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Armitage Mummers

The Pipe & Tabor




Squire: Duncan
01283 791303

Bookings: Peter
01543 252758



When I first became involved with Morris in the 1950's, music for our side was provided by harmonica[s]. A more affluent side (our natural enemies - they always beat us in tournaments) had a piano accordian. Since then the button melodian has gained popularity to the point where it seems to have become almost the universal morris instrument, although it only originated in Victorian times. Perhaps this is a sign of greater affluence amongst common folk? Old records of morris dancers show that the music was provided by pipe and tabor (Rowley 2007). We can thus assume with a fair degree of certainty that the pipe and tabor is the most traditional form of providing morris dance music.


It is reasonable to suppose that early man devised a means of producing a rhythm, perhaps by banging two sticks together. Whether to accompany dance or song, or the other way round, we shall never know. Eventually someone invented the drum. Maybe someone stretched an animal skin over the end of a hollow log to dry, and tested its tension by hitting it with a stick? In any event, the drum is found all over the world and as far as I can ascertain its origins are lost in the mists of time.

At some point in ancient times the flute, or whistle, was invented, the end blown flute is considered to be the earliest type of musical instrument, early examples found were made from various materials, including wood, clay, and bone - animal and human! (Keary 1999). Bones, being hollow, make for good flute material. Bone flutes have been discovered dating from around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago (Stringer 2011). Photograph 1 shows a replica of a flute made from an eagle thigh bone. Note: This is a ceramic replica - no eagles were harmed in the making of this whistle!

Eagle Pipe

The pipe and tabor was popular in Tudor times, several pipes and a tabor were discovered on board the 'Mary Rose' when the wreck was raised from the Solent in 1982 (Lambert). Photograph 2 shows a 'Low D' tabor pipe of similar design. The pipe and tabor remained popular until the advent of the recorder, one of the few areas where it still held sway during the following centuries was in providing music for morris dancers. The 'one man band' aspect, with the melody and rythm sections both provided by one person, made it ideal for small groups of performers. Sadly, as previously noted, the pipe and tabor has been largely replaced by more modern instruments and it is now becoming a rare sight (and sound).

Low D Tabor Pipe


A tabor is a small drum suspended from the hand or arm, usually incorporating a 'snare' - a wire or string stretched across the skin in order to make a snappier sound. Photograph 3. shows a a re-enactment mediaeval tabor. In bygone days common folk who could not afford to buy musical instruments made tabors from cheese boxes (Taylor 2007).

Tabor Drum


The pipe is a type of flute, specifically an 'end blown' flute; as the name suggests you play it by blowing down the end, as opposed to blowing across as in the more familiar transverse flute. The 'tin' or 'penny' whistle is a type of end blown flute, as is the recorder. 'Simple' flutes or whistles have six holes that are covered by three fingers of each hand in order to create the notes of the scale, although commonly flutes have more holes in order to play sharps and flats (the black notes on a piano), usually with lever systems to open them.

The tabor pipe has just three holes, two finger holes on top and one underneath covered by the thumb, so that it can be played with one hand, leaving the other hand free to beat the tabor. With all three holes covered and blowing progressively stronger it is possible to play at least six notes, five of which are useful, utilising the natural harmonics of the pipe. By uncovering one or more of the three holes it is possible to play the notes in between these five. There are no sharps or flats on a tabor pipe although some notes can be played sharp by partially uncovering a hole. It is also possible to play a note flat by partially covering the open end of the pipe with ones little finger - a skill I have yet to aquire! There are no possible cross fingerings as often employed with simple flutes.

It seems likely to me that in days of yore the pipes used for morris would often have been home-made, or at best made by a local craftsman for 'payment in kind'; I surmise that few would have been able to afford professionally made instruments. Tuning to a particular key would not have been too important as it was normally played solo. The material of choice would have been wood from the elder tree, being naturally tubular it had many uses, including the making of blowpipes, bellows, popguns and flutes (Stokoe 1960). Indeed 'pipe tree' was a common name for elder (Lipp 1996). The ancient Greeks and Romans made flutes and pan pipes from it (Lavender & Franklin 1996)

Health & Safety warning: the seeds, leaves, bark, wood and roots of the elder can produce cyanide - children should not be allowed to use whistles or peashooters made from the wood (Nova Scotia Museum).

It is not difficult to make a pipe, the trick is getting it to work well and sound good. I scrounged 3 metres of plated copper pipe from a plumber and managed to make several pipes that worked, but I was far from satisified with them. More recently I made one from aluminium, which plays as well as any that I have paid good (and sometimes much) money for (photograph 4). If you fancy having a go at making a pipe or whistle I recommend studying Guido Gonzato's instructions (Gonzato 2010).

Aluminium Pipe

Tabor pipes are available commercially; a 'tin whistle' type that can sound great in the hands of an expert costs a few pounds. Plastic ones cost a few tens of pounds while wooden pipes have three figure price tags, a top quality 'Low D' wooden pipe takes a big chunk out of £1,000! A plastic pipe would be a good choice for a learner.

A few words of caution: The 'High D' pipes (cheapest and most common) have a loud piercing sound, especially on the higher notes; they are best played outdoors, a remote mountain-top would be good - especially when learning! A 'Low D' is much more household friendly but they cost and are rather large. I suggest something in-between, say an 'A' or 'G'. However, if you wish to play in any particular key, note that a 'G' pipe is usually played in C (by playing E sharp to produce F natural - takes practice!). This is because many tunes go down below the key note. Similarly a 'D' pipe is usually played in G and an 'A' pipe in D.

Health & Safety warning: If you do buy a 'High D' pipe to play indoors, be sure to obtain some ear protectors at the same time. Seriously!

It takes much practice to become proficient on pipe and tabor, the notes produced depend as much on how one blows as the actual fingering. It also takes a degree of co-ordination to play the tabor at the same time, a bit like rubbing your head and patting your tummy. Having said that, it can be extremely addictive. Anyone wishing to aquire an unusual skill, with the added bonus of annoying their family and neighbours in the process, is heartily recommended to give it a go.

Health & Safety warning: You may experience verbal abuse and threats of physical violence, together with (unprintable) promises of where your pipe may soon be located!

No need to spend money on a posh tabor for learning and practice, a round biscuit tin, plastic lunch box or even a tin plate suitably hung from a string will do just as well. Best to find something not too noisy or the above Health and Safety warning will apply.

Tip: Keep your pipe in a safe place known only to yourself, my first pipe disappeared after a couple of weeks and turned up several years later, tucked away at the back of a drawer in my wife's dressing table. She claims to have absolutely no idea of how it could have got there!

And lastly; because the pipe is played with one hand, it is the ideal instrument to play whilst driving.
Health & Safety warning: DON'T DO IT !!!



Gonzato, G. (2010) The Low-Tech Whistle: How to make a PVC whistle. Accessed 03/03/2012
Keary, I. (1999) How to play the Penny Whistle: a simple guide to learning and playing. Bath, Parragon.
Lambert, T. The Tudor Warship Mary Rose. Accessed 01/03/2012
Lavender, S. & Franklin, A. (1996) Herbcraft: A Guide to the Shamanic and Ritual Use of Herbs. Chieveley, Capall Bann.
Lipp. F.J. (1996) Herbalism. London, Macmillan.
Nova Scotia Museum. Accessed 27/02/2012
Rowley, S. (2007) Accessed 27/02/2012
Stokoe, W.J. ed.(1960) The Observers Book of Trees. London, Warne.
Stringer, C. (2011). The Origin of Our Species. London, Penguin.
Taylor, P. (2007) Accessed 18/04/2012.