Glossary: Uilleann Pipes

The Uilleann Pipes are the characteristic national bagpipes in Ireland. In earlier times the instrument was also called “Union Pipes”. The term used today has its origin in the Irish-Gaelic word  píobaí uilleann (literally: "ellbow pipes") an refers to their method of inflation. In comparison to mouth-blown instruments, the Uilleann Pipes utilize a bellows.

By utilizing bellows the player is not required to use a mouth piece to inflate the bag. In addition the supplied air is relatively dry which strongly reduces the impact of humidity on tuning and durability of the reeds.

Usually the instrument is tuned in the key of D (so-called Concert Pitch). Other common keys are Bb, Eb or C (“flat pitch”).

Without keys a chanter in concert pitch is capable of producing a C (small 7th above the tonic of D). Thus melodies in G-major and E-minor are also playable. When using fork fingering additionally the notes D# and Eb can be played in both octaves.

Traditional tunes are usually written down in the key of D, even if the actual “real” key is different. Thus, Uilleann Pipes can be considered transposing instruments.

When playing the Uilleann Pipes a lot of different movements of arms, hands and fingers must be coordinated. The bellows is usually operated by the right arm, while the left arm is used to control the pressure in the wind bag. At the same time hands and fingers are used to play the melody on the chanter. When playing a full set the edge of the right hand is also used to operate the regulators. For these reasons the Uilleann Pipes are considered the most difficult but also the most expressive type of bagpipe..

Uilleann Pipes are usually made from African Blackwood or black ebony. Besides of that, there are also very beautiful instruments made from boxwood, fruit wood like plum, or from maple. The metal parts are made from brass, silver or nickel silver. The decorative rings used to be made from real ivory. Nowadays mostly boxwood, cow horn or artificial materials are used. More details can be found in the material section.

Uilleann Pipes have a different harmonic structure and sound “sweeter” than other types of bagpipes such as the Scottisch Great Highland Pipes.

Additional sources for this page: 

Full Set Uilleann Pipes in D, Cocobolo: Großansicht