Irish Bagpipes – Facts and Guide to Uilleann Pipes

Irish bagpipes, also known as Uilleann pipes, may not enjoy the same popularity as Scottish bagpipes, but they possess many great qualities worth admiring. In this article, you’ll learn amazing facts about the Irish bagpipes, specifically the Uilleann pipes.

The Uilleann Pipes or Union Pipes have a different tone (highness or lowness of a sound) than other bagpipes. It also has a harmonic structure and sounds distinct from other bagpipes, such as the Italian zampognas, the Great Irish warpipe, or the Great Highland bagpipes. It generally sounds sweeter and quieter.

Read on to learn more about the Irish bagpipes and the Uilleann Pipes, including their history, their key features, what they sound like, and more.

Irish Bagpipe History

irish bagpipes

Irish Bagpipe Was First Used in Ancient Egypt

Until now, it’s still unclear exactly how and when bagpipes came to be. But one thing’s for sure; they didn’t originate in Ireland or Scotland. Some sources say Ancient Egypt’s civilization first used the instrument.

Bagpipe Reference as Early as 400 BC

However, there was a reference to a bagpipe as early as 400 BC, when Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes jeered that pipers from Thebes in Central Greece blew pipes that used a dog skin bag with bones for chanters.

Bagpipe Exists Even Before Christianity Came to Ireland

The bagpipe existed even before Christianity came to Ireland. The instrument was mentioned in the early Irish laws (around the fifth century), also called the Brehon Laws.

Irish writers called it píob mhór, meaning “great bagpipes.” The Warpipe, known in Ireland, was the counterpart of the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe.

Modern Uilleann Pipes Can Be Traced Back to the Middle of the 18th Century

The Uilleann pipes of today can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century. This was the period the pastoral pipe first appeared.

What Is a Pastoral Pipe?

The pastoral pipe, also called the organ pipe and union pipe, was a bellows-blown bagpipe with a slim, cone-shaped chanter, ‘foot joint’ (allows the instrument to extend to a second octave), and two to four drones (create only single notes that are tuned to the chanter).

The development of the pastoral bagpipe to the Uilleann pipe took more than two decades since its discovery. The oldest surviving set of Uilleann pipes supposedly dates back to the second half of the 18th century. This is still a tentative time frame due to lack of evidence.

It started as a bagpipe with a bellows-inflated bag, a chanter, one regulator, and three drones. The regulator was later increased to 2-5.

Only recently did the history and scientific communities take an interest in the Uilleann pipe. So, there’s still much to be uncovered about the instrument’s history.

Key Features of the Uilleann Pipe

The construction of the Uilleann pipe is standard, but each set is different. It can be customized and hand-made to meet the requirements of other pipers, from the designs to the number of drones and regulators.

In addition to this, another unique feature of the Uilleann pipe is how you play it. It doesn’t produce sound by blowing air into a bag. Instead, it’s inflated by the bellows crammed under the forearm.

The main components of the Uilleann pipe include the following:

1. Bag

The primary function of a bagpipe bag is to hold air and supply a steady flow of air to the instrument through arm pressure. This allows the instrument to produce and maintain a continuous and even sound.

The bag of the Uilleann pipe was traditionally made of animal skin. For instance, the Boderiou Uilleann Pipe bag is made from cowhide. Today, animal skin is less commonly used for bagpipe bags. Instead, bagpipe makers use synthetic materials.

2. Bellows

A small set of bellows is responsible for supplying air to the bag of most bagpipes, including the Uilleann pipe. This makes it easier to play the instrument because you don’t need to exert more effort by blowing into the bag to maintain pressure.

The bellows also serve another benefit—it powers the reeds by supplying dry air instead of moist air from your mouth.

By reducing moisture, you can protect your Uilleann pipe from damage and prevent flattening out some notes. It also allows bagpipe makers to cut the cane thinner to obtain a softer and wider response.

3. Chanter

Responsible for Producing the Bagpipe’s Melody

The chanter or melody pipe is probably the most important part of any bagpipe. This is responsible for producing the melody of a bagpipe for whatever tune you’re trying to play.

Open Chanters Allow Players to Use a Variety of Ornaments

Bagpipes with permanently open chanters allow players to use a variety of ornaments to decorate the sustained notes. Ornaments are notes that make a song sound more pleasing but aren’t essential to the melody.

Close Chanters Produce a Choppier and More Staccato Style of Playing

On the other hand, bagpipes with permanently close chanters produce a choppier and more staccato style of playing. With the Uilleann pipe, you can play both styles.

How to Tell If the Chanter Is Close or Open

The Uilleann pipe chanter can be closed and open (default) in normal play, depending on its placement on your knee. It’s “open” if you lift the chanter off your knee.

It’s “close” if you place it on your knee. Some players often put a leather strip called a “popping strap” on their thigh to seal off the chanter more effectively.

4. Drones

Tunable Pipes Crucial to the Uilleann Pipe’s Sound

Drones are tunable pipes that are crucial to the Uilleann pipe’s sound. They usually serve as the chanter’s single-note accompaniment and are designed to provide continuous harmonizing notes.

Can Only Make Single Notes

They’re called drones because they make only single notes, which are usually tuned to the tonic note of the chanter.

Uilleann Pipe’s Three Types of Drones

The Uilleann pipe has three types of drones:

  • Tenor
  • Baritone
  • Bass

Things to Consider Before Adding Drones

If you’re learning to play the bagpipe, there are a few things you need to consider before adding drones:

  • Start with a starter set before using drones.
  • Add one drone at a time to get the hang of it instead of adding all three right away. It might take weeks or months before you get all your notes solid.
  • There are different opinions on this, but the typical recommendation is to start with the tenor drone over the bass and baritone drones. This will help you appreciate the harmonic differences with the chanter better.
  • After the tenor drone, you can move on to the bass drone and the baritone drone.

5. Regulators

Different in Terms of Configuration and Functionality

Although other bagpipes have a similar component, the regulators on the Uillean pipe are different in terms of configuration and functionality. You won’t find regulators on Scottish bagpipes at all.

The Irish union bagpipe has one chanter, three drones, and three regulators. On a full set of Uilleann pipes, regulators come in a set of three regulators (tenor, bass, and baritone) and three drones (in two styles).

Identical to the Chanter’s Design

In terms of their design, regulators are identical to the chanter. They both have several note holes. These regulators come with closed sprung keys, sealed at the bottom.

You can open these closed keys using your wrist to play simple chords. Each regulator key produces a different note when it’s opened.

Not Beginner-friendly

The Uilleann pipe regulators aren’t beginner friendly. Those still learning the instrument might put off buying these for a long time. Some might never buy them at all. It also doesn’t help that they’re the most expensive components of a bagpipe set.

Again, what is an Irish bagpipe called? Irish bagpipes are also called Uilleann pipes. These bagpipes have Celtic Gaelic origins. You can play them while sitting down with the bellows blowdown. Place the bellow under your dominant arm.

What Does the Uilleann Pipe Sound Like?

irish bagpipes music

Can Achieve a Great Range of Different Timbres and Degrees of Dynamic Range

Unlike other forms of bagpipes, the Uilleann pipe can achieve a great range of different timbres (sound or tone quality) and degrees of dynamic range. Dynamic range refers to the proportion of the loudest sound to the softest sound.

All you need to do is vary your finger positions for particular notes and lift the chanter from your knee or thigh.

Popular for Its Sweet and Mellow Tone

The Uilleann pipe is more known for its uniquely sweet and mellow tone. The Scottish Great Highland Pipes, mainly used on the battlefield and other outdoor settings, significantly sound sweeter and quieter.

Loudness and Softness Depend on the Playing Style and the Pitch

It’s no louder than other musical instruments used for playing traditional Irish music, such as the accordion, concertina, fiddle, flute, and tin whistle. But its loudness or softness will depend on your playing style (i.e., how you would adjust the pipes) and the pitch.

If you’re interested in listening to relaxing Irish bagpipes music, check out the video below.

In this video, Catherine Ashcroft (featuring Maurice Dickson) plays the “Táimse im’ Chodladh” in slow air then, followed by the “King of the Pipers” (Jig):

Slow air is a tune in Irish traditional music that doesn’t have a strict meter or structure. Meaning it’s free-flowing and instinctive. It highlights the beauty of the Irish bagpipes sound itself.

Another Uilleann pipe music you can check out is Chris McMullan’s bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace:”

Does the Uilleann Pipe Need Tuning and Maintenance?

The short answer is yes! The Uilleann pipe requires regular tuning, adjustment, and maintenance. Maintenance includes cleaning, disinfection, oiling, etc.

Some components of bagpipes, such as the reed, are delicate. Therefore, if possible, they need to be tuned or adjusted by someone skilled and knowledgeable. That could be the maker of your bagpipe (or its specific components) or a professional bagpipe maintenance service shop.

How to Properly Maintain Uilleann Pipe’s Components

irish bagpipes sound

1. Wood Components

The Uilleann pipe is typically made of African Blackwood or black ebony. Since wood shrinks and swells in response to moisture and temperature changes, you might need to adjust the fit at least once a year to help joints seal better.

Some pipers use cotton/polyester thread, cork grease, or petroleum jelly.

2. Reed

Uilleann Pipe’s Brain and Heart

The reed is the brain and heart of the Uilleann pipe. If certain reed adjustments are incorrectly or poorly done, it could make an existing problem worse or create a new one—or worse, damage the reed. It could also make even the best chanter sound bad and cause pipers to underperform.

Can Last for Months or Years with Proper Maintenance

A bagpipe reed can last months or even years if you regularly maintain it. However, it’s also not a good idea to constantly adjust it to achieve perfect tuning because it could damage it.

Signs That Your Reed Is in Good Condition

As long as it meets the criteria below, you don’t need to worry about tuning and get on with enjoying your Uillean pipe:

  • Plays slightly above the pressure required without being overblown
  • Reaches and maintains the second octave with fingers well sealed
  • No screeching or doesn’t go sharp (i.e., sounding higher by a semitone than another note) with reasonable pressure
  • No gurgling on a bell note D
  • Sounds in tune to your ear at a sweet and mellow tone

3. Chanter

Screeching Second Octave E

One problem you can expect to encounter with Uilleann pipes is a second octave E note that goes sharp, “screeches,” or “growls.” Fortunately, this is easily corrected by adjusting the reed or modifying the chanter’s bore.

Use a Small Elastic Dental Band for Tuning

There are different tools and techniques that professionals or experienced players use to assist with tuning. For instance, some use a small elastic dental band to stabilize the reed to raise or lower the pitch. Wrap the elastic dental band around the sound box three times.

To increase the pitch, slide the elastic dental band closer to the reed’s lips. Move the elastic dental band closer to the staple to decrease the pitch.

Note: When adjusting the chanter reeds, ensure you don’t grip the blades of the reed.

Check the Pipe’s Tuning Before Bore Modification

Modifying the reed’s bore is relatively easy. You can finish this job within the day. But before you do this, check your pipe’s tuning to ensure everything’s in order.

Bagpipers Use a Tapered Reamer to Widen the Chanter Bore

Bagpipers usually use a tapered reamer to make tapered holes for taper pins to widen the chanter bore. Then, they might fit the Little Mac Valve (or something similar) to the end of the blowpipe. The Little Mac Valve is a substitute for the traditional non-return flap.

It prevents air leaks and keeps the bagpipe bag full by providing an instant airtight seal without limiting blowing.

Function of Rush

If you closely examine the chanter, you’ll notice a piece of wire with poster putty on it. That’s what they call a “rush.” Rushes have two main functions:

  • Lower the pitch in the area where you added it, or vice versa
  • Decreases the volume of the chanters

You can make small adjustments to the baritone and tenor drones using the rushes. However, moving the bagpipe’s reeds is probably a better solution since the rushes might affect a few holes than others.

4. Drones

The drones of the Uilleann pipe are usually tuned in the D key, but you can still tune them to the key that you find suitable. Below is a sample guide for tuning Irish bagpipe drones:

Play the A Note

On the chanter, play the A note, then turn on the drones. When doing this, make sure you match the D key of the drone to the A note on the chanter.

Why use the A note for tuning the drones? One reason is that it’s usually more stable than the bell-note D or the thumb-note D.

Cover the Hole with Your Ring Finger to Flatten the a Note

Cover the hole with your ring finger to flatten the A note to check if the drones are in tune with the chanter. If the drones are excessively out of tune, they’re sharp in relation to the chanter. Therefore, you need to pull out the tuning slide.

If the drones are in tune, they’re flat in relation to the chanter, meaning you need to push in the tuning slide.

Stop the Bass and Baritone Drones

Stop the bass and baritone drones. Do this by increasing the air pressure on the bagpipe bag while tapping your finger over the top of the holes.

Tune the Tenor Drone First

When tuning the drones, start with the tenor drone first. Tune in to the A note on the chanter. Don’t forget to close the bass and baritone drones by placing your finger on the end of the drones.

Once you’ve successfully tuned the tenor drone with the A on the chanter, continue playing it. Check if it harmonizes with the bottom “D” (end hole at the base of the chanter), F#, G, and back “D” (thumb note).

If they sound in tune with all of those notes, check your tenor drone with these notes in the second octave: A, G, and F#. This extra step is done to check if the drone will increase in pitch with the extra pressure when you play the second octave.

Tune the Baritone Drone

After the tenor drone, tune the baritone drone. Place your finger on the tone hole and flick it out to open the baritone drone and release reed pressure. Next, tune the baritone drone until you hear it blend harmoniously with the tenor drone. Adjust if necessary.

Tune the Bass Drone until It Blends Well with the Baritone and Tenor Drones

Lastly, tune the bass drone until it blends well with the baritone and tenor drones. One of the simplest ways to do this is to stop the chanter and place your finger on its stock (socket) hole.

Turn on the tenor drone, and then get it in tune with the bass drone. Keep tweaking until they’re in constant pitch with each other.

Conclusion: Irish Bagpipes – Facts and Guide to Uilleann Pipes

Perhaps one of the biggest downsides of the Uilleann pipe is it’s difficult for beginners to learn. It might take three to four weekly lessons before you can play your first tune.

But overall, there’s no doubt that Irish bagpipes are one of the fascinating types. Compared to bagpipes from other countries, such as the Italian zampognas and Great Highland bagpipes, the Uilleann pipe is notably mellower and sweeter in tone.