Here we have a review of modern, commercially available bagpipes. This is a touchy subject! As such my reviews will be confined to bagpipes I have owned (and maybe sold on) for a good period of time. If no chanter is mentioned, there is not one currently available from the manufacturer, these reviews primarily focus on the drones.
Dunbar – P0 – made entirely of black Delrin plastic with no decoration. A solid build with good standard Henderson tone. Craftsmanship wasn’t perfect as I required a replacement tenor stock (which they provided free of charge as it shouldn’t have made it out the door in their own words, so customer service is top notch) and the ringcaps seemed to have an odd thing about them that I believe is due to the nature of plastic, it was just a little tiny thing that I really couldn’t tell what was going on. None of that affected the sound and for their lowest tier bagpipe, I found so minimal as to be acceptable. Given the right set of reeds you can make any bagpipe sound good, and this one is no exception. Kinnaird drone reeds are absolutely huge in this bagpipe, probably too much so. Ezeedrone or Canning reeds are a good bet, the original Kinnaird bass is a good one too. They were sold as I decided I had no need for a rainy day set because I decided I would never voluntarily play in the rain again! You can hear another delrin set of Dunbars owned by my friend (but played by me) here from this post. I am, however, no fan of the Dunbar chanter. I’ve played old and new ones and I’ve never gotten far enough with either to actually record them. The guys at Dunbar are always prompt in their email communication. As a side note Dunbar used to make Robertson reproductions and therefore have specs for them which are identical to several Robertsons I have measured. Given the option of buying a set of standard Dunbars or Dunbars made to Robertson specs (I call them Dunbartsons), I’d go for the Dunbartsons. Come on, Robertson pipes are just awesome and it’s a shame no one makes reproductions of them actively. Ultimately though, the tonal differences between Dunbars and Dunbartsons is going to be fairly small because Robertsons don’t sound too far off from Hendersons in the grand scheme of things. The Robertson tenor might be slightly fuller (spectral analysis reveals the Robertson tenors are 4 dB louder than the Dunbar tenors in these recordings, a trend that holds true for another Henderson based pipe, the Colin Kyo reviewed below) and the lower bass joint will tune higher up on the pin. Here’s a recording: (dunbar_robertson_lowA) of Dunbars followed by 1950’s classic Robertsons with absolutely everything the same except the drones in the stocks (see, or rather hear, not that different). A scale followed by a slow air, the recordings from which the previous comparison is made, can be heard for Dunbar and Robertson pipes using Canning tenors and original Kinnaird bass (CK chanter and Gilmour reed). Dunbar bagpipes are modeled after pre-WWII Hendersons as that is where Jack Dunbar learned to make pipes. Lastly, for some strange reason, the standard blowpipes sent with these pipes is extraordinarily long; I have no idea why.
Gellaitry – Full Boxwood – blackwood with boxwood mounts, ferrules, and ringcaps. I love these bagpipes. I have not seen better craftsmanship. When paired with Kinnaird drone reeds, they are electric (not buzzy). They also go very well with Crozier glass reeds. It took me a little while to get used to them and to find the reeds I liked in them. For the longest time I was trying to really get more out of the tenors and felt they were too mellow but once I put Kinnairds in them there was no looking back. I got the perfect blend with overtones a plenty. Check them out in this recording from this post. Tim Gellaitry learned to make pipes at Sinclair bagpipes but says his bore designs are his own. The audio isn’t perfect but here is YouTube video. Very steady and stable bagpipes.
Colin Kyo – Full Moose Antler – blackwood with moose antler mounts, ferrules, and ringcaps. Murray Huggins makes a fine bagpipe which he says is based on a set of 1908 Hendersons. They go really well, in my opinion, with Canning tenor drone reeds (or Ezeedrone) and a Kinnaird bass. The tone is very refined but not mellow, with excellent overtones from the tenors. The craftsmanship is top notch. Murray is a fine player and knows what a bagpipe should sound like, which is why his chanter is also a great chanter, different from any other you’ll play, no doubt. You can hear a set here (from this post) and also here where I use Colin Kyo drone reeds (this post). Here’s a YouTube video which has some decent audio of the CK drone and chanter package. Great steadiness. You can hear a comparison to Dunbar (also Henderson) and Robertson in the following audio file: (ck_dunbar_robertson_ck-lowA – CK, Dunbar, Roberton, same CK again for comparison purposes) which has absolutely everything the same except the drones in the stocks (Canning tenors and original Kinnaird bass, CK chanter and Gilmour reed). The recording that low A is taken from is here where the microphone is drone side: (scale-barra-reels_back). Another recording from the same session as me walking around for the slow air with the rest of the recording then having the mic on the chanter side of the pipe: (laois-kitty-drops-echo_front). A good friend of mine recently purchased an heirloom set of Colin Kyo bagpipes, engraved silver (by Murray himself) and moose antler. It’s a gorgeous looking and sounding set. More details on that set can be had in this post.
Jeffers – cocobolo with hard maple mounts, ferrules, and ringcaps. Keith Jeffers is an up and coming bagpipe maker here in the U.S. He prefers to use cocobolo wood instead of blackwood. I had the chance to try a set of Jeffers bagpipes to give Keith some feedback on what I thought. I then ordered a set. He has since greatly refined his pipes’ appearance and they are very elegant looking, reminiscent of an older time. The pipes themselves can be mellow but I pair them with Selbie reeds which really give them a great harmonic presence. Most striking is what I think is the E overtone coming off the bass. It really lets you know when your E is out of tune. Hear them here from this post. Here is a YouTube video of the Jeffers drones. These pipes are rock steady. Edit August 2016: The 4 or 5 sets produced most recently have more powerful tenors and slightly different bells in the bass and tenors for more “depth,” the result of slight changes.
D. MacPherson – blackwood with button mounts and boxwood ferrules. Doug MacPherson trained at Gillanders bagpipes (I think). He’s best known for making bespoke designed bagpipes and he has some very elegant lines. The beauty of his pipes is what made me want to buy them. Ultimately I sold them to a student. The drones have big volume. One of my favorite setups involved a Crozier glass bass with some tenors, like Selbie in this recording (from this post). Here’s a YouTube video. I’ll note something I’ve noticed is that the bass drone can be a little finicky to reed. Few brands of drone reed strike in very reliably on the bass drone. A regular old Ezeedrone bass drone reed and a Naill spec Rocket are the only two I can think of that never had problems. Every other bass drone reed I’ve put in there has a tendency to howl on strike in and not jump over to the normal tone with increased pressure if the bag wasn’t initially struck with enough force to bring the bass drone in. The chanter is solid, but a bit on the mellow side. I’ve only got one recording of it here from my first recording the pipes (this post). It tunes on the flatter side at about 475 Hz.
Chris Terry – A hobbyist (perhaps?) that makes reproduction Duncan MacDougall drones modeled on a set owned by John MacFadyen. The turning is excellent and the projecting mounts unique. A very well crafted instrument. Not sure how truly commercially available they are but I lucked into a used set. They can be heard in Bb here: Green Hills of Tyrol, When the Battle’s O’er, Marcus McLaurin (more in this post) or modern bagpipe pitch here: Caledonia, Fork Tailed Devil (Kevin Gerard) (more in this post).