Choosing the Right Instrument

Acquiring a set of Highland pipes is exciting. It is also an investment in both money and time. Classic old pipes are still desirable for many, but recent advances in reedmaking and pipemaking technology have nearly leveled the playing field in terms of drone quality.

Pipes made last week by a top-flight maker can nearly equal the sound of old-wood pipes turned in 1900. And, of course, with new pipes you have a guarantee against defects or cracking. Craftsmanship, reliability, affordability and service are now as important as sound quality when you are selecting pipes.

I have chosen the pipes I carry for their combination of superb craftsmanship and rich, steady tone, as well as the willingness of these companies to work with me to keep my clients satisfied. I know these instruments well. I am in frequent contact with these makers to discuss their products and how they are being received by my clientele.

I examine, set up and play all pipes personally before they go to you, making sure they have the reed strength and tonal characteristics you have requested or which I feel are exceptional. I make sure bag size and blowpipe length are right for you. I’m a stickler for good tone and an easy-playing pipe and I will not send out a set of pipes that I would not happily and comfortably play myself.

You can Email or phone me if you have questions, but below are some important points about selecting the bagpipe you want and making sure it is the right physical fit for you.

Selecting a Bagpipe

This bagpipe is mounted in engraved Sterling silver with blackwood projecting mounts.

All of the Highland pipes I offer are first-class instruments. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t carry them. Their tone and steadiness are superb and they are extremely well crafted.

Prices vary according to the mounts you choose. These can include imitation ivory, nickel, stainless steel, plain silver, engraved silver and more exotic selections. The mounts have no effect on the sound of the instrument. The way the instrument is made, tonally speaking, does not vary with mounts selected.

This is me playing at Loon Mt. Games around 2002. I stand 5’5″ and am playing an 8.5″ blowpipe, measured from the tip to the top of the hemp.

This means that after you have decided which make of instrument you want (I can help you with this) you need to figure out how much you can spend and then how you want your bagpipe to look. If you are getting started or are on a limited budget, then the less expensive options may be for you. If you are looking for a lifetime bagpipe, then you may wish to consider engraved silver mounts or a rare, vintage instrument, or both.

One thing you can be assured of: when your pipes leave my piping studio, they will be set up well, no matter what price you have paid. The bag and blowpipe will be the right size for you. The chanter reed will be the right strength. I want you to be able to take your pipes from the shipping box, put them together and play a tune comfortably, not wonder why they won’t go or why they are so hard to blow.

Your options for bag type are fairly limited, and deliberately so. I can get you any bag you want, but I prefer to provide synthetic bags for my clients because after having tried every bag type over the last 50 years, these are what I prefer to play. As someone who has taught bagpipes now for decades, I believe synthetic bags make our piping lives much easier because the instrument works much more reliably.  There is no leather seasoning to worry about, and the option of having a zipper in the bag is extremely useful, especially for moisture control. Whether you choose the Ross bag or the Bannatyne depends on your preference, and I’m happy to discuss the pros and cons with you.

Bag Size and Blowpipe Length

Legendary Pipe Major Willie Ross looks very comfortable with his bagpipe in this photo of him competing at the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban in 1910.

Bag size and blowpipe length are extremely important and I take great care in helping pipers make these decisions correctly.

A blowpipe that is too long will make piping uncomfortable or even painful, and can cause the bag to slip down under the arm.

In addition, there is a long-standing myth in piping that you should play the largest bag you can possibly get your arm around because it will make your pipes easier to blow.  Yikes!!  This may well be the worst piping advice ever given. Here’s the truth:  The more comfortable your bag is, and the more of your left forearm is free from pressing on the bag, the easier your pipes will be to play and the better you will play.

The bag should fit under your arm with almost no visible space between your underarm and the top of the bag. If this is not the case, you will not have a secure grip on the instrument, the bag will slide down, and your left arm may actually go numb.  Sound like a recipe for good piping?

While many people say that a ‘slippery bag cover’ is the major reason for their bag sliding down, the real culprits are generally either a bag that is too big, a blowpipe that is too long, or both. These are common problems, and it’s important that these issues be addressed.  My bag covers provide non-slip Dycem grip patches to keep your bagpipe from sliding down.

Fit is important. The late, great Alasdair Gillies made the bagpipe look like an extension of himself.

Playing a bagpipe that is perfectly sized for you and set up in great playing condition pays dividends for the rest of your piping career.

The chart below provides recommended bag sizes and blowpipe lengths according to your height. Please note that this chart is not written in stone. I have one piping friend with a slim build who stands 6′ 4″ and has always been very comfortable with a small bag:

5 2 or shorter
Extra-small bag
8″ or less blowpipe
5 10to 6′
Small or medium bag
Blowpipe length 10″ to 11″
5 3to 5 6
Extra-small bag
Blowpipe length 8″ to 9″
6′  to 6 4
Medium or large bag
Blowpipe length 11″
5 7to 5 9″
Small or extra-small bag
Blowpipe length 9″ to 9.5″
6 4 or taller
Medium or large bag
Blowpipe length 12″
5 9to 5 10
Small bag
Blowpipe length 10″


Other decisions?

Which pipe chanter should you pick? You might wonder why you wouldn’t just play the chanter that comes with the pipes. Well, the truth is, the chanter is the most challenging part of the instrument to make, and some bagpipe makers do it better than others. Don’t let anyone tell you that certain chanter makes go best with certain drones. Pick the drones you like and the chanter you like and stick them together. You may just want a less expensive polypenco chanter; you may want blackwood. The difference in tone for the average hobby piper is minimal. There is lots written about this elsewhere on this site, and I’m happy to talk with you about it as well.

You may also have a preference for drone reeds. I have my own preferences as well, and we can discuss these.

Finally, you’ll need to decide on the colours of your bag cover, trim and drone cords and whether you need a pipe case or not. You can find all of this information here.