Composite Drone Reed Maintenance Overview

Ray Sloan Irish Uilleann Pipes

I have been working with ‘composite’ drone reeds (metal body/cane tongue) in my Uilleann Pipes since around the mid 90’s. I find there are a couple of advantages over the more traditional ‘guill’. They are easily maintained and re-tongued. They are more stable when the temperature and humidity change e.g. in a session. Being shorter – especially the bass reed – I can make the main-stock shorter so that when you have Regulators they are closer and more accessible to your hand than the more prevalent longer main-stocks used by other makers. The total length of my mainstock is 170mm.

The instructions in this online guide are specifically designed for the maintenance of my composite reeds, (metal body/cane tongue) but the general principles apply to other composite drone reed systems, e.g. metal/plastic body with cane/plastic tongues. The particular system employed in the construction of my drone reeds is designed for ease of repair and the possible need for re-tonguing if the reed ‘dies’. Once that you have mastered the technique described you will never have to buy another drone reed, always assuming that you are still in possession of the reed body, and you will always be able to easily keep your drones working and in balance with each other. When I reed up the pipes the drone reeds are adjusted so that the position of the tuning slide on the tuning pin is in its optimum position. If, as the reeds settle in, the relative position of these tuning slides on the pins change, this does not matter, so long as they are playing at the correct pitch and with the required tone.

As the reeds are played-in from new they will move in pitch as they settle. This means that the tuning slide may have to be moved in or out along the tuning pin to obtain the correct pitch. It is important also to bear in mind that reeds are organic entities that will react to many factors. These include variations in playing pressure, either too great, too low, or an uneven pressure. The latter is a particular problem for beginners. There are also many environmental factors which will affect the performance of reeds such as changes in temperature, humidity and altitude. When you strap in to your pipes at the beginning of a playing session you will find that you need to re-adjust the tuning of your drones during the first ten minutes or so, as all of the reeds adjust to the ambient temperature/ humidity. This is normal.

All reeds are delicate entities and are not tolerant of clumsy handling. This is particularly true of smaller reeds – such as tenor drone reeds. It is therefore important that reeds playing well should be left alone. It should now be obvious, but it is emphasised, that reeds are very sensitive creatures that need to be treated with kindness and delicacy at all times, indeed with more tender loving care than you have ever mustered before! However, drone reed repair/maintenance in particular is not so difficult that one should avoid it. Rather, it is a useful and important skill to acquire and not only saves on ‘down-time’ in your playing but on unnecessary expense.

Learning how to adjust and maintain the instrument’s reeds has always been a part of the Pipers’ art. Having the ability to repair and maintain your own reeds means that your pipes are never found wanting when it’s time to play and one acquires a much deeper appreciation of tone and pitch etc. Having your reeds well adjusted, and knowing that you can do this if necessary, adds so much to a musical performance and contributes to the enjoyment of ‘practice’. The way to approach the acquisition of the techniques and skills required is to purchase a set of replacement metal bodies, and other material needed, so that the well-set reeds in your pipes keep playing for you as you learn. Eventually you will have a set of playing spares ready for when any problems arise – and no long interruptions in the enjoyment of playing!

Whatever else you do to the reeds –┬ánever ever allow your reeds to get wet, and… Do Not Mouth-Blow Your Reeds!