A short guide to Northumbrian Smallpipes

This guide is intended for prospective purchasers of Northumbrian Smallpipes. It is fairly long and quite dense text and there are no links to anywhere apart from Back to nspipes homepage.

1. What are Northumbrian Smallpipes?

Northumbrian Smallpipes are bagpipes which have been part of traditional music in the North-East of England for over 200 years. Unlike many other bagpipes they are designed to be played with other instruments. The volume is comparable to a fiddle and the temperament (tuning) avoids the peculiarities of some other pipes. They are much quieter than the Highland bagpipe - where the Highland pipes are usually considered to be an outdoor instrument, the Northumbrian Smallpipes are usually played indoors.

Northumbrian Smallpipes consist of a bag with drones attached, a chanter and a set of bellows. The bellows fill the bag with air. The drones provide steady notes throughout the playing to act as accompaniment. The chanter has tone holes which are fingered to produce the melody. The pitch and tuning of the pipes is controlled by the pressure the piper exerts on the bag with his arm. The piper has no control over the volume of the music while playing.

Northumbrian Smallpipes are played either standing or sitting (or walking or riding). They are bellows blown never mouth blown. The bag is held under the left arm and the bellows are operated by the right arm. The drones are all held in a single stock and lie across the players chest. The chanter is held directly in front of the player and the holes are covered by the finger tips.

The end of the chanter is closed, so that when all finger holes are covered, the chanter makes no sound. The eight finger holes are covered by the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand and the four fingers of the right. Notes are produced by lifting one finger at a time, and this produces a one-octave major scale in a generally acceptable temperament. This is a simple chanter. The fingering is different from whistle, flute, highland pipe, and every other instrument we have come across. Transferring from other instruments can appear daunting at first, but can be achieved relatively quickly. The fingering is simpler to explain than any other instrument, but achieving an appropriate level of dexterity and control of bag and bellows can take a little time.

Most chanters have keys to produce notes other than the basic octave, extending the range up or down or adding accidentals. The seven key chanter is regarded as standard, and this allows playing in two major keys (G/D) plus two minor keys (Am/Em), also giving an A scale with similar characteristics to the Scottish pipes. The seventeen-key chanter has traditionally been regarded as the ultimate (2 octaves, fully chromatic) but many other key arrangements are possible. All the keys are operated, one at a time, by the right thumb or left little finger (pinkie). When using the keys all the fingerholes are closed.

Pipes can be made with an interchangeable chanter stock, which allows players to change chanters with ease. This can be used to obtain a different pitch, to change between chanters of different complexity, or to use chanters designed for other bellows pipes with the Northumbrian drones.

It has become the accepted wisdom that Northumbrian pipes are played with three drones sounding. 2 drones are an octave apart and the third is pitched at the dominant between the other two. Because the keyed chanter can play in several keys, it has become customary to have at least four drones The drones thus have stoppers or plungers to switch individual drones off. Further, the drones can have tuning beads which allow the pitch of the drone to be raised by a tone. In the simplest case a set of 4 drones will have a one tuning bead on the second largest drone. This allows a standard 3 drone harmony for music written in the keys of G or D. More complex drones have at least one tuning bead on each drone. When playing with other musicians, many pipers do not use their drones at all. This frees the piper to change key along with other musicians, and anyway, the subtleties of drones are often lost when playing with other musicians.


2. Northumbrian Smallpipes and Highland Pipes the differences.

Northumbrian Smallpipes are much, much quieter than Highland pipes.

Northumbrian Smallpipes are bellows blown, and they play at much lower pressure than Highland pipes. Because they play at lower pressure, more control of the bag pressure is required.

The Northumbrian chanter has a closed end, and the notes are produced by lifting a single finger or using a single key. The ideal of Northumbrian piping is to have the chanter closed between notes. Thus, there are no crossing noises, and any gracing is at the discretion of the player, unlike open-ended chanters, where it is often essential.

Northumbrian pipes can tackle music intended for almost any melodic instrument, although there is a core repertoire among the many players who live in or have connections with the North East of England.

While Northumbrian Smallpipes require continued care and attention, the reeds and bags last much longer than in Highland pipes.


3. Choosing a set of Northumbrian Smallpipes

Historically, Northumbrian Smallpipes were pitched in G as it was at the time. Since then pitches have risen and those old pipes are now in F#. Attempts were made to lower the pitch to concert F to allow the pipes to play easily with other instruments, but for various reasons, the average pitch has stayed around 20 cents sharp on this pitch. Pipes in D were first made by James Reid in the mid-nineteenth century.

There was no direct route from F# to G without some modification of the chanter, or more precisely of the reed. Pipes in concert G have been made by various makers over the past 35+ years. Of all the owners of G chanters I have spoken to, the vast majority are very happy with their possessions. The general criticism is that G pipes are rather more shrill than the standard and the finger spacing is close (impossibly tight to some). Take advice and believe who you will!

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Get a seven key set tuned slightly sharp of F, 4 drones, 1 tuning bead, interchangeable chanter stock.

If you have a little more cash get tuning beads on all drones.

If you want to spend a little more, get more keys on the chanter but dont go overboard. A lot of people starting on the pipes (including me once) try and specify the notes they think they will need, but as you learn, you learn different. The pipes have a dynamic of their own.

If you think you can afford it in the long term, start with a seven key set and add a better chanter later. Customers who are remote from their pipemakers may well find it advantageous to have a fall-back chanter when the love of their lives goes back for repair or adjustment.


If you know of a group of pipers who you may want to join or play with occasionally, take their advice first. Even if they are wrong, getting an instrument which will allow you to play with them will speed the learning process. Perhaps they can find a set you can borrow or hire? If you decide to buy, buying from a well known maker offers the best chance of buying pipes which will hold their value. Smallpipes as an instrument hold value better than any instrument I know. I think this is because most are ordered direct from the maker and all the makers have waiting lists. Buying from a retail outlet increases the price markedly, and they are not generally maintained in playing condition by the retailer.

If you are playing dance music you need either an F or G set. Much of the appeal of this sort of music relies on the melody occasionally touring the notes found on the top string of the fiddle (violin). If you try and drop the pitch of this by a fifth (one string) or down to a viola, the dancers simply do not hear the music so clearly.

If you are playing what pipers (sometimes disparagingly) refer to as folk music, where people do things like sing, or religious music (ditto), you could consider a D set. The D to d octave is fairly central to most written vocal melodies.

F# pipes are for the specialist. Good keyboard players can cope, fiddlers can retune, guitarists can capo, but I cant say they will be happy.

If you wish to travel to meet other pipers at the various gatherings, conventions, courses or pipers days,

get a set or chanter which will play in F or F+.


4. Specifying pipes

If you are ordering a set of pipes you need to consider

a) Pitch

b) Number of keys

c) Number of drones/tuning beads

d) Decoration/materials preferences

4a. Pitch

The "standard" pitches available are

F+ the usual pitch for the pipes, 20 cents sharp of concert F. Will generally play fairly well in concert F by reducing pressure.

Concert F very useful for playing with other musicians who will give a little. Will generally squeeze up to F+

F# favoured by soloists, bright without being shrill.

Concert G very good for sessions and band work with intolerant musicians. The pipes have a different tone to the lower pitched pipes, which can be described as bright, shrill, squeaky or loud, depending on the maker and the prejudice of the speaker. The hole-spacing is close, so close that there are some people who physically cannot play them due to the width of their fingers.

Concert D lower than the above pitches, good for accompanying singing. The range of the chanter approximates the choral tenor/soprano range.


F, F+, F# and D chanters use standard reeds. G reeds are different and more temperamental.

F, F+ and F# are B flat/transposing instruments. Music is read in G, D, A,but the pitch is F, C, G, (or a bit sharper).

Many of the basic tunes of the Northumbrian repertoire are tailored to finger movements. Tunes written in the key of D for playing on the F chanter may well be much more difficult on a D chanter.

4b. Number of keys

The simple chanter has no keys. There are eight notes forming a normal major scale. They are good fun occasionally, even for experienced players. This was the first Northumbrian smallpipe, but it was found to be so limiting that keys were quickly added. Some players reckon that it is a good starting point for children, but other teachers think it is a bad starting point.

The seven-key chanter is the "standard chanter". If the nominal scale of the keyless chanter is low G to high g, the seven keys extend the scale of g upwards by a third to b and downwards by a fourth to D, plus accidentals C# d#. Thus the scale is: D, E, F#, G, a, b, c, c#, d, d#, e, f#, g, a, b.
This chanter plays in the keys of G, D, Am and Em, and a scale close to the highland scale. The range corresponds to first position on the top three strings of the fiddle.

On a 7 key D pitch chanter the available notes are A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, G#, a, a#, b, c#, d, e, f#. This chanter plays in the keys of D, A, Em and Bm.

The seventeen-key chanter extends two tones lower than the seven and is fully chromatic over two octaves B > b. Recently, seventeen-key chanters have been made where the top b flat (rarely required) is replaced by the higher c (occasionally useful). 4 of the keys are operated by the little finger (pinkie) of the left hand and 13 by the thumb of the right hand (but only one at a time).

The 19/21 key chanter extends the range two tones lower, with or without semitones. The lowest note is now a G.


The positions of the 7 basic keys should be almost identical on all chanters, irrespective of the total number of keys, so changing between chanters with different numbers of keys is comparatively straighforward.

There are various combinations of keys between 7 and 17, e.g. add G#s, add F naturals, extend chanter downwards. All combinations are possible.

Chanters with less than seven keys can be made, but these are generally built to play a particular selection of the traditional repertoire.

More keys increases the maintenance burden on the owner

Although the 17 key chanter is chromatic, in practice it plays best in the major keys of G, D, A and C. and then the minor keys appropriate to these. As well as the questions of temperament, we must also consider the availability of appropriate drones.

For the D chanter, the only distinctions are that we would not expect to go lower than the low G (F) of the 19 key chanter, while at the top of the chanter it is theoretically possible to add any 6 notes between d and c.

4c. Drones

3 Drones are only appropriate to the simple chanter. Tuned G, d, g for a nominal G chanter

4 drones with 1 tuning bead is a common arrangement on economical sets with 7-key chanters. They are tuned D, G, d, g and are fitted with plungers so that they can be stopped. Generally no more than three are used at anny time. The G drone is fitted with a tuning bead. This is a rotating ring which opens a hole in the sliding part of the drone, raising the pitch of the drone by about a tone. This allows a D, a, d tuning for playing in the key of D.

4 drones with 4 tuning beads is the most common arrangement today. The drones available are D/E, G/a, d/e, g/a. This allows Gdg for the key of G, DAd or Dda for the key of D, Aea for A or A minor and Ee for E minor. It is possible to add another tuning bead to the G drone of the above configuration to provide a b drone to provide the fifth for the key of E minor. A set of drones pitched at F can be played with a G chanter by using the tuning beads.

The addition of a fifth drone giving a/b allows simpler changing between the keys of D and G, even to the extent of having a switch in the drone stock.


4d. Decorations/materials preferences.

African Blackwood is the material of preference for the chanter and drones. Other hardwoods, ivory, or plastic materials can be used according to availability and the taste of the pipemaker, and occasionally at the request of the customer.

Metal work is generally brass, although this can be plated. Nickel, Silver, and Gold plating are reasonably common. Some makers offer solid silver fittings. Nickel-Silver used to be popular, but non-availability of stock sizes, makes its use very complicated and/or expensive.

There are various parts of the pipes, (chanter ends, drone ends, tuning beads etc.) which were formerly made in bone or ivory. Today, there are very good ivory substitutes, which are commonly used. Horn is another option.

The term fully mounted refers to the standing (fixed) part of the drone, where it generally indicates the presence of mounts and ferrules. It may also indicate a generally higher level of decoration.

Bag covers are not essential but are commonly used.

Bellows are traditionally hand stitched. In plain bellows the stitching is exposed or covered with a caulk. Inlaid bellows have a strip of metal or decorative wood let into the cheeks, covering the stitching. Decorative hardwoods are used for the cheeks. A fine set of decorated bellows can be quite expensive, 200 UK pounds +.


5. Footnote

In the foregoing, we have tried to give unbiased advice which should apply irrespective of maker. Not all makers offer all options, but comparative information can be obtained on the World-Wide Web at http://www.nspipes.co.uk/nsp/ investigate the link to makers. More information about our pipes can be obtained from:

OUR WEB SITE - http://www.nspipes.co.uk

BY EMAIL BJS@nspipes.co.uk

BY TELEPHONE - +44 (0)1670 860 215

BY SNAIL-MAIL - Barry Say, Park House, Lynemouth, MORPETH, NE61 5XQ 6RY, UK.