Choosing a Set of Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumbrian Pipes Options

A set in African Blackwood and Brass, with 7 keys is the most popular set up and a good starting point.  These sets are the main playing sets for many people.  However, depending on your progress, musical taste and who you play with you might wish to consider the following questions.

What Chanter Should I Have?

The Chanter produces the melody.  It has a closed end and is played by lifting only one finger (or opening one key) at a time.  The chanter has a very sweet sound compared to other bagpipes and is much quieter and suited to playing indoors.

Northumbrian Pipes come in a range of pitches-

  • Traditional ‘Pipers Pitch’ – F+ – this is the usual pitch for the pipes, and is at about 20 cents sharp of concert F. These Northumbrian Smallpipes will also play in concert F by making a small adjustment to the reed.
  • Concert F – this pitch is very useful if you play with other musicians.  A small adjustment to the reed will allow you to play in Pipers Pitch.
  • Concert G – this pitch is regular Concert Pitch, so is very good if you play with other instruments and musicians. The hole tones are closer together on these sets which some people have problems with.  I shape the chanter ergonomically to help players feel comfortable with these chanters.
  • Concert D – the pitch of these sets is lower than the others and is good for accompanying singing. The range of the chanter approximates the choral tenor/soprano range.

How Many Keys Should I Have?

Originally, Northumbrian Smallpipes had simple keyless chanters.  In the 19th Century keys were added in various combinations which broadened the repertoire of the Northumbrian Pipes.

  • Northumbrian Small Pipes Four Key Chanter

    Keyless Chanter – The original Chanter. Plays the ‘Traditional’ repertoire.  There are 8 tone holes giving a standard nominal G scale.

  • 7 Keys –  These sets allow you to play most of the Northumbrian Pipes Repertoire.  The scale of the keyless chanter is extended down by three additional notes and up by two.  There are also two mid-scale incidentals allowing you to play tunes in nominal G and D.
  • 9 or 11 Keys – These sets increase the repertoire available by giving a flattened seventh and/or other incidentals.  It allows playing in the nominal key of A.
  • 14 Keys – These allow you to play about 90%+ of the Northumbrian Smallpipe repertoire.
  • 17 Keys – These sets are fully chromatic over two octaves.



The actual notes available depend on the pitch of the set you have chosen.  You can see the notes available for each pitch by cross references the pitch with the number of keys in this table



Northumbrian Smallpipes Key Options

What Drones Do I Need?

The Drones produce the background harmony. Three of the usual four drones are often set to play a background chord over which the melody is played on the chanter.  A combination of notes of the tonic and dominant are used. Usually, tonic, dominant and octave-tonic.

Keyless Sets will have three drones playing the nominal notes of G, d and g.  All other sets will have four drones.   This is because these sets have a chanter which can play in several different keys and the drones need to be able to be tuned to harmonise with them.  The four drones will tune as follows-

  • D and E
  • G and A and B
  • d and e
  • g and a

This allows Gdg for the key of G, DAd or Dda for the key of D, Aea for A or A minor and Ebe for E minor.

Materials and Decoration

Northumbrian Pipes in Blackwood and Brass

The wooden parts of Northumbrian Smallpipes are usually made from African Blackwood.  The end caps of the Chanter are usually Blackwood or Imitation Ivory to match the mounts on the Drones.  Other woods available include Lignum Vitae and Box.

The metal work is usually Brass.  This can be silver plated if preferred.


Handstitched Leather Bellows

The Bellows are strapped around the waist and worn under the right arm.  They are used to blow air into the bag through a small tube called a blow-pipe. My Bellows are made by stitching leather onto curved wooden cheeks.  The arm strap and buckle allows easy adjustment and the laced hinge allows free and independent movement of each cheek.  Fittings can be brass or silver plated and the air inlet is made of blackwood or imitation ivory to match the rest of the set.  I make three sizes of Bellows to match the instrument and personal preference.  Waist Belts are leather and sized to fit.

Bags and Bag Covers

The Leather Bag acts as a reservoir for air so that a continuous supply is available to the chanter and the drones. The Bag is placed under the left arm. Air is blown from the bellows into the bag. The bags are made from stitched leather and the leather is treated to make it completely airtight.  The leather bag is enclosed with a decorative cover.  These are available in a range of colours.



Please contact me at and I can help guide you through your choices.

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