My personal solutions for just accompaniment of tunes in keys other than D  on the pipes


More drones for keys and modes other than d and g. Changing tonic drones while playing


Strictly judged, only the tunes with the tonic d are appropriately accompanied by the classical drones, and this is the reason why these tunes form  the core of the uilleann pipes repertoire. In some tunes it seems that the drone has had an impact on the melody structure. Many fiddle tunes in d, played on the pipes, lack this close relationship to the drones and thus are not really considered being part of the repertoire.


I was wondering how the many tunes in our repertoire with tonic g,  a, b and e would sound if they had a tonic drone group under them as well. I expected them to sound much better that way.




Hans – Jörg Podworny had made his set with two additional drones for e and e’ in the late eighties, and I often heard them on the German tionóil. Each drone group (Ddd’ and ee’)  had its own switch. The effect of changing the just tonic drone while changing tunes from d to e was absolutely surprising and convincing.  I had a long – term loan of this set after he fell ill, so I played this set a lot. I added a forth  e’ regulator of the W. Rowsome pattern and improved the two regulator levers for working it with the right thumb alone.  As a result, tunes in e’, with tonic drone, could be followed by tunes in d or g with the drones switched to the new tonic. The musical benefit really is worth while the effort, taken for granted that the piper is inclined to take regulator playing in esteem at all. I have included tunes accompanied this way in the accompanying CD to my Uilleann pipes tutor.




I was thinking over ways to have one of my standard sets furnished with two drone groups as well. They all have stocks which leave no space for additions. So I had to be content with three drones, but I wanted to split up the group: The baritone drone for e, the others for Dd’.


So there remained the question how to modify the lever. Fortunately the lever on the sets in question was of the simple kind: It moves left and right for stopping and starting the drones, but also to and fro, rotating around the rod.


 So there was another closing – opening movement at hand, independently from the classical one. First of all, I stopped up the usual air supply between the switch plate and  the baritone  reed channel and I removed the closing cork from this channel. Now I set a brass tube, wrapped to diameter, in its place. This tube has a small inlet hole bored into the side of it, and this filed flat. Now  under the screw holding the closing plate of the drone switch I fixed  a “finger” of aluminium (could be brass as well). Its  pad closes the inlet hole of the baritone inlet tube once the lever is moved towards the player.  Being shut, it may glide along the tube while the lever is moved left – right as usual. At the same time  it allows to act as switch for the baritone while keeping the other drones shut or open.




Picture 4 shows this mechanism with the padded closing “finger”,  opening the air supply hole at the side of the tube.




Thus the drone lever now may be moved into   four positions:




-All drones silent (lever to the right and to the piper, pushing the “finger” onto baritone tube hole)


-All drones playing (lever to the left and off  the piper, moving the “finger” off baritone tube hole)


-Only Dd’  drones playing (lever to the left and to the piper)


-Only baritone , now tuned to e (lever to the right and off  the piper)




I found it very desirable to still having access to the classical Ddd’ drone set, which was possible by tuning the baritone to d as usual. Because there was the tuning problem of  “a to e’ and b to e’ “, already watched with the e’ regulator,  I was not really satisfied with the tuning result. Chanters tend to overblow the b’’ sharply, so the b’’ and e’’ sounded well to the e’ drone, but the b’ was flat and the e’ sharp, as often is on many chanters. So I often came back to the traditional Ddd’ drone tuning while playing in the e – modes, especially when the e’ occurred often in the melody line.




(Part three)




Later – around 2006 - I was searching for a solution to have more drones for the remaining mode tonics other than d and e.




I had some parts of Podworny drones in the drawer, so I constructed a three – part drone, sounding a or b, dependent on the grade of slide lengthening  (I added a tone ring to the one on the C set). I mounted it aside the mainstock in the way the bass regulator is arranged, with a switch  to shut it up if the traditional Ddd’ tuning would be desired. This new drone is fed from the baritone drone channel. Now there were two drone groups to be switched on and off by desire: Dd’ and be (for tunes in e minor) or ae (a mixolydian and a dorian).




To improve the drone for the a – modes, I prolonged the baritone with a middle piece and achieved a quiet but stable drone sounding A or B, an octave below the new drone described above.  And now  I found that if a B + b – drone is going under the e – mode – tunes, the result is much more convincing.  However, it is not a tonic drone but a drone a forth below tonic, as is the familiar Ddd’ drone in g tunes.




Picture 5 shows the new drone and the prolonged baritone drone on the Robby Hughes set.




The last step, built last year,  was to have a ring mounted onto the bass drone at the base of the slide part, to give G, after the pattern of Northumbrian pipes drones . This, along with the tenor d’, offers a just tonic drone group for the tunes in g. It was mere luck that the position of this tone hole allows both the D and G to be in tune when the ring is turned during playing. It took some reed adjusting, however.




Picture 6 shows the tone hole ring on the Robby Hughes bass drone.


Picture 7 shows  it on the Kiernan bass drone, mounted onto to a replacement piece which makes it possible to tune the d – drone  down to c sharp.




To sum up: Today I have two sets of pipes at hand having been rebuilt  as described, offering the following drone  accompaniments:




Both groups, the new  drone being  stopped up, the middle piece of the baritone removed: Traditional Ddd’


Group one:  the classical bass and tenor: Dd’ or Gd’ (with bass  ring hole open)


Group two: the prolonged baritone and the newly attached drone: Aa or B,b


If the middle piece of the baritone is removed: da (for d tunes) or eb  (for  e  minor).




Following tonic drone changes while playing sets of tunes of different keys may be done :


D (Dd’)  to a (Aa)


D(da) to g (Gd’)


D(Ddd’) to g (Gdd’) (Turning tone ring)


D (Dd’) to e (eb or B,b)


G(Gd’) to e (eb or B,b)


G to b (B,b)


D to b


G to a (A,a)


If well – practiced and prepared, one even may add a third  new drone setting, by moving the bass drone ring while changing to a new tune, or while a tune is played  with the right hand off the chanter (airs).




Additionally to this, there is at hand the regulator e’ and the resulting enlarged chord variety.




The only invasive changes on the sets were:


Five screw holes to hold a flange , a tone hole for the e’ on the baritone regulator and the ring on the bass drone with its hole.  So these sets of pipes might be easily set into the former status for a purist piper inheriting them some day.  The look of these sets is to my taste  not distorted by ugly  additions.




These improvements have been made by an amateur  pipemaker.  A professional maker planning to follow my patterns could design a somewhat bigger stock which would take up a further classical d baritone to it, thus having a complete Ddd’ drone group instead of my meagre  Dd’ group (which still sounds quite good, and sometimes is preferred by classical pipers.).  Also he might include the new drone into the stock, it being shut with a piston stopper on the tip  after the pattern of Northumbrian Pipes drones.


The middle piece additions on the drones are somewhat difficult to construct, because the stepwise widening of the drone  towards the mouth is not as favourable with them as before, so the reeds tend to close with pressure. A pipemaker would find a better bore conception. In my case, these drones come a bit quiet but stable and sounding fine at the same time.




Talking about the music itself, first of all, the tunes in modes other than D sometimes sound completely different with their just tonic drones. Sometimes old familiar favourites are only recognized after some listening ! Some accompaniment, especially the Gd’ – drone, remind on Northumbrian piping.  There are tunes with changing modes , like “Johnny Cope”,  in which  the changing tonics can easily  be  made clear with the appropriate drones. But I quite often stick to the old “wrong” drones, if the tune in question  has got its special character with it. Many tunes in a – modes  sound  wonderful with the Ddd’ drone under them.  So, to have all the new tonic drones at hand does not mean to use them slavishly following the tonic of the tune. The great benefit to me is the much bigger variety of multipart piping, especially in solo recitals, not only because of  these drone combinations, but also because of the regulator chords with the e’ included. They make the pipes  still more attractive to listeners used to “common” music,  and these are the ones I have to face all the time in Germany.




My friend Frank Rittwagen, who was uilleann piper until he stopped playing 30 years ago, but has been given a set to start again recently, listened to my set and asked: “Why hasn’t this setup become standard ? It should, shouldn’t it ?“ To my personal style, it already has.  And I wonder if all the other additions that can be observed,  like  double bass regulator, Ddd’a’ – drones, C foot joint and so on add more to the musical scope of the instrument then my comparably modest additions.




These descriptions may have been quite tedious to read, not to be compared to listening to the resulting sound. I hope I soon shall equally succeed in the use of YouTube, to give you an example of the music played on these sets of pipes.




Thomas Kannmacher