Notes for Newbies

A few tips on receipt of your new uilleann pipes


Prior to shipping your pipes, we adjusted the reed(s) to play properly, with attention to pitch, tone, and responsiveness. However, season to season, day to day and even minute to minute changes in temperature, humidity, and the reed settling can greatly affect tuning, tone and playability. Tim’s book My Method gives a complete description of these dynamics.

If you need to adjust your reed, remove the chanter top by grasping it firmly in your left hand, if you are right handed, gripping the chanter near the top with your right hand and slowly pulling with a twisting motion, reversing the process when you’re finished. Carefully guide the reed, maintaining alignment of chanter and top. It is all too easy to destroy a reed by being careless while removing or replacing the cap.

The two areas of adjustment are pitch and responsiveness/tone/volume. It is very important that the reed is positioned correctly in the tuning slide. This will affect both overall pitch and relative tuning within the scale. The further in the reed is positioned, the sharper the overall pitch and the sharper the thumb note, or back D, will be in relation to the lower hand notes, and vice versa. When setting up the chanter and reed, we generally scribe a pair of score lines on the brass reed tube or staple, between which the proper position for the top edge of the tuning slide is likely to be found. It is desirable to prioritize being in tune with oneself over being in tune with others, especially in the beginning when playing with others is unlikely. With care and experience, both can be easily achieved. Given the especial vulnerability of the back D to changes, it is often useful to place a bit of tape across the top edge of the back D hole, effectively moving the hole down slightly and flattening the pitch. This is also useful under colder conditions when the pitch goes flat and you have to push the reed in to compensate. The back D will be affected more than the rest of the notes and will have to be flattened with tape to match the rest of the scale.

With higher humidity, a chanter reed may become too open, producing an overly loud/bright tone and making the upper octave difficult to achieve. The opening or eye of the reed can easily be closed down slightly by squeezing, with the fingers, the flat faces of the middle of the reed head and near the base of the carved “V”. This will soften the volume and tone and make the second octave easier to play. Conversely, in dry weather the reed may close down. In extreme cases the chanter will barely play at all, or, more likely, the tone and volume will be weak and the lower hand notes will over-blow into the second octave too easily, especially when attempting staccato. This can be improved by opening the eye by gently squeezing the edges of the blades with the fingers, halfway down the length of the head. Be careful or you might crack the blades.

We do not recommend your sanding, scraping, cutting or otherwise permanently altering the chanter reed unless you have significant experience. If you are encountering problems beyond the scope of opening or closing the reed and adjusting the height in the tuning slide, as described above, it would be prudent to send us the reed(s) and chanter rather than risk permanent damage. We will do whatever necessary and return it usually within a few days.

If you are serious about playing the pipes, reedmaking is an invaluable skill. Even if you don’t become your own favorite reed maker, the intimacy with the instrument gained from making reeds can be critical to keeping your pipes playable. For starters, read and reread our book My Method. There is also an accompanying video available. If possible, take one of our reedmaking workshops at the various pipers’ gatherings. All necessary tools, some of which are very rare and/or custom made for the job, can be ordered from our website.

If you have a half, three-quarter, or full set of pipes, see our reed making book for tips on adjusting drone and regulator reeds.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

If you have not played before, start by hooking up the waist belt, then arm belt and adjusting the straps so that they’re quite snug. Connect the air tube and hold the bag easily under your left arm so that your elbow is vertically in the middle and towards the front of the bag with the bulk of the bag behind you. Fit the chanter top into the chanter stock at an angle so that the seam of the bag is at the bottom and the chanter is able to go from your upper left down to your lower right without twisting the neck of the bag, with the bottom resting midway on your right thigh. Place your fingers on the chanter so that the back hole is covered by the left hand thumb in the middle of its pad, the left hand index and middle fingers cover the top two front holes with their middle joints, the left hand ring finger covers the next hole down with its end joint pad, the right hand index, middle and ring fingers cover the next consecutive holes with their middle joints and the right hand pinky covers the last hole with its end joint. All this is much harder to say than to do. It allows for a very natural position of arms, hands and instrument.

Making sure to seal all the holes and chanter bottom, pump up the bag with full strokes of the bellows until it is taut with air. If all is well, you will get blessed silence. Always start from this place. If the bag is not full, the consequent sound will suffer. Now, applying significant pressure on the bag with your left arm, lift the chanter off the leg and maintain a strong and steady pressure on the bag. Replenish the bag with the bellows only as often as necessary, with full strokes, allowing your left arm to be moved out by the bag pressure alone, rather than your own effort. Continue playing the bottom D. Before attempting any other notes, get comfortable with the bellows and bag, maintaining steady pressure and therefore steady tone. Focus on relaxing in all ways unrelated to the job at hand. With practice you will find that a seamless tone ensues with no indication of the bellows and bag interplay.

The Scale and Then Some

Initially, use the closed scale, which means lifting as few fingers as possible so that you can replace them conveniently, thus facilitating closing the chanter between the notes. The E is fingered by lifting the right hand ring and pinky, the F# by lifting only the right hand middle, the G by lifting the right hand index and middle, the A by lifting only the left ring, the B by lifting the left ring and middle, the C natural by lifting the left index and right middle, the C# by lifting only the left index, and back D by lifting only the left thumb. The second octave is identical except for the C natural, which is gotten by fingering a B and pressing the long key on the back with your right thumb.

Except for the bottom D, keep the chanter bottom sealed on the leg and between each note close all the holes, thereby initiating the staccato scale. Start with the bottom D again and continue up the scale with long steady notes of equal length punctuated by equally long silences between, always maintaining full bag pressure. This allows you to ensure that you are sealing the holes. Continue this way through the scale and into the second octave.

The pressure necessary to maintain proper tone and pitch will slowly rise as you go up the scale. Many neophytes are surprised by the amount of pressure it takes. However, it may be that the reed is not adjusted properly. This is best judged by an expert. Although pipers vary significantly on this point, there is a judicious range of acceptability, especially for the beginner, that allows for a full tone and response with minimum struggle.

Beyond the second octave G it will be impossible to achieve the second octave staccato without going through a lower note such as the F or G. Since this “stepping-stone” need only be for the duration of one vibration of the reed, with practice, one can jump up to high hand second octave notes seamlessly without any audible “step”. Once you are in the second octave, you can maintain it through the upper notes as long as you don’t close off the chanter.

When you are quite comfortable with the bag and bellows and both octaves of the scale, you may try a simple tune. The Song of the Chanter is a very old march and a traditional first tune. Another excellent beginning tune is The Eagle’s Whistle. Both stay in the first octave. Simple jigs are also good candidates. Once you learn the basic melody, try practicing it completely staccato as an exercise. Although playing closed will be awkward at first, it becomes second nature before you know it. You can then open back up, choosing your phrasing for musical reasons rather than avoidance.

Always bite off no more than you can chew, playing only as fast as you can and still accomplish your goal perfectly and relaxedly, working up to speed incrementally. Above all, be methodical, mastering each technique before moving on. Know that you can master them now, if you allow yourself the time, space and permission. Read the articles on our website: for more thoughts on “closure” and other topics. There are a number of good tutor books and videos there, as well. Listen to recordings of the old masters like Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, etc. A number of these are available on our list of recommended CDs. If you cannot find a good teacher locally, Tim is available for lessons through the internet or in person.

Humidity & Environment

Pipes play best in environments neither too wet nor too dry. 60% humidity is ideal. Humidify or dehumidify the room where you keep your pipes, if necessary. In very dry areas and seasons, put a teaspoonful of water in the bellows and shake it before playing and every 1/2 hour thereafter. Keep them out of direct sunlight and never leave them in a freezing cold or broiling hot car. It is not necessary to oil the wood or polish the brass. If you choose to polish the brass, be sure to avoid getting any polish on the wood.


Your pipes are made from wood that has been well seasoned. In addition, the various parts were “roughed out” and allowed to further season before the finish turning was completed. However, some additional shrinkage is likely to occur, especially in dry seasons/climates, causing the brass ferrules to loosen. You have a couple of choices, depending on your level of handiness:

  1. Apply a thin bead of Super Glue to the inside of the ferrule, about 1/8” from the edge and quickly slide the ferrule into place. You only get one chance before it sets so make sure the ferrule will go on without a fuss. Super Glue can be messy, so practice first to avoid ugly spills and stuck fingers.
  2. Put a strip of Scotch Tape on the wood. Experiment with the thickness, and twist the ferrule on. Do this as needed with the idea of returning the pipes to us for refurbishing after a year of settling in.

Cork Joints

Your pipes will continue to expand and contract a little with the seasons. This may make the cork joints compress a little and loosen over time. Never try to build up a cork joint with thread. This only digs into the cork and ruins its resilience. The cork can easily be expanded to restore a snug fit by applying heat. This can be done with a lighter. First, wet the cork and surrounding wood with a bit of water on your finger to protect it from drying out and to facilitate expansion. Set your lighter to low and hold it about an inch under the cork while slowly turning the pipe to avoid burning the cork. If the cork catches fire, simply blow it out. It will just blacken it. Once you’ve expanded it, put a little more water on it, wipe it off and apply a bit of Vaseline or cork grease before replacing the pipe in its joint. Bear in mind that you want the tuning slide joint to be a little less snug than the reed tenon.


We hope this has answered some of the most common questions. If you need further help, feel free to call or email Tim at 641-472-4005 or Mark Stimson (Tim’s apprentice) at 641-469-3730, Happy playing!

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