The Merry Blacksmith is an Irish tune requiring low F# and low D. Some smallpipe chanters can play low F# if they have tone holes and you tape over one them and close the other on your leg when you want low F# instead of low G. This also requires the remaining length of the chanter below the tone holes to be just right to give an in tune low F# once both tone holes are closed (my Hamon chanter does this). Of course, there’s still low D to contended with so I just play our normal “high” F# and “high” D in the ending phrases and use birls on low A for the low F# elsewhere, as seen in the arrangement given here. The Irish setting will also tie the low As together across the bar lines, without a gracenote were applicable. I utilized this pause in the first part between the first and second bars, but inserted a gracenote between the second and thirds bars.
My interest in playing highland pipes at A 440 Hz (not the often quoted “concert pitch” of low A actually being concert Bb which is 466 Hz) probably dates back to listening to the band Clandestine with EJ Jones, piper. You should buy every album of EJ’s you can get your hands on. Playing at A 440 allows you to play with other instruments that use the 440 Hz convention (most Western instruments) and it means they can play “bagpipe” music (modulo an octave) the way it’s notated in our music books. EJ was kind enough to make me a blackwood A 440 chanter with an olive sole that plays quite well. However, commissioning a smallpipe/border pipe maker like EJ to make you a 440 chanter to fit highland pipes will usually run around $500. It’s a beautiful chanter, but not economical for generating interest in playing at A 440. Another barrier to playing at A 440 is getting your drones that are designed to play around 475 Hz to play at 440 Hz. The drone problem has been resolved in my collaboration with Terry Ackland who produces a range of reeds from 440-490 Hz with all sharper pitches based on the original 440 reeds you’ll hear in my recordings below.
There are 3 economical options for playing at A 440 and I have come to the conclusion that my current favorite is the McCallum A 440 chanter. The other two options are the Piper’s Choice border pipe chanter and the MacLellan A 440 chanter. Each chanter has pros and non-negligible cons. The McCallum is the sharpest of the bunch, but it is the most stable. Both the Piper’s Choice and MacLellan can get squirrelly on low G, producing squeals with some grace notes. This is the primary deal breaker for me in reviewing a highland chanter. The problem with the McCallum is to get it to tune, I had to carve high A and E; not just undercut, but actually make the holes longer to sharpen those notes. The high A hole is quite low down making it flat, so the rest of the chanter is sharp to that high A; you have to carve high A just so you can pull the reed out. Otherwise you’re sinking the reed just to get high A up to pitch meanwhile low A is halfway to Bb. I’m also using 2(!) rushes to flatten the chanter the rest of the way down to A 440. Rushes are wires placed inside the chanter to reduce the internal volume of the chanter, flattening all the notes it runs through (so you can make the rush any appropriate length). I’m currently using Ook brand 16 gauge steel galvanized wire because I don’t know any better (I hear some people use old broken guitar strings, I just wouldn’t use copper because it could turn green with moisture). One of my rushes goes all the way up to high A and the other to high G. Make a u-bend at the bottom of the rush so that it friction fits into the bottom of the chanter. Below is a picture of a rush with blobs of tac for flattening specific notes even more so, though none of my rushes used here have the blobs of tac. This tac stuff is the same stuff college kids might hang dorm posters on the wall with. Kind of like bubble gum.
Having 2 rushes running past the rather lowly placed E hole made it even flatter than the hole’s placement made it, such that I then needed to elongate the hole to sharpen the E to compensate for its lower relative position to the other holes when the a rush is used to flatten the whole chanter. I use 1 rush in my EJ Jones chanter, so their use isn’t isolated to the McCallum chanter. The MacLellan chanter generally does not need a rush, being a very natural 440 Hz chanter as is the Piper’s Choice border pipe chanter. I’m using a medium Sound Supreme/John Elliott border pipe reed as supplied by Piper’s Choice with their border pipe chanter which I did own at one point but gave it to a friend as a gift for graduating. I’m thinking a normal reed will work just as well, I was just hoping a border reed would make the McCallum pitch a little better, but alas I still needed to modify the chanter. Before making my modifications, I did have success with a regular Gilmour reed with 3(!) rushes. Rushes are a much better solution to flattening a whole chanter. Rushes unilaterally flatten all the notes at once and have little affect on the performance (unless you add tac and then you may observe some quirky behavior). Once you start taping over a hole by more than 40%, the tone of the note suffers and it can even collapse when under-blown. Collapse means to flatten to a completely different pitch.
I have reason to believe the McCallum A 440 chanter uses the same internal reamers as the Fred Morrison border pipe chanter which I also own. McCallum manufactures the Fred Morrison line of border and smallpipes. Both the McCallum A 440 and Morrison border pipe chanters have a bottom inner diameter of 0.635″. My EJ Jones comes in at 0.620″ with the MacLellan being a more traditional style chanter at 0.740″. Most highland chanters have a bottom inner diameter around 0.800″. The narrower bore gives a flatter chanter, which is why the rushes flatten the chanters further (because they further reduce the inner diameter). The holes on the McCallum are drilled in different places than the Morrsion (generally lower down), which I think is to compensate for having drilled larger holes more in line with a highland chanter. I’d almost just want a plastic Morrison chanter with smaller (and quieter) holes and a highland sized tenon, but oh well. Below are pictures with these chanters side by side.
EJ Jones – Morrison – McCallum (aligned on the high G hole)
See how the F to E hole spacing is longer relative to the high G to F spacing on the McCallum (far right) even after I carved E.
Note how low the high A hole is on the McCallum (far right) even after I carved it. Chanters are still aligned on the high G hole in front.
MacLellan – McCallum – EJ Jones
Here is some audio of my Kron drones with 440 Overtone (Ackland) reeds and McCallum 440 chanter with John Elliott reed. The Zoom H4n is in front of me.
Ultimately, the McCallum A440 chanter sounds and feels like a normal highland chanter and with some finagling will play at 440 Hz. I don’t have to worry about changing my arrangements to work around squirrelly behavior which is a huge plus. At $175 USD or thereabouts, it’s also a chunk of change cheaper than a blackwood chanter from a cottage maker. I will lament that the chanter is plastic. Of course this may seem odd because I would venture that plastic chanters are more common than blackwood these days, at least in terms of production. However, I’ve been playing blackwood chanters fairly exclusively for several years and noticed when playing the chanter how sticky it gets when your hands get sweaty. Though I could just be trying to make excuses for my shoddy birls; next time I’ll just swipe my pinkie on the crease of my nose for some birl grease.
Edit: EJ Jones has a video on his A 440 chanter here: