Introduction: Uilleann Pipes for dummies

Never speak of ‘an Uilleann Pipe’, because that doesn’t exist. Uilleann Pipes are always plural: either you have a set of them, or you have none. The Uilleann Pipes are one of the most sophisticated sets of bagpipes. They are originally developed to play classical music from the Baroque period, but they have become very common and popular in Irish traditional music. So, nowadays, they are synonymous to ‘the Irish Bagpipes’.

A complete set of Uilleann Pipes consists of the bellows, a leather bag, a tube between bag and bellows, the chanter, the drones and the regulators. The bellows are attached to the right arm and are used to pump air in the bag that is held tightly under the left arm. This bag is rounded on the rear end and has a sort of trunk on the frontside in which the chanter is fastened. On that chanter – basically a hollow stick with eight holes - the notes to play a melody are produced. The sound comes from a double reed inside the chanter, through which the air is pumped by increasing pressure on the bag.

The piper sits down on a chair and holds the bottom of the chanteragainst his right upper leg, so that the opening at the bottom of the chanter is closed.  In the middle of the bag, on the right side, a partly hollow wooden block is attached, which holds both the drones (usually three of them) and the regulators. Drones and regulators are laid on the legs of the piper, from the left side to the right.

So, the air that is taken in by the bellows, is pushed through a flexible tube towards the bag and from there onwards to the chanter as well as through the block, to both the drones and the regulators. The right arm pumps the air into the bag, in very much the same way as we breathe: the more air one needs, the more one pumps. The left arm keeps the pressure constant. This means that the piper presses less hard on the bag while pumping the air towards the bag, and slightly harder while the bellows ‘breathe in’.

The drones produce a constant tone that accompanies the melody, but they can also be switched off by means of a switch that is assembled on the block. Inside each drone, we find a single reed that makes thesound.

From Union Pipes to Uilleann Pipes

Originally the Irish Pipes were called Union Pipes. This name contained a logic of its own: this set of bagpipes unites a main chanter and three extra chanters (the regulators) all of which are to be played at the same time.

Somewhere during the second decade of the former century, the English name Union Pipes was abandoned by Irish nationalists and replaced by a new name in Gaelic: Uilleann Pipes. Uilleann is the Gaelic word for elbow. The name refers to the fact that both elbows do a lot of work while playing the pipes. The right one serves the bellows, the left one rules the bag. This is not unique to the Uilleann Pipes. Other types of bagpipes such as the Northumbrian Pipes and the Baroque Musette have that too, whereas the union of several chanters in one instrument, is however quite unique.

Anyway, we’re all used to the name Uilleann Pipes nowadays, so why make afuzz about it? We could also speak of Alien Pipes or of Howling Pipes, referring to the ghostlike squeaks and the howling sounds they can produce, but that is merely a poetical approach.

The Regulators

The regulators are in fact a set of extra chanters on which - in theory -a second melody can be played by pushing their keys with the thumb, the little finger or the palm of the right hand, while the main melody is played on the chanter. Usually a set of Uilleann Pipes has two or three regulators (exceptionally four). Each of them contains four or five keys, covering the holes that one needs to produce the notes. Here too, the sound is made by the air that flows through a double reed.

From practise set to full set

A practise set consists of only the bag, the bellows and the chanter. For absolute beginners, this is enough to start with, but it is strongly recommended not to play on a practise set for too long. If you do ,you might get the bad habit of controlling the pressure on the reed of the chanter by pumping the bellows instead of pressing the bag. To avoid this evil, a developing piper should switch to a half set after utmost one year, so one must learn to keep the drones constant while playing a melody. This can only be achieved by keeping the pressure on the bag constant, independent of the flow of air produced by the bellows.

A half set consists of the bellows, the bag, the chanter and the drones. Actually this is already a fully grown instrument. Most other types of bagpipes consist of no more than this, but this is not the case for the Uilleann Pipes.

On a three quarter set you’re provided with the extras of two regulators (a tenor regulator and an alto). Only the bas regulator is absent. We speak of a full set when there are at least three regulators. Exceptionally there are four.

The fingering

The chanter is played by means of a closed fingering. Basically, only one or two holes are left uncovered at the same time to produce a note.  Except for the lowest note, the chanter is held closed on the upper leg. A standard set of Uilleann Pipes is built in the key of D. This means that the lowest note is the low D. To make the low D sound, the chanter is lifted up from the leg while all finger holes are kept closed.

Basically, there are eight holes in the chanter: one on the backside placed high on the chanter, and seven on the front of the chanter. The hole on the backside is to be closed with the thumb of the left hand. From bottom to top, we can number the front holes from 1 to 7, number 8 is the thumb hole at the back. Hole number 1 is to be covered with the tip of the little finger of the right hand. Holes 2, 3 and 4 with the middle part of respectively the ring finger, the middle finger and the forefinger of the right hand. Holes number 5, 6 and 7 are to be closed with the middle part of respectively the ring finger, the middle finger and the forefinger of the left hand, while the left thumb closes the back hole.

When one closes all the holes, while the chanter rests on the leg, there is no sound at all. This allows the uilleann piper to produce silences in between the notes, which is a unique characteristic of the uilleann pipes amongst all the other bagpipes.

As said before, the low D needs coverage of all the holes, while lifting up the chanter. For all the other notes, the chanter rests on the right leg and the bottom opening of the chanter is shut that way. E is produced by opening holes 1 and 2 only, F sharp by opening only hole 3, G by opening 3 and 4, A by opening only 5, B by opening 5 and 6, C sharp by opening only hole 7. To produce a high D, the thumb of the left hand is lifted from hole 8, while the bottom of the chanteris held on the leg and all other holes are kept closed. Now we can go up to a high B by using the same fingering as for the notes of the lower octave while slightly raising the pressure on the bag.

C natural is played by opening holes 3 and 7 at the same time. This is for the lower octave only. A high C natural can be obtained with the help of a special key, which off course can be used to play the low C as well. For the other notes - those in between the basic notes of the scale of D - such as F natural, G sharp and B flat, keys are needed as well.

E flat on the other hand, can be played by opening hole 1 solely, both in the lower and the higher octave. In the higher octave, E flat is also called the ‘ghost D’, because of the unique sound of this note.

Special techniques

Traditional Irish music is ornamented to a high degree. The music that is typically played on the Uilleann Pipes is enriched by the use of rolls, long rolls, short rolls, crans, sliding notes, open and closed triplets, silences, grace notes and the use of the ghost D as a grace note (in fact the Ghost D is an Eb). One can also play selected sequences of a melody with an open fingering while the chanter is lifted from the leg. This can be done in both the lower and the higher octave. While playing with the open fingering, one needs to keep hole 1 closed, to maintain more or less the right pitchof the notes.

In addition to the normal fingering, there are at least two more ways of producing the C natural by means of alternative fingerings.

None of these special techniques can ever be learned from a written description, nor by watching a video, although you will find lots of descriptions and demonstrations on youtube and in manuals. A goodteacher is needed to guide you through the special techniques and ornamentations.

Learning to play the regulators

On a full set in the key of D, from the left to the right, both the alto and the bass regulator contain the notes C, B, A and G. On the alto you have F# as an extra note to end with. In between the bass and the alto lies the tenor regulator (literally, on the legs of the piper) which contains the notes A,G, F# and D. This results in four chords which are mainly fit to accompany tunes in the keys of G and Aminor, that can be played with the palm of the right hand. From the left to the right we have the chords CAC, BGB, AF#A and GDG. When you play G on the chanter, you can’t do anything wrong using the GDG chord. The same is granted for the combinations of A and AF#A, B and BGB and C natural and CAC. BGB also fits with the note of G, but this is already more difficult to perform.

The use of these chords can be considered step one to mastering the regulators. Step two consist of using individual notes. To hit individual notes, one can use the palm of the right hand, the thumb ,the little finger or even the pulse. The thumb and the little finger are especially useful on the bass regulator.

Notice that there is no C# to be found on any of the regulators. That makes it less obvious to use them for the accompaniment of tunes in D or Eminor!

All of this requires a lot of hand and finger acrobatics. It is simply not obvious to hit the regulator keys without leaking air through the finger holes of the chanter. Ones first attempts to accomplish this, makes even an experienced piper sound like an absolute beginner again. Playing a chord on the regulators without leaking is already an act of survival while hitting the individual keys can be considered to be an act of bravery.

The bigger your hands and the longer and more supple your fingers are, the more chance you have of becoming an accomplished regulator player, if only you’re provided with a lot of stubbornness and patience of course. What is also helpful is to move the right leg –on which rests the chanter – up and down to bring the right hand in a better position to hit the chanter keys.

Only master pipers can play both slow and fast pieces whilst playing extra notes or chords on the regulators. In reality it’s a hell of a job to get that far. Many pipers turn to a full set, but only the most talented few – and amongst them only those who practise a great lot – get skilled enough to produce subtle accompany arrangements to the tune. In their case they add something of great musical value to the tune. Alas, too often the extra notes or the rhythmical bumping on the regulators are only disturbing. Even good musicians - who are nevertheless not masters on the regulators -commit that crime.

Tuning the regulators

Tuning the regulators is often a pain in the ass. The first step is to move the regulator reed until the highest note is in pitch. If you’re lucky, the other notes on that regulator will be in pith as well. But if you live in the real world, the lower notes will often be too high. You can lower them by putting some stuff on the rush that is inside the regulator, under the hole of the note you want to lower in pitch. How much stuff is a matter of trial and error, exactly where (precisely under the hole, or slightly to the right or to the left) is a matter of trial and error too. The sort of stuff to be used is a matter of taste, although it’s advisable not to use used bubblegum.

Notice that a note that is too low in pitch, can only be corrected by adapting the regulator reed. Only notes that are too high can be lowered by stuffing the rush, except when there’s already stuff on the rush of course. In that case you can remove some of it.

Flatsets and the concert pitch

Originally the Irish bagpipes were so called ‘flat sets’. These were solo-instruments, made in the lower keys of C, B or B flat. The bore of the chanter was narrow and straight, which guaranteed a subtle, sonorous sound and a low volume.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants in the USA developed a new type of Uilleann Pipes, by making them in the higher pitch of D (and sometimes even E flat or E). The bore was widened and made conical. These pipes had a far louder volume, which allowed the pipers to play in a company, together with other relatively loud instruments such as the accordion and the banjo. These new Uilleann Pipes could be used to play in big concert halls, with a lot of public. The key of D consequently was called the ‘concert pitch’. From that time onwards, the key of D became the standard pitch for the Uilleann Pipes.

Nowadays,the flat sets are becoming more and more popular again, especially amongst seasoned pipers.

Development of the Uilleann Pipes and related bagpipes

Until the 18thcentury, the bagpipes that were played in Ireland closely resembled the Scottish pipes: mouth blown instruments with two or three drones that produced quite a lot of noise. Similar bagpipes were common all over Europe.

Two influences lead to the development of the modern Uilleann Pipes and their adaptation in Irish traditional music: baroque music and politics.

Baroque ensembles were often in search for new instruments to surprise their public and keep them interested. This was also the period of the Enlightenment in which everything was to be carried to a higher level. Scientific innovations and new techniques made this possible. There was competition everywhere, amongst pipe makers as well as musicians and composers. This lead to the development of the very sophisticated Baroque Musette in France, thePastoral Pipes in France and England and eventually the Uilleann Pipes.

In between the older mouth blown bagpipes and these new instruments, we find other bellows blown types such as the Northumbrian Pipes, the Scottisch Border Pipes and the Scottisch Smallpipes. The Pastoral Pipes are considered to be the direct ancestors of the Uilleann Pipes. Originally they seem to be invented in France, but they became popular in England. The oldest bagpipe with a regulator seem to have been a set of Pastoral Pipes.

Although utterly different in appearance, the Uilleann Pipes and the Baroque Musette have an important similarity: a closed fingering. All other types of bagpipes are played with relatively open fingerings.

Now we come to the influence of the social and political situation in Ireland on the integration of the Uilleann Pipes in Irish traditionalmusic. Ireland had been ruled by the English crown for many centuries, during which uprisings and rebellions were very common. When a band of rebels marched their way through heather, villages and towns, they were often accompanied by a piper. This lead, at a certain stage, to a total prohibition of playing the bagpipes, as all pipers were considered to be potential rebel leaders.

On the other hand, bagpipes were not only used for rousing the people, but also to play dance tunes. So the pipers left their War Pipes behind and turned to the soft and sweet toned Union Pipes, that were played sitting on a chair. Whenever a crowd gathered around a piper, sitting on a cross roads, playing dance music, they could hardly be accused of marching and rebelling. On the other hand, another theory says that even the Uilleann Pipes were not tolerated in rural Ireland. At first it was probably an instrument of the gentry that only become popular amongst traditional musicians at a later stage in history.

Anyway, at a certain stage in history the English oppressors came to tolerate this new type of bagpipes and the traditional pipers not only adapted it, but started to exploit its possibilities. This eventually lead to the rich repertoire of piping tunes that use the full two octaves of the instrument.


Although tradition has already provided us with very fine instruments, new developments are still being made. Some full sets and half sets have one or two extra drones in a different pitch. For instance, a set in D can have an extra drone in G or A. In some cases it accompanies the normal drones, on other sets they can be switched on and off independently.

Full sets with a fourth regulator – a counter bass – exist as well. The late Dave Williams used to build them, but this idea was not entirely new: in the beginning of the twentieth century, Richard Lewis O’Mealy had already built some full sets with an extra long and deep bass regulator.

The newest inventions are made by our Belgian pipe maker Arie DeKeyzer: C-chanters with a wide bore and a big volume, D-chanters with a narrow bore and a tempered volume, flat set chanters in A and high pitched chanters in the keyes of  Eflat and F. Recently also Jeff Wolf and Andreas Rogge build narrow bore D-chanters.


Nowadays more and more musicians are interested in learning to play the Uilleann Pipes. Some use them in modern pop music, in black metal, in classical music or new age stuff, others cling to the tradition. Traditional techniques are handed down, new techniques are invented. The Uilleann Pipes are an instrument from the past that smoothly finds its way to the future.