February 27, 2012

Bling on the sound

Bulls-eye.Are pipes with more expensive ornamentation better instruments? It’s an age-old question. Bagpipe makers invariably insist that there’s no difference in craftsmanship between entry-level drones and those fully mounted in chased sterling silver, but only they know the truth.

My own feeling is that you get what you pay for and it only stands to reason that, the more a customer invests in the instrument, the more care is taken with its creation. It’s pretty much true of every industry: the luxury model generally lasts longer with fewer problems and better customer satisfaction. A manufacturer wouldn’t be around for very long if the higher-margin product – which is almost always the more expensive one – didn’t foster customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand.

It’s probably why you just don’t see any Gold Medallists competing with a set of circa 1976 orangey-plastic-mounted Grainger & Campbell drones.

I remember one year in the 1970s when my dad – a child of the Great Depression who saved everything, collected things and always seemed to think he was one bad decision away from the soup line – took me to shop for a new car. In his lifetime, he purchased maybe three automobiles, so this was a big occasion. The model he was interested in came with a radio as standard equipment, but my father thought it was an unnecessary expense that he had no interest in buying, since he never listened to the radio, anyway.

He would only buy the car, he insisted at first, if they removed the radio. It was only when they finally got through to him that it would actually cost him more to have it taken out, since it was factory-installed. So he begrudgingly left it, in all its AM-only glory, but his stance was that all cars were the same, so buy the cheapest thing possible. He’d then spend a lot of time going back and forth to the mechanic to have problems fixed.

His compulsive frugality probably had much to do with my opposite attitude about purchases: buy the very best product that you can realistically afford, even if it means waiting until you have the money. And, until you can afford the best, make do without.

Bagpipe makers will maintain the premise that all of their instruments are created equal in terms of bores and wood quality and workmanship. It’s something of a tradition, and I wonder if it’s the right thing for them to do. The mounts on Highland pipes serve a functional purpose: ferules and caps protect and bind the wood that might otherwise crack and chip; projecting mounts are like bumpers – again protecting the precious wood. Lucky for pipe-makers, it’s a great opportunity to use different materials that vary in their blinginess.

If I were a marketing strategist for a bagpipe maker, my plan would be to include even more superior craftsmanship with the more adorned instrument. In fact, I would position the expense being for, first, the better musical instrument, and then many of the bells and whistles would be factory-installed, but a few extra “packages” could be bought. Take a page from the auto industry.

That’s not to say that my entry-level instruments would be poorly made – on the contrary. I would simply emphasize the fact that those who purchase the all-chased-silver model would also get the very best, darkest, most seasoned blackwood, made by hand by the most experienced turner or, if it’s a CNC machine spinning it out, finished with the discerning eye and talent of a recognized expert human being. A “premium” instrument is more about premium sound and performance as it is about decoration. People will ooh and ah over your 7-Series BMW, but the thing also performs like a rocket. No contest.

I’m not a bagpipe maker, and they know their target markets best. But I am a marketer, and something tells me that the traditional approach to pipe-making, in which all instruments are said to perform equally well, and pricing is only determined by decoration, might well be the wrong way about the whole business.




  1. At a summer school around 1970 I remember Seumas MacNeill’s advice, “Buy the dearest set you can afford.” (I think that may have also been in his Tutor Book 2.) I also remember him saying that, in general, the best quality and workmanship end up in the higher priced sets. Of course, he was selling bagpipes through the College of Piping. Was that just his marketing technique? After 40 + years of piping I don’t remember hearing a lower end set of pipes that had a quality sound. So, I suspect you are both correct. If only the more adorned pipes are purchased, what happens to the wood used in the cheaper sets? Do they become pipes sold as factory seconds in outlet stores?

  2. A tradtional approach from a business standpoint would be very much aligned to what you describe Andrew. After all, bagpipe manufacturers are operating in a competitive market with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the bottom line. Incorporating a “more you pay, higher quality you get” approach to their marketing can only positively affect said bottom line in my opinon.

  3. Every instrument is unique. Generally, the ornamentation and wood colour makes no difference. There are just too many variables with organic materials to product 100% consistent instruments. The wood grain and density are important and can alter the sound quality. However, modern CNC technology kind of evens the playing field in regards to fit and finish.The finite sound quality is then just “luck of the draw”. I recently had the pleasure of listening to a set of cocobolo 1910-30? Hendersons with orange mounts and with nickel ferrules, etc. Beautiful sweet steady sound, Oh, and set up with modern technology. Looks? Not important: It’s all about the sound. The pipe would have been capable of a gold medal without issue…
    As far as design, there may be a few things to consider. How does a solid one piece drone end cap stack up against the two piece ring and inset type in terms of tone? Does the extra weight of a silver sole on a chanter change the tone compared to no sole? An ivory sole? A plastic sole? Do heavier, thicker mounts change the characteristics? Does full silver (heavier weight) drones sound different than a full plastic mount due to the weight? In the end, one just has to find a set of drones that they like the best and hopefully be able to buy them.

  4. Is it really true that quality of wood is standard whether on a cheap or an expensive fully adorned set? It would be quite damaging to say otherwise would it not, to admit that wood of less quality is used on the basic models. It wouldn’t make you want to rush to buy them. It would also be understandable, if a maker had a customer about to spend £5,000 on a set with all the shiny extras, that they would want to make sure the set was crafted from top quality wood. But wouldn’t it be quite hard to admit to these things? It mightn’t be good for business.

  5. Interesting take Andrew but I would differ on opinion, gee figure that. 🙂 The old MacDougalls I play have no bling on them, having said that I would put them up against the best pipe in the world, probably with someone else playing them and venture to guess they would win. Ok, they’re old school pipes and made out of cocus wood. How about this argument, those same MacDougalls were used by David Atherton to make his new Atherton MacDougall pipe, thanks to Jim McGillivray. I purchased a very basic set at a reasonable price. Comparing them to a few sets I have seen with bells and whistles I cannot detect ANY difference in quality or materials used. Better yet the sound produced, other than reed set ups, is almost identical. Last argument to the theory. Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Cambridge, Ontario produces the Lexus 350 as well as the Toyota Corolla and Matrix. All cars produced their have high quality, reliability and are popular in their various categories. Apart from price (MacDollars) and high end options (silver mounts) the materials used (blackwood) and process (lathe) they are identical. So I’m going to reach out on a limb and say, nae, the pipes are the same just some makers are better than others.

    Slainte Calum

    1. I firmly believe Dave Atherton makes the same quality bagpipe regardless of the shiny stuff added or mount material used. Point being, only the finest wood and turning methods are used. From what I’ve seen personally, I’m not so sure other makers are quite as discerning. I’ve seen Scottish-made pipes with blingidy-bling all over and mounted on damn-near red, stripey wood with small knots. As Calum said, I think some makers are just better and/or more conscientious than others. I personally ran into a similar issue with a Scottish pipe maker and when I complained about lack of quality and workmanship, I was told “this is how it’s done”. Well, that isn’t how it’s done by all pipe makers. Not the good ones.

  6. Something else to consider: the distribution of wealth in society being what it is, an instrument maker will probably sell a lot more low-end instruments than premium ones. No matter how great his premium sets are (or how much greater his margin on them is), his reputation will be made by the multitude of cheaper instruments that make their way into the community. Unless he intends to make ONLY very expensive high-end instruments, a pipe maker could really hurt himself if he gets a reputation for making underperforming cheap pipes. All it takes is for local teachers and P/Ms to advise their students/bandsmen to steer clear of a certain brand, and a large potential market vanishes.

  7. This blog is written from the perspective, or seemingly so, of a person that has never held a tool in his hand. A pipe maker spends the same amount of time drilling, boring, combing, beading, threading etc, every single piece of a bagpipe, without thought if this piece is going on a high end set, or entry level set. There are no ways to cut corners on work or wood quality on this instrument other than the bling.
    It would seem to me there are many sets of blackwood projecting mounted nickel ferruled, Hendersons and Lawries out there that were made for military issue (no bling), that sound pretty darn good.
    Just like BMW is a symbol of one’s status, or what he/she wants to others to believe, engraved silver, with ornate carvings is no different.

  8. @WeeGeordie — not quite true. In high school shop I was pretty handy with tools, and even tried my hand at making a piece of drone out of oak, which turned out okay. Playable, anyway. But the point of the blog, which may have been missed due to the murky writing, is that MOST pipe makers seem to market differently from almost every other instrument maker, which touts entry-level quality that performs only reasonably well, and superior quality for superior musicians. Most other instruments don’t have the opportunity to add silver and gold bits, unless they glued them on, so price, I think, is differentiated by quality of core materials and craftsmanship. If that marketing strategy works for Yamaha, why can’t it work for pipe makers? Piping once again has its own unique tradition in this area. Not saying one strategy is bigger or better than the other. Just saying.

  9. Regarding the fit and finish of different models, my first set of pipes were Hardies with full imitation ivory of the orange plastic variety. The lower bass drone tuning pin was (and still is) at a decidely crooked angle. A friend who also bought a set at around the same time had a similar bass drone. I hope a full silver set wouldn’t have that feature.
    Regarding the sound I wonder if the appearance of the instrument influences the judges. Could a plain set or a set trimmed in orange plastic win a gold medal even if the sound and playing were superb?
    If the accessory trim and fittings are to serve a purpose in protecting the instrument from being knocked about more durable materials need to be utilized. Some of the plastics currently used aren’t up to the rigors of being played and knocked about by teenagers.
    Adrew: When you talked of shopping for a car with your Dad I thought I had finally met a fellow sufferer, but your car salesmen got through to your Dad. The salesmen lost the argument with my Dad and the ’74 Dart and ’76 Chevette both came without radios–not great cruising cars.

  10. At one current pipe maker, it is standard practice to set aside older wood for the ‘premium’ sets, and to use the ‘greener’ stuff on the entry level sets. The bores are the same, but debates will rage over the difference between younger and more mature drones in terms of sound. But the obvious thing to me seems the increased risk of warping and/or cracking with the younger wood. I think it’s fair to say that you should get what you pay for, and that goes beyond the ornamentation.

  11. The first time I ever heard the outstanding young player John Mulhearn play, he was playing Donald Duaghal Mackay, beautifully, on a beautiful pipe. I was listening with his father and asked “what sort of pipe is that?” and he answered ” the bottom sections of those drones are made out of bored out broom handles”. That is a fact. And when John finished, he came over and showed me. That was at Chatsworth, about 1995. It’s not always about the materials.



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