The secret to good tone.

The following is an email I received from piper David Hester about some exiciting breakthroughs he'd made using the Bagpipe Gauge. David was happy to share his experiences and his exciting new findings. I think you might agree that his write up is fantastic. In addition, David created a video to show how he uses the Bagpipe Gauge to achieve the best tone and most precise tuning possible.

Piper David Hester writes:

I have finally discovered the secret of good sound.

When I say, "discovered", I should really say, "understood what Jori and others have been doing and teaching for quite some time." But I think of it as a discovery, because even though I have known all along that good tuning is important, and steady blowing is important, and that both these things should be obvious to us, it finally all came together for me.

And the pipes have never sounded the same since.

On the face of it, it is really as simple as "good tuning + steady blowing". But something that simple was proving to be so elusive. Until I "got it".

Look. Bagpipes are a horrible instrument to tune. Horrible. Other fixed-note instruments can generally be relied upon to hold their tuning. A piano, once tuned, pretty much stays that way. Sure, lighting and temperature can affect it, but when you drag a piano onto a stage, let it acclimate and tune it, the performer doesn't have to worry about a note going out of tune. Certainly not over the duration of a performance. Heck, even the next day the performer can sit down and play a song without thought.

On the other hand, other woodwind instruments have the benefit of the performers embouchure (strength of lips) to bend a note into tune over the course of a performance. If one note of an oboe is flat, the performer simply firms up their lips and the note comes into tune. This kind of bending is specific, and generally not necessary for each individual note. The performer is in control.

Not with the bagpipes. The reeds play openly. Temperature and moisture have a direct impact on pitch. Pitch changes over time. We don't tune our instruments; they tune themselves - and fail!

It's no wonder we have a bad reputation!

So what is a piper to do?

Clearly, a lot of intervention is required. Jori's listed many tips and tricks, from taping holes to poking and rubber-banding reeds, and so on. All of those are necessary, but they are only the groundwork. Once you install moisture traps, tune and tape the chanter, tune up the drones, play for a bit to warm up the bags, the sound is close, but is still not good enough. Even with all these necessary interventions, the pitch will simply not come into alignment with any consistency. You will never be able to achieve a good sound.

Why? Because YOU HAVE NOT ACTUALLY TUNED THE PIPES. You think you have, but you haven't. And you haven't, because you have not provided the kind of steady foundation for the pitch to be determined.

As you play, without any way of knowing how consistently you are blowing, you will vary the pressure. And this variation causes both the chanter (moreso) and drones (less so) to fluctuate in pitch. Maybe you relax on the lower notes, and increase the pressure on the higher notes (to get that high-A a little closer to pitch). But you don't think about that. You just hear the pitch slightly off. So then you retune the drones, or move the tape about. Or both. Eventually, you settle for a sound that is close, but not really. Your pitch, in fact, isn't tuned at all: it is a best guess, a wing and a prayer.

Here's where the Bagpipe Gauge comes in: It provides the foundation that ensures consistency. And upon that consistency (pressure, blowing), you can actually begin to tune your pipes

Here's what happens: once you warm up your pipes, there is a window where your reeds stabilize in pitch. In this window, if you play your pipes at a steady pressure, you can be certain that the pitch you are hearing is as close to definitive as you can get. Which means, if you play at pressure, you can actually tune your chanter and know the pitch will stay in tune.

Here's what I do:

1) Tune the chanter using your tuner of choice. It will get you close enough.
2) Put your pipes together, including the Bagpipe Gauge.
3) Practice making your blowing steady and warm up your pipes.
4) Now tune your drones to low A.
5) Then begin to fine tune your chanter: each time you move the tape, verify you are blowing at the same pressure.

As you work your way up the chanter, you can begin hear the overtones come alive as notes pull out harmonics from the drones. If you don't, move the tape and play at the same steady pressure until you do, for every note.

Soon, you'll hear what the judges listen for and what the pros achieve regularly: a full, rich harmonic sound. You'll be amazed at the improvement!

So what are you waiting for? Get your Bagpipe Gauge today!