From the Archive: Basics of Chanter Reed Manipulation Part 1—The Lick

Ed. Note: Now is the time when many pipe bands are outfitting their pipe corps with new chanter reeds for the big contests to come. Here is a post from last year that will help.

Ok, Reed Manipulation. A HUGE topic for pipers.

First off, I would like to say that this is a highly expansive topic, where a lot of people have a lot of different theories and views. Herein are simply some of my theories and views! Secondly, I would point out that I am still (and will always be) learning and re-learning these techniques.

Before we get into the different manipulation techniques, let me share my personal CARDINAL RULE for reed manipulation:

Manipulation techniques should be used solely to adjust the SOUND of the reed, NOT the STRENGTH of the reed.

As was discussed here previously by Vince, the strength of your reed should be taken into account when you pick the reed out. Also, I discussed the process of breaking in your reed earlier as well. Therefore, there should be no need to make a reed easier (or harder for that matter) by some means of manipulation. I think this temptation comes from the fact that many manipulation techniques do change the overall strength of the reed in some way. However, the purpose of manipulation techniques is to adjust the SOUND of the chanter to your liking.

The Three Techniques I use on a regular basis are: Licking, Pinching (or rubber bridal), and Shaving. Today we’ll discuss the first one: THE LICK.


Licking is simply a method of infusing moisture into your reed. Moisture makes the blades of your reed more flexible, thus producing more harmonics (or “richness”). Picture a piece of paper; when it’s dry, it’s quite rigid. But, when it gets wet, it becomes extremely flexible.

Be careful though! The more flexible the reed is, the more susceptible it will be to COLLAPSING. Collapsing means that the reed can no longer hold its shape, and unpredictable notes and sounds may occur. The infamous “collapsing F,” for example, often occurs when a reed takes on too much moisture.

The other thing to note is that licking will bring down the pitch of the chanter. Moisture doesn’t only make the blades more flexible, it also makes them HEAVIER. The heavier the blades, the slower they will vibrate (thus lowering the pitch that comes out!).

The actual technique of licking depends on how much moisture you want. I usually start by just touching my tongue to the end of the reed. If I still am craving more richness, I venture on to a more liberal slobbering! I would encourage you to experiment with your own licking technique!

SPECIAL NOTE!!! Make sure you give your reed some “air time” after you’re done playing, to allow the moisture to evaporate off a bit, before you put the chanter away. If moisture gets trapped in, the reed will start to decay, or even grow mold! The bottom line – reeds that are stored wet will not live long.

Check out Part 2 of the Chanter Reed Manipulation Saga!

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