Uilleann pipes are a bellows blown bagpipe. The bag of the instrument is inflated not by a mouth blown pipe, as with some bagpipes, but by a set of bellows strapped around the body and attached to one arm, hence the term "uilleann" (pronounced ill-un) which is a Gaelic word meaning "elbow". The pipes have also been known as union pipes and Irish organ pipes in the nineteenth century. The pipes in their present form have been played since around the 1760s and are a development of various older forms of Irish bagpipe and pipes from other countries. Uilleann pipes have several unique features which set the instrument apart from other types of bagpipe. Firstly because the pipes are not mouth blown, finely made long lasting dry reeds can be used. These reeds are capable of playing a full second octave, which together with spring loaded keys fitted to the chanter; give uilleann pipes the greatest range of notes of any form of bagpipe.
Uilleann pipes are played in a seated position with the bottom of the chanter resting on the player's leg. This enables the piper to play notes in a staccato or legato style.
There are three drones, each pitched an octave apart, and these can be switched off or on depending on the piece of music to be accompanied or simply the piper’s choice. Some pipe music lends itself well to a harmonious drone accompanied, while other pieces can be rendered more expressively and crisply with the playing of the chanter alone.
Another unique feature of the instrument is the addition of three additional pipes overlaying the drones. These are called "regulators" and are fitted with spring loaded keys which only sound when pressed by the wrist while playing the chanter. The regulators harmonise with the drones and chanter and can be used as chordal and rhythmic accompaniment.
Uilleann pipes allow for a great variety of playing styles and musical possibilities. There are many types of bagpipe native to countries across Europe and Asia and the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe or war pipe/píb mhór as it is called in Ireland, is probably the most widely known. (The gaita, a Galician bagpipe and the French Musette are also well known instruments). There is a significant difference between these pipes and uilleann pipes however. The volume of uilleann pipes can vary but generally the chanter is about as strong in volume as a fiddle/violin. Because of this uilleann pipes can be played in ensembles with other instruments with flute, concertina, guitar, Irish bouzouki, cello, clarinet etc. without acoustically dominating the other instruments. Further to this, there are fewer restrictions on styles of playing and methods of teaching with uilleann pipes with variations in the traditional playing styles and personal styles. Most uilleann pipers do not rely on written music in performance, sessions or ensembles, instead using written music for learning purposes only, if it is used at all.
The uilleann piper is free to draw on traditional styles that vary from a tight staccato style to an open legato style (and combinations of styles in between) and this involves variations in the fingering of the scale of the instrument. Although the distinct sound of the uilleann pipes relies on the use of commonly used embellishment in one of these styles, the piper is free to develop a unique individual style within these parameters.
The sweet alluring tone of the uilleann pipes has made the instrument a centre piece of many well-known Irish and Scottish traditional and folk music bands as being used in theatres and movies as a musical reference to Gaelic culture. Although the pipes in their present form date back to the 18th century, the on-going contemporary interest in the instrument can be traced to the revival and upsurge in interest in Ireland in the 1970s. Super-groups such as Planxty, The Chieftains, The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts all used uilleann pipes to create a distinct sound. More recently Davy Spillane, Cran, Lúnasa and At First Light have featured uilleann pipes.
Although uilleann pipes are recognised primarily as a traditional instrument, contemporary artists have taken uilleann pipes outside of the tradition , some examples include: Indigo Girls, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Sin É, Afro Celts, Surfaris, U2, Nightwish (Finnish Band) etc.. Likewise the entrancing appeal of the pipes has featured as background music in many notable movies such as: Titanic, Braveheart, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Road to Perdition and a great variety of movies centred on Ireland and other Celtic lands.
Timber: African Ebony, SE Asian Ebony, European Boxwood
I use only quality materials which have been well established to have superior tonal qualities for woodwind instruments. For that reason I use primarily African Ebony, South East Asian ebony, and European Boxwood.
Metalwork: Brass, Nickel (Silver) Plated Brass
Generally brass is used for mounts and ferrules on uilleann pipes and has traditionally been used in this way from an early period. Brass finishes blend well with ebony, boxwood and laburnum. Nickel silver plated brass Is also available at extra cost and time on the waiting list.
Each set of pipes produced, as a hand made product, has its own unique ornate design. The general design of each set however has been arrived at over 20 years pipe making experience. The concert pitch D chanters unlike many modern concert pitch chanters having a wide bore, are slightly longer overall while at the same time having an exterior shape which bears a resemblance to the earlier aesthetically elegant narrow bore chanters. Chanters are turned to accommodate four keys, for example C, F, Bb & G # on a concert pitch chanter. The keys are block mounted in the traditional style. An ebony chanter top with an overhead air supply is now used as a standard fitting unless otherwise requested. This design feature is a borrowing from the original pipes of the 1800s. This is pleasing to the eye and may also assist in stabilising the back D note on concert pitch chanters. The drone/regulator stock is made with large bore diameters to ensure the reeds/reed tongues do not come into contact with the wood of the stock. Drone stocks can be made hollow, giving the drones an extra "buzz" and lightweight feel. European Boxwood or Holly is used for mounts. Both bag and bellows are made from quality leather rather than synthetic materials used by some makers. The bellows' leather is thoroughly sealed during the construction process, while the riveted or stitched leather bags are strong, well sealed and have a long life requiring a minimum of seasoning top ups. The air connection between the bag and bellows is a little larger than many pipes, improving the efficiency of the bellows.
A variety of cases are available to store and transport your pipes.
Pipe Making Process
I currently make concert pitch D pipes, narrow bore D pipes and flat pitch C. In the making of chanters, regulators and drones, the timber is bored, partly turned and left to sit for several months before the next stage of boring tone holes and the first reaming procedure. The chanter is again left for sometime before the final reaming, turning and tuning. This slow process ensures that any slight movement in the wood due to shrinkage or warping can be allowed to occur and later corrected in the final machining, ensuring that you receive a high quality instrument. The manufacture of the drones of follows a similar process. Bellows are constructed from leather and attractive hardwood clappers or bellows boards. The bellows can be supplied with additional padding if required or with plain boards as a standard. Bags are constructed of quality chrome tanned leather which are riveted or stitched, seasoned and rendered thoroughly airtight. A traditional velvet cover with a trim is also available and recommended to give your pipes an elegant attractive appearance.
Uilleann pipe cane reeds are often susceptible to changes in pitch due to temperature change and humidity. I make chanter reeds from Spanish Cane (Arondo Donax) which is coated internally with a very thin layer of shellac which helps to stabilise the reed against the effects of humidity in particular. Drone reeds are made of cane or synthetic material.