No instrument is as instantly recognized as the bagpipes. There are dozens of different types of bagpipes, but when people hear the word 'bagpipes', they think often think of Scotland and of the Great Highland Bagpipe or GHB.
The British Army made the Great Highland Bagpipe the most widely known, by taking the GHB with them as they were colonized the world From Australia to Zimbabwe, the British carried these instruments in their armies, particularly the Scottish and Irish regiments, such as the Black Watch, the Scots Guards, and the Gordon Highlanders.
Bagpipes are among the worlds most difficult instruments to play. It is even more difficult to play them well, and still more difficult to play them well together in a band. If you want to start playing the bagpipes from scratch, expect that it will take you from nine months to two years to become capable of playing a few tunes on the pipes, even if you have played other musical instruments before.
Great Highland Bagpipes have four main components.
The bag, from which the instrument derives it's name, was originally made from a sheep's stomach. Modern players use leather hide bags or bags from man-made materials. Hide bags must treated to keep them air tight. The piper blows air into the bag and then squeezes the bag to make air come out through a chanter and three drones (described below).
The blow stick is used to put air in the bag. As the name implies the player blows air through this blow stick into the bag. A valve at the bottom of the blow stick keeps air from blowing back at the player when the bag is squeezed.
The chanter is the piece manipulated by the player to create different notes. At the bottom end of the chanter is a double reed, similar to that which you would find in an oboe. These reeds are made from cane. The chanter can produce nine notes from Low G to High A, and has no sharps or flats in the conventional form of the word.
The drones make the characteristic humming sound most people recognize. Each drone has it's own single reed, similar to that on the clarinet. The Great Highland Bagpipe has three drones, one bass and two tenors. The bass drone is tuned one octave lower than the tenor drones, which are tuned an octave below the chanter.
Beginning pipers learn to play on a smaller, quieter version of the instrument called a practice chanter. Most advanced pipers generally learn new tunes on the practice chanter as well.
With only nine notes (no sharps and no flats), and with no way to "tongue" the chanter reed so as to express the music, bagpipe music includes many combinations of grace notes. These grace notes ("embellishments") serve to separate notes and provide accents that make the instrument more versatile than it would otherwise be. Some embellishments have as many as seven different, brief notes in them, adding to the complexity of playing the instrument.
The music looks similar to music for other instruments, but most people will notice that bagpipe music has many more grace notes than is common in other instruments. This is because the bagpipe always produces sound and there is no way to express rhythm by stopping the sound from coming out of the instrument, so grace notes are used to trick the listener into hearing that separation. These groupings of grace notes are called embellishments. Some embellishments have as many as seven different notes in them.