Every musical instrument has its own peculiarities. Often, in the course of the development of a particular instrument, makers tried to limit or overcome such peculiarities. This was, of course, especially the case with instruments that were used in combination with other instruments. For a start these instruments had to be tuned to a common pitch, so that they could play together. They also had to be made less temperamental – in the sense that undesirable quirks were developed out. Thus, many of the modern musical instruments used in classical as well as in popular music have become standardized to a significant degree. Whereas there still are differences between instruments from different makers, there is also a high degree of uniformity.
For folk instruments such as uilleann pipes the path has been quite different. The early (19th century) forms of uilleann pipes were produced usually on a one-off basis by makers who mostly also were employed in other forms of trade, e.g. as carpenters or blacksmiths. Because these early pipes were solo instruments, the exact pitch in which they were made appears to have been of lesser importance, and ‘traditional’ pitches varied from anywhere between roughly Bb to C#. It was only with the use of pipes in Irish dance bands in America – a result of the large emigration of Irish to the USA – that standardization became necessary. The concert pitch pipes in ‘D’ that nowadays are the most common are a late 19th century development by the Taylor brothers of Philadelphia. These pipes had the advantage of being able to be played together with other instruments and also having a significantly louder and brighter tone.
Even with these changes, the development of the instrument has only progressed to a limited extent. If we compare an uilleann pipe chanter with another reed woodwind such as an oboe, we can immediately see the difference: both instruments have a range of two octaves, but whereas a modern oboe has a range of auxiliary keys to enable the player to get the required note, the chanter is a simple pipe without any such devices. In order to get the right note, the player has to employ a range of alternative techniques, such as cross-fingering or varying the pressure. From this perspective Irish pipes are still a rather primitive instrument that, to modern ears, do not always sound perfectly in tune.
With contemporary pipes we get a mix of traditional design and more modern production techniques and materials. The instrument has the same basic design as the early ‘classical’ pipes with a chanter, 3 drones and 3 regulators forming a full set. But modern makers may employ a far wider range of production methods, from making pipes as much as possible in the traditional way to using an array of more high-tech devices and materials. And there is, of course, still a good deal of experimentation and innovation going on, so pipes can come in a variety of shapes and forms that are variations on the basic pattern.
All this results in a significant variability between pipes of different makers that may not only look different to varying degrees, they also have their own tonal characteristics.
Uilleann pipes are quite notorious for the problems they can give with regard to their reeds. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic that they share, to some extent, with other reed instruments and that cannot be avoided. Ideally, players should learn how to make their own reeds or, at least, be able to adjust and fit them to their instrument. To have a helpful piper in the vicinity who is willing to assist is a great benefit. Pipe makers are usually reluctant to work on pipes made by another maker because of the differences in characteristic of the instruments, so a degree of self-reliance is a necessity.