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I want to play the Uilleann Pipes

Updated on June 13, 2015

The Pipes, the Pipes are calling ...

I have a near fatal obsession with pipes. I love all the pipes (and all the drums), the Great Irish Warpipes, the Scots lowland pipes and the Great Highland Bagpipes, the Breton Veuze, the Galician Gaita and the Italian Zampogna.

But the most beautiful, the most haunting of all are the lovely Uillean Pipes of Ireland.

Their harmonic structure is different from other pipes, they're sweeter and quieter, to be played indoors. They can lilt, tap out a reel or accompany a singer. They can whirl you into a dance and they can also stop you dead with a heartbreaking lament.

In the Uillean Pipes I recognise the cry of the exile.

Uilleann Pipes are not Highland Bagpipes

  • Highland Bagpipes are played standing, Uilleann pipes are played sitting.
  • Highland Bagpipes are for the outdoors, Uilleann pipes are for indoor playing.
  • Highland Bagpipes are a military instrument. Uilleann pipes are a social instrument.
  • Highland Bagpipes have standardized ornamentation. Uilleann pipers create their own versions of tunes and ornamentation.
  • Highland Bagpipes are (usually) learned from written music. Uilleann pipers (usually) learn by ear within their tradition.

What makes the Uilleann Pipes different?

The Uilleann Pipes are distinguished not only by their sweet tone, but by their wide range of notes.

The chanter has a range of two full octaves, including sharps and flats, together with the unique blend of chanter, drones, and "regulators."

The regulators are equipped with closed keys which can be opened by the piper's wrist action, so you can play simple chords, giving a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment.

The Pipers themselves add to a melody with individual ornamentation based on multiple or single grace notes.

Could I ever learn to play them?

UIllean Pipes on CD / MP3

But I don't have 15 years to learn the Uillean Pipes!

Yes, I could learn to play the Uillean Pipes if I devoted a lot of time and energy, patience and persistence, as well as a few years of practice into the exercise. If I had 15 years to hone my skills.

Learning the Uilleann pipes is a challenging task and demands total commitment. The difficulties of learning are partly mechanical (a truly daunting musical instrument to master), and partly practical. It's difficult to obtain a set of Uilleann Pipes in Australia. Furthermore, the Uilleann Pipes are never played by isolated beginners; there is always a teacher.

To learn the Uilleann Pipes I'll have to move to Ireland!

Slow Airs and Laments

The Uillean Pipes are at their most expressive when melancholy.

Davy Spillane, acknowledged master of the Uillean Pipes, can call your heart right out of your chest in Caoineadh cu Chulainn. My heart anyway.

Caoineadh cu Chulainn - Lament - Davy Spillane

The range of music possible on the Uilleann Pipes

The Uilleann Pipes are inflated by bellows attached to one arm, ( 'Uilleann' means "elbow" in Irish) so you always have dry reeds. When you inflate a bellows with your breath, the reeds become wet.

Dry reeds give the Uilleann Pipes the. widest range of notes of any form of bagpipe in the world. This finer reed can overblow into the second octave.

The second octave has a sweet tone, unique among pipes, which really defines the character of the Uilleann Pipes.

The ability to play in a normal musical range means you can play anything at all on the Uilleann pipes, jazz, country music, rock, classical or whatever.


Fantastic Ornamentation from Liam O'Flynn

Liam O'Flynn

Liam O'Flynn was a lifelong friend of Maeve Binchy

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Banned by foreign forces and at stages becoming virtually extinct , the Uilleann Pipes are still one of the most amazing pieces of musical machinery ever designed. And I want to play them!

How about you?

What do you really think of the Uilleann Pipes?

See results

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    • kevin murphy-87 profile image

      kevin murphy 3 years ago from Ireland

      I share your love for the pipes! :) but my god they are expensive! haha

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have exactly the same dream. Aaaand I recently found a shop on ebay selling full and half sets ready made in Pakistan. I recently lost my job, but I'm so hell bent on this instrument I used my savings and i'm scraping odd jobs to replenish what I spent on a half set, which is on it's way in the mail.

      I'm going to try to go against the grain on that necessity for a teacher, hoping I can teach myself with enough determination. If not, well... been to ireland once, wouldn't mind looking to move there for work and taking the pipes with me ;)

      All the same, if you want pipes, look on ebay, cause the shop has good reviews, and they have half-sets for $370, i think the full sets were $800-900? Either way, now I'm looking for an Australian piping society to find other Uilleanne enthusiasts through and such (that's how I came across this page), would you happen to know of any?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Actually, I'm having the same dream as you, and I'm working on it. There are a lot of Pipemakers sending the pipes to all countries, shouldn't be a problem to get one. Of course, they are made after you ordered, so don't expect to find one in an Irish music shop ;-)

      Also, a good tool for practicing, if you live in a house with many people, are the vPipes, pretty close to the real sound and handling.

      Uilleann Pipes are the "Queen of Bagpipes", but Smallpipes are nice too. Personally I don't like the GHP; too limited in expression and range, and to high pitched to sound good. But they were made for make soldiers marching, not telling stories ...

    • JohnMichael2 profile image

      JohnMichael2 6 years ago

      great info...

    • scaguy profile image

      scaguy 6 years ago

      I like all "pipes". My fav arethe Highland pipes. These are my second. All ppes are wonderful to my ears!

    • profile image

      Annamadagan 6 years ago

      Interesting! Sounds cool.