So - You're Thinking of Purchasing
a Set of Bagpipes?
The purchase of a set of pipes is a major decision, in that a good set of new pipes costs upward of $1000.00, it is very important to do some homework. The following is intended to be a listing of some considerations to help in your decision making process.
NEW or USED?? There is nothing wrong with getting a used set. Often the wood will be of excellent quality, and there could be price advantages. You might be able to find a bargain, but this is rare -- often times the used sets sell for as much if not more than the new. Also, as a rule, it will be necessary to buy a new bag and have it tied in. Another concern is the chanter -- the older ones are pitched a bit lower than the newer ones and as a result, playing with other people could be a problem unless a new chanter is purchased. Best advice is to have an experienced piper examine the set and make recommendations in your interest.
THE BAG: Bags come in several variations (size, materials etc.). First, never purchase pipes without being 'measured' for a proper fit. Arm length and upper body size will dictate what size bag you want (small, extended small, medium, large, extra lage or custom). Length of blowpipe is also a major factor here As to materials, the main ones are leather and Gortex, a space age synthetic material. Both have advantages, and if you ask 10 pipers you will get 11 opinions. Some prefer the leather for the 'heft' and feel. Also, it is consistent with tradition. The leather bags DO require some maintenance, however. The Gortex is somewhat more expensive, is light and maintenance free. The best advice is to talk to as many pipers as possible, and try the bags out for yourself. There is no musical consideration, the bag is simply an air reservoir.
THE DRONES: There is only one material for the drones proper that I would recommend, and that is African Blackwood. I have seen and played pipes made of other woods, but in my opinion, the sweet drone sound you want is best produced by this dense, hard (and unfortunately expensive) wood. The stocks and blowpipe have no effect on music, and some savings can be achieved by having them made from polypenco. Also, being the part of the drone which absorbs the most moisture, wooden stocks are more susceptible to splitting (rare but it does happen).
THE CHANTER: Most chanters purchased for beginning and intermediate pipers are made of polypenco or other synthetic material. The sound is good, maintenance easy, and the price is substantially less than a Blackwood chanter. For a first set, I would recommend the synthetic unless you recently won the lottery. A Blackwood chanter can always be purchased later (as can any part).
MOUNTS: The mountings (ferrules, caps, mounts, chanter sole - if any) are a matter of personal taste - there is no effect on the music. A sterling silver set will sound the same as one mounted in wood and plastic. Mounts are available in heavy duty plastic (in imitation ivory or horn - some makers have additional colors, but these are the most popular) and occasionally in metal or wood. Ferrules can be either plastic, nickel, brass or sterling -most pipers prefer the metal (nickel or brass for the non lottery winners) because it reinforces the wood better and does not require the wood to be turned as thin as the plastic ones do, thereby reducing further the danger of splitting wood. Slides on the drone connections are nice, if relatively expensive trim -- no effect on music but give a nice appearance to the pipes. Whether to have a matching sole on the chanter is a choice of aesthetics basically, though there is some protection for the chanter when a sole is present. Modern pipers tend to prefer no sole, traditionalists do -- your choice.
REEDS: The chanter reed should be pre-tested by the dealer to match your blowing strength (at this point, that probably means 'easy'). There are on the market plastic chanter reeds, which though easy to care for and of predictable strength, sound suspiciously like a Canadian Goose with abdominal distress. They could be useful for a beginner to get used to the bellowing procedure, but it is an expensive experiment (ca. $45).
DRONE REEDS: Most sets of pipes come complete with a full set of cane drone reeds. Best advice is to return them to the dealer and order one of the new sets of plastic drone reeds. One of the biggest problems in playing pipes over the years has been the drone reeds. These new reeds save countless hours of tedious work and the sound is identical. Excellent makes are Wygent and E-Zee Drone (both wooden sleeve and plastic tongue) and Ross (plastic sleeve, cane tongue). Cost of these at this time is between $60 and $70, and an excellent investment. Ask your dealer if they can be included at a nominal price when purchased with a full set of pipes.
BAG COVER AND CORDS: Cheapest covers are cord or wool, but most go with velvet or velveteen. Color choice is varied, the covers can be made in any basic color with matching or contrasting fringe. Most popular are dark blue, green, red and black covers with matching or white trim, but this is a personal choice -- often people get the color which best matches the kilt -- bands provide their own cover requirements. Cords can be either wool or silk, and like the covers come in many colors. I would suggest silk since the wool can tend to be susceptible to weather and look a bit 'ratty.' Rare today are the old cloth cords.
ACCESSORIES: Some basic incidental supplies should be purchased along with the bagpipes. Many dealers offer a 'kit' made up at a special price which includes all the basics. At a minimum, this kit should contain teflon tape, hemp, drone corks, stock corks, brushes for drones (cleaning and oiling), bore oil, chanter cap protector, and seasoning (for leather bags). Many dealers will season the bag for you and show you how at the same time.
DEALER: Buy from a reputable dealer who knows bagpipes (like us for instance). Make sure you check out the warranty, and be prepared to pay a deposit, since pipes are (or should be) custom made for you. Don't mail away to some dealer and expect the instrument to be exactly what you want. Discuss options, be measured or 'sized up.' Get exact terms -- what is expected at delivery time, can you cancel and get a refund if the delivery time is unreasonably delayed. Get a copy of the warranty - most reputable dealers will replace any damaged parts within 6 months of purchase if the defect is a result of materials or workmanship. Check out the maker: There are several well known names, but as in everything, some rely on past reputations even as the quality declines. Find someone (even the dealer) with a set from the maker in question and listen carefully to the drone sound. Make sure your dealer listens to you and helps you with decisions -- this is not a decision to rush - pipes will be with you potentially for a lifetime and you will be spending many hours together in close embrace.
Best of luck with your decision making, and feel free to call on us here for any further advice. We are committed to good piping and want to help.