Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

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Tuning the Smallpipes

Tuning is of course a never ending subject. It is worth noting that there are as many opinions as to what is ‘correct’ as there are pipers in the matter of chanter tuning, but thankfully, drones are an easier matter. As smallpipes are intended to be played with other instruments, the extent of free choice in chanter tuing is also reduced.

This chapter will seek to explain the technical aspect of what can be changed and how. For now, we will only deal with the basic goal of having a pleasant sounding ‘in tune’ instrument.

It should be said that it is worth taking time to simply delight in the sound of your instrument and learn to love beautiful notes and combinations. If you can love your instrument, so can your listeners...


The drones should be tuned to Low A. That is, they should have the same sound, but one and two octaves lower. The sound should be steady, with no wavering.

As a first step in tuning your drones, take out the chanter and put a cork in the hole. This way you can focus on just making the sound steady.

The drones can be stopped by tapping your finger lightly over the top, or simply by putting a cork in them.
With the end drone only, slide the top joint up and down and listen to the way the sound changes. This is to train your ear and to make you aware of how the tone can be varied in a drone.

Now, you are aware of how the sound changes – shorter is higher in pitch, longer is lower, and the quality of the sound, the timbre, changes dramatically as you move the joint up and down.

Once you start to feel you know what the sound is like, then slide the drone top to a position slightly above the hemp line.

Open a second drone. Move the top joint to an extreme position, either out or in, and gradually slide it until it makes a steady sound at the same pitch as the other drone.  Repeat this many, many times. Getting used to this is very important and is worth the effort.

When you have got both tenor drones in tune, making a steady sound, then open up the bass, and do the same. This will be trickier, and you need to pay more attention to how the overall sound wavers. To begin with, it is quite a difficult to hear how the bass drone is in tune or not. Be patient and keep experimenting. As with the tenors, start from an extreme and obvious position.

Once you are happy you can tune all the drones to sound together, making an even steady tone, then you should turn off a tenor and the bass, and put in the chanter, and start again, this time making the drone the same note as the low A on the chanter, and again making sure it does not have any wavering in the sound. This can be difficult as the wavering can be very, very small. That is why it is important to get used to the different ‘colours’ or timbres of the drones, as the waving is hidden somewhere in the mass of noise.

Quite simply, when you have got one drone tuned to the low A of the chanter, repeat what you did above, and add the others, one at a time.

Some smallpipes have an E drone instead of one of the tenors (called a baritone drone), tuned to sound an octave beneath the E of the chanter. Be aware that if one hand is off the chanter then the E sounds very different to when both hands are in place. You should only check the E and drone together with both hands on the chanter correctly. The sound of the bass and baritone together is very characteristic and once you have got used to this you may find it easier to tune to the bass drone rather than the chanter E. Just make sure to check everything together.


Many people now use a tuning meter. A company called Korg makes the most popular. That works too. However, people hear with ears, not meters, and if your batteries are flat, you need to know how to survive…

If you want to use a meter, you don’t need this page.

The tricky stuff about chanter tuning concerns something called ‘temperament’.  This is what Bach’s ‘Woll Temperierte Klavier’ is all about. Beware, a lot of pseudo-science is floating around piping circles concerning this. If you want to know, check Campbell and Greated ‘Acoustics for Musicians’ – a big, thick, easy to read university textbook that covers the matter nicely. Not all of the great master pipers who have written on this subject have done so in agreement with theoreticinas’, musicians’ and physicists’ definitions. Beware…

Notes are tuned basically in two ways – moving the reed up and down in its socket, and putting electrical tape over the holes.

Moving the reed affects the top hand more than the bottom because as a percentage, any movement is greater in relation to a short distance than a longer one.

Tape on the holes works in two ways – by moving the hole downwards, and by making the hole smaller, thus changing the length of the tube with ‘end effects’ and by altering the amount of energy allowed to disperse at the point of the hole. This can also be used to change the colour of the note.

Adding or removing hemp to the reed helps hold it in place but also can affect some notes more than others. It can also change the note colours. These are advanced issues and will not be addressed here. Likewise cutting or scraping parts of the reed and some people even add bridles to chanter reeds - both issues for advanced tuning.

Low A and High A are what is called an ‘octave’. That is, they should sound like the same note. To make them the same, move the reed up or down until it is a true octave. Check with low G and high G. If they are not an octave try your best to get them there. When they are very near you can correct with tape.

Low G can be flattened, or lowered in pitch by putting tape over the sound holes at the bottom and side of the chanter, but be aware this will affect the Low A and other notes too.

A good chanter, using a reed that suits it should have the two octaves in tune. This is your ideal situation, and when you are picking a reed, this is what you should be looking for.

If in doubt, aim to make the top a bit sharp and correct it with tape.  As with everything, experiment.
There are two very simple ways to tune:

Think of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. The beginning contains all the notes you need, nicely arranged. DADADADFA’, G’EG’EG’ECEA. The intervals, or jumps between notes are very distinctive. Assuming you have got the octaves correct, all you need to do now is go through this sequence making what you play sound like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Frequently out of tune notes are D and F, and they usually need some tape.

Another way of tuning is by playing a scale very slowly and listening to see if each step is correct. Think of ‘Doh a Deer’ from the ‘Sound of Music’, but start with Low A as Soh.

This is a rudimentary description but should be enough to get you started.

Practice tuning using these non destructive methods a lot before you try to do anything more. You will find that this will suffice until your reed starts to get too old. You know this as it gets unstable and the tuning changes very quickly.

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