Buying Your First Bagpipe-Part 1
One only has to ask “What bagpipe should I buy?” to be overwhelmed by well-meaning and diverse responses from around the globe. Just about every piper has an opinion and you will be hard-pressed to identify a consensus among them. You will receive recommendations regarding just about every brand of bagpipe currently being made, as well as “classic” bagpipes of bygone days.
I have long felt that the quality of your answer has a lot to do with who you ask. Unless the intent is to incite a donnybrook of biblical proportion, one might be better served by asking “Who should I talk to regarding the purchase of my first bagpipe?” and try to identify a smaller number of people (perhaps 4 to 6) with broad experiences in bagpipes. There are a number of individuals who are both experienced and objective on this topic and I believe that their opinions should carry the most weight. Try to avoid those with a singular bias or agenda. Often, the loudest voice does not necessarily represent the best interests of the buyer.
Now I’m going to say here that I’m not setting myself up as the all-knowing oracle on the topic. I know a bit and I’m happy to discuss anything regarding the GHB with anyone. There are other opinions out there that I highly value and I confer with these individuals frequently. I don’t always agree however I always value their input. That being said, it’s up to you to decide who will be on your personal “advisory team”.
There is indeed a lot to consider when buying your first bagpipe. It should be understood, going in, that the first bagpipe you purchase will probably not be the last bagpipe you purchase should you stay with this hobby for any length of time. Your ear will develop discernment regarding the sounds and behavior of specific drones and the search will likely occur for the holy grail of bagpipes. This isn’t a bad thing, provided your finances will support such a quest.
I think we’ll approach this in stages.
1. Delrin (Polypenco) or wooden
2. Used or New
3. High-end or low-end
4. Locally made vs imported
So, your first bagpipe…and the first big question.… Do you go with wood or Delrin?
Despite Delrin bagpipes having been played successfully at the highest level of band competition, prejudices still exist. In my opinion many of the criticisms levelled at Delrin bagpipes have more to do with the piper’s abilities than with the instrument itself. I have heard and played Delrin bagpipes that simply could not be faulted. A well-made, well-setup, and well blown Delrin bagpipe has the ability to outperform most of the “average” wooden bagpipes made today, or during any time for that matter. In my Braemar organization, good friend Lee Harlan consistently produced an outstanding instrument. The set-up and presentation of the instrument was such that he was one of the best “sound” people in the program and I relied on him heavily to set the standard and assist with the sound set-up of the entire group (60+ pipers). His was a Polypenco bagpipe.
So from a “sound and performance” perspective, my thought here would be to set side unfounded prejudices against Delrin. Instead consider how you will be using your instrument and what your knowledge is regarding its care and maintenance. If you’re at the “beginner” stage Delrin makes a lot of sense.
If you’ll be doing parades in hot or cold weather, Delrin again gets a big “thumbs up” (although bagpipe makers are all very thankful for the repair work on wooden bagpipes following each St. Patrick’s Day Parade). Delrin isn’t affected by the radical changes in humidity and temperature that will otherwise impact wooden bagpipes.
If you’re on a budget where you’ll be scrimping on bag, reeds, and accessories in order to afford a wooden bagpipe, I believe that you’re further ahead opting for the less expensive Delrin bagpipe and otherwise investing in the best reeds and bag within your budget. They are heavy contributors to sound and behavior and should not be discounted when making your purchase.
Do you have local support? Are there accomplished and trusted advisors close by that can help you with the many complications of owning a wooden bagpipe? Are you committed to playing your bagpipe regularly in order to help maintain it? The risk of damage increases when any wooden bagpipe sits un-played for an extended period of time.
When I arrived in Wisconsin, there was a collection of wooden bagpipes that were warped, twisted, cracked, and banged up beyond repair. Many were simply unplayable. These instruments were less than five years old however at the hands of enthusiastic teenagers and subjected to the rigors of Wisconsin weather, they were simply the wrong choice. I opted for a very basic Delrin bagpipe with the proper credentials. The musical output can be heard here. The instruments are as capable today as they were when purchased and they will be for decades to come. They were definitely the “right choice” for that program.
So, the answer to the question really lies within each individual and his or her situation. Take the time to consider all these factors (and more) before making your choice. It may save you countless hours of frustration and expense later-on down the road.
One last comment….I own several high-end wooden bagpipes. I also own a Polypenco instrument that I rely on heavily at times. Whether you start out with a Delrin instrument or not, there is a strong possibility that you’ll wish you had one somewhere down the road.