard synthetic (or hybrid synthetic) bag to ensure ease of playing. The synthetic bags require less maintenance and last longer than all-hide bags.

Bag Size:

Typically, I recommend that most people start with a medium bag. It is important to remember that a pipe bag is an interchangeable part of the instrument. This means that you can change, upgrade, and swap styles and sizes later on into playing. You can more accurately choose a size from both your height and your stamina level:

People who are 5'7'' or below might benefit from a small or extended small pipe bag. People who measure around 5'9'' to 6' might enjoy a medium bag. Taller people who are 6'1'' or higher might do well with a large bag

Generally, the taller you are, the bigger your lungs are which means you can fill the bag with more air. Some people just aren't comfortable with a smaller bag as it might feel very sensitive to the initial start of blowing and squeezing. If you have a bigger bag, you have to blow more into it to fill it up. You also have a longer time to squeeze and take a breath. On the opposite side, a smaller bag takes little time to fill it, but you'll have less time to press with your arm before the air runs out. Most people fit a medium bag well as this has the best energy conversion for blowing and squeezing. As different as body types are, I've seen all kinds of players playing bag sizes that don't necessarily correspond with their height. If you can try to play another set with a bag tied on, you can feel if it is too big or too small pretty quickly. It really all depends on your preference, but a medium is a good place to start. Your instructor will also help you make the right choice. 

Blowpipe length:

This is a very crucial step in ordering your pipes. An inappropriate blowpipe length can create posture problems in your neck and back that will make it extremely uncomfortable to play. Your overall posture should be streamline with the back of your head, shoulder blades, tailbone, and heels all in a straight line. You can check this using a mirror or camera. You shouldn't be compensating for your pipes by hunching, standing with your chin tucked in, or head cocked to the side as this can present problems in later playing. Try an adjustable blowpipe first since you can change the position and length at any time to find what is most comfortable to you. This is especially recommended for younger players who's posture will grow and change over time. You'll want the drones to comfortably lay on your shoulder with the bass drone sitting just behind your ear. A correctly fitting blowpipe should allow your pipes to stay firm under your arm and should not let the bag slide away in front or be pushed down from your armpit. 

Moisture Control Systems:

All Highland Bagpipes need some kind of moisture control. Whether it is a single reservoir at the bottom of the stock, or extensive tube systems. Unbridled moisture entering your pipes will only result in an unsteady instrument. Even for "dry-blowers" and people who live in drier climates, having a very open-style water trap will prevent excess moisture from accumulating in the bag, wood, and on the reeds. By purchasing a synthetic zippered bag from us, you'll receive a water trap to go with it. Most of these systems are bottle style with a ribbed tubing that connects to your blowpipe stock. These are what is recommended with a synthetic bag. If you find that the bottle trap still is allowing moisture to accumulate on the wood and reeds after 30 minutes of playing, try replacing the fabric in the bottle with two halves of a sponge around the tube. This will restrict even more moisture from reaching your reeds. Other systems like the Ross Canister and Bannatyne Deluxe have more complicated hoses and nozzles that fit around the base of stocks. When learning to play, it's best to keep things simple and less involved. These are interchangeable between instruments and can be changed and/or upgraded in later playing. The standard tube and bottle trap will work just fine for learning and many experienced players use these models in their own set-up. All water traps should be emptied at the end of every practice and thoroughly cleaned and dried to prevent the growth of mold. 

Reeds: 

No bagpipe is complete without a set of reeds. The Great Highland Bagpipes have 4 reeds in them. 1 Bass reed, 2 Tenor reeds, and 1 chanter reed. These are interchangeable parts of the instrument that can be changed later on. 

Chanter Reeds:

The chanter reed is the hardest and loudest reed the bagpipe has. It fits into the chanter where your fingers rest to play a tune (exactly like a practice chanter). Bagpipe Chanter reeds are made of cane which is a fibrous and natural material. These reeds thrive on regular playing to stay stable and easy. These are not the same kind of reeds that fit into your practice chanter. 

On our website, you'll see various brands available in 3 different strengths. Easy, Medium, and Hard. Beginners always start on an easy chanter reed. This will give the player a chance to become accustomed to the feeling of the strength required to play. Even when ordering an easy reed, you may have to shave more cane off for it to be easy enough for a beginner to play. It is better to let your teacher (or an experienced piper) do this. You can always tell us to pick a reed for a beginner in the comments section of your online order, as well as letting us know during a phone call. If practicing regularly and correctly, you'll get used to the strength of your reed very quickly and the reed will likely need to be replaced with a harder easy reed or even a medium. So it is not a bad idea to order an extra reed in a harder strength in addition to the one that comes with your pipes. The brand and style of reed really depends on your pipe chanter choice. A strong and versatile brand to start out with (in my opinion) is the Higgins Chanter Reed. Simply a top-level reed that will preform well in various kinds of chanters. For a beginner, this shouldn't matter too much but you'll want to be sure you get a reed that is compatible with your chosen pipe chanter. We're always happy to help with any information we can give over the phone or an email. Any cane reed will need to be replaced, but if taken care of and allowed to dry in a reed protector after playing, they can last for years with great longevity. 

Drone Reeds:

Concerning drone reeds, you'll want a set of synthetic reeds that don't take much effort to set up. These reeds need to be air efficient and stable from the start of learning. A fantastic brand to start with (in my opinion) are Ezee Drone Reeds. These reeds are played by numerous gold medal pipers because of their consistent tone and ease of adjustability. Different brands and styles are available but an educated decision should be made by your teacher or other experienced piper. Cane drone reeds should be avoided by beginners as these reeds are more difficult to work with. This is an investment best made by an advanced player. All drone reeds require customized attention once out of their package. You'll need to adjust them to the appropriate strength (governed by your chanter reed) and tuning position on your tuning pin. Head to our "Comfortable Bagpipe" blog for more information on setting your drone reeds. ( https://www.jhiggins.net/blog/checklist-for-a-com... )

Other Needed Accessories:

Over time, a new piper will build up a maintenance kit that holds all the items they'll need for proper care of their pipes. A few of the essential items you'll need to get started are as follows:

Carrying Case (for the best protection your pipes can get. Soft-sided models are recommended) 

Large Corks (set of 4 for stocks)

Small Corks (set of 3 for drones)

Hemp (preferably waxed to ensure a tight fit of all the joints)

Chanter Tape (for fine tuning notes on a pipe chanter)

Chanter Reed Protector (use this to protect the reed after playing) 

Brushes (both bristled and fabric brushes are needed to remove debris and moisture)

Towel (to further protect the instrument inside the case)

These items are needed for the most basic maintenance that must be performed after every playing session. Over time, you'll create a kit that has extra tools in it such as scissors, sandpaper files, tuners, mandrels, and more. You can upgrade your arsenal and customize it for any uses that you might have. These items are for the more advanced player who is adjusting multiple bagpipes and reeds with finesse.

 Since a beginner will not be using the drones to get started, the drones will be corked off either at the stock or the top of the drone. The lack of constant moisture running through the drones will let them over dry and must have extra hemp added to the pipes to make sure the hemp seals remain airtight. Check out our "After Session Maintenance" blog for an in-depth walkthrough of caring for your instrument: ( https://www.jhiggins.net/blog/proper-aftersession... )

Seeking Help and Advice:

One of the best things to do when purchasing a set of pipes is to listen to them. YouTube is a fantastic resource for judging the tonal quality of an instrument. It is smart to compare different brands of reeds, pipes, bags, and chanters so that you come up with the sound you want to achieve. If possible, try a friend or bandmate's set! It is also recommended to ask your teacher or another experienced piper their preference on brands and gauge your choices there. Our own recorded database of sound products can help you make your desicion as well. You definitely don't want to seek the "cheap" way out in your purchases. Take pride in ensuring that you and your pipes will have the necessary equipment to help you on your way. 

 We at J. Higgins are happy to provide you with all of the advice and information you need to make a worthwhile purchase. We have a team of experienced pipers on call to help you with any questions you might have. Don't hesitate to get in touch by email or over the phone. 

Feel free to get in touch with us about any questions or comments!

  • Call us on 800-426-7268
  • Email us at: admin@jhiggins.net