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Don't Let A Pakistani Bagpipe Push You Over The Edge
The following essay has been posted continuously on a major Internet auction site for the past six years (since 2004) under the title/subtitle:
Expert advice & WARNING on buying bagpipes! Read it!!"
We do not otherwise routinely sell on auction sites but keeping this one practice chanter listed, ten days at a time, has saved hundreds if not thousands of folks from making the mistake of buying garbage, becoming disillusioned and perhaps giving up their dreams of playing the pipes. We know this is true from the steady flow of thankful mail we get here. Some might think this article a bit harsh. To the contrary, we toned it down for family consumption. If anyone is offended, well, too bad. Just about everyone in the piping world has been whining for years about the damage done by the makers and especially the Western importers and sellers of this crap. We're doing something about it. Here it is:
We've been involved with bagpipes for about forty years and operate a successful web-based retail bagpipe business specializing in high-quality yet affordable piping products. We have a reputation within the bagpiping community for impeccable customer service. Our Universe of Bagpipes web site is visited by a few thousand people per week, usually from over 70 countries. While the 200-plus megabyte site has its commercial side, 90% of it consists of educational articles and features on all aspects of bagpipes and piping, with over 600 individual pages, 2000 graphics, many sound files and so on, and it is constantly expanding. It's a web-based museum of bagpipes, the first and largest of its kind. The site has been on line for over ten years. The primary purpose of the site is to encourage piping in all its forms, and along with that to educate people before they commit themselves to buying anything from anybody. It is in keeping with this philosophy that we are listing this practice chanter here on [this auction site], a venue in which we otherwise do not offer our wares. We are going to make this one fine practice chanter, with the below explanation, a permanent fixture here, in hopes of providing at least some guidance to those who want to learn to play the bagpipe.
Just keeping people from wasting money on shoddy, useless merchandise isn't the point here. We've all done that, and usually the only negative effect is on our wallets. Most of the time when we've make the mistake of buying cheap junk to do a job we soon realize our folly, toss it out and start over. But many people who want to play the bagpipe have nothing to compare to such garbage, and have nobody available to tell them its true nature. So they try to learn to pipe and fail, and decide that the bagpipe just isn't for them - not realizing that it's the equipment that is at fault. This is sad and a shame, and is a loss to everyone in the piping community, and we want it to stop.
There is a fundamental difference between a cheap, shoddily made bagpipe and many other inexpensive instruments. For example, usually the main difference between a cheap "beginner's" violin and a concert instrument is the quality of tone it is capable of producing, and its cosmetics. The cheap violin, assuming its basic geometry is correct, functions just fine; it may not sound all that wonderful, but it can be played in tune and doesn't present insurmountable mechanical obstacles to the fledgling player, and it probably will stay in one piece. This is in sharp contrast to the $200 or $300 bagpipe, which may not play at all, may require a ridiculous amount of physical effort that is beyond the beginner, may be inherently out of tune, and probably will split and fall apart if it's ever played for more than a few hours.
Even otherwise legitimate musical instrument dealers fall prey to the peddlers of these bundles of kindling, almost all of which are made in Pakistan (and before anyone starts screaming about negative references to ethnic groups, read the last paragraph of this article). This happens out of ignorance and greed. Ignorance because information about what makes a bagpipe good or bad is scarce and not available from mainstream sources (try asking most professional musicians or music teachers about bagpipes). Greed because the profit margins are spectacular. We can buy full-size bagpipes, nice shiny "Rosewood" ones with colorful tartan covers, for $22 from the makers in Pakistan - that's not a typo, twenty-two dollars. A wholesaler will palm these off on a music store for maybe $75 and make over 300%. The retailer sells them for, say, $300 and makes 400%. Someone on an auction web site will offer that $22 pipe directly for $125 and make over 500% profit. (Meanwhile legitimate dealers selling real bagpipes are lucky to realize a 20% gross profit - which is why you never see real bagpipes in ordinary mainstream music stores).
Don't let a Pakistani bagpipe push you over the edge!
The ripoff doesn't end with the instruments. Many of them are issued with "instructions" which often contain hilarious attempts at English, but which less humourously also often contain fragmented excerpts of copyrighted material stolen from legitimate tutorials. I recently took a College of Piping tutorial (the standard of tutorials, from Scotland) into a large respected music store and showed the proprietor that the manual they're selling with a Pakistani bagpipe had passage after passage stolen from it, in violation of copyright law. They had no idea, of course. Needless to say, teaching materials of this sort only compound the already vexed student's misery.
"But gee," you might say, "many of the vendors of these supposedly worthless instruments have good feedback ratings. How can that be, if these bagpipes and practice chanters are really so horrible?" All it takes to maintain fine feedback is to accept returns and issue refunds without question. These dealers know they're selling rubbish and they make so much money on folks who are too unsure of themselves, or too embarrassed, or too lazy, to demand a refund that they can afford to cheerfully accept returns from anyone who asks.
"But how hard can making a bagpipe be?," you wonder. A Highland bagpipe consists of a minimum of 15 major turned (machined) parts, up to 25 additional turned and/or fabricated trim & reinforcement parts, four reeds, a bag, and a bag cover. Eight of the major turned pieces are directly involved in sound production - seven in the three drone pipes, plus the chanter (melody pipe). There are fifteen connections that must fit properly and be airtight.
The internal dimensions and finish of the eight sound-producing parts are critical if the pipe is to play in tune and with good tone. Drilling and finishing large very deep holes accurately is not an easy process. Even more difficult is producing the conical bore of the chanter, which must be extremely accurate, and properly positioning, sizing, drilling and undercutting the fingerholes.
Elements that are not directly involved in sound production, such as joints and connections, must also fit well if the pipe is to be manageable. Even seemingly small air leaks must be avoided as they have a surprisingly large effect on how much air the pipe requires.
Trim parts do not directly affect operation of the instrument, though those that serve a reinforcing function won't do so effectively if the fits are sloppy.
The material - traditionally wood - of which a bagpipe or practice chanter is made is subjected to alternate wetting and drying, and warming and cooling. It must be able to tolerate this, or it will soon split, rot, or both. In the chanters, improperly seasoned wood, or wood of an inappropriate type, can change dimensions enough to throw the instrument out of tune or, commonly, cause splitting. This has been an age-old problem for pipemakers and today most real wooden bagpipes (and classic woodwinds - oboes, bassoons, etc.) are made of very expensive aged tropical hardwoods. This is out of necessity, not for decorative reasons. Pakistani bagpipes and practice chanters are sold as being made of "Rosewood" or "Cocus" or "Sheeshawm" or whatever other random impressive-sounding name the maker or importer can dream up. These names are meaningless. In fact, these bagpipes are invariably made of whatever unidentifiable hard or semi-hard wood is locally available, often nothing more than salvage from pallet-makers, mill waste and even firewood, and often so green that it wouldn't surprise me to see a Pakistani drone sprout limbs.
The bag must be both supple and airtight, and must stay that way. The leather used in bagpipe bag construction is necessarily of high quality and is specially tanned. The tying into the bag of the five "stocks" (the short fat tubes that receive the drones, chanter and blowpipe, connecting them to the bag) must be done carefully so there are no leaks and so that the various pipes are in correct locations at correct angles. If the bag is synthetic rather than leather, it must be made of a suitable material, such as Gortex, not of anything like vinyl or rubber, and it must be built up using methods correct for that material. Pakistani bagpipe bags are made of random leather, randomly (and crudely) tanned. They usually leak, they often smell bad and they don't last long. Sometimes when one looks between the cloth bag cover and the bag itself, an intermediate plastic cover is found - this to keep the glop and goo (we don't even want to know what that might be) used to try to seal the porous leather from staining the cover (and the piper's clothes).
Reeds are at the heart of any bagpipe or practice chanter. Drone reeds are fairly simple, and the ones issued with Pakistani bagpipes may actually be usable, with some work. But the bagpipe chanter reed (a double reed, similar to an oboe reed) is another matter. Reed-making is a very highly skilled art, and reeds take time to make. They must then be broken in by the piper, which is hard work sometimes, and they then hopefully last a while. Pakistani bagpipe chanter reeds are, to use the only applicable word, worthless. Pakistani plastic practice chanter reeds may function after a fashion, as a matter of luck or accident, but don't count on it.
There is more, but the point should be obvious by now: A bagpipe is a surprisingly complex device and building one is not easy. Mass producing bagpipes and practice chanters as cheaply as possible using unskilled labor and random materials is about as likely to result in a usable instrument as is having a tuba built by the guys at the corner gas station.
How can you identify a Pakistani bagpipe? Some vendors and makers of these sonic horrors hang names on them that sound Scottish or are even ripoffs of names of old respected but long-gone pipe makers (one Pakistani maker incorporates "Robertson" in their company name, for example). So the name alone isn't something you can rely on. An immediate and reliable tipoff is price. Although there are a few vendors (not usually found on [this auction site]) who engage in what can only be called outright fraud by selling "better" (as in a flat tire is "better" than a wheel falling off) Pakistani bagpipes for upwards of $600, the average huckster doesn't have the nerve to ask more than around $400. You cannot buy a new, real, legitimate full size Great Highland Bagpipe for $400. Or $500. The old rule of thumb is that a moderately equipped decent bagpipe will cost around $1000. But some serviceable, plain wooden pipes by reputable makers can be had starting around $800. Very good pipes made of synthetic materials start at a bit below $600, from some dealers. But that's it, folks - you're just not going to get off for less. As already mentioned, the profit margin on real bagpipes is very slim, so there are no "sales" in which a $1000 pipe can be found for half-price or such. Used pipes are an option of course, but are not plentiful and good pipes hold their values well. So price can be a guide, at least at the low end. Obviously, the opposite - that a high price indicates a good bagpipe - cannot be assumed; we suggest getting a second opinion about any expensive bagpipe, especially a used one.
Most of what is said here about bagpipes applies as well to practice chanters, but there are some obvious and hidden differences that must be considered. Good serviceable practice chanters start around $60. Such practice chanters, from the UK, Canada, or the US are almost always made of "Polypenco," also known as Delrin, a high-strength machinable synthetic. Practice chanters take an even greater beating than bagpipes from the constant moisture and temperature changes, and only the finest well seasoned wood will stand up to this abuse. Therefore truly usable wooden practice chanters are moderately expensive, upwards of $100. Wooden Pakistani practice chanters can be bought from the makers in bulk for under $3 each. These are then sold on auction sites for $20 to $35 dollars or so. They are only rarely in tune, the wood - especially the wood of the top half - will almost certainly split in short order, the fingerholes are not countersunk to give the feel of a full bagpipe chanter, and, while tone quality isn't so important in a practice chanter, they sound like an ill duck. That's if the supplied reed functions at all.
Recently there are quite a few "other" bagpipes (other than Great Highland, that is) with equally charming characteristics coming out of Pakistan and being touted on auction sites and elsewhere. Some are purely invented concoctions, sold as "medieval" or "Mediterranean" bagpipes or such. Others claim to be classic French or other European pipes. The worst of all are attempted copies of the Irish Uilleann pipe, which is the most complex and difficult-to-make (and play) of all bagpipes. Pakistani imitations of these pipes are retailed for up to $2000 (they cost the importer around $350), which seems like a bargain when a real one costs at least double or triple that and involves perhaps a two-year wait, a bargain that is until it is discovered that these copies flat-out can't be made to play properly, even by masters of the instrument. ( By the way, every modern genuine Uilleann bagpipe can be traced to an individual maker - if you can't determine who that is, grab your wallet with both hands and run.)
Above we mentioned "better" Pakistani bagpipes. Such things actually do exist, but are impossible to identify without having one in hand. There are a small number of pipers who enjoy the challenge of making such an instrument serviceable. It's something of a sport, even, in the same category as, say, restoring an East German Trabant (an automobile, to use that term loosely, made in part of paper mache). This can be done, but not without cost, work, and expertise. At a bare minimum the chanter and reeds will need to be replaced, at a cost of between $150 and $200. (This is not necessarily throwing good money after bad, because these items can later be moved from the Pakistani bagpipe to a real one.) If the bag needs replacing (perhaps because your spouse unreasonably objects to the aroma of Camel urine -sometimes used in tanning - in the house) that will cost another $100 or so. The blowpipe almost always splits early on, and a replacement will cost perhaps $40. Some people who have unintentionally bought a random Pakistani bagpipe try to salvage their investment this way. We hear the laments regularly. With luck the result will be a mediocre instrument that will hold up for a time, but it's not a pretty picture. It's wiser to swallow the loss and start over. (One of our customers keeps his Pakistani bagpipe on the floor in a corner of his office to, he says, "remind myself not to do something like that again.") But again, it's not those who know they've bought junk that cause us dismay - what's painful is wondering how many people have quietly put these miserable bagpipes or practice chanters in the closet and closed the door on their dreams of becoming a piper.
Finally, we must make two things crystal clear. First, none of the above comes from any sort of elitist attitude - unfortunately held by some people - that a Great Highland Bagpipe must be made in some particular place in order to qualify as being worthy of the name. We couldn't care less where a bagpipe is made, if it's made right. There are individuals all over the world building small numbers of fine bagpipes, and there are certainly craftsmen in Pakistan who could build fine bagpipes if given the necessary time and money. Second, we were once accused, in a most obnoxious manner, by a self-styled "Celtic music" maven, the proprietress of a New England music "shoppe" who peddles mainly harps and Pakistani bagpipes, of being racist - because we had the nerve to identify the primary source of this rubbish as being Pakistan. We are no such thing. Just as we don't care where a bagpipe is made, we don't care by whom it's made (or for that matter by whom it's played). We only care that anyone who wants to learn to play the bagpipe has a decent chance of succeeding, and at this time that happens to preclude purchasing a Pakistani bagpipe or practice chanter.
Feel free to write for more information on this and other issues related to learning to play the bagpipe. Thanks for your interest and attention.