Terry Smith
November 12, 1979 12:00 PM

True or false: Music is coming from this man’s strange-looking bagpipes? Well, it’s true, and nobody’s full of hot air, least of all the piper in question. Scottish bandleader George Smith, 37, is playing an electronic model that he invented himself. When he first revealed his patented Keltic Pipes at a Glasgow pub, the clientele suspected a wee hoax. Recalls Smith: “Pipers kept asking me where the wind was coming from.”

Smith’s “wind” is actually a nine-volt battery, hooked up to microcircuits and a loudspeaker. All this electronic paraphernalia fits neatly inside a Stewart tartan bag attached to the pipes.

It’s not the first time that someone has tried to electrify bagpipes. Prior attempts featured generator-driven bellows, but Smith’s version provides the first totally electronic sound. Even the chanter (the recorder-like part of the instrument where the fingering is done) is battery-powered and has touch buttons like a telephone. Other pluses: headphones which can make the instrument silent to all but the player and, conversely, an amplifier for large audiences.

Smith hasn’t always had pipe dreams. His grandmother was piano accompanist to the late music-hall star Sir Harry Lauder; and young George was a classical pianist by training. Then he put his hand through a pane of glass at age 18, injuring a nerve, and took up a less demanding instrument, the accordion. Later he organized a five-piece Scottish band called the Hebrideans, but complaints from neighbors during practice sessions set Smith searching for a way to muffle the sound of his bagpipes. Eureka!

For Smith his invention is more than just a Highland fling. With the help of a partner, he is marketing the pipes at $300 per instrument, compared to $2,000 for traditional ones. Another selling point is that customers need not stay in shape for all that huffing and puffing. “In fact,” says Smith with a twinkle, “the piper is now free to take a wee dram whilst playing.”

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