Getting Started – Learning to Play the Bagpipes

This is me playing pipes for the first time in my parents’ home in February of 1967. If I were teaching myself now, I would tell wee Jimmy to play a smaller bag and have his blowstick shortened by about 4 inches.

So you want to learn to play the bagpipes….

Okay: it’s a big step, because it’s a challenging 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 easy instrument to “pick up” on your own. It’s a highly physical instrument with a very sophisticated system of gracenoting. Written tutorials help but do not always steer you clear of pitfalls.

If you don’t have a good instructor near you, there are instructors in North America and throughout the world who will teach online. Use every opportunity you can to travel to workshops and summer schools.

Time commitment
You should be prepared to practice in a very focused way for a minimum of 25 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.  Having said that, an hour a day 6 days a week is a wonderful way to make fantastic progress.  Many people will do more.

By focused practice, we mean not sitting on the couch wiggling your fingers while you watch the football game. In my experience of 45 years of teaching pipes, the students who practice the most are the ones who advance the quickest.   Talent is only part of the package: time commitment is crucial. Sorry to sound like your mom.

 

 

What do you need?

Oddly enough, you do not start with a set of bagpipes. That will come. 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 Highland 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.

 

Practice Chanters

John Walsh’s line of Mexican Royal Ebony (Katalox) eco-friendly 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 various musical-grade hardwoods. These can cost between $175 and $300, and a lot more if you want silver or engraving on it.

Practice chanters come in two sizes: ‘regular’ and ‘long.’ The long chanter is so named 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 what we now call ‘regular’ chanters. There is less call for them today, though lots of younger children start on the regular-sized chanter.  Some companies (like this one) also offer a child’s chanter for very young children, which is even smaller than the regular.

You may wish to opt for a higher-end wooden chanter. African Blackwood has been the wood of choice for bagpipes and chanters for more than 100 years. However, in recent years African Blackwood has come under the watch of the CITES organization (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as being close to endangered.  As a result, pipemakers are turning to other woods which — to the surprise of many — seem equally suited to making good instruments. You’ll see some of these woods on this site.

Wooden chanters can be more rich and vibrant, but if you’re just getting started, plastic is very suitable and you can upgrade to wood at a later date.

Click here to see the McGillivray Piping line of practice chanters

Tutor Books

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 teaching program. However, there are several excellent tutors on the market.

The College of Piping Tutor, or “Green Book,” is very popular, and seems best suited to learning with an instructor. Produced in 1953 and updated several times since, this is easily the best-selling piping book of any kind ever. It is accompanied by online video demonstrations of all exercises and tunes.

 

 

The National Piping Centre’s The Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book is very good to use with an instructor. It is also the most valuable beginner tutor to use if you don’t get to see your instructor often. It comes with a CD-ROM.

 

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 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 it might help you with the intricacies of gracenoting.

I offer some starter packages that allow you to purchase several of the items described here at a reduced price to help you get started. Some come with a wood practice chanter, some 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!

 

 

 

Check out the shopping cart of practice chanters and learner packages below. Additional shopping cart pages for practice chanters and books appear elsewhere on this set. Check out the main menu bar.

 

  • $115.00
    John Walsh Long Polypenco Practice Chanter with Watertrap

    This is my best-selling practice chanter. All plastic, it is bright, perfectly in tune, and has long finger spacing to match that of a pipe chanter. It has a watertrap, a threaded reedseat, and is eminently affordable. This is a great starter model before you move on to wood. Or you may play this chanter for the rest of your piping life! To empty the watertrap you just turn the chanter upside down.

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  • $95.00
    John Walsh Regular Length Polypenco Practice Chanter with Watertrap

    This is a traditional practice chanter design: a slightly shorter chanter with short finger spacing, the way all practice chanters were made prior to the 1970s. Some people like to buy these for younger children and then graduate up to the longer version once they grow.  Some people like them because they are a little more comfortable to play while resting the end on a table. Again, it has a watertrap and a threaded reedseat. To empty the watertrap you just turn the chanter upside down.

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  • $85.00
    Child’s Polypenco Practice Chanter

    For the very young piping enthusiast – children in the 6-9 age group – here is a chanter with the same finger hole spacing as the regular, but with a shorter top. Unfortunately, the chanter top is too short to accommodate a watertrap.

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  • $285.00
    John Walsh Long Mexican Royal Ebony Practice Chanter, Imitation Ivory Ferrule and Base Ring

    A step above the tone of the polypenco chanter, with beautiful workmanship, this chanter sports a non-chip imitation ivory ferrule and ring around the base, the usual Walsh watertrap in the chanter top and a threaded reedseat.  This is an eco-friendly wood. To empty the watertrap you just turn the chanter upside down.

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  • $285.00
    John Walsh Long Mexican Royal Ebony Practice Chanter, Nickel Ferrule and Base Ring

    My favourite, this Mexican Royal Ebony long chanter has a nickel ferrule and a nickel ring at the base. It has a threaded reedseat and a watertrap in the chanter top. This one is a beauty in my opinion. To empty the watertrap you just turn the chanter upside down.

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  • $285.00
    John Walsh Long Mexican Royal Ebony Practice Chanter, Nickel Ferrule and Wood Sole

    This is a lovely design for those who like a sole at the base of their chanter. The ferrule is nickel. The Mexican Royal Ebony sole will not chip. Again, it has a watertrap and a threaded reedseat. To empty the watertrap you just turn the chanter upside down.

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  • $238.50
    Complete Tutor Package with Poly Chanter

    Start with everything you need in this complete tutor starter package:  The College of Piping “Green Book”, the National Piping Centre Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book, and Rhythmic Fingerwork, along with a John Walsh long polypenco practice chanter. (Regular price CAD $253.50)

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  • $408.00
    Complete Tutor Starter Package with Wood Practice Chanter

    Start with everything you need in this complete tutor starter package:  the College of Piping “Green Book”, the National Piping Centre Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book and Rhythmic Fingerwork, but upgrade to a John Walsh long wooden practice chanter.  You will be asked to specify whether you want the bottom of the chanter to have an imitation ivory ring, a nickel ring, or a wood sole. (Regular price CAD $423.50)

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  • $170.50
    National Piping Centre Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book with Polypenco Practice Chanter

    You can get your piping career started pretty inexpensively with this combo beginner pack. (Regular price CAD $178)

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  • $338.00
    National Piping Centre Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book with Wood Practice Chanter

    Upgrade your National Piping Center Tutor package with a John Walsh long practice chanter in Mexican Royal Ebony. You will be asked to specify whether you want the bottom of the chanter to have an imitation ivory ring, and nickel ring, or a wood sole. (Regular price $348)

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  • $146.50
    College of Piping “Green Book” Tutor with Polypenco Practice Chanter

    You can get your piping career started even less expensively with this combo beginner pack. (Regular price CAD $152.50)

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  • $310.50
    College of Piping “Green Book” Tutor with Wood Practice Chanter

    Upgrade your College of Piping “Green Book” tutor package with a John Walsh long practice chanter in Mexican Royal Ebony.  You will be asked to specify whether you want the bottom of the chanter to have an imitation ivory ring, a nickel ring, or a wood sole. (Regular price CAD $322.50)

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  • $205.50
    College of Piping “Green Book,” National Piping Centre Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book with Polypenco Practice Chanter

    Add a John Walsh polypenco practice chanter to these two classic tutors and save some cash. (Regular price CAD $212.50)

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  • $350.00
    Rhythmic Fingerwork, Piobaireachd Fingerwork, Wood Practice Chanter Package

    If you’re ready to upgrade your playing using the two Fingerwork books, maybe you’re ready to upgrade your sound to a Mexican Royal Ebony practice chanter from John Walsh.  You will be asked to specify whether you want the bottom of the chanter to have an imitation ivory ring, a nickel ring, or a wood sole. (Regular price CAD $361)

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