"BAGPIPES IN MODERN CELTIC MUSIC BANDS"
Updated: Apr 1
Bagpipes are curious things. Perhaps unlike any other instrument, they have the ability to evoke a wide variety of serious emotions and motivate behaviour. They can make grown adults cry like children, but also inspire them to charge headlong into battle with reckless abandon. They’re the kind of thing that people either love or hate with a passion. There’s usually no middle ground. I’m unsure I’ve ever heard anyone say that, as an instrument, bagpipes were just ok. Of course, there are many types of bagpipes from all over the world and the Celts of Europe have many different variations.
So, to be clear, when I say “bagpipes”, I am talking about arguably the most well-known member of the family, Scotland’s Great Highland Bagpipe. However you might feel about them, it cannot be denied that bagpipes are a complex and complicated instrument, that is not only physically demanding to play, but also requires a high degree of technical prowess to play well.
My question is this…why are bagpipes a less common melody instrument than its peers like accordions, whistles, and fiddles? Of course, we do see some pipes used in bands such as Enter the Haggis, The Mud Men, Rawlins Cross, Bourne and MacLeod, Seven Nations, etc, but with access to such an impactful instrument, there must surely be a reason why we don’t see more pipers in modern Celtic music. I believe there are many.
Bagpipes are likely less common because they can be an expensive musical choice. Depending on how much you want to spend, contingent on age, brand, materials, and ornamentation, one can pay upwards of 10, 000$. I can see why others choose to play tin whistles, fiddles, guitars, accordions, and bodhrans, which of course can be pricey in their own right, but a 10, 000$ instrument might not be the one to bring to the local pub.
They are a challenge to play. Sometimes likened to "wrestling an octopus wearing pyjamas", it takes a lot of time and practice to develop the physical stamina and complex fingering required to pipe competently.
They are limited musically. Due to a lack of chromatic notes, bagpipes are hindered in what, and in which keys/modes, they can play. Depending on if you have an A, Bb, and now the newly available B chanter, its music is generally played in A/Bb/B Mixolydian, D/Eb/E Major, B/C/Db Minor respectively, although some may learn to use alternate fingerings to produce natural notes as required.
Pitch is an issue. To play with other instruments, pipes, depending on the chanter, have to be tuned to A 440 khz, Bb 466 khz, and/or now B 493 khz. In the competitive bagpiping world, where the Bb chanter is by far the most common, the pitch has steadily been rising and Pipe Majors are tuning their bands anywhere from the low/mid 470s to the low/mid 480s, which is coming ever close to B. Until they reach that pitch, the Highland bagpipe generally floats in the netherworld between Bb and B negating its ability to play in tune with other instruments, and each other, until tuned to a common chanter.
You cannot reduce the volume of an acoustic bagpipe. It is ridiculously loud as one of its original purposes was to communicate musical messages over long geographic distances.
So, based on these characteristics, what can one do if one wants pipes in a band? There are some options. Firstly, a band can play with a piper at 466 khz and accept the volume, scale/mode, and key limitations. Secondly, if they can afford it, pipers can purchase alternate chanters, or complete full sets, so tuning drones is not a problem.
Thirdly, one can abandon the idea of Highland pipes altogether and use something different such as Scottish small pipes or an Uillean pipe. Both are great, but of course, they do sound quite differently and will therefore produce a different effect and will have different amplification requirements. Fourthly, you can do what I did and explore electronic choices. After trying a few contenders, I opted for the Blair Digital chanter. I use it for all my backing tracks because I can alter the volume in the mix, change key, and use a variety of different sounds like Highland Bagpipes, Scottish Small Pipes, practice chanter, and even Uillean pipes. It can also be used live. I think this is one of the exciting things about The Mighty Ship. A niche musical skillset helps it stand out a bit from its peers. At my shows, it’s always enjoyable to see unexpecting people do a double take, smile, and start dancing when the pipes kick in :)
Are you a piper in a modern Celtic or pipe and drum band who can suggest any other reasons that I might have missed? If so, drop your name and rep your group in the comments below.