BAGPIPE PROBLEMS? - SURELY NOT??!!
The bagpipes must be the most difficult instrument in the world to maintain. I was lucky to have good instructors, Pipe-Majors, and assorted piping buddies over the years who have taught me what to do to keep the instrument in good order.
I am asked frequently how to sort out various problems which people are experiencing and I thought that it would be a good idea to write these down on the website to help others. Sometimes I feel like a "Bagpipe Agony-Aunt!"
I will add to these as time goes on but if you have a bagpipe question please just drop me an e-mail and I will add your query to the list!
Q1. The hemp on my chanter gets wet, swells up and I can't get the chanter apart to dry it out.
Answer : Once you have left it to dry for a while and can get it apart, cut off the old hemp and re-hemp it with waxed hemp - I use the black waxed hemp which I think is tougher than the yellow stuff, but if you have waxed yellow hemp that will do. If you only have un-waxed hemp, then you can unwind it and wax it by rubbing it with a candle. Another tip is to also smear the hemp with Vaseline [petroleum jelly] which gives additional protection and lubricates at the same time.Q2. My practice chanter reed keeps cutting out when I am playing, especially in front of my instructor.
Answer : Could be two reasons : The first is that the reed is too wet - take it out and dry it or change to a spare reed - dry out the chanter too.
The second reason could be that the reed is too weak and that you are blowing too hard when you are excited - the remedy is to change to a harder to blow reed. More advanced players could make the reed a bit harder by squeezing the staple from the sides which will make the reed blades gap bigger and make it harder - this is very hit-or-miss and you run the risk of ruining the reed so only do this as a last resort.
Q3. My practice chanter does not sound balanced - the top hand is very sharp.
Answer : You can try raising the reed in it's seat. - Take the reed out and add a little hemp to the bottom of it so that it sits higher, then adjust until it sounds right. Conversely if the chanter is too flat, you can take some hemp off the bottom of the reed and sink it further in. All this assumes that you have a decent chanter in the first place. I play a McCallum's and find it well balanced.
Q1. I have just bought a set of bagpipes and can't get a sound out of them! Help!
Answer : There are so many things that could be wrong that it's best if I give you a checklist as follows :
- Check that the bag is tight i.e. not leaking. To do this, remove the chanter, drones and cover. The blowstick must be tightly hemped and the valve working. Put corks in the drone and chanter stocks and blow the bag up. It should stay inflated and be nice and tight. If it is animal skin DO NOT immerse it in water. If it goes down there are two main reasons - the first is that the stocks are loose i.e. not tied-in tightly - the remedy is to re-tie them with tieing-in hemp. Synthetic bags are sometimes "tied-in" with Jubilee Clips or cable ties. It is usual to test if the stocks are tight by trying to turn them against the bag - they should not move. If the bag is animal skin, it should feel dry on the outside - if it is wet you need a new one. If it is dry and going down then it probably needs "seasoned". I recommend "Airtight" seasoning which is available from McCallum Bagpipes or their distributors. If your bag is synthetic and leaking then you probably need a new one.
- Check that the stocks are tight [covered in previous item] - see above.
- Check that the blowstick valve is working - if not replace it.
- Check that all the joints are hemped correctly. This is a tough one to describe in writing, but the joints which will cause leaks are the joints between the drones, the blowstick, the chanter, and their respective stocks. To re-hemp them I recommend using waxed hemp and I prefer the black stuff. You cut off the old hemp [carefully!]. Before you start it may be wise to coat the first 150mm [6 inches] with "thermowax" which is a black sticky stuff which helps the hemp adhere to the joint [usually combed]. You should wind the hemp round as carefully and evenly as possible [not like the pipemakers do it! lol!]. When you have sufficient on, try it in the stock [or whatever other joint you are working on] and if it's not tight put on some more and fill in any "crevasses" in your hemping with a little more until it is difficult to turn. To finish off, create a loop to bind the end of your hemp in and finally cut it off. An additional tip is to apply some Vaseline [petroleum jelly] to the joint to help seal it and make it slide more easily. One word of caution! Do not put on so much hemp that you risk cracking the wood of your pipes!!
- Check that your stocks and other wooden components do not have any cracks that are leaking air.
- Check that the joint between your blowstick and mouthpiece does not leak.
OK that covers the "leaks" part of it! Now on to the next bit!
- Firstly, if you are a beginner you would be best to start with just the pipe-chanter sounding so cork off the drones.
- Make sure your chanter reed is easy enough to blow. - You should be able to blow it in your mouth fairly easily for about 20-30 seconds.
- If it is too hard firstly you can hold the blades between your fingers to weaken it a bit and also moisten it with your tongue and blow it with your mouth.
- If that is not successful you can shave the reed down - again this is difficult to describe in writing! You can use a knife, scissors or sandpaper [emory boards are good] You should avoid touching the tips of the blades. You shave down the centre part of the reed blades equally on both sides, a little at a time, whilst trying to blow it in the chanter as you go along and moistening it a little. Be careful not to overdo it as you will ruin the reed......
- At the time of writing, most people are using synthetic drone reeds which are certainly a lot more user-friendly than the old cane ones. Having said that, a few professional pipers are going back to cane reeds [good luck to them!] but I don't recommend that for the majority of pipers and certainly not if you want an easy life! I use Eezedrones and also like MG's and Ross Omega's but there are others on the market so there is a big choice out there.
- For beginners, once you have mastered blowing your bagpipe steadily with just the chanter, I recommend getting used to playing with one tenor drone first, adding the bass drone later and the second tenor after that.
- The aim of setting a drone reed [apart from making it sound nice!] is to have it at optimum air usage and tuning position.
- Firstly we have to set the bridle [the hemp or rubber band that adjusts on the blade [tongue] to make the reed sharper or flatter] If you push the bridle nearer the drone it will make the reed louder and it will take more air. - Pushing it away from the drone will make it easier to blow, it will tune higher up - but if you go too far it will stop! Try and find the optimum just before it stops.
- Most synthetic reeds have a screw at the bottom. If you screw it in the reed will tune higher, and if you screw it out it will tune lower. If the screw is loose you can pack it with plumbers tape in most cases.
Q2. My Pipe-Chanter sounds awful! It's either sharp on top or flat all over - how do I balance it.
- This raises a few questions, but lets assume you have a good make of chanter and a half-decent reed!
- I find the best way to balance the chanter is to start with having the Low A and the E in tune with the drones. This presupposes that you know how to tune your drones.... - but assuming that you can, blow your pipes, and tune your drone[s] to Low A. Try the E and if it is in tune with the drones that is a good start. - If not you need to adjust your chanter reed up or down until the E is in tune as well as the Low A.
- If you have achieved the above and your chanter Low A and E are in tune with the drones, you may still have problems with for example a sharp D or F or other note. This is commonly fixed by partially covering the TOP of the hole for that note with a little black electricians PVC tape and adjusting to suit. This is not for beginners but something you can try and learn as time goes on.
Q3. I have a new Bannatyne Pipe Bag [Synthetic] but I want to keep the old [synthetic] one. How can I change my synthetic Pipe Bag without damaging the old one?
- Most synthetic bags have the stocks fitted as a push-fit [apart from the chanter stock which is fitted with a Jubilee clip]
- The rubber collars on the bags adhere to the wood on the stocks through time and it is difficult to release them to get the old bag off without damaging it.
- The secret is to carefully ease a flat blade screwdriver between the stock and the collar, turn it 90 degrees to create a gap, and pour a little washing up liquid in.
- Turn the screwdriver back to flat and run it round under the collar to get the washing up liquid spread evenly all round.
- The stock can then be forced out through the hole.
- Chanter stocks are generally held on by a Jubilee [worm-drive] clip and can be changed by releasing it. When re-fitting, Bannatyne supply a rubber ring and you can also wind black electricians tape round the end of the stock to make up the diameter and smooth it off.
- I also recommend using this tape on the OUTSIDE of the bag where the Jubilee clip is going to even things off [couple of turns]. You can also cover the Jubilee clip with tap as it's a bit sharp and this will not be seen under the cover.
- It is important to get the angle of the chanter stock correct to suit your playing angle. The Bannatyne WMC bag has been designed by Willie McCallum to help with this and I thoroughly recommend that design of bag.