Pipers & drummers – what can we learn from each other?

For a long time, I’ve sometimes wondered why there’s such a big difference between the general core personalities of pipers and drummers? I’m thinking about general values and identity markers. And, I know, it’s hard/difficult to generalize, but it serves a purpose this time around to put a spotlight on which characteristics we, as musicians, can be inspired by and/or learn from each other.


Here’s a few fun questions to get started:

  • Who would show up at a gig or a competition wearing their own special personal item as part of their uniform? Piper or drummer?
  • Who would always show up with all the tools needed to deal with anything that would happen to their instrument? Piper or drummer?
  • Who would you say has the closest relations in the band? Pipers or drummers?
  • Who needs the other group of musicians the most? Pipers or drummers?
  • Which group of musicians are most picky about wether they play the music the exact same way? Pipers or drummers?

In the following description of (from my view) general tendencies in characteristics and behaviors from pipers and drummers you can probably guess my answers to the questions above.

Do they match your answers? Why, or why not?

To begin with, let’s look at the fundamental core conditions for pipers and drummers.

Pipers. So, why do people begin to play the pipes? There’s obviously a ton of reasons. Some of them are described in the great phd-thesis ”From icon to identity” on Scottish Piping & Drumming in Scandinavia by Mats d Hermansson, which a highly recommend you to read. Often the dream/vision of playing the pipes would be combined with a vision of wearing a kilt, playing in the mountains and/or playing that famous tune at a specific event (funeral, birthday or wedding). So the focus is first and foremost & often initiated by an idea of ”me, myself and I”…, sort of. The idea being; when I’ve learned to master this instrument, I can go and use that skill for anything I want to do with it. Pipers can go and play gigs and competitions on their own, and they often own their own instrument, so they have a great incentive to practice and excel somewhat quickly.

Drummers. The most drummers I know and/or have taught seems to have started either because a friend, neighboor or a family member was already playing in a band, or because they came from another drumming background and were seeking new challenges. So from the get go, drummers are either in for the social part (of being in a group) or to nerd out this special interesting and challenging pipe band drumming. Now, to complicate things, it seems to me that drummers are more dependent on band gigs and concerts in order to keep motivated over the long span, because they can only really use their skills in the context of playing with a group. Drummers can’t play a tune on their own – even when they play competitions it’s expected that they play along to a piper playing the tune. Often, pipe band drummers don’t own their own instrument.

Uniforms: So, which group would have the strongest incentive to purchase and get their own uniform? Yes, you guessed correctly: Pipers. They have a clearer vision of them selves playing at a solo gig or event, and would therefore be more interested in getting their own particular uniform. It’s my sense that drummers do not really care so much about uniforms and are just happy to wear whatever uniform required to play with the group and fit in with the band. One extreme example, I have experienced, in a competing band, is that a band player (piper) was so particular about wanting to wear his own special uniform part, that he’d rather get cut than not wearing that item. He was cut, and shortly thereafter left the band.

Tools: Maintenance is more required when you play the bagpipes, than when you play the drum in terms of making sure you create a decent sound. This why, I guess, that most pipers have way larger quantities (and more variety) in terms of gadgets, equipment, tools and repair kit than any drummer I know. Most pipe band drummers I know or have taught, do not even own a drum tuning key or spare heads and snares…, and they don’t own their own drum. So most drummers would actually expect that the leading drummer of the band would ”handle” maintenance or a least have all tools and spare parts sorted and ready to go. An important distinction and difference here is again: a pipe band drummer can do nothing without the group, whereas a piper is a more complete musician on his/her own. However, what is a pipe band without the drums?

Camaraderie: In most of the bands I’ve been a part of there’s been a great sense of camaraderie within the drum corp. I think there’s a reason for that. First of all, as I mentioned previously, drummers need each other (in order to excel, perform and get the exciting experiences of concerts and gigs), so I think there’s a great sense of trying to understand one another, and also help each other, because drummers fundamentally need each other on a different level than pipers do. The interest of getting the drum corp to function together is also greater, I think, because of the (mostly) smaller size of the group. Finally there’s that equipment issue (drums are heavy to transport), so it’s nice if that transportation of the drums can be arranged/shared for trips and rehersals and so on. Speaking of the closer relations or camaraderie between drummers, I have not seldom experienced pipers express envy about that part of being a drummer in a drum corp.

Picky about music: Being picky about technique and playing exactly the same notes and embellishments, is something I’ve mostly seen amongst drummers, whereas I’ve often seen amongst pipers and pipe corp, a somewhat ignorance as to wether they play exactly the same (throw/birl from this or that note – who cares?). This is of course very generalizing, as I have also experienced the opposite take place. However I think that there’s an underlying and interesting fact beneath the surface of this; that pipers naturally have a more individualistic approach than drummers do. And; pipers, when you pick a tune to play in the band, it’s often already composed by someone and you just pick it out from a book. Drummers compose their own drum scores (at least in competition bands), and therefore the composer of the drum score (the leading drummer) has a more specific idea about how he/she would want to interpret the tune. This got me thinking of a very important thing I want to emphasize: Pipers and pipe majors, listen to your leading drummers – they know a thing or two about tunes and rhythms, that you might find interesting 🙂

So, what can we learn from each other?

Well, to summarize in short: Drummers make sure that you’ve got tools and spare parts ready for any situation regarding the state of your instrument, and please get your own instrument when you’ve been playing for a while and engage yourself in solo competitions – it’s fun, and you get to do something with your skill that’s not dependent on wether an entire band will play concerts, gigs or competitions (you get to nerd-out to the max). Pipers; realize that when you’re in a band – band comes first. Put aside your specific favourite uniform part, chanter or reed and go with the way of the band. Engage yourself in the way things are done in the group, if you’re in a band, otherwise; don’t be in one. AND: Appreciate your leading drummer – and your drummers in general.