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Chanter Reed Basics
preface by reminding you, as a student DO NOT ADJUST THE BAND CHANTER
REED. The reed you play in a band setting is the responsibility of
whoever is tuning the band. If you fiddle with the reed, it will take
longer to tune the band. Most pipers have a separate chanter for
solo/non-band playing. The reed you have in your solo chanter is yours
to do what you choose.
Anatomy of a Reed
The mouth of the reed is the opening located at the top of
the reed and is formed by the two opposing pieces of cane,
the "blades," sometimes also called "tongues." The very top
of the cane portion of the reed is called the "lips" or
"tip" of the reed.
This is the area across the central portion of the exposed
cane. On a ridge cut reed, the shoulder is fairly
To hold the two pieces of cane to the staple, they are
wrapped with black hemp. This is called the binding. If
the binding starts coming loose, clear finger nail polish
will provide for a good repair.
hemp is not technically part of the reed itself, but
facilitates positioning the reed correctly and snugly in the
"reed seat" which is the hole located at the very top of the
chanter. The hemp should not even partially block the hole
at the base of the staple as this will affect the reed's
At the base of the reed is a cylindrical/conical piece of
metal, typically copper or brass that provides a support for
the rest of the reed. (If you are lucky, might get to see an
old reed with a staple made of silver.) The staple opening
is round at the bottom and elliptical at the top. The staple
is a soft metal because sometimes it is desirable to alter
its shape and, consequently, also the reed's sound. This
alteration is accomplished with a tool known as a mandrel.
There are two
basic reed shapes or cuts:
This is an
example of a "molded" reed. Notice the gradual taper from
the binding to the top of the reed. Due to their shape, a
molded reed's blades get most of their support from the
This is an
example of a "ridge cut" reed, rarely also referred to as "french
cut" reed. Notice the distinct step at the shoulder, though
not all ridge cut reeds are quite this obvious. The blades
of ridge cut reeds get the most of their support from their
A "Ridge Cut" Reed
Moisture on Reeds
As a chanter reed is
played, it will absorb moisture. This moisture will soften
the cane, which normally would lower the pitch, however
there's a second effect on the reed. When played, a reed
experiences air pressure upon it, forcing it to close up,
which raises pitch. This means that if a piper picks up a
set of bagpipes and tunes the drones to a relatively
dry/unused chanter reed, the drones will be out of tune
after a brief time (5-10 minutes usually) as the chanter
reed pitch rises.
One might think that it would be
advantageous to keep the reed very moist—eliminate one
variable, so to speak—perhaps by leaving the chanter
attached to the bagpipe bag. However, moisture is a catalyst
for mold growth. Mold breaks down a reed and will greatly
reduce its life span. Consequently, most pipers remove their
chanters from the bag and use a "reed cap" (sometimes called
a "chanter cap" or "dry stock") to protect the reed while it
is seated in the chanter. On the other hand, if your reed
is still developing mold while in the reed cap, more air
circulation would be wise. Drill a few holes in your reed
cap. Later if your reed is drying out, some or all of these
holes can be sealed with tape.
Setting up a
"In/up, out/down." Lowering the chanter reed into the chanter
shortens the distance between it and the holes in the chanter and
raises the pitch. Raising the reed lowers the pitch. Changing the
quantity and position of the hemp on the binding will affect where
the reed seats. If the bottom of the staple is in direct contact
with the reed seat—with no hemp acting as a cushion—the pitch of the
reed will be raised even more than you may expect. Whatever you do,
you want the reed seated very firmly as a loose reed will be flat
The top hand notes'
pitches are more greatly affected by raising or lowering the reed.
This means that if the lower notes are in tune and the top hand is
flat, it may very well be corrected by pushing the reed slightly
deeper into the chanter. This also means that the scale is stretched
as the reed is seated deeper.
is useful when setting up a solo chanter with a new reed. Here's the
How to Set-up a
New Reed in a Chanter for Solo:
Place your reed in
Tune a single tenor
drone to low-A.
Check high-A to see
if it's in tune.
If high-A is sharp,
raise the reed in the chanter. If high-A is flat, lower the reed
in the chanter.
Go back to step 2
and repeat until low-A and high-A are in tune.
Check each note on
the chanter, if none are flat then tape any sharp notes,* you're
done! (At this point you can read the Low-A note with a tuning
meter to determine the chanter's natural pitch in Hertz for
future reference.) Otherwise you either sacrifice the chanter &
reed's natural pitch and push the reed in to sharpen the flat
note, you modify the reed (see below), or if you really know
what you are doing and it's a consistent problem, you might
consider carving that hole on your chanter.
*Sharp notes can be made flatter by placing a
piece of tape (I recommend pin striping tape) over the top portion
of the corresponding hole.
Some notes are easy
to tune, High A and E for instance. Many pipers have the most
trouble with F. Tune as best as you can against a tuned tenor drone
then play a tune that you know well and hear how it sounds. If a
note sounds out of whack, then it probably is. If you are not sure
if a note is sharp or flat, put your finger a little over the top of
that hole and listen. If it sounds better, then the note is sharp
and needs tape, but if it sounds worse, it's flat and you'll
probably have to either sink the reed to sharpen that note and tape
the holes above or perhaps carving top of that hole of your