Information on Uilleann Pipes and Playing Them


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The uilleann (pronounced ill'-in) pipes are Irish bagpipes. They are also sometimes called "Irish Pipes" or "Union Pipes."

Those addicted to the uilleann pipes describe them as beautiful, complex, ancient, mysterious, and even a hive of honeyed sound.

The most obvious difference between them and the great Highland bagpipes of Scotland is that the uilleann pipes are not blown with the mouth; air is pumped into the bag by means of a bellows attached to the human elbow ("uilleann" is gaelic for "elbow"). Also, uilleann pipes are not as loud. However, there are other special features of uilleann pipes.

Although uilleann pipes have been around since the early 1600's, their revival in modern times began in the 1960's with a musical group called The Chieftains. More recently, the uilleann pipes have been widely seen in the Riverdance band, and this has excited a great deal of interest.



Photo: Ancient uilleann piper. Photographic credit: National Gallery of Ireland.


About the Instrument

It should be understood that uilleann pipes are much more difficult to play than standard Scottish pipes. Their design is also more complicated.

There are three parts to a full set of uilleann pipes:

1. Bellows, bag and chanter, sometimes called a starter or practice set. The chanter has a range of two full octaves, unlike Scottish pipes which have only nine notes; it has a double reed. The uilleann chanter plays a standard two-octave diatonic scale in key of D or G.  Sometimes this basic set is used to play  melody, in the same way that a clarinet or oboe might be used. You start playing  this starter set right at the beginning; you do not traditionally play any kind of practice chanter first, the way players of standard highland pipes do, although more recently an uilleann practice chanter has been developed (see below). The fingering is not the same as for standard pipes.

2. The drones. There are three drones: tenor, baritone and bass, each with a single reed. You should play the starter set for about a year before you add drones.

3. The regulators. There are three regulators: tenor, baritone and bass, each with a double reed. Regulators, which are not found on Scottish pipes at all, are pipes with keys that play notes in accompaniment to the chanter; a full set of regulators has thirteen keyed notes. The keys are played by leaning your wrist on them. The regulators are the hardest part of uilleann pipes; if you are a beginner, you can put off buying the regulators for a long time (and these are the most expensive part of the set). Indeed, many players never get to adding the regulators at all.

This means that a full set of uilleann pipes plays the tune, has drones playing, and also accompanies itself with other notes on the regulators all at the same time. The piper therefore has to pump the bellows with his elbow while he plays the chanter with both hands and leans his wrist on the keys of the regulators. To the uninitiated, it must seem that an uilleann piper has to have three hands to do it all, or preferably four! It does not help that the good players make this all look very easy.


If You Decide to Purchase Uilleann Pipes

These pipes are not easy for beginners to deal with by themselves; you may have difficulties with reeds or other parts of these sets. Large amounts of both patience and persistence are needed, as well as a lot of practice. You may need help from an experienced uilleann player to play them. These pipes do not supply instant gratification! Why do we tell you this? Because, of all the instruments that we sell, uilleann pipes cause the most difficulties. In their native Ireland, uilleann pipes are never learned by isolated beginners; there is always a teacher to be had. We suggest you think hard about this before ordering these pipes, as they require a commitment of time and effort on your part.


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