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"Which Reeds are Right for My Bagpipes?"

"Which Reeds are Right for My Bagpipes?"

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Choosing the “right” reeds is unique to you and your bagpipe.

It will though, depend on several factors.

• What kind of sound quality you want to achieve.
• What kind of drones you play (e.g., vintage or new, specific make).
• Your level of experience/expertise in working with different reeds.

Each make of chanter and drone reed has unique features and design that will produce a different sound quality player to player, pipe to pipe. You may have to experiment with several types until you find the combination you like the most, and that presents the best sound you are able to produce.

What kind of sound quality you want to achieve.

The basic design of Highland bagpipe chanter and drone reeds has been unchanged for at least 200 years, if not longer. One might think that the basic design of reeds would produce a consistent quality of sound bagpipe to bagpipe for that long. After all, how much variation could there be in vibrating blades of cane? A lot, actually. Modern reed makers incorporate different “tweaks” to the basic design of a reed to create unique sound qualities that conform to modern pitch needs and tastes. Add to this the same design variation featured in modern chanters and drones, and you have a wide array of options when it comes to the sound you want to achieve.

At a basic level, many top makers will produce good “all around” reeds that should provide high quality sound in just about any chanter or drone. Many modern reeds (drones especially) have reputations for presenting different qualities of sound. But ask yourself the basic question: What kind of sound is most pleasing to me? This might mean listening to different solo pipers and zeroing in on the different qualities of sound you respond to and finding reeds to get yourself close to it. Do you want a “big” and “bold” sound with heavy drones? Then you will have to experiment with different chanter and drone reeds in your pipes that are known to create that kind of sound. Likewise, if you are after a more “mellow” sound with different chanterdrone balance. Experimentation is definitely the key idea to consider when choosing the “right” chanter reed for the chanter you play.

What kind of drones you play (e.g., vintage or new, specific make).

Many stands of drones and chanters are known to perform best with certain makes of reeds. Vintage drones were designed and made to optimize the sound produced by cane drone reeds, since that was really the only reed to be played in Highland bagpipes up until the 1990s. That is not to say that a modern synthetic set cannot also produce a pleasing, high-quality sound in an older set of drones. Again, it is a matter of your own needs and tastes.

Think about the drones you play. Vintage pipes tend to have narrower bores. Certain synthetic reeds play optimally at a different pitch range that might not be suited to the narrower bore of vintage drones, or a modern set with narrower bores. Modern drones tend to have wider bores for greater projection of sound that is desired by modern pipe bands. Again, different drone reeds work better in these kinds of sets over others. The variability though, is not consistent and these features should play a part in your drone reed choice. Do some research, ask more experienced pipers, ask reed makers directly for their thoughts on reed/drone matches.

Your level of experience/expertise in working with different reeds.

This is not so much a factor in chanter reeds as it is with drone reeds. With chanter reeds, the same techniques will work the same way on just about every reed. With drone reeds, this really boils down to the question of “cane vs. synthetic?”—not with regard to sound, but with regard to expertise to work with them.

Cane drone reeds are known to create a more refined, mellow sound with harmonics that are desirable to many pipers. But cane drone reeds from maker to maker behave differently and might require different “tricks” and techniques to keep them working. Cane drone reeds, being a natural material, can be unpredictable in different conditions and will require knowledge and experience to manage them properly. The “right” synthetic drone reeds will also provide the sound of your desires but are not worry-free either. Different techniques are needed to manage different synthetic reeds and keep them working at optimum. Different reeds will also require different levels of constant attention and work. Moisture plays on each type of reed (cane or synthetic) differently and will require awareness, knowledge, and skill to manage as well.

How versed are you in the skills of reed work? If you are beginner, you might want good all-around synthetic drone reeds that require as little effort to work in as possible, in spite of your opinions to their sound. If your experience level is higher, or as you gain more knowledge, you might want to change to a set of reeds that will provide a finer sound, but might require more work and management. Likewise, if you wish to play cane drone reeds. Acquiring knowledge about reeds is never ending. Your level of knowledge, or lack of knowledge, should never keep you from experimenting and trying out new things. Experiment. Learn. Try and fail. All will work to help you develop your ideal sound and find the right reeds for your bagpipe.

Take Action

Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds
All About Drone Reeds

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Vin Janoski

Vin is a long-time piper based on the east coast of the USA. He has been on the Executive Committee of the EUSPBA and been the editor of the acclaimed Voice magazine. Recently, he has played in the Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, and the Grade 1 Stuart Highlanders pipe band. He currently produces the websites Pipehacker.com and WhiskyTunes.com.... And, needless to say, he spends way too much time than is allowed for any one person playing, writing about, and thinking about bagpiping.

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