Tuning the drones on a bagpipe is regarded by many as being a very
mysterious operation. Hence, far too many pipers do not give themselves
credit for being able to do it. They either don’t bother trying to tune
their drones at all, or they let their pipe-major do it at band practice
(“because he has a good ear”) and hope that their pipes will stay in
tune by themselves for the rest of the week (two weeks if they can’t
make it to the next practice). It is not surprising then that the general
public often likens the sound of a bagpipe to that of several cats dying
painfully. This description is all too often true.
Surprisingly though, while the quality of sound obtained from the pipe
may depend upon one’s “ear”, drone-tuning itself is a mechanical and
rational procedure requiring almost no musical ability whatsoever. If the
drones won’t come into tune, invariably this indicates a problem with
the reeds, not with the person tuning them. In fact, an inability to tune
the drones is most often what signals that the reeds aren’t functioning
The rules for drone tuning are straightforward and sensible. The keys
to success are practice and a commitment to doing yourself and the piping
community a favour by simply never performing on an instrument which is
not in tune.
Tuning one drone at a time
Begin by striking up your bagpipe and shutting off the bass and middle
tenor. Play low A and listen. Is the drone in tune or not? If not,
continue to listen while you ease your blowing off very slightly. As you
slowly let pressure off, the pitch of your chanter will flatten. If the
drone seems to come into tune as the chanter flattens, it follows that the
drone itself must be flat. To sharpen it, blow a clear high A, pull the
drone top down, and try the test again.
If easing off does not bring the drone into tune, blow normally for a
moment until you are settled and then overblow slightly. This sharpens the
pitch of the chanter. If the drone seems to come into tune as the chanter
sharpens, then the drone must be too sharp for the chanter. To flatten it,
blow a clear high A, pull the drone top up and test again.
If neither underblowing nor overblowing seems to make a difference,
then the drone is probably too far out of tune for this method to be
useful. In this case, you must listen to its pitch in comparison with low
A, guess which way the drone should be moved and move it about
three-quarters of an inch in that direction. While the pressure-variance
technique is helpful once the drone is within half an inch of being tuned,
you must be able to get it in the ball park by ear. If you cannot do at
least this, perhaps you should consider seeking some instruction from a
Once you have one drone in tune with your chanter, the most important
part of the process is finished. You will now tune the bass to the outside
tenor, then tune the middle tenor with all three drones going.
Blow a clear high A, try to disregard your chanter, and concentrate on
the sound of the drones. Beginning with the bass, move the drone so that
you can hear it starting to come into tune. Even when you think it is in
tune, continue moving it. Once you hear it beginning to go out of tune
move it back the other way until it again comes into tune and begins to go
out. This establishes the upper and lower boundaries of your tuning range.
Continue to experiment within this small range until you are satisfied
that you have found the middle point at which the drone seems least out of
tune. Do the same with the middle tenor.
It may help as you do this to be aware of the volume of your drones:
drones which are in tune give the illusion of being quieter than those
which are not (in fact, the opposite is probably true). This can be used
as a rough guide in your tuning. It may also help to listen for the sound
of the pulsating “beats” which occur between the tenor drones as the
middle tenor is brought into tune with the outside one. As these two
drones come closer together in pitch, the beats become longer in duration
(from a quick “wow-wow-wow-wow” sound, to a slower “woooow-woooow-woooow”)
until finally the beats disappear into the continuous hum which indicates
that the tenors are in tune.
Frequently, pipers have more difficulty tuning one drone to another
than to the chanter, especially bass to tenor. A good way to overcome this
is to practise tuning the drones with the chanter eliminated completely.
Tune the outside tenor to the chanter to obtain the correct pitch for the
drones. Then stop, remove the chanter and cork up the stock. Now just work
on tuning the drones together. Get used to the sound of the drones and to
the quality of the sound they exhibit when they are in tune and out of
tune. After twenty minutes you will be surprised at how clearly you can
hear your drones even after the chanter is replaced. Very simply, you have
trained your ear to hear the drone sound better.
Tuning two drones at once
Tuning two drones to the chanter simultaneously requires above all an
ability to tune those two drones accurately to each other. Aside from
this, the rules are the same as for tuning one drone.
Reach up and shut off your middle tenor (or the outside one). Settle
yourself for a moment, blow high A, disregard your chanter completely, and
tune the bass to the remaining tenor. Once these two drones are tuned
together, consider them to be one drone and perform the pressure-variance
test described above. This will tell you the direction in which the two
drones (as a unit) should be moved. Once you have decided this, blow high
A, disregard the chanter again, move the tenor in the desired direction,
and follow it with the bass. When you have these two drones in tune
together, test them with the chanter once more. As soon as you are
satisfied that the bass and tenor are in tune with each other and with the
chanter, turn on the middle tenor, give it several seconds to steady
itself, blow high A, and pull this last drone into tune with the others.
Three at a time
As before, the greatest help to tuning three drones at once is an
ability to bring the drones into tune with each other in spite of the
sound of the chanter. Steadiness of blowing will also be an asset here,
particularly when you are reaching up to adjust the slides.
After striking up and settling yourself, blow a clear high A, disregard
the chanter and the bass as much as possible, and try to tune the middle
tenor to the outside one. With the bass bellowing away in your ear, this
may be a new adventure in confusion, but be patient with yourself. When
the middle tenor is as close to being in tune as you can get it, bring the
bass into tune with the tenors. Once the bass is more in tune, you may
find that you can go back to the middle tenor and get it even closer.
Repeat the process as often as is necessary to being the drones in tune
with each other.
With the three drones now tuned together, pretend that they are one
drone and test them with the chanter. Having decided which way they should
go, blow high A. Disregard the chanter and move the outside tenor in the
desired direction. Tune the middle one to it, then tune the bass to the
tenors. Test again. Repeat this entire process as often as is necessary to
tune your instrument.
If you are not achieving much success, there could be two causes.
First, and most likely, the reeds themselves may be unsteady. You can be
certain that if one of your drones is even slightly unstable your bagpipe
will frustrate you completely as you try tuning three drones at once.
Several methods may be used to determine the reason for the unsteadiness,
but these are best left to a future discussion. Secondly, if you are
certain that your pipes are steady, you are probably just not hearing the
sound of the drones very well. Again, the importance of practising tuning
the three drones together while the chanter stock is corked cannot be
The true test of one’s ability to tune three drones at a time is
in pulling the pipes straight from the box and tuning them without
ever shutting off a drone. However, if you are still just learning the
ropes you are wiser to begin by tuning two or even just one until the
pipe is settled and is holding its tone. Then you can experiment.
It is important to remember that your chanter reed is often in a
state of flux. During the first few minutes of playing, or each time
you begin again after a break, this reed will sharpen up
substantially. The drones will require frequent tuning during this
crucial 15 or 20 minutes as they pursue the rapidly changing pitch of
the chanter reed. This is a natural reaction of the cane to moisture
and vibration, so don’t expect your pipes to stay tuned for very
long until the chanter reed has stabilized. In terms of reed
steadiness, it is advisable never to take the first quarter-hour of
your practice time too seriously.
In addition, you will have trouble tuning your drones if the
individual notes of the chanter are not in tune relative to each
other. This can be a major problem, and as such is best left to a
Any time you physically handle a drone reed to adjust the bridle or
manipulate the tongue, that reed will perform very unsteadily for ten
minutes or so. During this time you will find that the drones will not
stay in tune for more than a couple of minutes. Be patient until the
The concept of easing off or overblowing the chanter reed to
determine which way the drones should be moved is a useful one;
however, these efforts must be imperceptible to your listeners. No one
wants to hear a piper doing an impression of a warped record, so once
you have acquired the proper tuning techniques try to employ them in a
manner as inoffensive as possible to anyone listening, including
The use of Teflon tape on tuning slides is becoming popular because
of the self-threading properties of this material. Purchase a roll at
a hardware store, apply a couple of layers over the hemp, then
“screw” the drone top on, slowly pulling it down as you turn it
counter-clockwise. The tape will now be invisibly threaded so that
turning it counter-clockwise causes it to move down, and turning it in
a clockwise direction moves it up. Rethreading is accomplished over
the same tape simply by pulling the drone top off and screwing it on
again. Experiment so that you can move the three drones up and down
the same distance by turning them the same amount to the right or
left. Such a convenience is a tremendous boon to tuning two or three
drones at once.
Finally, your ability to tune drones will improve if you expose your
ear to well-tuned bagpipes. If you have limited access to live
playing, there are many recordings available by top players performing
on superb pipes. Train your ear as you would your fingers, with
practice and repetition. Nothing will inspire you more than a vibrant,
well-tuned instrument. A poor sound stifles any music you try to
produce; a good sound enhances it ten-fold.