Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flaming bagpipes

Over the last couple of months I've seen two short videos posted on Facebook, in which bagpipe players, playing their instruments, caused bursts of flame to come out of the drones.  Drones are the pipes which stick out of the bags and produce a single tone each.  The two videos I saw were:

Unicycling Darth Vader Upgrades to Flaming Bagpipes
The Badpiper Thunderstruck

You can find more videos, if you're interested, by searching for "flaming bagpipes" on YouTube.

Now, I like bagpipes, a taste I inherited from my mother; not everyone does.  But to the best of my knowledge, the chanter (the one the piper fingers) and the drones are made of wood, although Wikipedia doesn't confirm this directly.  And I definitely learned from Wikipedia that bagpipe drones are either reed instruments (like a clarinet) or double-reed instruments (like an oboe).  This explains a lot about the way bagpipes sound, actually.

This leaves a huge question in my mind:  how the devil do you blow a huge blast of flame through a wooden reed or double reed instrument without incinerating the whole boiling, and the bagpiper too?  And yet both of these bagpipers continued to play while intermittently shooting bursts of flame out of the drones.

I spent part of last weekend at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, California. Mini Maker Faires usually have flame-throwers somewhere; this one had a guy (from Sheet Metal Alchemist) with a tower of flamethrowers; you could set them off by swinging a mallet at a lever, just like the old "ring the bell" carny act, except this one produces a huge burst of flame in the air above you.  I asked the guy about the bagpipes, but he said no, he didn't know anything about flaming bagpipes.  He sounded interested, though. 

Now, one group which is always at the Mini Maker Faire is The Crucible, an Oakland non-profit specializing in art production involving fire.  I dropped in at their booth and posed my question, and learned some very interesting things from a man there.  I regret that I didn't think to ask his name; he was an older man with a white beard, wearing a hat, sitting next to the booth.

We both agreed that anyone doing this has to put some kind of gas source (The Crucible uses propane) inside the bag.  It would have to have a jet poking up inside the drone, and some kind of spark arrangement on the jet to light it; finally it would have to have either one or two switches the player could use to control the gas flow and the spark (separately or together).  My consultant pointed out that the flow of gas up the tube, before ignition, would cool the area somewhat.  Also, if the flame only lasts for a second or two (and I didn't see any that lasted much longer than that), it probably won't affect the wood of the drone at all; and, of course, the flame will go away the instant the gas flow stops. 

Now, what about the reed or double reed?  Reeds are usually at the end of the instrument where the air is blown in; in a bagpipe drone, that's inside the bag.  If you tapped the gas source into the drone above the reed, it wouldn't be affected by the flame at all.  The gas doesn't have to pass through the reed, although the air from the bag does.

Without talking to someone who's actually created one of these things, this is all pure speculation.  But at least I'm no longer wondering why the whole megillah doesn't burst into flame.


  1. The gas pipes are attached by clips to the drones and are over an inch above anything that would catch fire. They're custom made for rock bands, but I'm not sure who makes them. Gasignite is the name on the YouTube videos, but I can't find them on the net

  2. How nice of you to find and read this post, and then respond to it! I'd forgotten about it. What you describe makes perfect sense. I'm surprised you say you couldn't find "Gasignite" on the not; I wonder if the igniters you describe could be the "spark electrodes" made by a company called - their product page link is below. These look small enough that they might be clipped onto a bagpipe drone. (Full disclosure: I have a master's in Library Science and have done online research since the late 1970s. I love Google!)