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Celtic-instruments image of Scottish piper wearing a traditional kilt, playing the Great Highland bagpipes

Like many Celtic instruments, pipes are known by many names and come in a multitude of flavors. There are Great Highland Bagpipes, Irish Warpipes, Uilleann Pipes, Union Pipes, Northumbrian Smallpipes, Scottish Smallpipes, Chuisleann Pipes, Border Pipes, Lowland Pipes, Irish Pipes, pastoral pipes, shuttle pipes, elbow pipes, parlor pipes, and even kitchen pipes.

Lest all of this get too confusing, it's possible to quickly boil all of these varieties down into two main categories, based on the method used to fill the instrument's bag with air: mouth-blown pipes, which must be played outdoors (unless you live in an airplane hangar), and bellows-blown pipes, which are quiet enough to be played indoors.

Mouth-Blown Pipes

Bellows-Blown Pipes (Parlor Pipes)

Regardless of the type of instrument being played, the principles of piping remain the same. By mouth or by bellows, the piper fills a sheepskin bag with air; he produces the desired notes by manipulating finger holes on a short pipe called a chanter; and the air exits the bag through additional pipes attached to the bag, known as the bass and tenor drones. The expelled air being forced out through the drones vibrates a reed in the end of each drone and creates the bagpipes' distinctive sound.

Mouth-Blown Pipes

In one form or another, bagpipes have been around for thousands of years; it is said they were used to lead Roman infantrymen into battle, and may have been played for the entertainment of Egyptian pharaohs.

When most of us think of bagpipes, the Great Highland Bagpipe, played by a kilt-wearing Scot, is the sound and image that immediately springs to mind. The piper blows very strongly through a mouthpiece to fill the bag with air. In Ireland, a similar instrument has been known as the Irish Warpipes.

Because of their overwhelming sound, these great bagpipes are not used for playing traditional Celtic music. However, many recordings are available of large ensembles of Scottish pipers (a.k.a. Highland Regiments) accompanied by a multitude of drummers. While it is common knowledge that six to seven years of intensive practice are required to become a competent piper, the demand for bagpipes remains very strong.

Bellows-Blown Pipes (or Parlor Pipes)

Air is driven into the bag by bellows that the piper squeezes between his arm and rib cage. The player controls the pitch and tuning of the pipes by varying the pressure his arm exerts on the bag. There are a few subtle differences between the different types of parlor pipes; e.g., chanters can be closed or open-ended.

Northumbrian Smallpipes. These pipes get their name from their place of origin, the Northumberland region of northern England. Since they are the only bagpipes that feature a closed chanter, they are the quietest of all the pipe varieties. The closed chanter means that if all fingerholes are covered there is no sound; by contrast, on an open-ended chanter, when all fingers are down, a note is always playing.

Scottish Smallpipes. An archaic term once used for the Scottish Smallpipes in medieval times was chuisleann pipes. They have an open-ended chanter, and the fingering is identical to the Great Highland Bagpipes.

Uilleann Pipes. These pipes have many aliases, including elbow pipes, union pipes, and Irish pipes. They are also the variety featured most frequently in Celtic music recordings. They are the most complex bellows-blown pipes in terms of the number of parts and difficulty to play: uilleann pipes usually have keys on the chanter, three or four drones (to expand the range of the instrument), and regulators, extra pipes for executing specific chords.

Border Pipes. These also go by the name Lowland Pipes. Both the Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes have cylindrical chanters; the chanter on Border Pipes, like that of Great Highland Bagpipes, is conical in shape. This difference in shape accounts for a different-shaped reed; parallelogram for the smallpipes and trapezoidal for the Border Pipes. Border Pipes produce a more nasal sound; this makes them similar in tonal quality to the Great Highland Bagpipes, only considerably quieter. In the past two decades, this variety has become increasingly popular, both as a solo instrument and as part of traditional music ensembles.