Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

I’ve been playing Scottish bagpipes for about 10 years, some of them competitive. A year ago, I started to play Irish folk music with some friends and am still at it. For this reason it’s time to take the step into Uilleann piping. My current plan is:
Ordering a half-set from an acknowledged maker, start learning the basics of Uilleann pipes and try to overcome the differences between Uilleann piping and Border pipes.

I currently do not live in the UK, but looking for a UK based maker, preferably Ireland, to order from. I can’t find much information regarding differences in sound, construction or general value. I know they are pricey by nature and would like to start off with a good set I can add regulators onto and keep for the rest of my playing career.

I have the opportunity of buying a second hand full-set of Hunter pipes for £5000, but prefer to buy new instruments as long as I can get good quality and at the same time support the tradition of pipe making.

Any advice would be most welcome.

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Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

To address your first point about overcoming the differences between uilleann pipes and Scottish pipes-

I play uilleann pipes and have had experience in the past with highland pipes (which are near identical to the border pipes other than the method of inflation). There *are* plenty of transferable skills. The chanter has the same number of holes, and your hands will hold it in a similar way. And if you already play bellows-blown pipes, then you have a leg up as you are already familiar with using bellows and working with two octaves.

Beyond that though, the uilleann pipes are a very different beast. You will have to learn new fingering techniques, different pressure controls for the bag, and you have more opportunities with the uilleann pipes, like staccato, vibrato, and quickly raising the chanter on and off of your knee to make the notes "pop" with a bark. And that’s not even going to detail about uilleann pipes specific staccato or vibrato triplets, which are *at least* as difficult if not more so than the highly complex art form associated with the highland pipes called piobroch. Even if you already play bellows-blown pipes or pipes with two octaves, there is still a GULF of new stuff to learn. Apart from the most basic concepts, almost nothing translates over from uilleann pipes to Scottish pipes and vice versa other than "There’s a bag you have to squeeze".
In short, don’t underestimate it.

Now for your next point about buying a set. Fear not, as there are plenty of trusted and (reasonably) affordable makers you can buy a set from. If you’re a complete beginner to uilleanns than I’d recommend not jumping straight into a half set, but instead a practice set. These are fairly cheap (I’m currently renting one at a rate of €200 per year) and are better for beginners. And when you later decide to upgrade, you can add drones and regulators to your practice set rather than having to buy one. My set is made by L & M Highland of Nova Scotia, Canada, which from what I’ve heard no longer operates because (apparently) the chemicals they used in the tanning process for making the bags were banned. L & M bags were known for being extremely airtight and needing minimal maintenance. If you can get your hands on a set made by them, you should. You said you’d prefer an Irish maker, which really narrows your choices because as far as I know there’s only one pipemaker in Ireland, based in Achill. And to perfectly honest, I’m not even sure how good his pipes are.

I’ve heard great things about David Daye. His pipes are quite popular and are well respected within the community. I’d also recommend Andreas Rogge, who has very well made sets and quite affordable as well (If I remember correctly, his half sets are about €2000 each).

Just a word of advice- Avoid secondhand sites like ebay. And DEFINITELY avoid anything made in Pakistan. As you might know, there’s a bit of an epidemic right now of cheaply made pipes in Pakistan, usually made from cheap wood or more commonly, plastic. These pipes are made by people who have probably never even heard of the instrument and have been proven time and time again to be useful for nothing other than firewood. Avoid these like the plague.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

eBay and Pakistani pipes are out of the question. I’ve had a few people asking me to sort out some highland pipes that were expensive firewood. That’s why I came on here to get some quality advise.
Regarding the bag, I’ve used a L&M hide bag in my pipes for several years. Never had any issues with the bag.

I mainly play the highland pipes, but border pipes are more friendly to ceilidh music, and generally easier to play when I just want to play a few tunes to relax. Piobaireachd is a personal favourite, but not something I would play in a pub. It would however be interesting to make an attempt transfering some of these embellishments to the Uilleann pipes (might be a total failure, but still fun).
I suspect it will be a while before my piping is acceptable to play in public, but that’s true for most bagpipes.

I prefer Irish (or UK) mostly because of the heritage. Same reason with my highland pipes. The quality or sound might not be better, but there is a certain feeling.

The second hand set is through a friend. Otherwise I would not consider them.
I’ve seen makers advertise half-sets from £1500 up to £3600. What I’m curious about is how this translate into quality and sound. Coming from highland pipes, I know there is plenty of differences between a relatively cheap set and a more expensive set of pipes (but not a £2100 difference).

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Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

That feels a tad on the high side for a second hand set, but they are very good instruments - I would recommend having a chat with Sam about the set to find out if there are any quirks he knows about. If you could talk them down a little I’d jump on it.

Since you are already experienced with a bellows I would absolutely go for a half set straight away. Quite a lot of good players recommend this anyway, and for me the only downside is the expense.

Lastly, just to add to the points above, Uilleann pipes in general are very individualistic. Every chanter has its own quirks and things it likes to do. For example, my back D prefers a different fingering to the standard. And I can cut into a hard low F# with a little care, which is unusual. It’s useful to have a source of human advice that can be in the room with you once in a while to tell you that what you’re doing is OK, or that the instrument is fine, you just have to do X.

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Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Jpsn said:
"My current plan is ordering a half-set from an acknowledged maker…I have the opportunity of buying a second hand full-set of Hunter pipes for £5000, but prefer to buy new instruments…"

My response:

If I were you I would pick up that Hunter set if you can.

Uilleann pipes aren’t like Highland pipes where there are retailers from whom you can buy a good new set and have it in three days. Or like Highland pipes where you have makers doing 40 sets a week and you can buy one direct from the maker and have it in a week or two.

Any Uilleann maker who has a good reputation will have a lengthy wait list. Sure some makers can be a bit flexible (so for example a celebrity piper can jump the wait list) but makers can have waits of a decade while others have closed their books. So grabbing a used set when it becomes available is the only way to get a top notch instrument immediately.

Admittedly I’m out of the loop, but I’ve been playing Highland pipes for 45 years and Uilleann pipes nearly that long and I’ve ordered several sets of Uilleann pipes over the years from various makers, and individual chanters and such, and hear about what the Uilleann market is like, and that’s my impression.

If you get a good chanter (which is the main thing, Uilleann pipes are chanter-oriented as opposed to the drone-oriented Highland pipe scene) it will last you a lifetime. I still play the chanter I bought new in 1977 (back then I only had to wait a year) and BTW I still play the chanter reed I acquired in 1982. There are Taylor chanters made in the 19th century that are still going with their original reeds- I used to have one.

I was already playing before the huge boom in Uilleann piping here in the USA happened. What really launched it was Riverdance and Braveheart. I had several people a week calling me and asking where they could get a set. Many were Highland pipers used to the ready availability of that instrument. I had to explain that the total world output of Uilleann pipes was under 200 instruments per year, and thousands of Americans were eager to get a set.

Who stepped up were loads of new makers. One, David Daye, created an ugly but great-playing chanter out of PVC pipe and brass tubing with the express purpose of getting good-playing chanters into the hands of as many newbies as possible at a price as low as possible. If you can get one of these you will be set for a while! (If you get it direct from Daye, or get a used one that the reed hasn’t been mucked with by a well-meaning but ignorant newbie.)

You speak of researching the tone of various makers. My advice is to forget about that. It’s like the beginner Highland piper who is going to buy his first set and listens to a load of YouTube videos of Gold Medal contests and decides that Gold Medallist so-and-so has the "best tone" and finds out what drones and chanter and reeds and bag so-and-so plays and orders all of that stuff…and ends up sounding nothing like so-and-so, but sounds exactly like the newbie he is. While Gold Medallist so-and-so could set up practically any decent set of pipes and get "his" tone.

My advice has always been "buy the reed, not the maker". Because a fancy chanter from a great maker won’t sound like anything unless it has a reed that works in it. By "works" I mean to all the many things an Uilleann chanter has to do, which is far more things than a Highland chanter is called upon to do. In general Uilleann chanter reeds aren’t interchangeable, and have to be specifically made for a specific chanter. You can have three chanters from the same maker and find that the reeds aren’t interchangeable. I’ve done it.

To have a reed made for your chanter can be $300.

What I would do is find the closest good Uilleann reedmaker and buy the chanter his reeds were designed to play in. Here in Southern California we have a great reedmaker who has spent countless hours developing a superb reed specifically designed to play in Michael Hubbert’s chanters and I will tell anyone here to get a Hubbert chanter for that reason. You want a reed made in your local climate if possible, though there are people who make chanter reeds from wood (rather than cane) and these wood reeds travel well, being much more resistant to humidity and temperature changes.

Remember Uilleann reeds are exposed to the ambient air, unlike Highland pipe reeds which get warm moist air from your lungs.

Jpsn said
"start learning the basics of Uilleann pipes and try to overcome the differences between Uilleann piping and Border pipes…I’ve been playing Scottish bagpipes for about 10 years…"

My response:
There is much to overcome.

Yes there are the same holes but no the hand-posture is not the same.

You even lift your fingers in a different way. It’s hard to explain but it’s not like the Highland pipes where you want the sharpest possible attack to the note, but rather for the note to emerge.

And there are multiple ways to finger nearly every note, a half-dozen ways for some notes. I would concentrate initially on the partially-closed more or less standard fingerings at first. Of course the fingerings that work on one chanter might not work on another, so be flexible.

And as was said above the approach to blowing and bag-pressure are quite different.

Not to mention that the style and ornaments are different. EVERY Highland piper starts out trying to play his Uilleann chanter like a Highland chanter. The main thing is the upper-hand index finger gracenote which pretty much occurs on every major beat in Highland piping, but which some Uilleann pipers don’t use at all. From the get-go try to stop playing that gracenote, or playing it very sparingly.

Best initially to use practically no ornaments. Highland piping is ornament-based, Uilleann piping is melody-based (an oversimplification yet there’s much truth in it).

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Just a few wee points…

* L&M as far as I know only made bags, not chanters or any of the other ‘hardware.’

* "You said you’d prefer an Irish maker, which really narrows your choices because as far as I know there’s only one pipemaker in Ireland, based in Achill. "

There are plenty of pipemakers in Ireland. Mickey Dunne, Cillian O’Briain, Jim Wenham, Bill Haneman, Geoff Woofe, and more. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of active makers (all over the world… not just Ireland). https://pipers.ie/resources/pipemakers.

* Heritage aside, it isn’t stupid to find a pipemaker relatively close to where you live. If your reeds die or you have any other issues with the set, it’s a lot easier to deal with if you can get it to the maker easily. It’s not like other instruments, like violins or accordions, where anyone will work on anything, or where maker X’s reed will play in maker Y’s chanter. Some will, but it’s not guaranteed.

* Once you get out of the land of dodgy sets from a certain country and ‘budget’ sets, i.e. David Daye, the price reflects the market, the reputation of the pipemaker, the scarcity of sets by that person on the market, and to some degree, the materials it was made with (boxwood with silver or nickle plating always adds more, I’ve learned). Living the dream is having a Koehler-Quinn or Geoff Woofe set, but those guys have an insanely long waiting list and the price of their instruments reflects their excellent reputations. But that’s not to say that a set from a lesser known maker will be a dramatically inferior instrument. Just because they are charging half as much as someone like Benedict or Geoff doesn’t mean that they are half as good. It just means they haven’t yet attained the prestige of those other makers. As Calum said, they are massively individualistic instruments and it’s impossible to quantify on the internet.

*You’d be luckier than the rest of us if you found that set that you could just add regs to and keep for the rest of your playing career. As your playing develops, your tastes and sense of what you want out of the instrument could very well change. I would not obsess over this particular aspect of it when looking for a set.

**Crossposted with Richard, who says he’s still playing his first chanter! LOL. I’m not. I’ve futzed with my set quite a bit.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

The Hunter set is likely an excellent instrument, given the level of quality I have seen and heard firsthand in about a half dozen or so examples of his work. I have played a couple of Hunter chanters in different tunings over the years (B, C, C#, and D) and they were all very good indeed, very playable, responsive instruments that I took to very quickly.

It could be a great choice for a committed beginner provided that:

1) the reeds, especially the chanter reed, all work as they are supposed to, and

2) there are no mechanical issues with any of the various parts, especially any sort of leak that can’t be fixed with a few extra wrappings on a joint, cleaning out a key block, or re-springing a key

Hopefully the price includes some extra chanter reeds that also work as intended.

The price leads me to think it probably is in pretty good shape but make certain that is the case.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

also there are loooooads of good pipemakers in Ireland, you might also look up Donncha Dwyer in Dublin, he’s making fantastic D pipes these days

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

> plenty of pipemakers in Ireland…Geoff Woofe

Geoff moved to France a good few years ago (so he could get some work done, allegedly!)

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Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

No crime in starting with a practice set. The chanter by itself is quite a challenge. Dickie Deegan once joked that he played the ¨Irish Oboe¨ for ten years before he tackled the full kit. Granted the drones are a comfort, and a musical joy when they are going, but they can be so balky just by themelves that you are left feeling more ´a mechanic, than a piper´.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

"feeling more ´a mechanic, than a piper"

That’s no lie.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Paddy Moloney has had a nice career playing chanter!

With Highland piping it’s mostly about the drones. When people speak of the sound of a set of pipes it’s usually the drone sound they’re referring to. A piper might switch chanters regularly, have several he plays, but the drones are "his set".

With Uilleann piping the chanter is the focus, the sound of the chanter is your sound. In ensemble work many pipers only play the chanter; the drones can get in the way of what the other musicians are doing.

So I think beginners should concentrate on getting the best-working chanter they can get, as I said preferably one with a reliable and local source for reeds: a reedmaker in your region.

However many years ago a veteran Uilleann piper told me that beginners should play drones from the get-go. His reason was that it forced the beginner to not employ wild variations in pressure when learning the chanter, but keeping the air pressure within a more narrow window.

For sure beginners do that! They’ll underblow the low octave and overblow the 2nd octave. When they add drones it’s a reality check, because the wide pressure changes they’ve been doing won’t work with the drones.

Newbies coming from Highland piping nearly always fundamentally misunderstand how Uilleann bag-pressure controls the octaves.

They imagine that the low octave of the Uilleann chanter is like the Highland pipes, that you maintain a single pressure throughout. They further imagine that a second, higher, uniform pressure is employed throughout the 2nd octave. Something like Pressure A = Low Octave, Pressure B = 2nd Octave.

It’s nothing like that!

Rather there’s a zone of more or less equal pressure that spans the octaves, on my chanter this range is from G in the low octave to F# in the 2nd octave. In other words "going over the break" (to use Sax/Clarinet terminology) doesn’t entail changing pressure.

The outliers are the lowest and highest notes.

On my chanter I have to slightly back off the pressure for low F# and low E, and slightly boost the pressure for high G. The difference in pressure between F# in the low octave and F# in the 2nd octave is quite subtle.

Bottom D is unique in that there are two different Bottom D’s, Hard and Soft, and the exact pressure required to get these seems to vary from chanter to chanter, from reed to reed.

On my chanter the pressure must be increased slightly for each note above high F#, something like

F# < G < A < B

It would be interesting to hear how other pipers’ chanters behave.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Not sure where you are based Jpsn, but there are a number of good uilleann pipe makers active these days. I’d recommend starting with a good practice set from a maker, and then order a set of drones from the same maker if you’re still interested, and then later on regulators.

Starting with a practice set means there is only one reed to think about, and adjust if necessary, and you can concentrate on learning to play the uilleann chanter without any other distractions. Then when you have a command of the uilleann chanter, technique, ornamentation, and a few tunes under your belt, you can order a set of drones if you’re still serious about becoming a uilleann piper.

I’d recommend a new, or second hand, practice set from Marcus Coulter, David Lim, Donnacha Dywer, Brian Bigley, Makoto Nakatsui, Gordon Galloway, Andy May, Derrick Gleeson, Benson & Cornelius, Andreas Rogge.

Of course should the opportunity arise then a second hand chanter by Geoff Wooff, Dave Williams, Cillian O’Briain, Benedict Koehler is always a good buy.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Thanks for the many and insightful comments!
I’m based in Norway at the moment.

Being a piper does not mean I will pick up the Uilleann pipes easily. The advantage is a basic knowledge and understanding of how much work it is and what to listen to regarding playing a clean note. As far as learning, I started playing my pipes with just a drone and no chanter, then later a second drone. That was to be able to keep a steady pressure and know what to listen for when my blowing was off. When I started with the chantes, I plugged my drones.
My main reason for going with a half-set is to have the ability to start practicing the drones when I believe myself to be ready (I might not be). I don’t have to wait 6 months to have them made.

It would be no problem getting to a pipemaker around UK. It’s just a short flight and rent a car.
Getting hold of reeds is easier for highland pipes, but I still have to go back to Scotland and spend a few hours picking out a few good ones. While most might call their set of pipes just the drones, I still consider my full set as both the drones and chanter. I’ve not found a chanter that resonates more with me than my good old ABW chanter. This will be a new world when it comes to Uilleann pipes.

The complexity of the reeds, drones and overall sound is part of the attraction. I love the complexity in instruments and having to find out how it all works and bring forth the beauty of it. The challange is a motivation in itself. If I could play a tune within an hour, there would be no feeling of achievement (in my case).

I was hoping there was some sort of characteristic sound from each set of pipes or chanter that would shorten my list.With highland pipes, I prefer a set of Lawries over Hendersons because the overall sound is more mellow. Even though I can tweek the sound to some degree. While it’s true that a good set of pipes is no better than the piper playing them, good pipes will sound better as the pipers skill increases. That is not true for all pipes.

I will take all the advice to heart. My hope was to get at least some direction as to which direction I should be heading, and that I’ve been given (and more). With time I might be able to get some experience on my own. At this time I have to rely on the expertice from this community to get started.

I’ll try contacting some makers to get a sense of how long the wait is and an apporimate price.
If all goes well, it’s over to the Clancy week to get inspiration and some hints to work on.

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Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

There is a very good uilleann piper from England living in Bergen who sold his Dave Williams full set three or four of years ago. Dave Williams D sets have a nice mellow sound, as do David Lim’s pipes. David is based in Manchester and waiting time for a practice set (£1200) is 4-6 months https://davidlim-uilleannpipes.com/prices/

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

Lots of good advice so far: start with chanter, don’t buy sets made in Pakistan, lots of good makers in Europe, etc. I’m just posting to add a couple more tips. First of all, I agree that starting with a practice set is a great option. You would have to sort of relearn the bellows and how you hold the instrument when you get drones, but I didn’t find that transition to take more than a few months. The same transition happens when you get regs and figure out how to get them close enough to your hand.

If money was no issue I’d recommend just getting a full set (wouldn’t we all), and when I started, a couple experienced pipers recommended getting drones sooner than later, to get used to the air pressure differences earlier when the the drones are on.

I personally have picked up several used sets, and I would recommend it if you connect with a seller you trust enough and if you can find someone relatively close who could help you make reeds. I had to have reeds made for most of the chanters I purchased from elsewhere in the world. Now I make my own reeds, but the first couple years I didn’t. My local maker charged me $100 for a new reed. £5000 for a used full set isn’t bad, if it’s in great condition. I’ve occasionally seen sets for less, but they typically need some work, such as new reeds or minor wood repairs.

For used sets check out pipers.ie classifieds, Facebook piping groups (currently a Rogge full set listed cheap and a couple practice sets), and uilleannobsession.com. And there’s a good set on Ebay about once a quarter.

The pipers.ie website also has a good makers directory.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

"I was hoping there was some sort of characteristic sound from each set of pipes or chanter that would shorten my list."

Nope. Even chanters from the same maker can vary widely, and then you put a different reed in the thing and you change the sound. Then there’s the temperature and the humidity and has it been sitting in your cold car while you’re camping at a festival and any other variable you can think of….

Case in point: "Dave Williams D sets have a nice mellow sound…" The last two Williams sets I enountered at sessions were *loud.* The player of one of them commented that it was a lot quieter than it used to be.

Get a set of pipes that’s convenient and works, make sure there’s someone nearby who can reed it, and remember, you’re not married to it. So it’s not worth flapping too much about. Once you’ve played for a while and you spend time around other players, you might realise you want a different set. Or maybe not. Or you realise you would have a different set if you could afford that £12,000 Woofe/Koehler/Froment set but you can’t unless you start acing it on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, so you’ve got the instrument you’ve got. In any case, they don’t lose their value, so when you win Who Wants to be a Millionaire, you can sell your pipes and buy that dream set.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

There is a piper in Halden in Norway selling a Patkos practice set in D - see the Chiff and Fipple for sale section.

Re: Uilleann pipes - advice on buying

I highly recommend Brian Bigley’s pipes! He made my set and I love them.