In one of an occasional series, Common Stock interviews Nate Banton, one of America’s leading bellows-pipe makers, and discovers a menu of bagpipe materials and a little-known piping tradition

The first half of my piping history is a pretty common story for bellows pipers here in the States.  I started on the Highland Pipes, with a band.   I played with the band for a number of years, but I eventually tired of it.  I liked my band mates, but I wanted my musical life to be less formal, less militaristic. The phenomenon in Irish music known as a session, drew me to the uilleann pipes.   
I immediately enjoyed the freedom of Irish music.  In Irish music workshops I was encouraged to play the music my own way, and not to play a tune the same way twice.  Ironically though, I didn’t enjoy the Irish session as much as I thought I would.   But Irish music was definitely a step forward in my musical life and it lead to pipemaking..
There’s something about the complicated and mechanical nature of uilleann pipes that makes people want to become pipemakers.  It brings out the mad scientists in us.  I started my pipemaking career by casting drones, chanters, and stocks out of polyester and epoxy resins.  I had a lot of luck with it, and like any good junkie, I wanted more.
I met Seth Gallagher at the Pipers Gathering when it was still on North Hero Island, Vermont.  The previous winter I had sent out 40 letters to pipemakers of every sort around the world, including Seth, asking for placement as an apprentice.  Three people answered the letters.  One said “no”, one said, “sorry, I just hired one”, and Seth said “maybe”.   Seth and I talked about the job possibility at North Hero and he agreed to have me come down to New York to talk about it further.  I went down and he told me that if I agreed to stay on for three years, he’d hire me.  I agreed.
When I moved to New York from Maine for my apprenticeship, I mostly gave up playing Scottish Style pipes.  I immersed myself in the uilleann piping world almost exclusively for 5 or 6 years.  And it was my plan to start my own uilleann pipe making business.  
When I finished my apprenticeship and left New York, I moved back home to Maine to take a position as a Stonemason with a piping friend of mine.  I figured I could work stone by day and do pipe making R&D by night.  When I got to Maine my friend, who had been attending the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for years, convinced me to borrow a set of smallpipes and go with him to the college for one week in June.  And that’s where my piping path took a sharp left turn.
There I met Ellen MacPhee, a smallpiper from Prince Edward Island.  She had grown up attending the Gaelic College herself.  Her smallpipes teacher at the Gaelic College had been Hamish Moore.
I spent a dizzying week having my mind rearranged for me in Cape Breton.  Days were spent in Ellen’s class learning amazing Scottish and Cape Breton tunes, and at night we went to the traditional dances of Cape Breton Island in their tiny local dance halls.  It was a profound week for me.
When I returned to the States, Irish music no longer had any draw for me.  Irish music and I have since reconciled our difference somewhat, it’s a wonderful tradition, but at the time it was like I was born again, and Irish music was the error of my former ways.  I didn’t take my uilleann pipes out of their case for more than a year, and still don’t play them.  There’s just something about the drive of Cape Breton music that keeps me going back for more.
I immediately switched the focus of my pipe making plans from uilleann pipes to Scottish smallpipes.  It took time to learn the differences, especially with the reeds, but here I am now, a maker of Scottish Smallpipes and Border Pipes.
[Ed.] How did your designs originate?
A co-worker of mine during my apprenticeship, Mike MacNintch, had a large collection of measurements of various pipes.  The first set of smallpipes I ever made was a copy of his trusty Mike MacHarg D smallpipes.  I’ve since made many changes, and come across other measurements, and my smallpipes are nothing like that first set. But you start somewhere, and then continually change things until you’ve end up with the design that your ears want to hear.

For reeds, I must confess that I have tried my best to imitate the reeds of Hamish and Fin Moore.  I’ve failed somewhat at that task, as our reeds are certainly not the same.  But I think the attempt itself to copy their reeds got me to where I am now, which is very happy with my reed design.
Also, I’d like to say that one of my biggest breakthroughs with my smallpipe reeds was when I switched to using soft California cane, also known as California Goldm which I get from Joseph Sampson in California.  It’s fantastic cane, and I highly recommend it.
[Ed.] How has location affected your designs and processes? do your pipes differ significantly from Scottish made ones?
Honestly, I’m not sure.  I only know how I was taught to make pipes, and that my teacher was taught how to make wind instruments by a German immigrant, Mr Von Heune of the Von Heune Early Music Workshop.  There’s about a million ways to do anything within pipemaking, but in the end we’re all dealing with the same main problems: How to make long holes in wood, and how to make chanter reeds.
I don’t think my pipes differ from Scottish-made pipes any more than the Scottish-made pipes differ from each other.  Except maybe that I make my drones play more extra notes.
[Ed. ] Do you recommend any maintenance practices specific to the US?
Though I’ve heard this is starting to change, I think makers in Scotland still tend to recommend that customers don’t touch their reeds at all. Fluctuations in humidity are much smaller there, so generally, less futzing is necessary.  They recommend waiting a bit and hoping that things will return to normal, which they often do.
I too recommend the wait and see approach first.  But in the US, with the winters that many of us go through, or the large swings in humidity that some areas of the US experience, I think my customers need to know how to adjust their reeds.  
From the very beginning I’ve fitted synthetic drone reeds as standard with my pipes.  I agree that cane drone reeds sound better, but reeds that work, and are steady sound better than reeds that don’t work or aren’t steady, no matter the tone.  I make cane drone reeds for those customers who feel they can put in the time and effort to maintain them, but cane reeds in northern US winters are a nightmare to keep going.  Plus, I think my synthetic drone reeds are quite good.  All the recordings on my sound page are with synthetic drone reeds. (
[Ed. ] On your web site you talk about playing the smallpipe chanter with border drones; tell me something about that;
It’s becoming a little bit of a fad over here.  The first person, other than myself, I saw doing this was Dan Houghton from the band Cantrip, who’s currently living in Vermont.  Dan plays a Moore border pipe set and plugs a smallpipe chanter in with it.  It sounds great.  The balance of drones versus chanter is not ideal for everyday playing, but having that big booming bass with the smallpipe chanter can be a lot of fun.
I have at least four customers that play smallpipe chanters with their border drones.  One of my smallpipe customers, after hearing  about the possibility, ordered a set of border pipe drones with a fourth drone to play with his smallpipe chanters, and put his smallpipe drones away in a box.  It’s something for true drone addicts.
[Ed. ] Your website has some interesting descriptions of woods; some of them seem peculiar to the US; is that correct?
Yeah, I’m a bit odd that way I suppose.  It’d be easier on me if I just stuck to two or three wood options, but it’s fun to use all these different woods.  They all work well, so why not?  
I’m particularly proud of the American woods, osage and mesquite.  They are really great woods, both of which have some pretty special properties.  Osage has the highest resistance to rot of any wood, and produces the most BTUs of any wood when burned.  And mesquite is the only wood that shrinks and expands equally longitudinally and latitudinally.  All other woods will develop an oval shaped bore over time due to unequal wood shrinkage, but mesquite’s unique property prevents this.
[Ed. ] I have been enjoying the wonderful combinations of wood and mount materials your web site gallery describes; a list reads rather like an up-market menu:”Blue Mahoe and Water Buffalo horn -  Plum and Water Buffalo -Bois De Rose and Raphia Tae Nut” - I also noticed your particular interest in fruit woods.
One of the biggest, and happiest, surprises I’ve had since working full time as a pipe maker, is how warm and rich the sound of a fruitwood set of smallpipes is.  I knew fruitwoods would work for border pipes, and they have not let me down.  But the very warm, but still bright tones of the Plum and Pear smallpipes I’ve made are marvellously eye-opening. All my pear and plum woods have previously come from Europe.. Now I’m excited to have found a small supplier of domestic fruitwoods in the US I’ve ordered some plum to test, and also some apricot, which I know is traditionally used for the Armenian Duduk, so it certainly has a history of being used for woodwind production. If this source is suitable, I plan to make a set of border pipes from it for my own use..
[Ed. ] It will certainly look good on the menu. Your website has describes a good selection of drone- tunings; most of the tunes are recorded by Tim Cummings; tell me a bit about your relationship with him; his name is not widely known in Scotland. (his website was a treat) have you worked together on your pipe designs?
I met Tim at the Vermont Bellowspipe school.  He is an absolutely amazing piper and musician and has a very unique sense of humour.  We have a lot of common interests beyond piping like American Old-time music.  We haven’t directly worked on internal pipe designs together, but I make small changes to my designs based on customer feedback all the time, and I talk to Tim pretty often about pipes, so in that respect he’s certainly had an impact.  He did have one contribution to the external design of my pipes.  Upon his request, his set of pipes has antler ferrules, instead of my normal stainless steel, and I’ve since had several people order the same design.
Tim is a very creative piper, and a very knowledgeable musician.  So when he got his set of pipes from me, he really ran with the drone tuning possibilities.  I had just recently made the tenor drone on the A/D smallpipe sets able to also play a G because my friend Ward MacDonald, who has written some pretty well known fiddle tunes,  wrote a great tune in G for smallpipes, called the Ballerina Tune [which you can hear Tim playing on Nate’s web site] Add that to the alto and baritone drones’ abilities to each play both E and D, and you have a lot of tunings to play with.  Plus Tim manages to sneak in other notes by switching drone tops around.
[Ed. ] What about the issues of chanter tuning when the drones are re-tuned?drone
When it comes to playing tunes in keys like B minor on the smallpipes, with drones retuned to B, or my current favorite thing to do, in E minor on the D chanter with drones tuned to E, I definitely find some of the intervals off. But you know, most of the time it's a small difference and a little bag manipulation (probably unconscious) goes a long way.
As for the intervals when playing a B minor tune with the standard A drones, for me it's more a feeling of confusion about some of the intervals, than actual out of tune-ness. I think my ear is hearing two different things at the same time. It's hearing the meld of A drones with a just A tuned chanter (a lovely thing), but my ear is also hearing that the intervals for the particular key (or mode) are not right. It's a strange sensation.
I've found that my thoughts on chanter tuning, for smallpipes, have changed slightly now that I do more "funky" drone tunings. I find it very fun to do all these different drone tunings, and I see how the Northumbrian pipes became the way they are now. I can't begin to imagine how in the world a Northumbrian pipe maker goes about tuning his chanters. I mostly stick to the standard Scottish pipes just scale, but they are always playing in all those different keys with all those different drone tunings. I think I'd lose sleep over it. Right now I'm sticking to good old reliable just intonation for tuning my chanters. Of course, I do it by ear, so whether it is exactly the strict, by the numbers just intonation, I'm not sure, but it's close to what highland pipers would consider "in-tune." I do find myself considering changing the tuning on some notes to make playing with "non-standard" drone tunings easier, but so far I've resisted. Most of my customers are highland pipers, and want the chanter tuned in that fashion, and that's what my ear is trained for anyway. Having the chanter ring out with the standard drone tuning is first and foremost. Plus, it's fairly easy to use the bag arm to push the chanter into whatever tuning you need (within reason).

[Ed. ] Bellows pipes seem to have released piping into lots of new musical areas, some quite surprising. I notice Tim for instance playing old-time with a banjo player. Is this affecting pipe design? Have you had any particular customer requests?
I have noticed more and more talk about using smallpipes and border pipes for other musical genres, which I think is fantastic, but so far it's affected my design very little. I have had requests to leave some notes (like the G on A chanters) a bit sharper, to be not so "out of tune" with other instruments (they can tape it down to play in bagpipe tuning), but that's about the only thing.
[Ed. ]I notice you offer a particular drone-stop device
I developed the "stop-tops", as I'm calling them, early on. I wanted something that didn't involve plugs (easy to lose), but didn't look like the Northumbrian-style stop pins (not sure what they're called). So I made a system that connected a stopping plunger to the top decorative mount. The mount itself slides, and when the mount is slid "down" the plunder inside stops the drone, but when it's slid up, it reveals the side bored hole, and the plunger moves away from the bore and lets the drone play. There's a set screw that keeps the drone top from sliding too far up. It's complicated to make, involving set screws, o-rings, delrin plungers, threading and tapping, but the end result is a very low maintenance (a little vaseline once or twice a year) and an almost invisible drone stopper mechanism. The stop-top sets look almost identical to the regular sets (just a small set screw gives away the secret inside).
[Ed. ] One last thing; I gather you’ve been on an exciting trip recently, to play Celtic music in  Cuba, a country not known widely for its piping.
Yeah, 60 percent of the people of Cuba are descended from immigrants from Spain. Many of those immigrants were from the two Celtic Spanish lands, Galicia and Asturia. And thirty percent of the Cuban people are descended from Europeans, many of those Irish. Like those from Africa, these roots too have influenced the music of Cuba.
Havana has two Bagpipe bands and a vibrant Celtic music scene centered around the university in Havana. In April, they ran the first CeltFest Cuba. I was incredibly lucky to be hosted by the Canadian-Cuban Celtic Society to go down to participate.  One of their main objectives is to help Havana establish their own Celtic festival, CeltFest Cuba, which will be loosely based around Cape Breton's Celtic Colours Festival, a hugely successful international festival nestled in the tiny communities of Cape Breton Island.
There's both Galician and Asturian piping in Cuba. From what I understand, after talking at length with Alejandro Gispert, who was the pupil of the "Last Piper of Havana" Eduardo Lorenzo (luckily, a historical misnomer at this point), there are still Cuban's who speak Galician in Havana, so the Galician Culture, especially after this recent musical revival, is still strong in Cuba.
As for Asturian, I believe it's a broken tradition in Havana, at this point. However, I believe that there is still one or two sets of Asturian pipes being played by a number of pipers in Pinar Del Rio, a rural area outside of Havana, which I think may be an unbroken tradition of piping. But either way, the Asturian band in Havana is large and sounded great, almost all young folk.
Cuban piping is not entirely unknown in Scotland; Fin Moore was one of the people who helped finance the equipment to video the festival, so thanks to him and to all who helped.And thanks to you , Nate, for answering my questions. You can see the extensive range of Nate’s pipes at