Supercharge your Bagpipe!
The search seems never-ending for the ultimate set of drones. It seems that everyone is looking for that perfect set that will stand out among all others. The Holy Grail of bagpipes. Well, maybe it’s already on your shoulder!
In my experience, two common practices today are greatly compromising the sound and performance of bagpipes. The first is easy and inexpensive to fix. Hemp!
1. Hemping Your Drones
I don’t know who introduced the black-waxed linen that many have on their pipes today, however in my opinion it was a great disservice to the sound and well-being of the instrument. Of course, the allure was to create a “maintenance free” joint. It did accomplish this however the downside was that it stifled the sound and robbed the drones of resonance. This is completely anecdotal however a few years back I challenged a very well-known and respected international piping personality to replace his waxed hemp with dry yellow hemp. I received a phone call from him an hour later euphoric over the change. His drones were resonant as never before and were literally dancing on his shoulder!
I had discovered something a bit earlier while surfing a forum for another woodwind instrument. Participants were panning the practice of pipers in joining the sections of their instrument with carefully laterally-wound waxed hemp. It was explained that this robbed the sections of resonance creating a “dead” sounding instrument. It made sense. It made even more sense when I started to think about the welded gobs of black waxed linen that seemed to be the latest trend among pipers.
I immediately sat down with my bagpipe, ripped all the waxed hemp off the moving parts and replaced it with unwaxed yellow hemp. I also crisscrossed the strands to create a cushion on each tenon. I’m not talking about the tenons that fit into the stocks. I’m only talking about those on the tuning pins. When I fired up my pipes I could hardly believe the difference!
I start by applying a generous amount of cobblers wax to the first 12 inches or so. This anchors the hemp to the wood (or to delrin), preventing it from spinning on the tenon and creating all sorts of issues.
I start my crisscross pattern, building at both ends and leaving the middle just a bit skinny. This crisscross pattern creates a bit of cushion, allowing the joining section to “float” just a bit. The result is improved resonance. In the end I hope to achieve uniform hemping, where the surface of the hemp is parallel to the tuning pin or that it is slightly higher at both ends. In this way, the adjoining piece with remain aligned and will not wobble on the pin. The picture and diagram below helps to demonstrate the preferred result.
2. Type of Bag
I said that there were two factors that might be compromising the resonance of drones. I have found a significant difference in how my drones sound when moving from a bag with rubber grommets to one where the stocks are tied directly into the bag. Bags with collars for the stocks (grommets) are easy and convenient and, although they serve their purpose, they might also diminish drone resonance. When shopping for a bag next time, consider tying your stocks directly into the bag. It’s a bit more work (if you do it yourself) however you’ll be amazed at the increased resonance of your drones.
4. Drone Tuning Position
Always adjust your drone reeds so the tenor tops are tuning at the bottom of the hemp. It’s OK if a bit of hemp is showing however you don’t want the tenor top wobbling or otherwise insecure and liable to fall off. Position your bass top section at the hemp line. It’s OK if the mid-section rides low on the bass bottom tenon. If it rides too high on the pin, you’ll experience strike-in issues, but we’ll save all this for another blog.
You may read more in my article on Sound & Performance in the Museum.
As always, we invite your comments. I know that not all will agree however through disagreement we sometimes find a better way forward. You may wish to comment directly on this blog or at The Bagpipe Place Facebook page.