Anatomy of the Great Highland Bagpipe


The Great Highland Bagpipe is a rather complex instrument, made with very different materials such as wood, plastic, metal, fabric and animal skin.  

From the image on the left we can learn about the main components of our bagpipe and their function.

CHANTER: It is the melody pipe, characterized by eight holes that the performer uses to play the tune.

TENOR DRONES: The tenor drones play a supporting note, which for those who know music theory is an octave below the chanter's fundamental note.

BASS DRONE: Like the two tenor drones, it produces a supporting note, but in this case two octaves below the chanter's fundamental note.

BAG: It can be made of sheep, goat or cow skin, synthetic fabric, or a combination of both, as in the case of hybrid bags. It is used to create an air reserve that allows the performer to simultaneously play the three drones and the chanter without ever interrupting the sound to breathe. It is usually covered with a tartan, velvet, or more rarely, other fabric cover.

BLOWPIPE: It's used to blow the air into the bag. At its base, or sometimes inside the blowpipe,  there is a non-return valve that prevents the air from returning to the performer's mouth instead of going towards the pipes.

STOCKS: They are the point of junction between the pipes and the bag. Stocks are tied securely to the bag thanks to the use of techniques that guarantee a watertight seal, essential to avoid unnecessary effort while playing.

CORDS: the double cord that holds the drones together, preventing them from falling.

The chanter, the drones, the blowpipe and the stocks can be made of wood (usually African Blackwood) or some plastic resins that vary from one manufacturer to another. 

The drone, and to a lesser extent the blowpipe, are also made up of other parts with practical and decorative functions.

In the image on the side, which shows a tenor drone, we can see that there is an upper and lower section. In the bass drone, which is divided into three parts, there will also be a middle section. Each section is connected to the other by the so-called Tuning Pin or Tuning Slide, which allows the drone to lengthen and shorten, to correct the pitch.

There are also the ferrules, which serve to prevent the wood from swelling too much due to moisture, limiting the risk of cracks. In plastic bagpipes they maintain a decorative function. Ferrules are usually made of plastic, imitating the ivory or the horn used in the past, or metal (nickel or silver, but occasionally also other materials).

Moving along the main body of the drone, we can also find the projecting mounts, made of metal, wood or plastic and designed to protect the wood from impacts that may occur while walking and playing or while carrying the instrument by hand.

Finally, in the upper part of the drone we can find the ring cap and the bush, both with a function that combines protection of the drone with sound projection. These are also generally made of plastic or metal.

In the image above you can find a more detailed representation of the bush and the ringcap. 

But the Great Highland Bagpipe doesn't end there, or we couldn't explain how some simple empty tubes can produce a sound. The magic happens thanks to the intervention of devices called reeds, which being equipped with vibrating blades that vibrate when the air passes through them set the air column inside the pipes in vibration, generating sound.

The drones' reeds have a single blade and are therefore called single reeds, while the chanter reed is composed of two opposite blades linked together and is therefore defined as a double reed.

Here are some examples of reeds:

Both the chanter and the drone reeds can be made of cane or synthetic material. The big difference is that while synthetic drone reeds have now reached a high level of sound quality and are therefore used by almost all pipers, the choice of chanter reeds remains essentially limited to the cane reeds, since the synthetic models developed so far have a very poor sound, of very low quality. In fact, you will notice that in our store we offer various models of drone reeds, both synthetic and natural, while for the chanter we only sell cane reeds. 

In the image on the left, you can see how the chanter and the drone reeds are inserted into the part of the pipes that goes into the stocks, to receive the air from the bag.

To complete this article it should be noted that the instrument is almost always completed with the addition of various devices inside the bag, which serve to absorb the moisture from the breath, preventing it from reaching the reeds.

In fact, while it is true that almost all reeds require some moisture to work properly, it is equally certain that excess moisture only leads to problems, with reeds that close or present various stability issues.