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Julian Goodacre, piper, pipemaker and                       researcher gives some practical insight into the use of the baritone drone on the  smallpipes (and thanks to Dick Hensold and John Goodacre for suggestions and advice)

In the accompanying photo Julian is playing the Montgomery smallpipes; see COMMON STOCK

Vol 6 No 1.

The drone on a bagpipe provides a foundation for all the notes on the chanter. Modern Scottish                  bagpipes have three drones and the classic           arrangement is, of course, the Highland bagpipe which has one bass and two tenor drones. However

modern Scottish smallpipes usually have a                          different arrangement - one bass, one tenor and a               

baritone drone. For a piper who has come to smallpiping from the Highland pipes its use is often a bit of  a mystery. Indeed, one of the founder members of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society recently admitted to me that he had always considered the baritone on his smallpipes as a bit of an ‘exotic extra’, and I suspect he has had it plugged shut for over 15 years.

On a set of Scottish smallpipes in ‘A’, the bass drone plays ‘A’, the tenor drone plays ‘a’ an octave higher, and the baritone drone usually plays ‘E’. In actual fact although it is ‘correct’ to describe Highland drones as ‘bass and tenor’, it is not with the smallpipe, where the chanter plays an octave lower than on a Highland chanter, i.e. an octave nearer to the drones. However ‘bass, baritone and tenor’ are the generally accepted names for smallpipe drones.

Highland pipe music is now always written in ‘A’ and thus many Highland pipers assume that because their drones only play one note that their pipes can only play in one key - the key of ‘A’. In fact it is possible to play tunes in several keys or modes, but the most frequently used are the keys of ‘A’ and ‘D’. Many pipers, especially those from a Highland piping background, find the baritone drone on their smallpipes does not always sound ‘right’. They either block it off or carry on using it anyway, even when it does not sound ‘right’. 

For a practical demonstration of why the baritone does not always sound ‘right’ here are two easy experiments (I am assuming that your pipes are in ‘A’; however these experiments work whatever key your pipes may be in).

  • Get your smallpipes and blank off the bass and the tenor drones. You are now playing the pipes with one drone - the baritone at ‘E’.

Play ‘Drops of Brandy’ (or ‘The Athol Highlanders’). it should sound fine. Now play ‘The Galloway Hills’ (or ‘Teribus’). It should sound decidedly odd!

The reason for this is that these two tunes are in different keys. ‘Drops of Brandy’ is in ‘A’, which sounds fine with a drone in ‘E’. However ‘The Galloway Hills’ is in ‘D’. ‘D’ is only one note away from the drone note of ‘E’ and this therefore produces a constant dissonance. Now try the same test but in reverse. Leaving the bass and tenor blanked off see if you can slide the baritone drone out until it plays in ‘D’. (This may not be possible on all sets of pipes or it may require some adjustment of the reed.)

Play ‘Drops of Brandy’. It will now sound odd!

Play ‘The Galloway Hills’. It will now sound fine.

  • If you are unfamiliar with tuning your baritone down to ‘D’, here is another experiment that will let you accustom your ear to this new chord.

Strangle the bag just above the chanter stock to silence the chanter. (You could take out the chanter and plug the stock with a cork, but be careful to put the chanter in a very safe place to avoid accidental damage to the exposed chanter reed).

Tune your drones so that they are well in tune with baritone drone at ‘E’, the 5th. Listen to that wonderful sound! It sounds as if the whole universe celebrates this chord. While the drones are still sounding tune your baritone drone down to ‘D’, the 4th. You get a darker and more complex chord - it is still a great chord, but it is harder to hear whether it is                    perfectly in tune and it seems that the universe now has a few misgivings about it. With the drones still sounding try stopping off the bass drone and hear the difference.

Highland pipes have no problem playing in ‘A’ or ‘D’ as all three drones are in ‘A’. There is no need for Highland pipers to be aware that they play in more than one key. But the addition of a baritone drone ‘ties’ the smallpipes to one key, and thus is a restriction when one changes key.

It appears to be a recent problem. The modern design of the Scottish smallpipe chanter that we play today is a fairly recent invention - a ‘tradition’ going back all of 20 years! The 18th century smalipipe chanter upon which modern ones were based appears to have used a different scale. The pitch of the pipes was much higher. To explain this scale in the key of ‘A’, the top chanter leading note was sharpened i.e. ‘G’ sharp, whereas the bottom was flattened - ,G’ natural. The baritone drone always played in ‘E’ and thus it was not possible to play in ’D’ on the chanter.

So how should a piper deal with the baritone on a set of Scottish smallpipes?

Many smallpipers just carry on using a baritone in ‘E’, whether they are playing in ‘A’ or ‘D’. You can sort of get away with this if your baritone is quiet, but having read this article and tried the experiments I hope they want to face the problem, rather than carrying on                 ignoring it!

A radical approach would be to swap the baritone for another tenor and return to the                       Highland system of one bass and two tenors. It is a Scottish solution to a Scottish problem. I know of an 18th century set of drones which has this configuration. However the baritone adds such richness to the overall sound that I imagine most smallpipers would be reluctant to give it up! As before mentioned some people just stop off their baritone and leave it that way. Perhaps they should contact their pipemaker and order a second tenor to replace their silent baritone!?

How can you change from ‘E’ to ‘D’?

Tune your baritone up and down from ‘E’ to ‘D’ on the drone slide. If the baritone on your pipes does not seem to like tuning down to ‘D’ it may be possible to adjust the reed so that it will play both; the length and diameter of the tuning slide are important factors. 

I have also heard of pipes that have been supplied with two baritone drone ends - a shorter one for ‘E’ and a longer one for ‘D’. Other makers adopt the Northumbrian system of a tuning bead - a neat little closeable vent on the side of the drone that can be opened: to shorten the overall length of the drone to play ‘F’ and closed to play ’D’.

Unfortunately these last three systems do not allow you to change key while you are playing

- you have to stop and twiddle. A possible wheeze would be to leave your baritone in (say) ‘D’ and clack it silent (by touching the drone end when you are supplying pressure to the bag). Now you can play in ‘D’ and just as you change to playing in ‘A’ you lower your bag pressure or quickly flick the baritone to start it playing. Tricky stuff, and not terribly                         reliable.

There are also some technical solutions.

It is possible to fit an easy-to-reach lever on the common stock (like the Irish shut-off lever) so while you were playing in ‘D’ you could shut off the baritone at ‘E’. You could then switch it back on for when you were playing in ‘A’. A niftier system, and the most complicated, is to fit the pipes with two baritones, one for ‘E’ and one for ‘D’. The common stock is then fitted with a small lever which allows the piper to switch from one drone to the other while still playing. 

A wonderful effect, which can be used to sound a bit like the Irish regulators.                                   

For the purposes of this article I have deliberately simplified the situation by avoiding any mention of the tuning of the chanter. The notes that a chanter plays are all tuned in relation to the drones, and altering the baritone drone from ‘E’ to ‘D’ slightly alters the relationship of the drone to the chanter. This does affect the chanter tuning - but it has not been the                   purpose of this article to explain this in detail.

I hope this has helped clarify some of the problems in the use of the baritone drone, and some of these suggestions prove helpful. If, like me, you only have a limited knowledge of musical theory and you need to know which baritone tuning is suitable for a specific tune you can always try the first experiment with it - play the tune against the baritone. You   should soon hear which baritone tuning is required!

Other pipers will have faced this problem of baritone tuning and may have their own approaches and wheezes - perhaps I have missed other obvious solutions. It would be interesting to know how other smallpipers use their baritone drones.