Exploring The Missing Link: The e in  Uilleann Pipes Harmonies


Tom Kannmacher


My Problem:


 I collected my first full D set in 1977 from John Addison in South Somercotes near Grimsby in East Anglia, England. I wandered about in this weird system and discovered that the setup of regulators missed the note e, and other notes were doubled. I soon found out the logic of the parallel sixths and thirds, providing the well known ever repeating patterns of accompaniment, but from the very beginning, I was convinced that this setup was only a step in regulator development, which could by no means be considered finished. I had to learn that this half-ready solution had become standard some 150 years ago.


I started playing the set and struggled my way through the vast problems a beginner had to face. It was during the time when the younger pipemakers were trying to find out how to make pipes as well as the few remaining old makers who often withheld their knowledge. I had no teacher nor pipemaker at hand here in Western Germany, and I had to learn on my very own to handle these problems: make reeds, sew a bag, build a new bellows, widen the blowpipe, close up finger holes and open them again on the correct position... anyway, I still play this set, and although the regs are a bit loud for the chanter due to wide bores, the whole set is perfectly tuned, gives all notes as desired, and I shall play them as long as I shall be able to. Indeed, I play them daily, and they have become very reliably tuned and adjusted.


Having gained some experience by doing all these jobs, in 1990 I started thinking about the missing e on the regulators. Being a guitarist since my teens, and having studied music to become a professional guitar teacher, I know about chords and accompaniments of modal, major, and minor melodies. I soon learned that only a  part of the traditional Irish tunes, however, a big part, are in  modes or keys, for which the regs are set up basically, i.e. those demanding a c natural in their scale. How could it be that the Irish tradition didn’t adapt this setup in favour of the other modes: D major, (d mixolydian to be erased), e dorian, a mixolydian, a dorian, or B minor? Besides, I found it weird how these old master pipers could stand a d drone going along with tunes with a tonic of a or even e. On the other hand, I found that these ways of accompaniment carried their own particular code of feeling and expression, so I made extensive use of it in my own playing. I acknowledge it as an element of the very particular style of traditional uilleann piping accompaniment.


As long as the tunes I played were of that modal character and with a d tonic, like, say, Cailleach an Airgid or An Phis Fhliuch, I would have been satisfied with the (concords to be erased) two - note - chords that the regs offered. But when it came to play tunes of the major or minor style, often with chords built into the melody line, like, say, The Derry Hornpipe or Madame Bonaparte, I started suffering when I found that one of the three most important chords of the given key was lacking: the dominant in D major (The A major triad: a-c#-e) and the subdominant in G major (the C major triad, c-e- g). Still worse was the problem if tunes in a-mixolydian (Farewell to Ireland, Langstern Pony) were to be accompanied for there is no way to give an appropriate tonic chord to these lovely tunes. It was the missing e note which was the problem!


Why did the pipers and pipemakers avoid this note? The reason for this became apparent when I found out that the pipes are not to be tuned in the evenly tempered scale (like the electronic tuner shows), but after the just scale, which provides intervals to the drone without waverings throughout, thus demanding a third above tonic being 14 cents below what the electronic tuner shows—the sixth above the tonic being 16 cents flat. So, using an e in just scale would mean: no waverings in the concords e-b and the e-a! But the a is 2 cents flat, and the b is 16 cents flat against the electronic tuner. So you have the choice to which note the e is being tuned just. The other note will be inevitably out of tune to it. This maybe the reason the old pipemaking pioneers didn’t want, or simply didn’t understand,  managing this note.


 In a previous article about regulator extensions,(The Pipers’ Review, Vol XXII No. 4, Autumn 2003) there was always a small number of sets with an e included. The first one I came across was the set Willie Rowsome is depicted with in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (page 163). Although hard to recognize, it does show a fourth regulator, fed from the bass bar, with a long key enabling a note to be played along with the bass a, b, and c. Besides that, there seems to be a set of e drones included in this set of pipes More about this subject later.


Many of the double bass regulators described in the Piper’s Review included e notes, which could be used as melody notes played an octave below the chanter rather than used in concords. At least I personally believe so (to be heard on the rare recordings of  O’Mealy).


Picture 1


Adding the e:


I started thinking about how I might build a device for my full set to play an e on the regs without having to change the original construction. I wanted it to be: cheap and easy to make, nice looking, reliable, and offering as much musical benefit as possible.


The first question was, where to place the note? It was clear that the baritone was the only choice. I had seen tenors with extensions for e before (cover photo set of The Drones and the Chanters, vinyl record), but this key would be too far from the playing hands, and I was not able to turn out such an extension on John Addison’s elaborate design. Besides, an e on the tenor would find less interesting notes on the other regs to concord with—only the bass notes and the far distant g and a on the baritone.


The e should be placed on the baritone, thus going along with the tenor notes g–a–b and c (f# being discordant anyway). The e hole would be about in the middle between the f# and the d hole, and it would be tuned by widening it until the note was just against the a of the bass.


Clearly there was no space to set a another key on the baritone reg. I thought over this question for quite a while, but then I found the solution. I would set the hole into the bottom of the regulator with a ring–shaped key, and open it by pressure from above.


I soldered a square shaped ring out of brass rod and sheet with a flat plate on the bottom to carry the sealing pad, and then added a key in Addison’s design onto the top. The ring has to be hinged by long rods in common with the f # key, outside of its shoulders. A spiral spring between ring and the d key at its hinge region (thus not interfering with its function) presses the e key upwards, thus pressing the bottom plate with its pad against the hole. Years later I replaced this somewhat unreliable spring with a long brass wire.






Better turn this picture upside down ?




This arrangement worked very well without further corrections. I was lucky tuning the e as I hit the pitch after a few opening steps, and the other notes were easily re–tuned by rushing and all the other tricks. I started experimenting musically and found ways to use it in the tunes. Clearly it could only be used in single line playing when both hands were on the chanter. The range of new chords were accessible only when the right hand left the chanter. So I used this device mostly in airs and slower tunes in the beginning. I discovered that the 9 double stops on the standard regulator settings were now enriched by 8 further double stops. The b pitch on the bass tended to be a bit unstable anyway, rising in pitch with increasing bag pressure more than the e, so it was possible to tune it to some extent while playing the b-e chord to avoid waverings.


I thought about improvements for making the e playable in chords with both hands on the chanter. In my head all the tunes of my repertoire started getting reg accompaniments with the e included. I now had to find a way to construct a regulator that would enable me to play like that.


The Fourth Regulator in e:


In 1993 I decided to set sail for another shore altogether concerning the e. I had a C# sharp chanter from the 19th century, which turned out to be the best in my collection after its throat was re-bored by Robbie Hughes. The problem was due to shrinkage of the bone mount around the throat. I also had a half set body by Matt Kiernan, so I fit both together and completed this set to a full set by making my own regulators. I was helped very effectively by my friends Hans Reusch and Charley Herbst, who had reamers from their own efforts to make pipes. I added a fourth regulator as seen on Willie Rowsome’s set, with a long key that reached all the way along the bass regulator keys. Lucky again, I managed to get this set going wonderfully, in splendid tuning and balance, and began to exploit the e key at its very best. Again the bass b turned out to be tunable by pressure, so the e-b interval can be used on this set in many ways. The chanter demands very little additional bag pressure to be overblown, so the control over these notes is quite independent from the chanter playing.


Picture 3


Playing on this setup demanded practice. The field of keys had become wider, so I had to very carefully construct the sling that supports the main stock when it hangs from the left shoulder. Care had to be taken for the length and the point where it was fastened to the stock. The body of the pipes had to be turned inside the stock cup exactly the right way to have all the keys accessible while playing the chanter with both hands and still reaching those four more chords from the bass and the e regulator. To combine the e with the tenor was only possible with the right hand free. Playing the conventional tenor and baritone chords became more difficult because the chanter was touching the fourth regulator. The system had reached its limits concerning space.


Eventually I learnt to play all the chords and enjoyed the widening scope of harmonies. I also enjoyed impressing listeners at tionóls as well. People who are not familiar with the pipe’s peculiarities do not take notice of this, nor do they take notice of the e, which is lacking on standard sets.


From that time on I included these chords with the e into my technique and repertoire, so, by now, I would feel a severe setback if I had to play certain tunes without the e. As mentioned before, these new chords are not used much within the vast class of modal tunes in D, and here I keep to the traditional piping style. I believe there is nothing non–traditional about the e note described, as long as the tunes being accompanied are traditional, and we know the e has been in use since olden times.


The e Key Along the Bass Keys Without an Extra Regulator:


On the grounds of these experiences I started thinking how the e key on my first set in D could be modified to have it play along with the bass with the right hand on the chanter.


The key of the fourth regulator was ideally placed along the bass. If it was to remain there, without its regulator, it would have to be connected with the ring shaped e key on the baritone.


First, I attached a key, similar in shape to the one on the fourth reg, to a long rod. At the end of this rod I built a joint, or hinge, which was screwed onto the the bass regulator flange. The screw holding it was of the flange itself, but of a longer dimension to solidly hold it in the main stock wood. On the other end of the rod I soldered a wire, and bent a hook at its end, which hooks inside a hole on the e key on the baritone regulator.


This setup worked very well, and I could use the same style in session playing and in the bands I play in, using my concert pitch pipes. I had hoped to share my newly dug treasure with the readers of An Píobaire, but the manuscript of the article disappeared in some drawer there, and was never published. On my few trips to Miltown Malbay and other musical places of interest in Ireland, the fellow pipers wondered about those lovely chords from my set in the sessions. I had to explain the setup many times yet some pipers confused it with a double bass regulator.


Picture 4


The Cheap and Easy Method:


There is a full set in C in my possession by Robby Hughes, and I love its sound and purity of tuning. As soon as I found my experiments successful, I thought of fitting an e key to it as well. It was easier than the rebuilding on the D set. I fitted a roundbent plate directly to the rod hinged at the bass flange with a stiff wire. This plate, which holds a pad, is pressed from below against the bottom wall of the baritone regulator. It fits smoothly onto the surface of the round pipe, which  may even be turned in its socket without losing the seal.  Two wire sticks projecting from the  outer edges of the pad plate upwards and along the pipe flanks guide the movement of the pad plate to exactly the correct position while stopping the hole. A long piece of bent wire around the hinge serves as spring. This device only took three hours to build and I recommend it to anyone who wants to try this experiment. Be sure the set offers enough space between the bass drone and the baritone regulator to allow the key to to open, thus giving a stable, just tuned note. I included a drawing of this setup in the appendix of my tutor.


Picture 5a


Picture 5b


Picture 5c