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Malcolm MacInnes carried out much of his chanter adjustments at the Galloway Summer School, with interested watchers-on and ad hoc comments from the other pipers!



Every piper should be aware of the basic rule which governs how we tune the chanter and drones - namely that if air is passed down a tube, the shorter the length of the tube the sharper will be the pitch produced.

So if we are tuning the drones, the drones are raised (or lengthened) to flatten the pitch, and brought down (or shortened) to sharpen the pitch. Similarly, so far as the chanter is con- cerned, the reed is pushed further into the reed seat (and thus the overall length of the chanter shortened) to sharpen the pitch, or raised in the reed seat to flatten the pitch.

We can also sharpen the reed by cutting a little off the tip, which reduces the length of the reed. However this should only be tackled with care as the reed can be ruined. A sharp knife should be used and only a fraction (no more than 1/4 mm) should be removed at a time. This will no doubt make the reed harder to blow as the tips will be further apart: so the bridle will probably have to be squeezed to bring the tips closer together.

Of course a chanter reed can also be sharpened by making it weaker - squeezing the bridle or sanding the reed carefully will do the job. If the reed tips are closer together and/or weaker, then they will vibrate more and produce a sharper note.

For the inexperienced I would suggest that any shaving or sanding of chanter reeds be done only after consulting one of the manuals such as the LBPS Tutor or the Border pipe Tutor put out by the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society. Also it would be better to start on old High- land chanter reeds where the destruction of a few reeds in the pursuit of perfection will not prove costly [see elsewhere in this issue. Ed].

I now have an admission to make: I have found the shaving and sanding of reeds to be a very troublesome and unsatisfactory exercise. Certainly, so far as my Border pipes are concerned, Highland reeds which I have treated in this manner invariably prove to be unbalanced. Therefore my advice to the inexperienced having similar problems would be to return the chanter to the maker with a request for a new reed to be fitted.

I recently arranged to have a new reed made for my Border pipes in A by a Highland reed- maker. When I collected the chanter with the new reed it played beautifully when mouth blown. However, even with a bridle fitted this prove to be a higher pressure than when bel- lows blown. As a result, although the bottom hand of the chanter was in tune, the top hand was flat. Now the dynamics of a conical bore chanter are such that the notes on the top hand are affected far more by sharpening or flattening the reed than those on the bottom hand, so usually I could get a better balance between the top and bottom of the chanter by lowering the reed in its seat.


However I could not lower the new reed enough to get the chanter in tune; nor did squeez- ing the bridle work - too much and it started to double tone. From my previous attempts at shaving and sanding reeds, I was reluctant to start tampering with what I knew was a good reed. The reed maker’s advice was to keep playing and the chanter would come into tune when the reed weakened. Now this is standard advice for Highland pipes where there is a far higher playing pressure and a reed can be blown in fairly quickly, but was impractical for bellows blown pipes.

The option which appealed to me was to adjust the chanter itself.

Now again I would warn the inexperienced against tampering with the chanter - obviously a mistake may prove far more costly than ruining a reed. However, anyone who is used to playing in a pipe band will be familiar with the pipe major reaming our finger holes and us- ing black plastic electrical tape to tune the chanters. How does this work?

If we bear in mind the basic rule set out at the start, then we know that the higher up the chanter the finger hole is, the sharper the note produced. Therefore, if we shave at the top of a finger hole we are reducing the length of the tube down which the air is passing, and thus sharpening the pitch. Conversely, if we use tape to cover the top of the finger hole, we are increasing the length of the tube and flattening the pitch.

I used a very small pointed round file (called a ‘rat tail’ file) to rub the top of the finger holes of the top hand on the chanter. This kind of file is very useful because we can use it to ‘undercut’; that is, to file under the surface of the hole. Ideally we do not want to increase the size of the actual hole itself, at least not significantly, because that would increase the volume of the note produced. Now very slight adjustments to the finger holes makes a big difference to the pitch, so any filing should be very gradual and should be done one hole at a time. By this method the pitch of the top hand can be raised and the top hand brought into tune without tampering with the reed. Also it should be borne in mind that if too much is filed off, and the note becomes too sharp, it can then be flattened using tape. So, although we should proceed with caution, an error in judgement can be rectified. In fact, my experi- ence is that any group of Border pipers will have to use tape anyway to bring all the chant- ers into tune.

Hopefully the outline I have given will prove useful so far as Border pipes are concerned. They are not intended to relate to the smallpipes. Anyone with a query can e-mail me on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..