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Getting Started - Learning to Play the Bagpipes

Jim on pipes for the first time, 1967
This is me playing pipes for the first time in my parents' home in February of 1967.
So you want to learn to play the bagpipes....  Okay, it's a big step, because it's a difficult instrument.

Like any instrument, it's preferable if you learn as a child or teen, but lots of adults (we call them 'mature students') have made a great hobby of piping, provided they combine patience and perseverance with an intelligent approach and good instruction.

Good instruction is a must; this is not an instrument you 'pick up' on your own, no matter how many other instruments you play! It's a highly technical instrument with a very sophisticated system of gracenoting, and music and written tutorials do not always steer you clear of pitfalls.

If you don't have a good instructor near you, there are instructors in North America who will teach by phone or online. And use every opportunity you can to travel to workshops and summer schools.

You can practice as much as you want, but if you're going to make progress, you should be prepared to practice in a very focused way for a minimum of 20 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.

By focused practice, I mean not sitting on the couch wiggling your fingers while you watch your favourite TV show! In my experience over 35 years of teaching pipes, I've discovered that the students who work the hardest and spend the most time practicing are the ones who advance the quickest. Talent is only part of it: hard work is the key!


What do you need?


Walsh 'Long' Polypenco practice chanter
A Walsh 'long' polypenco plastic practice chanter taken apart to show the reed.

Oddly enough, you do not start with a set of bagpipes. That need will arise several months down the road. Instead, you will start with a practice chanter, which is a small oboe-like instrument that is very affordable and quiet.

You will begin by learning the fingering and gracenoting system required to play Highalnd Bagpipe tunes. This will take several months. Once you can play a few simple tunes and have them memorized, your instructor will probably suggest you acquire a set of pipes. But let's not worry about that now.

Let's look at practice chanters.

Practice chanters can be made out of polypenco (also called delrin), which is basically plastic. These are tough little instruments that can cost between $75 and $175. They can also be made out of African Blackwood, and these can cost between $175 and $300, and even a lot, lot more if you want silver and engraved silver adornments on it.
Kron blackwood chanter, silver ferrule, sole, mammoth ivory bulb
A high-end blackwood practice chanter with mammoth ivory and engraved silver mounts.

Practice chanters come in two sizes: 'regular' and 'long.' The reason the long chanter is so named is because the finger holes are the same distance apart as those on the pipe chanter.

This of course makes a lot of sense.

However, for well over a century, practice chanters were shorter than pipe chanters, and these are the 'regular' chanters. There is less call for them today, though lots of younger children start on the shorter version.  Some companies also offer a child's chanter for very young children.

At the bottom of this page are the practice chanters I recommend for beginners. If you want to see my full line of practice chanters, you can go to my
practice chanter page here.

Tutor Books

 College of PIping Tutor

You may also want some kind of beginner tutor book. If you have an instructor, that person will have his or her own recommendation, and may even have their own system. However, there are several excellent tutors on the market.

Some, like the College of Piping Tutor, also known as "The Green Book," are very popular, and seem best suited to learning with an instructor. Produced in the late 1940s and updated several times since, this is easily the greatest selling piping book of any kind ever. It comes with a CDROM.

The National Piping Centre's Highland Bagpipe Tutor is very good to use with an instructor, but also if you don't get to see your instructor often. It also comes with a CDROM.

You can purchase these books using the shopping cart section below.


The National Piping Centre Tutor
The tutor produced by the National Piping Center in Glasgow in 2001 is superb.

 Another useful book is my own tutor, Rhythmic Fingerwork. This book is not really a beginner tutor; it's a workbook or 'method' book to help you master all the intricate gracenoting required to play Highland pipe tunes. It is one of the most popular instructional books in the world today, and once you have two or three months under your belt you will find it very helpful.


Rhythmic Fingerwork: a good technical tutor for beginners.

So there is the fifty-cent tour on getting started learning bagpipes.

Good luck, and if you have any other questions please
email me.

I offer some "Starter Packages" that allow you to purchase several of the items described here at a reduced price to help you get going on the pipes.

Some come with a blackwood practice chanter, another with a poly practice chanter. Some are combinations of books in case you already have a practice chanter. You'll see them on the shopping cart below.



And remember: if you don't have a practice chanter yet, you certainly don't need a set of pipes for a while!

You may order these recommended 'getting started' items from the shopping cart below:

Products 1 - 16 of 16 Page: « 1 »

This starter package includes a superb John Walsh Long Polypenco Practice Chanter, The National Piping Centre's "Highland Bagpipe Tutor," and Jim McGillivray's "Rhythmic Fingerwork." Cdn $195 (save $9).
The best and most complete beginner tutor on the market today. Cdn $55
Long polypenco chanter with watertrap, hole spacing the same as the pipe chanter. Cdn. $115.
Polypenco practice chanter with regular (small) spacing between the holes. Top is equipped with a watertrap. Cdn. $95.
John Walsh Child's polypenco practice chanter for small children. Cdn. $85.
The bestselling piping book of all time, "The Green Book" has started more successful pipers than any other tutor. Cdn $37.50
Special savings if you buy all three items in the "Rhythmic Fingerwork" series: the "Rhythmic Fingerwork" technical tutor and CD, "Pipes Ready!" DVD and "Pipes Up!" DVD. Cdn $70 (Reg Cdn $75)
If you're just moving onto pipes from practice chanter, this combination package of Jim McGillivray's "Pipes Ready!" and "Pipes Up!" maintenance and tuning DVDs and The National Piping Centre's "Transition to Bagpipes" tutor has just about all the information you'll need to make this difficult transition. This package gives you great info at great savings. Cdn $70 (Reg Cdn $79)
Get the College of Piping "Green Book," the Piping Centre Tutor and "Rhythmic Fingerwork" (all with CDs) with a John Walsh Long Polypenco practice chanter with reed and watertrap. Cdn $235 (save $10.50).
You don't have to stick to one teaching method! Two tutors may in fact be better than one! Cdn $87.50 (save $5)
Add "Rhythmic Fingerwork" to the beginner tutors for a comprehensive start to fingering and technique. Cdn $110.50 (Save $10).
Instruction in Technique for the Highland Bagpipe. Discounts available for volume or trade orders. Cdn $38
Get both Rhythmic Fingerwork and Piobaireachd Fingerwork at once and save a few bucks. CAD $70. (Reg CAD $78).
Combine the College of Piping "Green Book" with "Rhythmic Fingerwork" (both with CDs) and a John Walsh Long Polypenco practice chanter with reed and watertrap for $185 (save $5.50).
Get both the College of Piping "Green Book" and the Piping Centre Tutor with a John Walsh Long Polypenco practice chanter with reed and watertrap. Cdn $190 (save $17.50)
Produced by the National Piping Centre in Glasgow this follow-up to their beginning tutor is a well produced will written and beautifully photographed guide on making the move from practice chanter to pipes. Cdn $42
Products 1 - 16 of 16 Page: « 1 »