Buying Your First Bagpipe – Part 3
There are so many points of view regarding what to buy as your first bagpipe that it easily becomes both overwhelming and an exercise in frustration. One only has to venture onto any of the retail or resale sites on the Internet to experience the wide range of instruments for sale and an equally wide range of prices. So far we’ve looked at Delrin vs Wood and New vs Used. Today we’ll talk about whether you should spend a little or a lot.
Especially for a beginner, the sound and behavior of your bagpipe will have much to do with your enjoyment and progress during the first year or two of playing bagpipes. If you’re constantly fighting an inferior musical instrument it can be discouraging to the point where you give up entirely. I can’t tell you how many times a relatively new piper will contact me out of frustration. “I bought a such-and-such and I just can’t get it to sound right. I don’t know whether it’s me or the bagpipe!”
Let’s start with a few “truths”.
1. Price alone is not a reliable indication of the quality of the instrument. I’m speaking of the quality of the materials, the quality of the manufacturing, or the quality of the bagpipe’s sound and behavior. I gussied-up expensive bagpipe is not a guarantee that it is a superior musical instrument.
2. The learning curve is very steep. What you hear and understand today will exponentially improve during the first few years of playing.
The absolute first thing to consider isn’t the bagpipe at all. It’s the bag and the reeds. If you purchase a good bag and good reeds, this gives you a significant advantage in the process. If, on the other hand, you scrimp on the bag and reeds in order to max out on the drones, you’re probably sabotaging your enjoyment and success.
My choice of bag would not be one of the flimsy synthetic bags. If you’re going with synthetic, a thicker material with some presence or a hybrid bag (both with zipper access) is much preferred. This provides better control over starts and stops and minimizes unwanted sounds before striking-in and after cutting-off. The zipper access will allow you to customize moisture management to suit your circumstances. There are also more elaborate systems with built-in moisture control systems and rubber grommets to hold your drones. Coming almost full circle (to the old days) we have hide bags that you tie directly into the stocks. My preference is one of the hide bags (sheepskin, goat skin, cow hide, etc.) with zipper access that ties directly into the stocks. I find that the control over the instrument and the resonance of the drones is superior to other choices. Again, the zipper access allows you to manage the climate inside your bag according to your circumstances. Expect to spent $200 or more here.
Next are the drone reeds. There are a number of excellent choices in the market. I prefer those with G10 fiberglass or plastic bodies and with either carbon fiber or fiberglass tongues. I find that the sound, efficiency, stability, reliability, and range of adjustment is especially well-suited for those who are less-experienced with the instrument.
Blanket statement – No matter what bagpipe you buy, make sure your budget allows for a good bag and good reeds.
As I said earlier, the learning curve is pretty steep during your first few years of playing. My advice would be to purchase a basic instrument, fully reeded with a decent bag, cover and cords. With quality accessories as explained above, expect to spend somewhere between $1,000 to $1,200 for delrin and $1,700 to $2,000 for African Blackwood, cocobolo, or an alternative exotic hardwood bagpipe. If you’re spending less than these amounts, there is probably a reason. Something is probably being compromised. If you’re spending more than this, you’re probably paying for something you don’t need at this time.
Depending on countless factors, this initial purchase may last you a lifetime. In my case, my first bagpipe was a loaner. It got me started. I soon learned that the issues I was experiencing were not of my doing. There were issues within the bagpipe that compromised its behavior and my enjoyment. I made my first purchase based on the limited and biased advice available at the time. This was before the Internet and access to better information. Although the bagpipe served me for several years, it was very fickle and unsuitable for top-level competition. They say that experience is the best teacher. I have since owned many top-level instruments.
Of course, I have a Delrin instrument that I use for parades and cold weather performances. Frankly, I wouldn’t be without it. I can tweak this instrument and take it into competition without issue. I can also lend it out without worry. If this instrument had been available when I started, it would have been an excellent choice.
I also have a few top-end instruments, some old and some new. I suppose that if my finances would have allowed it, I would have been proud to have owned any of these as a “first instrument” although it might not have been all that practical. Another very important factor is that I don’t believe that my knowledge of the instrument at that time was equal to the needs of the instrument. This may be comparable to giving a new classic muscle car to your 17 year old.
These are very general thoughts, meant to create a solid foundation. From here you should solicit advice from your trusted advisors, read everything you can, and make a purchase that is in keeping with your individual circumstances.
In our next blog, we’ll be talking about whether to buy a domestic or imported bagpipe. I’m certain that it will be controversial so don’t miss it!