Bagpipes have been around a long time. They are one of the oldest known types of instruments, dating back to biblical times, and they are found in some form or another in many different cultures and parts of the world. They are originally a folk instrument of pastoral origins, and the materials to make a bagpipe are very simple indeed. A skin from a goat or a sheep, and some carved and hollowed wood are the only materials needed.
But when people say “bagpipes” they are most often thinking of the Great Highland Bagpipe as played by Denver and District Pipe Band and many others around the world. They were used by the military forces of the British Empire and carried to all corners of the Empire.
The bagpipe has the following main parts:
- Bag. This serves as a reservoir for air, allowing the player to maintain a steady sound that doesn’t stop when the player takes a breath. This continuous supply of air means that notes must be separated by grace notes instead of rests.
- Blowstick. This is the part a player uses to blow air into the bag.
- Chanter. This is the part held by a player’s hands, which produces the melody. The chanter holds one double reed (like an oboe). The chanter produces nine notes in the Mixolydian scale, from low G to high A.
- Drones. These are the long pieces that come out of the bag and rest on the player’s shoulder. Each has a single reed (think of a clarinet) and produces a single note, tuned to the low A of the chanter. On the GHB, the longest drone, held next to the head, is the bass drone and tunes an octave lower than the two tenor drones.
The bagpipe is close to a B-flat major key, but has a few peculiarities which make it difficult to play with other instruments. The music for the bagpipes is sometimes written in D Major, but as there is no way to play accidentals, the sharps and flats are often omitted for simplicity. The bagpipe is close to a B-flat major key, but has a few peculiarities which make it difficult to play with other instruments. The low A is normally tuned anywhere between 470 to 485, depending on environmental conditions and the pitch preference of the band.
Like any instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipe has evolved over the centuries. It started from an animal skin bag, pieces of wood or bone, and bamboo reeds, but now includes bags and reeds made of synthetic materials. Drones, chanters and blowsticks have also undergone transformation. Most are still made from African blackwood, but there are several brands of polypenco drones, and the majority of bands play polypenco chanters.