page 9

page 10

page 11

Jock Agnew is quite aware of his own limitations in the matter; and pipe making is most definitely not one of his skills. However having been playing Border and small pipes for the last 15 years, he has inevitably become involved in setting up pipes, adjusting reeds, and (as described below) attempting to adjust the pipes themselves. And let pipe-makers themselves sleep easy; this article will not make them redundant - indeed it may bring them further business!

 There is no need to, of course. A standard chanter with the regulation nine-notes (and flat- tened lead note top and bottom) is all that is required for a myriad of tunes. These may be sourced from standard Highland piping books; Border tunes made available by Gordon Mooney and Matt Seattle (notably the William Dixon settings); and many and varied books of music produced for the Northumbrian pipes - for instance Peacock (although some of those tunes would benefit from a sharpened 7th). Occasionally, though, the Scot- tish smallpipe player hankers after some more flexibility and a greater range. And the best way to achieve this is, of course, to talk with the pipe-maker at the time of ordering the set.

But there are some possible DIY adjustments which can increase its range, although I should at this point issue a health warning: it is a brave man who will take knife or file and commit surgery on his pipes - unless he is an established pipe-maker. (I well recall my horror as I watched Colin Ross on one occasion, and Hamish Moore on another, dig away at new chanters of mine that needed adjusting). And although mistakes can, up to a point, be rectified, anyone attempting these ideas does so at his/her own risk - and preferably with a spare chanter to fall back on if all goes ill!

The first and simplest option, which requires no surgery (so you don't even have to be brave), is to gain an extra low note - a nominal (if we are thinking of a chanter pitched in A) F# . This is probably the least useful addition to the chanter range, and it means the temporary loss of low G.

Test the water first by covering up the two sound holes with tape, then listen to the result when fingering low G. (On my Border pipes the low note may be achieved by dropping the end of the chanter and bringing the knees in to cover the sound holes. Unsightly, but it works! When I try it on the smallpipe chanter, though, the result is disappointing.) Depending on how the chanter was made, this should give a note lower than the G natural that would be heard if the sound holes hadn't been closed, but in most cases, to get a true pitch low F# the chanter has to be artificially lengthened. This may be tested by using a piece of paper shaped into a sort of trumpet and pushed into the end of the chanter,

(see picture 1).


This paper ’trumpet’ can be lengthened or shortened until the correct pitch is obtained (by either using a tuning device, matching against the drones, or checking against another in- strument.). Having obtained an acceptable pitch, the tube of paper may be substituted with something more permanent -1 have used a plastic tube cut from an old ball-point pen and held in with Blue Tack so that it can be taken out if need be (see picture 2). On some chant- ers an adjustment in nominal length may affect the pitch of other notes up the scale - in which case it is probably not worth pursuing this scheme.

Sticky tape over the sound holes is cumbersome and not very pretty. Instead I have taken a piece of 3/4 inch wide elastic, sewn it into a grommet, and lined it with soft leather (from an old book-mark) to make it air-tight, which can then slide over the sound holes as required, (see picture 2). With this system I can leave the extension in place (it makes no difference to tone or pitch when the sound holes are in the 'normal' uncovered state) and merely slide the cover into place if I need that low note.

So what will this give you? Not a lot I’m afraid. It can provide a low lead note to some tunes in ‘B’ minor (such as “Pride of the County Down”), and makes the unlikely squeeze-box number “Spanish Ladies” possible without fudging the low note. Gow’s version of “Jenny Dang the Weaver” uses an ‘F#’ in the first strain (as Matt Seattle points out in the Border Bagpipe Book). But in any case playing random notes (along with the low ‘F#’) can lead to some interesting phrasesbeing built up, and tuning the drones to ‘A’ and ‘D’ can produce some tingling harmonics. And for those who favour the birl, well an F# gives it some authority.

No prizes are given for identifying the following tune which uses low F#!


Now for the surgery bit. Unlike Border pipes, the small pipe chanter doesn’t lend it- self to the cross-fingering of accidentals. With these pipes, if the tune calls for a ‘C’ natural, ‘F’ natural or ‘g’ sharp, then the fingering has to be fudged or the tune, as written, abandoned (although I’ve seen smallpipes that can bend some of the notes - notably a set made by Julian Goodacre and fingered unconventionally by Davie Robertson).

Now the thumb of the right hand is usually used only to help support the chanter. The location of that thumb, for some pipers, is opposite the middle finger of the right hand - but many teachers encourage players to keep the thumb further down the chanter, opposite the gap between middle and ring finger. This position is , of course, where a hole (were it provided) would sound ‘C’ natural. Some players may find this is too far down the chanter for comfort. Well to find out if that is so in your case, test it. Place a stick-on rein- forcement ring (used for reinforcing paper in ring binders - see picture 3) exactly half way between the ‘B’ hole and 4C#’ hole - but on the reverse side - and see if your thumb can cover it in reasonable comfort when playing.

(Locating exact positions on the rear side of the chanter an be helped by wrapping a small piece of paper (see picture 4) around a cylindrical chanter, ensuring the edges line up - or a piece of hemp around a chanter that has a tapering outer shape).

If all is well at this stage, then the moment has come to drill a hole. Again, having no experience in this aspect, I chose a drill that was slightly smaller than the ‘B’ hole on the chanter. Then, us- ing the paper-around-the- barrel method marked the exact location on theback of the chanter (in line with the half-way position between ‘B’ and ‘C#’, and with a drill stand (to ensure the hole was verti- cal) drilled into the chanter. Here it pays to find out the maximum depth that can be chanced before the drill starts making inroads into the far side of the chanter’s bore. (I used a match-stick to ‘sound’ the

full depth through the ‘B’ hole, then anointed the drill bit with a marker pen).

Some points to bear in mind; the drill should be fast, the movement slow and steady, the bit sharp, and the hole small - it can always be enlarged later. And a neat fitting plastic knitting needle (I found a No.6 ‘Phantom’ 4 % mm just right) pushed up the bore works well as a backing to prevent the drill leaving an uneven edge - though the resulting cavities in the needle might require some explaining when the knitting member of the family next picks up those needles!

On my chanter the result is a good ‘C’ natural, which makes available all those tunes pitched in ‘G’. And I can always tape it over if I don’t want it.

The final modification that I have made is to fit a “key” to provide high ‘b’. This is a most

useful ‘extra’ note - and the most popular (see COMMON STOCK Vol 7 No 1). Play along with anyone who has such a key fitted to their Scottish smallpipes and you will be irritated at the ease with which they make use of this for certain tunes!

The “key” was cut from a plastic ‘Poly Tubing Connec- tor’ (the manufactured curve of the inside of the pipe sits more or less snug against the chanter (see pic 5). A coping saw works well on this material, and it can be easily faired down with knife and file. Having cut it down to size (after much trial and error I ended up with a 4 cm “tail” and 1.5 cm “foot” section. 0.8 cmwide to lie over the high ‘b’ hole) I then tested it for position by securing it with a rubber band over the approximate place that the ‘b’ hole might be drilled, then trying my fingers on the chanter.

I ended up by swivelling it around the barrel of the chanter until the “tail” lay pointing to- wards my left wrist. In this position I can press down on the “tail” with the base of my left forefinger, and it doesn’t seem to be in the way when playing the other notes.

On the advice of a friendly pipe-maker I measured the distance between high ‘g’ and high ‘a’, reduced the figure by 10% , and marked that distance above high ‘a’. With the line- up of the “key”, and the paper-round-the-barrel method described above, I marked the chanter in the position the pad of the “key” would cover.

Then I drew a deep breath and drilled a hole with the same diameter as the existing one for high ‘g’ (not forgetting the knitting needle etc).

There is little left to tell. The “foot” of the key was lined with soft leather to make it air- tight, and the note tested. It was a trifle thin and flat, but this was soon improved by re- drilling using a slightly larger diameter bit. The “key” pivots on the bend of the material, lifting the “foot” clear of the hole against the restraining pressure of the rubber band.


It looks a little unsightly with the “key” held in position with rubber bands, but it works!

“Duncan Gray” and “Ye Banks and Braes” will never be the same again.