What is the best "value" in a bagpipe?

I'd like to address this from the point of view of someone looking to buy their first/only new bagpipe. A grade II or I player seeking out their own ideas of a dream set of harmonics won't be asking about "value" in the same sense of the word. (Note: I'm not going to explicitly address pipes by out of business makers here!)

Value in a bagpipe is comes from three sources - cost, sound quality, and (usually ignored) playability.   These are inter-related, so I can't fully separate these issues.  You'll have to read all three sections to have the full understanding.  I'll allude to inter-relationships in the text.

Cost

The short-term cost of a bagpipe is pretty straight-forward.  Blackwood costs more than other woods.  Plastic is cheap.  The labor involved in combing and beading is a cost.  Fancy mounts and hand carving add to the cost. 

Retention of financial value in the long haul is another issue.  To convert this discussion to return on investment, realize that, as a beginner, odds are that you'll do one of three things:

  1. If you "quit", you'll want a pipe you can sell without loosing a bundle.
  2. If you continue as an "average" player, you'll decide that you don't want to go down the competition path, but are content with the camaraderie in the local band, and playing funerals, etc.  In short, you'll probably keep your first pipe, so make sure it is a nice looking pipe that you like and others won't criticize. (e.g. My first pipe was a chalice top and I always felt "out of place" in the band.)
  3. If you choose to become one of the "weekend warrior" set, you'll eventually develop your own opinions regarding harmonics and balance and will want to buy a set to help you to realize your "competition" goals. In short, you'll want to sell your pipe and not loose a bundle in the process.

Outcomes 1 and 3 are best served by owning something that someone else might want while outcome 2 requires that you (a beginning to intermediate level player) are happy with what you buy.  Amazingly enough, it's all the same thing!  My suggestion is this:

African Blackwood, fully combed and beaded, full imitation ivory mounts with nickel slides, zippered hide/synth pipebag, water-trap, adjustable blowstick, EZdrone reeds, plastic chanter.  Cost about $1200 to $1500 USD.

Don't buy non-mainstream, funky-colored, jewel adorned mounts, chalice tops and carved instruments that YOU like and expect to get your investment back if you sell them.   You may also find these instruments are a distraction to your learning/participation because you are sticking out - when, as a learner, you're trying to blend in!

An interesting point is that most beginners don't realize that:

  1. It is extremely rare for a good/great piper to keep their original pipe.
  2. Many good/great players have more than one set for their various outings/purposes. Possibly, one for cold weather parade/funerals, another for band competitions and a third for solos - depending upon the sound they want or risk they are willing to take with their instrument!

(Closing Note: In my experience, the inexpensive pipes mass produced in the middle east do not have sufficiently reliable quality control nor sound quality to warrant spending money on them.  Plastic pipes are OK for cold weather gigs, but all the ones I'm aware of are modeled on Hendersons and require particular attention/knowledge regarding reeding or the beginner will be subjected to playability issues. Since the beginner doesn't have this knowledge, they are forced to struggle from the start with these instrument  Finally, companies that advertise a lot have to recover that investment somewhere - the cost of the wood and labor is pretty much the same for any pipe, so more advertising leads to higher costs.)

Sound Quality

The bagpipe can be manufactured, based on internal dimensions, materials and finish, to create a range of tonal qualities from "bombastic" to "sweet" to "edgy" to "mellow" to, well, you name it. Sure, you can "tweak" the sound over a limited range by working with different reeds, but you're never going to convert a "Hoover"-son into a "Henderson" without serious surgery!

We could spend all day arguing about who has the "best" sound, but thoughtful people will admit, that a lot of that judgment is in the "ear" of the beholder. It's common to hold up "Henderson" as the epitome of harmonic structure (particularly for band playing), but many other manufacturers produce a product with a sound that has a loyal and knowledgeable following. Names like MacDougall, Lawrie, Robertson, Naill and others come to mind. Dunbar, McLellan, and Gibson are becoming highly regarded. Each has a different tonality. All these, plus others, may be considered to be excellent. 

In the case of a beginner, opinions about harmonic/sound quality are not well developed, so learners rely on the opinion of others. They have not learned enough about piping to decide for themselves. Questions asked of groups of pipers come up with a mixture of answers.  Bluntly, there is not a "best" instrument.  The pro's play various brands in their recordings.  If there were a "best" brand, the pro's would vote with their feet/wallets.  Most of the names above are widely known to be played by professionals at the top levels of competition.

(Closing Note:  From what I've seen, playability trumps any ideas of sound quality for players with less than five years worth of experience.  Remember that it's unusual for a successful piper to keep their original pipe for a lifetime.)

Playability

This aspect of pipe selection is going to be VERY CONTROVERSIAL, but is based on several years worth of watching learners work with several different brands of pipes.

Part of return on investment also has to do with your investiment of time.    As a beginner you will be on a path of constant growth in several different areas including blowing, reed  set-up and maintenance, and playing.  To be brutaly honest, some pipes are easier to play than others and will make more of your efforts as you progress.

For the first few years, most players will benefit most from a pipe that they don't have to fight.  Fighting comes as a result of certain issues - all in design and materials.  Some of the problems are: 

  1. Big Bores:   This is a double edged sword.  Big bores can generate lots of volume and harmonics, but can take lots of air (depending on the size of the internal"steps").  Smaller bores require more attention to the details of the "steps" inside the bores in order to generate really full, rich harmonics.  Balancing volume, harmonics and air consumption is what bagpipe design is all about.  I've found that THE issue with beginners seems to be that "under-blowing" of the large bore instruments.  The plastic bored instruments that I'm aware of are all big bored.
  2. Lack of Back Pressure:  Beginners don't have the physical ability to blow properly at high pressure - and under-blowing  doesn't generate the resonant back pressure wave, so the large bore pipe will require a huge amount of air from the beginner! This can be a point of frustration for the learner as they may have significant problems getting stability and may develop bad blowing habits. When you generate a harmonically rich resonance wave in a well designed drone, the wave itself will serve to limit the amount of air passing through the pipe.   This is a more commonly achieved design goal in a medium/smaller bored pipe.  Less air flow means more energy/attention available for improving technique. 
  3. Lack of Stability:  Stability of pitch with respect to blowing pressure is a real advantage.  Again, this is a design issue.
  4. Gurgling/Warbling:  This is a subset of the issues above, but it is not uncommon for pipes with higher air flow requirements to do this if you don't keep the pressure/flow way up.  Most beginners would struggle with this.  Some reeds are better in some pipes.
  5. Tuning Issues:  Some older pipes were designed for "flatter" chanters and pitches.  In order to achieve the more modern "sharper" pitch, they may be in a very low tuning position.  One manufacturer claims that "modern reeds" are the reason why their drones tune at the very top of the pin and that you should buy their optional "bore extender" to solve the problem.
  6. Ease of Reeding:  Remember that the air has to go through the reeds and that the reeds have to be tolerant of the air flow/volume or they will not interact properly with the drone.  The requirements of reeds are more demanding as you go to big or small bores.  Finding reeds that work with small or large bores may be challenging. Some pipes are very picky about the reeds they use - some are very tolerant of the reeds and set-up.  Beginners may not have the skills to deal with a "picky" pipe.
  7. Strike-In Issues:  This is another design issue.  When the drone reed starts to vibrate at too high or too low an air-flow, the drone will either resonate at the "wrong" harmonic, squeal and sound awful or just shut down.  This is a really frustrating issue to learners because they're trying to "blend in" with the band and their pipe draws attention to them.  This issue undermines confidence.
  8. Aesthetics:  If the pipe doesn't have a "decent" sound (i.e., better than a well maintained "Hoover"), the learner may become embarrassed in a band setting and not continue.  The same is true if the pipe looks "different" with regard to shape, wood color or ornamentation.
  9. Weight:  A heavy pipe is a real challenge, even for  professionals.  The weight of a full silver mounted set can be a hindrance to playing.  A light pipe is easier to play.  However, don't scrimp on the type of wood since it affects the sound quality.

Bottom Line

In my work over 14 years with the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Pipe Band's teaching program, I've seen about 40 learners meet my requirements for proficiency and start up on pipes with Gibson, Dunbar, Shepherd,  MacLeod, Hardie, Naill, Kintail and Middle Eastern produced pipes. 

I don't have huge experience in this regard, but my opinion is that MacLeod blackwood A3 with plain nickel slides is  the best "VALUE" out there. The MacLeod pipe is unbelievably stable, easy to reed and has a nice middle of the road sound. Workmanship is very good.  When set up well, it has really nice upper harmonics and a good solid bass.  I'm told that these pipes are common in two of the organizations which have recently won the Grade I World Pipe Band competition.   The P/M of one these bands plays a set for his solo work.  On the cost side -- MacLeod Highland Supply doesn't advertise much - and the customer benefits from this lower overhead.

My second choice for value is Naill.  They cost a bit more than MacLeods.  Some people consider the workmanship to be "better", but I don't see it.  The pipes are quite stable.  Naills big claim to fame is their chanter.  There are Naill bagpipes played in the top level of both band and solo competitions throughout the world.  Naill does a lot of advertising.

My third choice is Hardie.  Hardie is the smallest bored bagpipe made, but delivers reliable performance.  I'm not aware of anyone playing Hardies at world class competition levels.  Hardie has a long-standing reputation as a pipe maker for the British Army.

Some of the other  brands seem to have:

  1. troubles at strike-in with some reeds (not good for a beginner in a band setting),
  2. poor quality fit on slides, glue, and general workmanship issues (even from Scotland),
  3. bore diameters so large that a beginner can't possibly play them (little stability at lower pressures/flows)
  4. drones that tune with an inch of hemp showing on the tenors (wrong diameter or interior roughness for today, no matter who they were modeled after.)
  5. a near 100% discontinuance rate after two years (for beginners who start out owning Middle Eastern produced pipes).

Your mileage may vary, but that has been my experience...  I'm sure there are other pipes out there with good characteristics, but I haven't had much experience with them.

 

Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2013