Dunbar Model P1 Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe - Basic Instructions
Oliver Seeler's
~ Universe of Bagpipes ~

Some Basics:
Setting Up, Playing & Maintaining the Dunbar Model P1
Great Highland Bagpipe

You do have a teacher, or at least a piper, to help you get started, right? No? Well, you need to find one - but because inevitably some fledgling pipers will proceed on their own no matter what, here are some very basic instructions concerning assembly and operation of your new Dunbar Model P1 Great Highland Bagpipe. (Note: The material here also applies to the P3, with the difference that the P3 uses traditional wrapped hemp thread in place of the P1's O-rings.)

The Drones:

There are three drones - one bass drone and two identical tenor drones. The drones each produce a continuous single tone. The pitch of this tone is determine by the length of the drone, which is adjustable while the drone is sounding, and by the reed (discussed later). Each of the three drones fits into a socket (called a "stock") which is tied into the bag.

The bass drone stock is larger than the two tenor drone stocks, and it is the one closest to the piper's body when the bagpipe is held under the left arm (with the chanter facing forward ... if you didn't know that, please stop now and find a teacher - you might hurt yourself). Each of the smaller (tenor) drones is composed of two parts - a stationary (or "standing") part, which plugs into the stock, and a sliding part which fits onto the long narrow portion (the "tuning pin") of the stationary part. It is by moving the sliding part up and down the tuning pin of the stationary part that the drone is lengthened or shortened, thus lowering or raising the pitch of the tone (lengthening lowers, or flattens, the pitch while shortening raises, or sharpens, the pitch). The bass drone works in exactly the same way, but is composed of three sections - a standing part that is the same as that of the tenor drones except larger, a sliding middle section that fits onto the tuning pin of the standing part and that itself has a tuning pin on top and finally the top sliding part, which again looks like the tenor drone top sliding sections but is larger. The bass drone middle sliding part, sometimes called the "middle joint," provides the required greater overall length of the bass drone and, via its tuning pin, also allows for a wider range of length adjustment. The middle joint cannot be confused in assembly with the stationary part or the upper sliding part - the three only fit together one way - but it is possible (I suppose) to forget the middle joint altogether. As provided, the Dunbar pipe comes with cords attached that keep the three drones in position and these will assist in indicating correct assembly.

Your bagpipe may arrive disassembled to one extent or another, but by using the above description and by referring to the photos you should be able to put it together properly without difficulty. As with all woodwind instruments, use a twisting motion when taking joints apart or putting them together. Highland bagpipe joints are traditionally lapped with waxed hemp thread, which can be the source of much trouble. You are spared, for now, dealing with this because of the "hempless" design of these pipes, which use synthetic rubber o-rings for all joints, stationary and sliding. The only maintenance the o-rings will need for a long time is an occasional very light application of a simple lubricant, such as Vaseline. If an o-ring ever needs replacement, you can find the proper size at any decent automotive supply store.

The Drone Reeds:

Now that you know how the drones go together on your new bagpipe, it is time to discuss the drone reeds. Each drone has one reed, mounted by being stuck a short way into the bore at the bottom of the standing part.

Thus when the drone is out of its stock (the part tied into the bag) almost all of the reed is visible, protruding from the end of the drone bore; when the pipe is assembled, the reed sticks down into the stock. The reeds are traditionally made of a single hollow tube of cane, which has had a tongue cut partially free along its length.

The open end of the cane tube is inserted into the drone, where it is held (and made airtight) by a few laps of waxed thread. The other end of the reed is sealed, usually by a dab of sealing wax. So, the only way for air to escape from the bag into the drone bore is by entering the reed around the tongue - this sets the tongue to vibrating, and is the source of the tone being generated - the "soul" of the pipe.

Note: When installing the drone reeds, they must be seated in the pipe firmly enough so they don't fall out and land in the bag (from whence retrieving them will involve the use of language not suitible for the ears of children). Add or remove thread wrapping to the reed to provide a firm airtight seal. Grasp them down below the tongue when seating them, so as to not distort the working parts. Occasionally have a look at the drone reeds to be sure they remain firmly seated.

This type of cane reed is one of the oldest musical devices known, and there are many, many subtleties involved in making and tuning them so that they provide the desired performance. Here I will mention only a few things (again, you need that teacher) that may help keep you from getting stuck altogether.

Starting & Stopping: A drone reed, obviously enough, must hum along at whatever pressure the bagpipe is being operated. This may vary, depending especially on the particulars of the chanter reed. A drone reed that works fine at one pressure may stop at a higher pressure. It may also stop as a result of other environmental factors, its newness, etc. When a drone reed stops, what is happening is that the tongue is simply being held shut by the air pressure - no air at all is getting under the tongue to lift it and begin its back-and-forth action. One technique for starting a stopped drone reed is to reach up and stick a finger in the end of the drone and then "pop" it out - this with the bag pressurized, of course. The shock wave created by popping the finger out of the bore will often get a reed started. This maneuver and its counterpart - intentionally stopping a reed by briefly capping the drone bore with a finger - is used routinely when it is desired to shut down and restart drones while playing, usually with the purpose of hearing clearly while tuning one of the other drones to the chanter.

If the finger-popping maneuver doesn't get a drone reed running, even after the pipe is warmed up, it will be necessary to work on the reed itself. Here caution (and again, I stress, a teacher) is needed. Note that there is a narrow wrap of thread on the drone reed, near the base of the tongue and above the more massive wrapping that seats the reed. This is called the "bridle" and by sliding it up or down the tongue (usually a very short distance) the performance of the reed can be altered. If a reed is stopping, try sliding the bridle a bit toward the drone itself (thus lengthening the effective length of the tongue).

If that doesn't do the trick, try gently lifting the tongue a bit - when doing this, hold the reed with your thumb on the base of the tongue, to avoid splitting the tongue off the reed altogether. The object is to "spring" the tongue, but a little bit goes a long way.

Rolling a drone reed back and forth between your palms is another technique that can get a reed running. Again, don't overdo it.

Finally, a drone reed that refuses to play without stopping can often be made to run by inserting a hair (from your beard or head, or maybe your dog's tail) under the tongue. Lift the tongue (gently) from its bed and slide the hair under it crossways, down to the bridle near the bottom of the tongue. This lifts the tongue a bit in its bed. The drawback is that the reed may not stop when you want it to, and it may use more air than necessary.

Note: Many pipers today use synthetic drone reeds, for example those made by Wygent and offered as an option with Dunbar bagpipes. Most of what is said here applies to conventional cane reeds. Synthetic reeds have their own peculiarities and requirements. It is essential to follow exactly the instructions provided with such reeds. Techniques that work with cane reeds may destroy synthetic reeds.

Drone Reed Pitch: Sometimes a drone reed will work just fine, except that the drone cannot be tuned sharp or flat enough by lengthening or shorting it. This requires the reed to either be moved in or out of the bore (the first choice, but the amount of change available this way is not great), or requires that the pitch at which the reed itself sounds is raised or lowered. Shortening or lengthening the tongue by sliding the bridle up or down can achieve this, but may cause other problems like stopping. Try that, as it is quick & easy. A reed's pitch can be lowered by adding weight, in the form of a little blob of sticky wax, to the tongue. Finally, and most drastically, the tongue can be scraped or sanded to reduce its weight and raise its pitch - but this isn't really reversible and can lead to problems of stability. There are other ills cane reeds are sometimes prone to, such as double-toning (where the drone suddenly generates a tone entirely different than usual), roaring, gurgling and other such indecent sounds (you'll know them when you hear them), but it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss these. Again, get thee to a teacher ...

In very recent times, many pipers have abandoned cane drone reeds for ones made of plastic and/or other synthetic materials. There is no question that such reeds are much more predictable and less sensitive to moisture, dryness, temperature, altitude and a host of other factors that bedevil pipers, but there is considerable debate about the character of tone produced by them. Eventually, each piper must make up his or her own mind about this, but cane drone reeds and their management are a fundamental part of piping that really should be learned. However, it can be argued that the novice piper, especially, has so much else to struggle with that relieving him or her from the inevitable hassles of cane reeds isn't a bad thing. Synthetic drone reeds are also very popular with pipe bands. On the "options and enhancements" page you can see what a high-quality set of synthetic drone reeds looks like, and what they cost.

The Chanter and Chanter Reed:

Refer to the pages on practice chanters for basic assembly and reed-insertion/removal photos. While the Dunbar chanter is nearly indestructible, for the sake of future bagpipes that you might encounter you should follow the same technique for removal as described for the practice chanter: With one hand holding the chanter stock and the other the chanter, each as close as possible to the seam of the joint between them, apply a straight-line twisting pull. Never grasp a chanter anywhere lower down than the half-round "knob" above the fingerholes when doing this - the Dunbar will stand the abuse, but you will surely break a wooden chanter this way. When assembling, be careful not to "stub" the reed on the edge of the stock. When preparing to play, it's OK to rotate the chanter in the stock to place the fingerholes where you want them, but grip the stock and the chanter when doing this - don't do it one-handed thus straining the bag, and again keep your grip as high as possible on the chanter when turning it.

Note: As of early 2001, both the P1 and the P3 are being issued with Dunbar's new world-class chanter. Because it is intended to be used with bagpipes by other makers it is fitted with wrapped hemp, which can be adjusted to fit a variety of stock (socket) sizes, rather than O-rings.

The chanter reed provided with your bagpipe is of course professionally made; like the drone reeds, it is made of cane (tied onto a small brass tube called the "staple.") All of the cautions about handling the plastic practice chanter reed apply to it. It has been tested for proper operation, but it has not been broken in nor, obviously, has it been played in your particular environment. It may be supplied fitted with a wire "bridle" which allows certain adjustments to be made. It is strongly urged that you get some face-to-face help before "tweaking" the reed in any way, but if you must muck around, do so with great care.

The supplied chanter reed is considered "light" in terms of the air required to operate it. It will nevertheless seem quite stiff at first, especially when it is both new and dry (and you are green). Many pipers moisten a reed before playing, but the practice is controversial (talk to your teacher ...) and some consider it detrimental to overall reed life. My own experience is that once a reed is broken in it is best to leave it completely alone if at all possible - just play, and most often in some reasonable length of time the reed will settle down and behave. Often the problem will be that one or another note on the chanter will be out of tune - many pipers deal with this by partially covering one or more of the fingerholes with black electrical tape, rather than by messing with the reed. You can experiment with tape - you won't hurt anything. The least drastic thing you can do directly to the reed is change its depth in its seat (by adding to or removing some of the lower wrap of thread). This is fairly safe, if you handle the reed low-down and gently. More risky is either squeezing the blades closer together or further apart. Most drastic is actually cutting, scraping or sanding the blades; you will probably ruin the reed if you don't know exactly what you're doing. All of this sounds intimidating, but with someone to guide you it's not so bad, and with a little luck once you have a reed that's working well it will last a long time.

Again, there are now synthetic chanter reeds available; the technology is recent and not many GHB pipers are yet using them, but we think they're here to stay. It's good to become familiar with cane reeds, but the synthetics do provide substantial benefits, especially for the beginning piper. At the bottom of this page you'll find a link to our Clanrye (brand) chanter reed page; there's an essay there that will help you understand some of the complex issues involved in choosing a chanter reed.

The Blowpipe:

The blowpipe, through which the piper supplies air to the bag, is a simple-appearing device but like many other parts of a bagpipe this can be deceptive. First of all, many bagpipes have blowpipes with bores that are too small to allow completely unrestricted airflow; this can cause a surprising amount of unnecessary extra effort when playing. Your Dunbar pipe's blowpipe has a large and very smooth bore, which thus doesn't make more work for you. All bagpipe blowpipes are fitted with some sort of check-valve to keep air from moving backwards through them while the piper takes a breath. For centuries the standard valve has been nothing more than a little flap of leather mounted at the bottom of the blowpipe, hinged so that any backward air movement causes it to cover the bottom opening of the blowpipe bore. This works, usually, but the leather flap and the leather hinge are subject to swelling, distortion, stiffness, etc., depending on the recent and present circumstances of operation in terms of moisture, temperature and so on. A variety of more stable valves are on the market, and your P1 blowpipe is equipped with one of the more well-established and popular of these, called a Little Mac Valve. It is a small device, made of plastics, that simply plugs into the bottom end of the blowpipe bore. An occasional rinsing, if you get pizza crumbs and such into it, is all the attention it should need. Most bagpipe supply houses carry these valves (one size fits all), should you ever need to replace it. To test your blowpipe, apply some suction and then close the tip with your tongue - the suction should hold, and not leak down. A final word about blowpipes involves moisture: Some people introduce much more moisture than others into the bagpipe when playing, but in any case there will be times when things get a bit soggy. The Dunbar blowpipe stock - the part tied into the bag and into which the blowpipe itself fits - has an internal configuration that traps a certain amount of moisture rather than letting it run down into the bag (from where it may eventually cause the reeds to become overly damp). To use this feature when and if conditions require it, simply unplug the blowpipe and dump the trapped water out of the stock. (There are much more elaborate devices available for moisture control, including things like kitty-litter filled filters, but you won't be worried about that for some time, if at all.)

The Bag:

The cowhide bag supplied as standard with your Dunbar bagpipe is an expertly made top grade commercial product, made in Canada by a major supplier, L&M. The bag is not just an air reservoir, but also plays an important part in moisture control - for example, rubber bags don't work at all well for mouth-blown cane-reeded bagpipes.

A quality leather bag will give years of service when well treated. Your bag is ready to go now, but all leather bagpipe bags require periodic maintenance, and there are a lot of opinions about the best materials & techniques. The object is to keep the bag airtight, and to preserve the leather. Any bagpipe supply house will stock and probably recommend "bag seasoning" of one sort or another. There are now synthetic bags available made of materials such as Gortex that are airtight yet pass moisture, and they are increasingly popular. One of the most established brands is Canmore, of Scotland, and these are available as an option for both the P1 and P3 - see the "options and enhancements" page for more information.


You should get yourself a set of rubber stoppers to plug all stocks except the blowpipe stock. These will come in handy as you're learning because you can remove any combination of pipes from the instrument. For example, you can play just the chanter, the chanter and one drone, just two drones, and so on. The stoppers are also very convenient when seasoning the bag, and when checking for leaks.

Speaking of leaks, they are something you do not want. Running a GHB, even with the lightest of reeds, consumes a lot of air and you want every bit of it making music, not hissing out as leaks. Be aware that seemingly small leaks can make a very big difference in how hard you have to work.

Further On-Site Information:

New! ~ The Outstanding Great Highland Bagpipe Teaching Videos by Jim McGillivray

Options and Enhancements for Dunbar Bagpipes

Purchasing Information: The Dunbar Model P1 Great Highland Bagpipe

The Dunbar Model P3 Great Highland Bagpipe

Purchasing Information: The Dunbar Model P3 Great Highland Bagpipe

The Practice Chanter Pages

Clanrye synthetic Great Highland Bagpipe reeds (and more)

Return to the Universe of Bagpipes Main Page

Copyright 1999 - 2001 Oliver Seeler,