January 26, 2009

Qualifying quality

Meet your maker.At least twice a month for the last 20 years I’ve received inquiries about advertising from companies based in Pakistan. These outfits say that they make Highland pipes, but also list Uilllean pipes, custom pipe-banners, reeds, drums and all manner of things associated with pipers and drummers. And for 20 years I’ve consigned all of those messages to trash.

But they keep asking, and each time a message gets through my junk filter, I feel a pang of guilt. After all, they’re just trying to make a living at making stuff that clearly a segment of the piping and drumming population wants. The Pakistani companies’ money is just as good as that from any other business, and perhaps it would make sense to allow them to advertise. pipes|drums can always use more support to plow back into the not-for-profit magazine.

My first practice chanter was made in Pakistan from sheesham wood that was painted black. It tasted funny. My dad, bless him, picked it up at some shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, along with Captain John MacLellan’s revised Logan’s Tutor, with the hope that maybe one of us kids would take it up. For the next year it lay around the house. One of us sat on it, and the thing snapped from the F hole on down. My dad dutifully glued it back together.

The following summer I expressed an interest in learning after hearing the Toronto Gaelic Society Pipe Band playing in number-one-dress at a festival in Earth City, Missouri, in July, on an asphalt parking-lot under broiling sunshine. My first lessons were on that Pakistani chanter, my left thumb sticking to the syrupy glue that dear old dad used for his earnest repair job. I was onto a Hardie chanter after a few months.

I don’t know how many serious pipers started with a Pakistani practice chanter, but there must be a fair few. The knee-jerk reaction is to think that whatever is made there is not up to the minimum standard that readers of pipes|drums demand, but I have seen some made-in-Pakistan custom banners and embroidered items and thought they were pretty good. But perhaps to a professional embroiderer they’re just as inferior as the pipes.

Is it wrong not to allow Pakistani companies to advertise?


  1. It must be true to say that in Pakistan, as in all other places, there are good, mediocre, and poor products on offer, but when it comes to pipes the consensus seems to be that they are of poor quality. Presumably you have to take each company on its own merits and make a judgement based on that company’s product, and not write it off purely because its a Pakistani company. So how do you do that? Do you ask for a free sample of all these products so you can decide which to allow advertising space? !!!! Do we know for a fact that all the pipes made in Pakistan are of poor quality – and if so, how do we know that? Does the Pakistani band that plays at the Worlds, play Pakistani-made pipes, or do they buy from overseas? What reason do you give Pakistani companies for NOT allowing them to advertise, or do you just not answer their queries? It’s complicated.
    So in answer to your question – MAYBE.

  2. A report on an objective study could be interesting but it might just be time and resources spent just confirming what’s already widely known.

    But maybe an objective but respected observer, like Bob Worrall on the Bannatyne review, could get some pipes from purveyor’s of Sialkot City’s best pipes (Lark in the Morning, Mid-East mfg.) and really assess whether or not these pipes have any merit. Could there be the Yamaha of bagpipes? Sure they’ll never be a MacDougal bagpipe just like Yamahas will never be a Martin acoustic guitar or a Powell silver flute but lots of guitarists and flute players get a good start on a Yamaha.

  3. Perhaps if they switched to Polypenco or some other acceptable plastic and duplicated a classic bagpipe to the mm, the quality would be acceptable.

  4. I think the policy is incorrect. Many of the Pakistan-based businesses I have dealt with have been earnest, sincere, friendly and very customer-oriented. Only a complete novice would not be aware that the pipes and chanters are sketchy, but clearly, many don’t care.

    I have made a number of purchases from companies in Pakistan over the years: embroidery products, hat badges, even sporrans when we needed something fast on a very tight budget! In every case, the companies were great to deal with, and while the quality of their products doesn’t rival the best available, sometimes, that’s what people need!

    Take their money, run the ads, and let the market decide on the quality.

  5. Lots of interesting thoughts, and please do keep them coming. Deleting Pakistani companies’ requests isn’t a “policy,” more just habit that I suddenly decided to question!

  6. I started out on a Pakistani practice chanter. Played it for years. I still have it. My parents weren’t well off, so the $7 it cost was at the time important.

    Some pipers might be surprised to discover how much piping stuff they buy from North American dealers (such as drone cords) is made in Pakistan.

    Having said that, do you really want to advertise a pipemaker whose pipes are more likely to discourage rather than encourage newbies?

    Of course, I’ve seen discouragng pipes from ‘reputable’ makers as well….

  7. I have taught a lot of pipers to play on lower quality practice chanters. It stops the parents wasting a lot of money if the pupil drops out. Some upgraded as they imnporoved. Some after years still play the cheaper chanter. The cheap practice chanter serves a useful purpose. While I have not heard a good set of pipes from Pakistan, that does not mean that they do not exist. (I must admit to having a low exposure to Pakistani pipes). However, can you refuse to accept advertisements without good cause? If the criteria for accepting adverts is quality of product, should you not then not accept any adverts at all until you have had an evaluation of that manufacturers products? Surely you should accept all adverts on the same basis until it is shown that a particular advertiser is “ripping off” the public? Some manufactures outwith Pakistan do not always make recommendable products.

  8. I have to say that I am unsure of the quality of Pakistani pipes. However, I have been involved with bands and other organisations who have purchased various more ‘ceremonial’ items, such as pipe banners, drum major baldricks, cap badges, and have to say I have been impressed with quality, speed of delivery and price. Ebay is quite often a good place to judge some of these suppliers (most have an ebay shop) and you can view the feedback received from past purchasers.

    I think you should pursue one or two – certainly the Salikot based company are good.

  9. A young fellow in a band I played with in Ohio brought a set of Pakistani pipes his mother had bought him down to band one night. I figured I’d be nice and set about to tune him as closely as possible to the band while telling him to try and persuade his mother to get him a set made by a reputable maker (which she did). In the course of tuning, it became apparent that the pipes were in the key of A more than they were B’. I told him I would pay him what his mom bought them for, but he was very nice and gave them to me outright. A buddy and I took off the mounts and turned the drones down, remounting them with cocobolo wood and shazam! I had a drone perfectly tuned to my biniou chanter! Moral of the story: Life is like a Pakistani bagpipe, you never know what your going to get.

  10. I had a Pakistani chanter first. Hardie for Christmas.

    I have seen two types of pipes from Pakistan. One type is hopeless, made of coloured light-wood with the chanter being unplayable. However the other type is much more serious (in our sense), made of some hardwood, straight polished bores and a decent appearance. The chanter is still so and so, but basically just very low pitched (460 or so). The prize is very consumer friendly.

  11. I too, started out on a Pakistani practice chanter and pipes from my high school and played them for 3 years until I got my Hardies. There is a place for inexpensive “entry” level equipment and many of us have taken advantage of that. Also, pipes, etc. have been manufactured in Pakistan for at least 2 centuries and I doubt that that will end. I would say “caveat emptor”. There is a place for a Yugo, just don’t complain when it’s not a Rolls. Also, the embrodery and metallic embroidered badges are top notch. I know of at least one well-known Grade 1 band that wears Pakistani-made sporrans, there may be even more! Lastly, I believe some of the “reputable” dealers that advertise on PipesDrums sell Pakistani-made equipment.


  12. I think there’s a big difference between buying merchandise from a low-cost manufacturer via an intermediary, and buying it direct at retail. I can’t see a problem with anyone selling drone cords or sporrans or instruments made in Pakistan or anywhere else as long as the person importing them and selling them on can look after his customers. I would be more reluctant to suggest that it would be a good idea for people to buy individually products from overseas (and this applies just as much to the UK and North America), and I don’t think it is something PD should be putting out. If the low-cost option really is right for you, then there are plenty of companies like Lark in the Morning to take your money (though I imagine the popular nickname of Shark in the Morning had to come from somewhere…)

  13. Over the years we have bought belts and other stuff. The service has been reliable and quality according to price. We cant afford to put 25 people in full gear of top quality for parade so a few things from Sialkot Pakistan has helped us out.

    Gustaf von Sivers
    1st Royal Engineers, Stockholm, Sweden
    Grade 2

  14. One of the good things left about our industry, you don’t have to spend an Arm and a Leg to get a great sounding instrument. With some makers upping their prices for profit and many vintage pipes priced beyond the reach of Family budgets, perhaps there is a place for rank beginners and people on a budget to shop.

    Competition is good for all!

  15. When I was kid nand enamored of all things piping, I used to get those rice paper catalogs in the mail from Pakistan – and I have to admit, I was thrilled by the prospect of $40 kilts and $200 “silver and ivory” pipes. Obviously I’ve learned that when it comes to Pakistan, some things are too good to be true. But I’ve also been impressed with the embroidered products they send out (banners, badges, etc) and even some of their uniform parts (the tartan material they tend to use is baaaad, but their doublets, belts, and brooches are actually decent).

    As a reader of a lot of piping-related blogs, I appreciate reviews and always welcome expert opinion on what’s out there. From reeds to kilts to drones, I like knowing how products stack up. In the same vein, I would -love- to see someone do a serious review of Pakistani pipes from a variety of makers. Even a blind test of Pakistani pipes versus established makers would go a long way to either establishing reasonable comparisons or perhaps even challenge some previously held notions.

    I’d also like to hear about the uniforms; what does it cost to have No. 1, daywear, and evening kits made up? Most compainies these days offer everything from plaids to Prince Charlies – I even saw one company advetising seal skin sporrans (yikes!); are they any good? What could a cash strapped band or competitior get away with? What to avoid? Ultimately such reviews, regardless of associated advertising, would help educate consumers. Certainly a worthwhile service these days.

  16. Banners and badges are all fine and dandy but bagpipes from Pakistan should never be considered as an option or as a stepping stone to delay buying a quality instrument. What about the true crafts people who honestly make a fair standard of living? Edinburgh’s shops is a classic example whereby these inferior products are being sold and the homemade product left on the shelf. Are we not kidding ourselves here a bit and not considering the pupil’s initiation to the bagpipe thus training his/her ear to accept and understand what a good quality sound is and what is acceptable or not. We all like to wear good quality kilts and jacket and disregard these items when made in Pakistan, then why would we even be interested in cheap, imitaition inferior sounding bagpipes. I realize that price can have an impact on bands i.e. sporrans etc but bagpipes and accessories should never be considered period.

  17. Maybe you can participate in the blind experiment, Bert.

    But my suggestion to do a product test was only half-hearted.

    In terms of the pipe market, it’s really about the after-market. Chanters, reeds and bags are after-market items. Quality aside, this is where instructors and pipe majors find problems. Drones need reaming to fit synthetic reeds, stocks are too slim for the grommets on synthetic bags and chanter stocks need reaming to fit other chanters. Instructors working with beginners might be willing to work with a hide bag but not too likely to want the extra set-up time needed for cane drone reeds and that still leaves the chanter stock that needs retro-fitting/replacing.

    Right there most products would fail and that’s before even assessing the tone and stability let alone aesthetics and craftsmanship. And would the cost savings of the initial purchase still balance out the extra time and money to get it to play versus the extra investment in the student model pipes that some Scottish and North American makers offer?

    But maybe there’s a maker in Pakistan that is a little more after-market friendly.

    If somebody did do a study, after-market compatibility and cost-benefit would probably be key factors.

  18. One thing you can’t skip on is a good quality practice chanter as you spend about 80% of your practice time on it.

    If a student is not willing to invest at least $60 bucks in a good PC, perhaps they are best suited for a tin whistle.

  19. I say don’t run the ads. Running adverts for what are effectively “cheap imitation products” will be seen as an endorsement. The Pakistani bagpipe makers do well enough selling their fake products to tourists on The Royal Mile.. These are not “real Highland Bagpipes” and we, as pipers and drummers, should be trying to protect those genuine bagpipe makers whose products we have been proud to play.. Pakistani Bagpipes should not be on the same pages as Lawrie, MacRae, Henderson, MacDougall, Center, Hardie, Niall, Fletcher, McCallum.. Let’s “Keep It Real”!!

  20. Pakistani bagpipes at this point in time are “Gimicky” – Some of the Pakistan makers are even coming up with Scottish names such as Robertson and it’s an insult to what was once a very good Scottish bagpipe maker. If P & D accepts the Pakistani advertisements then it could be seen as an endorsement. There are two markets, one for real quality made bagpipes played by musicians and the other for toys or ornaments used by whoever. Sad part is that the minds of novice or people with little knowledge or understanding of bagpipe are often tricked or taken by price alone. Until such times a Pakistani maker can make bagpipes that can be played to level equal to genuine bagpipe makers, I wouldn’t give them the press.

  21. Certainly, buying products sight-unseen is “dangerous”. But, I am a bit sensitive on the “all things Scottish” issue. I, like a great many North American pipers spent the first 20 years of my piping career getting nothing but “cr@p for reeds” from the Auld Sod. Thank God that’s not the case any more…..but the memory of that “discriminantion” lasts.
    I guess my point of view is that one must “trust but verify” the manufacturer one uses no matter what their pedigree! And…rarely…one can make a sillk purse out of a sow’s ear! Don’t discount Pakistani products outright, just cjhoose carefully

  22. Looking at it from a business standpoint, I would never advertise what know or believe to be an inferior product. Like it or not what you advertise is a reflection of your quality in the eyes of those who frequent your business/ E-magazine. “Well, it’s got to be decent otherwise P & D wouldn’t run the ad.” How many pipe tutors have had that student show up that first day with a set of “Paki Pipes”, and then dutifully tried to turn them into a functional instrument. Very difficult if not impossible!

    Many of their other products, I agree, are just fine. I like issuing $30.00 band sporrans instead of $300.00 sporrans, but how do you regulate that?

  23. I’m inclined to agree with Chris, but every single point in this thread is really good thinking, contrary as the views might be. Fortunately, pipes|drums is in demand as an advertising platform, so I don’t have to worry about it. It would be great to conduct a comprehensive review of all products, including those from Pakistan, but we’re not Consumer Reports . . . yet. In the meantime, perahaps I’ll watch for the next inquiry from Sialkot and consider any proposal to limit their advertising to things not related to musical instruments.

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  26. Much like quite a few of the other people that posted here i too started off on a Pakistani practice chanter which i used until i sat on it one day (an act which caused no small amount of anguish and similarly no small amount of wrath from my P/M).

    Also given the relative lack of funding my band had at the time i also played a pakistani set of bagpipes for two years and while i must say that there was no comparison whatsoever in terms of the tonal quality of drones compared to any reputable bagpipe dealer from scotland they did make an acceptable set of pipes for someone just started out. The chanter however was ditched for a Polypenco chanter from a Scottish firm as it was absolute pox.

    I have also purchaced a number of ornamental items from pakistan and found them to be great value for money, and the staff to be first class in terms of friendliness and the genuine desire to make a sale of their product.

    I think pakistani companies should be given an opputunity to gain advertising space and hopefully most young players will listen to their Pipe Majors who will undoutably warn them of the perils involved in purchasing bagpipes from those companies.



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