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The Northumbrian smallpipes (also known as the Northumbrian pipes) are bellows-blown bagpipes from the North East of England. It consists of one chanter (generally with keys) and usually four drones.

The cylindrically-bored chanter has a number of metal keys, most commonly seven, but chanters with a two octave range can be made which require seventeen keys, all played with either the right hand thumb or left hand pinkie. There is no overblowing to get this two octave range, due to the cylindrical bore; the keys are therefore integral, along with the length of the chanter, to obtaining the two octaves.

The Northumbrian smallpipe's chanter having a completely closed end, combined with the unusually tight fingering style (each note is played by lifting only one finger or opening one key) means that traditional Northumbrian piping is staccato in style.


The original (18th century) short keyless chanters only had the range of one octave. The introduction of keyed chanters with a range of more than one octave seems to have happened around 1800, with makers such as John Dunn, and later Robert Reid and his son James.

In practice, beginning players find that the seven key chanter, with a range of D to b, is sufficient for playing most of the traditional piping repertoire. Chanters with more keys permit playing tunes with a wider range or with more chromatic notes, and allow access to much of the fiddle repertoire.

The chanter has a double reed, similar in construction to an oboe reed. This leads to a distinctive sound, rich in higher harmonics. As the bore is cylindrical, only odd harmonics are present.

Traditionally, the chanter has been pitched somewhere between F and F sharp, older instruments often being close to F sharp; this has now been standardised at what Northumbrian pipers refer to as F+, a pitch where the nominal G sounds approximately twenty cents sharp of F natural. This nominal G, however, is always notated as G. Nowadays, chanters are available anywhere from D to G, F+ being the commonest for solo or ensemble piping, but G being the most popular for playing ensemble with other instruments. Pipes with a tonic of F# are used for solo performance by several pipers now, being brighter in tone than those in F+, without being 'squeaky'.


There are usually four drones on the Northumbrian pipes, which are tuned (predominately) to the tonic, dominant and octave tonic. The reeds have a single blade; they are either cut from a single tube of cane, or else a strip of cane in a metal body.

Each drone will usually possess one or more 'bead holes' allowing its pitch to be raised by a tone or two, therefore allowing the piper to play in different musical keys, but still using the tonic, dominant and octave tonic combination of drone harmony. Sets with five or even six drones have been made since the 19th century (to allow ease of retuning); however these are not common and generally specifically commissioned.

Only three drones are usually sounded at once, tuned for instance to G, D and g if the tonic of the tune is G. Sets with more than four drones sometimes have thumb-operated drone switches, allowing players to change key without stopping playing.


The earliest bagpipe tunes from Northumberland are from William Dixon's manuscript from the 1730s. Some of these can be played on Border pipes or an open-ended smallpipe like the modern Scottish smallpipes, but about half the tunes have a single octave range and sound well on the single-octave simple keyless Northumbrian pipe chanter. These tunes are almost all extended variation sets on dance tunes in various rhythms - reels, jigs, compound triple-time tunes (now known as slip jigs), and triple-time hornpipes.

At the beginning of the 19th century the first collection specifically for Northumbrian smallpipes was published, John Peacock's Favorite Collection. Peacock was the last of the Newcastle Waits (musical watchmen), and probably the first smallpiper to play a keyed chanter. The collection contains a mixture of simple dance tunes, and extended variation sets. The variation sets, such as Cut and Dry Dolly are all for the single octave keyless chanter, but the dance tunes are often adaptations of fiddle tunes - many of these are Scottish, such as Money Musk.

As keyed chanters became commoner, adaptations of fiddle music to be playable on smallpipes became more feasible, and common-time hornpipes such as those of the fiddler James Hill became a significant part of the repertoire. The High Level is one. Many dance tunes in idioms similar to fiddle tunes have been composed by pipers specifically for their own instrument - The Barrington Hornpipe, by Thomas Todd, written in the late 19th century, is typical. Borrowing from other traditions and instruments has continued - Billy Pigg, for instance, adapted many tunes from the Scottish and Irish pipe and fiddle repertoires to smallpipes.

Although many pipers now play predominantly dance tunes and some slow airs nowadays, extended variation sets have continued to form an important part of the repertoire. Tom Clough's manuscripts contain many of these, some being variants of those in Peacock's collection. Others were composed by him - Nae Guid Luck Aboot the Hoose is one of these; it uses the extended range of a keyed chanter.

Playing styleEdit

The traditional style of playing on the instrument is to play each note slightly staccato. Each note is only sounded by lifting one finger or operating one key. The aim is to play each note as full length as possible, but still separate from the next - 'The notes should come out like peas'. The chanter is closed, and thus briefly silent, between any two notes. For decoration, it is common to play short grace notes preceding a melody note. Some pipers allow themselves to play these open-fingered, and hence not staccato, and Billy Pigg was able to get great expressive effects in this way - 'You should be able to hear the bairns crying'. But 'choyting', that is the complex open-fingered gracing after the manner of Highland piping, is generally frowned on, and Tom Clough made a point of avoiding open fingered ornament altogether, considering open-fingering 'a grievous error'. Several pipers play in highly close-fingered styles, Chris Ormston and Adrian Schofield among them; even among those such as Kathryn Tickell who use open fingering for expression, the close-fingered technique is the basis of their playing.


  • Topic TSCD487 The Northumbrian Smallpipes - includes the 3 Tom Clough recordings.
  • LERCD4006 Billy Pigg, the Border Minstrel

Notable Northumbrian pipersEdit

Some outline biographies of these and other pipers may be found in the Northumbrian Smallpipes Encyclopedia.

Past playersEdit

Current playersEdit

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

it:Northumbrian smallpipes nl:Northumbrian smallpipes pt:Smallpipe nortumbriana