The Uilleann Pipes
Uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-in) are a variety of bellows-blown bagpipes that is unique to Ireland. The word Uilleann is Irish for elbow, referring to the method used to play bellows-driven pipes. To fill the bag with air, the piper compresses the bellows by squeezing them between elbow and ribs.
These pipes have many aliases, including elbow pipes, union pipes, and Irish pipes. Uilleanns—like Northumbrian smallpipes, Scottish smallpipes, and Border pipes—are quiet enough to be played indoors, unlike their mouth-blown cousins the Great Highland Bagpipes and Irish warpipes, which are for outdoor use only. Of the more than 200 types of bagpipes found across the globe, Uilleann pipes have earned a reputation as the most complex (and difficult to play) of all. For a guide to the various types of bagpipes used in Celtic music and some of the basic differences, refer to the pipes introduction.
At specific points in time, the history of the Uilleann pipes has moved in tandem with that of the Celtic harp. Some of the leading figures in harp history were itinerant harpers, some blind, who traveled from estate to estate among their circle of wealthy patrons. (Blind harper Turlough O’Carolan was the glaringly obvious example of this trend). This practice of the itinerant musician later died out—at least for harpers. Around the end of the 18th century, the decline in popularity of the Celtic harp coincided with a great upsurge in the popularity of pipes; the itinerant musician was reborn, but as a piper. Many of the early traveling pipers, as it turned out, were also blind.
The first models of what could be considered the modern Uilleann pipes--with a full complement of drones and regulators—appeared around 1870. The Taylor brothers hailed from County Louth, but had emigrated and set up a workshop in Philadelphia. The Taylors modified a set of Union pipes to give them a louder sound for the concert stage. Their “concert-pitch” pipes were made in the key of D, a brighter key, and were significantly louder due to the widening of both the bore and the finger holes on the chanter. The resulting instrument was the first set of Uilleann pipes similar to the ones played today.
That Sweet Second Octave
The bag on the Uilleann pipes is filled with the bellows instead of the breath, enabling the use of finer, dry reeds. Their finer reeds—trimmed longer and thinner--make the Uilleanns capable of overblowing into a second octave. Unlike any other type of bagpipe, the Uilleann pipes can play two full octaves, as well as every single one of the half-steps between. It’s this second octave that gives the Uilleanns the distinctive sweetness of tone that defines the instrument.
This range, however, causes a few problems of its own. With two full octaves and idiosyncratic quirks at every turn, the Uilleanns can be extremely challenging to master. Much of the difficulty is mechanical; the piper has to master the ins-and-outs of the bellows, and get his fingers to the right spots on valves and keys attached to seven different pipes—the chanter, three drones, and three regulators—and do all of it at the same time.
By giving pipers the capability of playing across two full octaves in a normal musical range, the Uilleanns have been able to stretch beyond the bounds of Celtic music. Their range makes them capable of really any kind of music, and over the past two decades they have been featured on recordings in all genres, from classical music to jazz and rock.
Component Parts of the Uilleann Pipes
The components of the Uilleann pipes are the bellows, the bag, and (usually) seven pipes—a chanter, three drones, and three regulators. Let’s examine each part in turn.
The Bellows. On the outside of the bellows are two wooden paddles or cheeks. Air is forced in and out of the bellows through a valve in the outside cheek. Two straps affixed to the bellows help keep the instrument in the proper position and assist the piper in supporting its weight. One strap is attached to the inside cheek and encircles the piper’s rib cage. A smaller strap, attached to the outside cheek, encircles the arm just above the elbow.
The Bag. The bag is a reservoir for incoming air brought in through operation of the bellows. Traditionally made of leather or sheepskin, bags are increasingly being made from synthetic materials (Gore-Tex™, anyone?). When sheepskin or leather bags dry out, they leak air, so animal-skin bags will require periodic seasoning with mysterious lotions and unguents to remain airtight. Although the ingredients to bag seasonings are apparently very closely held, some pipers have dropped off samples from a Scottish manufacturer of this goop at the chemists’, who found it to be composed primarily of lanolin, with glycerine and minute quantities of lye added. As you may have guessed, synthetic bags require no seasoning to stay airtight; however, since they are not permeable and do not allow accumulated moisture to evaporate naturally, they may need to be fitted with water traps and related whatnot to keep dampness under control.
The Chanter. With a range of two full octaves, the chanter is the primary melody instrument on the pipes. The piper plays the melody notes by fingering the holes on the chanter. When a piper is not otherwise occupied fingering some valve or key on one of the other six pipes of the instrument, both hands are likely to be busy on the chanter.
The Drones. The drones are three pipes—tenor, baritone, and bass—arranged parallel to each other in a common stock. Drones can be turned on or off, even during playing: The drones have a keyed valve in the stock to stop and resume air flow to the drones. When the air flow is on, the droning sound of the drone reeds provides accompaniment to the melody being played on the chanter.
Drone reeds are traditionally cylindrical lengths of cane cut and split
back across one end, forming a tongue shape. Synthetics are also making
their way into the modern world of reed manufacturing. These days pipers
can choose from a wide range of materials, including cellulose polymers,
plastics, polyurethane, carbon fiber, and wood/synthetic
Some pipers insist on cane, while others prefer composite and synthetic drone reeds because they require less maintenance and less air to play.
The Regulators. There are typically three regulators on a set of Uilleanns—tenor, baritone, and bass. These three pipes overlay the drones. Since they are stopped—similar to organ pipes—they are silent unless a key is pressed (each regulator has four or five keys). The regulators are designed to accompany the melody line of the chanter, playing chords and harmonizing with the chanter and the drones.
Just because a full set includes three regulators, that doesn’t obligate the piper to use them. There are many styles of Uilleann piping, and some styles have a traditionally low tolerance for regulator playing. It all comes down to the piper and the style.
Guide to Pipes Sets
Common configurations for sets of Uilleann pipes include the Practice Set (also known as Quarter Set), Half Set, Three Quarter Set, and Full Set. Here’s a list of the parts comprising each type of set.
|Practice Set, Quarter Set|
|Three Quarter Set|