Section Image: Picture of smallpipes

The classic sets of Northumbrian Smallpipes

Photograph of Simple Set of Pipes
A Simple Set of Northumbrian Smallpipes by John Dunn
Photo: Francis Wood

A 'simple' set of Northumbrian Smallpipes:

The simplest form of the Northumbrian pipes have a simple chanter and three drones. The chanter can play the eight notes of a single octave of a major scale.

The three drones are commonly called 'big' G, D and 'little' G.

This set of Northumbrian pipes is only intended to play in a single key and there is no real need for a mechanism to stop the drones.

This form of the Northumbrian Smallpipes dates from the mid 18th century and earlier. This was the instrument which John Peacock, Jimmy Allan and William Cant would have known and played, and the first published collection of tunes for the Northumbrian Smallpipes, now known as Peacock's Tunes contains music admirably suited to this instrument. All such music can be played on more complex versions of the instruments, but competent players of the instrument claim that playing a simple chanter feels very different to playing the same tune on a keyed chanter.

A 'standard' set of Northumbrian Smallpipes:

The most common form of Northumbrian pipes has 7-keys on the chanter which extends the range of the chanter and allows two additional semitones within the original octave. To make use of these capabilities an additional low D, drone is added and a tuning bead fitted to the lower G drone allowing it to be tuned to A.

The 7-keys offer:

The fourth drone is generally called 'big' D and is an octave below the lowest note of the chanter.

The combination of a 7 key chanter with 4 drones, 1 of which has a tuning bead is an almost definitive arrangement allowing access to the vast majority of the Northumbrian repertoire. It represents the ideal starting point for a beginner, especially when bought second-hand.

Further Developments

Robert Reid further extended the capabilities of the pipes by the introduction of further semitones to make the chanter fully chromatic - 'The 14 key chanter'. His son James, lengthened the chanter taking the range down to B, below middle C with all the intervening semitones. This two-octave fully-chromatic chanter is generally known as 'The 17 key chanter'. Alongside these developments, tuning beads were added to the drones, allowing the pipes to play in other keys, even to the extent of modifying existing sets. James Reid also made a chanter pitched in the key of D, about a fourth below the G chanter.

Since this time, many other developments have taken place which will be described elsewhere.

Classic Sets