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MacLellan Bagpipes: A Buying Guide And Review

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MacLellan Bagpipes: A Buying Guide And Review
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I see these every now and then on eBay. They don't show up that often, but when they do, someone needs to pounce on them. Consider this as both a review and a guide, but I couldn't list it as a review as I haven't bought such an instrument off of eBay directly. However, I've had my MacLellan for approaching two months now, and by far, they are my new favorites.

The first thing you should know is that every MacLellan bagpipe is custom built to the owner's exact specifications. Due to this you are likely to see all sorts of different mounting combinations, drone profiles, and wood finish options (there are literally thousands of different possibilities). I'll be including pictures for reference points throughout this review to kind of give you an idea at the different possibilities available.

The first thing to decide is if you are content with the drone profile. MacLellan makes 4 different drone profiles, each one with its own unique look and feel. The MacLellan original is a soft and elegant profile with flowing curves and the standard military fountain top. The chalice top is just that, replaces the fountain top with a chalice-shaped top on a MacLellan original. MacLellan standard drone profile most resembles the typical bagpipe look. MacLellan antique edition pipes are based off of a very old bagpipe. Here are four pictures, one of each profile, each with a slightly different set of mountings. Here you will also see the different finish options. In order, they are: original w/combed and beaded finish, standard w/combed and beaded finish, chalice w/flat combed finish, and antique w/smooth turned finish. Note that any of these three finishes can be applied to any profile, with the exception of the antique profile which is only available in smooth turned.

The next thing to consider is wood choice. MacLellan makes bagpipes in three woods: Cocobolo, Mopane, and African Blackwood. All are from the rosewood family and are very dense and tightly grained. Cocobolo and Mopane are slightly less dense than Blackwood. In terms of tone, there is very minimal difference between the woods. Cocobolo is a bit softer whereas African Blackwood and Mopane are a bit brighter. All three woods, however, give the same general sound.

Now we need to look at mounting options. MacLellan offers 16 different mounts: 8 materials, each available in either button or full-sized shape. These are Ceylon Satinwood, Imitation Ivory, Real Ivory, Bocote, Light Cocobolo (a lighter, more red version of the Cocobolo used on the pipes), Imitation Horn, Aluminum, and Sterling Silver. I'll post pictures of three of the materials here, as I'm sure you're familiar with the others. These are, in order, Ceylon Satinwood, Bocote, and Light Cocobolo.

In terms of ferrules, there are tons of options. Ferrules can be made of imitation or real ivory, imitation horn, bronze, aluminum, or sterling silver. There are also other variations, such as silver banded bronze (which has a decorative silver band in one of four designs across the top of the ferrule), cast silver (which features one of four cast sterling silver designs with deep relief on top of a bronze ferrule), plain, and engraved metal (in one of 4 machine engraved patterns, or 2 hand-engraved patterns, as well as some specialty patterns being available). Here are a few samples: first is is engraved bronze, then silver-banded bronze, and finally cast silver on top of bronze. Note the engraving can be applied to silver and aluminum as well.

Topping off the drones, of course, are the ringcaps. These can be made of the same materials as the ferrules, except for the silver-rimmed bronze and cast silver on bronze designs are not available for caps. Tuning pins can be made of any of the metal options (both plain and engraved), or can be just the bare wood. Center bushes can be made of any material offered for projecting mounts, but are generally integral with the ringcaps from what I've seen on most sets.

As for the next topic, the overall craftsmanship of the instrument. I personally believe that Roddy MacLellan is one of only two truly master bagpipe makers in the world today (the other being Dave Atherton). All mounts, including metal mounts, are threaded on and glued for a secure fit. Most pipemakers do not bother to thread anything on as it takes longer and makes the end product more expensive to produce. The wood is aged over a period of a year or longer to precise tolerances. Many pipemakers use unseasoned wood which cracks and deforms easily, due to trying to keep up with high volume. Finally, everything is hand-turned, save pipe chanters which yield themselves very well to automated machining. Hand turning yields a finer ability to spot flaws in the wood and reject pieces of wood that don't make the grade.

The instrument behaves better than nearly any other bagpipe I've tried. All pipes will change during an initial warming-up period as moist, warm air is blown through them. Some stabilize quicker than others. MacLellan pipes stabilize the quickest of any bagpipe I have ever laid hands upon. In just 10 minutes of warming up, I can easily play for an hour or longer without having to touch up the drones. The drones are easy to tune, though they do take awhile as they have a fairly broad tuning range, meaning you have to move the drone quite a bit to change pitch just a little. Many players consider this advantageous as this makes the instrument more stable. They also accept just about any reed you put in them without difficulty. My personal reed choice in these pipes is the super air-efficient, great sounding Rocket reed made my Mark Lee.

The final thing to mention is the sound. Many people are surprised to find out exactly how big the MacLellan drone sound is. It's a very powerful, extremely bass-dominant sound, reminiscent of old Hendersons. If you like mellower sounding drones, you likely will not like the MacLellan bagpipe. If the big, robust sound is your thing (and I know for sure it's mine), then you will be very happy with MacLellan bagpipes. This, however, is not to say they sound harsh or grating. Quite the opposite. They are quite smooth in addition to being bold. EDIT: Looking at Roddy's new site, he's now offering a more antique style drone bore. These bores produce a slightly flatter overall  pitch, and a softer sound. These bores are perfect for those who prefer a mellower drone sound. So now you can choose the bore type (according to your tonal preferences) in addition to everything else. I've also found that different reeds mellow out a MacLellan regular-bore as well (Ezeedrones and Wygent SyntheDrones to be specific).

To conclude: MacLellan bagpipes are some of the best well-kept secrets of the bagpipe making world. Not many people know about these gems, but the people who do know exactly how good they really are. Pipers are laying aside antique Hendersons and MacDougalls for sets of MacLellans. The big drawback, however, is the waiting period. Expect to wait about half a year for a custom order. This is why when you see a MacLellan being offered here on eBay you should jump on it if you are content with the external appearance of the pipes. Your ears will be rewarded (that is, unless you prefer a wimpy drone sound). If you don't see quite what you are looking for here, then you might want to consider a custom set directly from Roddy.

If you are interested in MacLellan bagpipes, I suggest visiting his website. As eBay rules do not allow me to post outside links, I recommend doing a Google search for MacLellan bagpipes and finding his website where you will find the samples contained within this guide and many more examples of what Roddy has to offer. Good luck, and I hope you find yourself with one of these beauties on your shoulder sometime soon.
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