The Instruments!

Scottish Highland Bagpipes (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

This is the most familiar type of pipes; everyone has seen people in kilts playing these in parades, etc. They are originally indigenous only to the Gaelic culture in the Highlands of Scotland, while a completely different instrument, the Lowland pipes, was played throughout the rest of the Scotland. The Great Highland Bagpipes (GHB) consist of a bag, a blowpipe, a chanter, and three drones. The chanter plays a one-octave B-flat Mixolydian (E-flat Major)

3 Sizes of Scottish Highland Pipes

Figure 1

 scale and the drones all play in B-flat. The disadvantage of the Scottish pipes is the limited scale, making many tunes, even many Scottish folk tunes, not possible to perform properly. An advantage of the Scottish pipes is that the piper can be mobile and can process about at an event, and that they have sufficient volume to be heard in a noisy environment. (They can be quite loud; I have heard many people complain about other pipers being too loud when playing in small rooms. This is because the judges at bagpipe band competitions prefer the loudest, sharpest, brightest, brassiest tone possible, and pipers often play their competition pipes at weddings, etc. My pipes are set up to play at concert pitch, and have a relatively mellow sound, so I never get such complaints.)


I play the three sizes of Scottish Highland pipes (see Figure 1) made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which were called, from left to right, the "great Highland or military bagpipe", the "half-size or Lovat reel pipe", and the "miniature or chamber pipe".  This gives me the ability to play normal Highland bagpipe tunes at volumes ranging from loud enough to fill a large church to quiet enough to not interfere with conversation a few feet away. The middle set, a 100-year-old set by Glen of Edinburgh, has a Jon Swayne chanter capable of playing a full chromatic scale and playing high B, making it possible to play many tunes not normally performable on the Highland pipes.




The Irish Uilleann Pipes (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

The Irish indeed have their own type of bagpipe, completely different from the Scottish pipes. (There are today Scottish-style pipe bands in the Republic of Ireland, as there are in Hong Kong, Japan, Saudi Arabia, etc., but the Scottish pipes are no more indigenous to Ireland than they are to these other places. The quasi-Irish pipe bands one sees in the New York Saint Patrickís Day parade are a uniquely American institution. Also, calling the Scottish pipes "Irish Warpipes" is incorrect; the Irish Warpipes died out several hundred years ago and no examples survive, but from old illustrations it seems that they were closer to modern French or Belgian pipes than to Scottish pipes.) The Irish uilleann pipes are played seated, the piper unable to stand up or walk while playing. Many Americans have never seen them, but their sound is very familiar from their use in many movie and commercial soundtracks, such as "Braveheart" and "Titanic". If you have seen "Riverdance" you have seen the uilleann pipes; the piper sits alone on stage and plays "Lament". Their sound in very soulful, and in volume similar to a flute, so that they are perhaps best used in an ensemble with fiddle/violin, guitar, or harp. They consist of a bag, bellows (to supply air, they are not mouth-blown), chanter, three drones, and three "regulators". The chanter plays a nearly-two-octave scale in D or G and the drones play D. A unique feature of the uilleann pipes are the regulators, three keyed pipes across the piperís lap, which when played give chords which support the melody of the chanter. The musical flexibility of the uilleann pipes enables them to play any tune including many Scottish tunes not properly playable on the Scottish pipes. My set of uilleann pipes was made in County Clare. Note: Uilleann pipers do not wear kilts, kilts being Scottish, and the idea of an "Irish kilt" is a 20th century bogus invention.




Scottish Small Pipes (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

There has been a tremendous revival in these pipes over the last decade after being neglected for nearly 200 years. They enable GHB tunes to be played at a much lower volume. They have a particularly sweet sound and blend well with violin/fiddle, guitar, and harp.









Cornish Double Pipes (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

There has also been a recent upsurge in interest in the Cornish pipes. After being extinct for over 300 years they are now being made and played in increasing numbers. Almost all of the players are in England; I believe that I am the only player of the Cornish pipes in the western US. Cornwall is the Celtic area in southwest England, which until 200 years ago had its own Celtic language, and the Cornish landscape is dotted with Celtic high crosses similar to those found in Ireland and Western Scotland. Numerous depictions throughout Cornwall dating from the Renaissance period show people playing a distinctive double-pipe, that is, a bagpipe with two melody pipes (chanters). The Cornish pipes are thus capable of playing two melody lines, either a melody accompanied by moving drone notes, or two independent parts playing in harmony. My set of Cornish pipes was made by Julian Goodacre of Peebles, Scotland.




Irish Flute (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

The term "Irish flute" refers more to a style of playing than an instrument. Traditionally Irish flute-players played 19th century English orchestral flutes, while a small number of current Irish-style flute players, especially in the US, play normal Boehm-system flutes. The increase in number of Irish flute-players and the limited number of surviving antique flutes has led, in the late 20th century, to the development of flutes made especially for Irish music, which however are copies of the Victorian instruments. The typical "Irish flute", whether antique or a reproduction, is made of wood (usually African blackwood) and has six open fingerholes and eight metal keys. The style of the fingering and ornamentation is similar to that of the Irish whistle and the uilleann pipes. My flute was made in London about 1860.




Irish Whistle (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

Thousand-year-old bone whistles have been excavated in Ireland, though the whistle as we know it was invented by Robert Clarke in 1843. The Clarke whistle, still in production, is a rolled tin conical-bore instrument with six open fingerholes and a wooden block (fipple). The standard whistle today is the Generation whistle, made in Britain, a length of brass tubing with six open fingerholes and a plastic top containing the mouthpiece and fipple, made in several sizes/keys. Through many recording of Irish music, particularly the Chieftains, the sound of the Generation whistle has become the definitive Irish whistle sound. The last 20 years has seen an explosion in the popularity of the Irish whistle and scores of new makers have come on the scene, all seemingly with the goal of making a whistle that sounds more like a Baroque recorder than a whistle. Still, the vast majority of actual Irish whistle players use the Generation-type whistle. Today Irish whistles are being made in wood, metal, and plastic in many sizes/keys. (Note: the terms "pennywhistle" and "tinwhistle" are not used by Irish whistle players.)




Irish Low Whistle (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

It seems that the Irish low whistle was invented by Irish uilleann piper, pipemaker, and whistle player Joe McKenna in the 1970ís after he bought 20 large red plastic whistle tops in a London junk shop and experimented with making brass-tubing bodies for them. His many recordings and tours brought the sound of the low whistle to Irish music-lovers the world over. Now dozens of makers are making them, some like Joeís original Generation-style design, others basically a metal organ-pipe with fingerholes. The sound of the low whistle was brought to a wider audience by its use in Riverdance and Titanic. The standard low whistle is in D, the same pitch as the Irish flute and "concert-pitch" uilleann pipes, and an octave lower than the usual D whistle.




Irish Bodhran (Click on picture of instrument to hear sample!)

The "pulse of Irish music" is a frame drum, usually 18" in diameter, with a goatskin head. It is played with a double-ended stick (sometimes called a "tipper" or "beater"). By using both ends of the stick elaborate rhythms are possible including frequent triplets. The other hand, inside the drum, moves up and down controlling the size of the vibrating head and thus its pitch and timbre. My bodhran was made in the late 1970ís by Bo Hinricks.