A Bagpiper's Amazing Grace: How to Judge the Bagpipes

Have you ever wondered if the local bagpiper that played at the Irish festival in your town was any good? Ever suspected that the rendition of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes that you heard was not actually how the instrument is supposed to sound? Well, you are not alone. As a professional bagpiper, I frequently hear horror stories from audiences. In fact, on many occasions people have come up to me to tell me that they used to hate bagpipes because they thought they were an ugly instrument until hearing me play.

When you ask your Latino friend how to say ‘show me the money’ in Spanish, no matter what he says, you are going to believe him. The bagpipes are sort of like that – unknown to most people because you only hear them on rare occasions. Most people do not know how to distinguish the good from the bad or worse, the ugly. It also does not help that many TV shows, movies, and commercials purposely make the bagpipes sound ugly for dramatic effect.

Ross from Friends playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes poorly.
Ross pretending to play the bagpipes poorly on the popular TV show Friends is one reason most Americans don’t know what the bagpipes should sound like.

Let’s be honest. The bagpipes are not a common instrument here in America. In fact, I would say they are quite unique, and unless you have a good instructor, learning to play the highland instrument well is a difficult, if not impossible, task. I was fortunate enough to be born with a father that wanted to celebrate his Scottish heritage at a young age, which led him to learn the bagpipes from a renowned tutor and maintain the skill his whole life. Thus, my siblings and I all had the opportunity to learn at a young age from our father.

At the ripe age of 14, I began to play the bagpipes at different events – a talent show at my church, a competition at the local highland games, a high school football game, and a funeral for a family friend. Since those early years of piping, I have played for hundreds of events and jobs that have allowed me to fine tune my skill.

Now, I am not professing to be a master of the bagpipes, but I know what it takes for a bagpiper – not to mention the bagpipe itself – to sound good. Let me clue you in on a couple of things to watch for when around a bagpiper.

Method 1. The Bagpipe’s Drones

Perhaps the fastest and easiest way to distinguish the good from the bad is to listen to the drones. There is a constant background noise when bagpipes are played, and this sound is supplied from the pipes, or drones, that rest on the bagpiper’s shoulder and extend up in the air. There are three reeds within the drones that must be in tune with each other and with each note on the chanter (more on the chanter later) in order for the bagpipe to sound good. If these are not in tune, the bagpipes can sound like nails on a chalkboard – painful, sad, and cringe-worthy.

Here is a short clip that provides you with a good idea of well tuned drones versus the opposite.

Method 2. The Bagpipe’s Chanter

Although the drones provide the background sound, the melody of the music comes from the chanter. This piece of the instrument can be identified by searching for the bagpiper’s fingers, and the sound originating from the chanter is much louder and sharper than the drones. Similar to the flute or recorder, the position of the fingers creates the specific notes that you hear. One of the first rules learned when transitioning from the practice chanter to the bagpipes is to never let the chanter sound stop when in the middle of a song. This absence of chanter, or skip in the music, is caused by the fundamental issue – the bagpiper is not blowing (phrasing) enough air or maintaining sufficient pressure in the bag to enable the reed to make sound. To be fair, everyone who plays the pipes has probably made this mistake including myself, but a well seasoned bagpiper should never make this mistake especially when playing at an event.

Watch this short clip to understand what a stop in the music sounds like.

Method 3. Does Any Noise Stick Out on the Bagpipes?

My first two suggestions are the easiest ways for you to be that cool person in front of your friends and say “yeah, definitely not supposed to sound like that.” However, this suggestion might be a bit tougher to distinguish depending on the skill level of the piper. A beginner or inexperienced piper will 100% be making small yet noticeable mistakes whereas a seasoned piper should rarely make these sorts of errors.

If any noise sticks out in an awkward, shrill, or horrendous way that causes you to make a scrunched-up face, be assured that this cringe should never happen. Because there is so much nuanced detail that goes into playing the pipes, these abrupt noises can be caused by anything including poor fingering (phrasing), a poorly tuned chanter, too much air flow impacting the reeds, and a fundamental issue in squeezing the bag. The list is truly endless which is why I say that inexperienced or poorly instructed bagpipers will stick.

I cannot reproduce all of these mistakes, but here is what I can reproduce.

Armed with these bagpipe secrets, you are now ready to be the judge of the piper you hear at the golf tournament, city festival, or St. Patrick’s Day party. You’re welcome!

Putting those Tools Together with Amazing Grace on the Bagpipes

Why is Amazing Grace a great bagpipe song to judge a bagpiper? First, most people know what Amazing Grace should sound like. And unlike other common bagpipe tunes like Scotland the Brave or Highland Cathedral, most people have heard Amazing Grace on a different instrument. Second, Amazing Grace is slow and less technical which allows the listener to focus on the sounds coming from the bagpipes. Third, the high note that dominates Amazing Grace is very sensitive to poor tuning of the drones, unsteady pressure, and bad finger posture.

Now to test your newfound bagpipe judgement, here is a good example of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes followed by a bad example. See if you can tell the difference! For more examples of what a bagpipe should sound like check out our YouTube channel or this digital album. Enjoy!

Help us teach the world what Amazing Grace should sound like on the bagpipes.

Let us know what you think in the comments section below! Feel free to share stories (both good and bad!) of bagpipers that you have heard before. Also, too many people say they don’t like the bagpipes simply because they have always heard bad bagpipers. Help them out by sharing this post with your friends on Facebook, so they can learn why the bagpipes they heard may not be the best representation of the bagpipes. Finally, if hearing the bagpipes has inspired you to find your own Scottish heritage check out our What’s My Tartan tool to find which tartan you should wear.