Cornish bagpipe design is unusual as it has two long chanters which are played independently. This allows for interesting harmonies. One chanter plays the upper half of the octave, the other the lower half. Both chanters can play the tonic note and thus, using covered fingering, one can create a constant drone whilst playing the melody. This drone effect is a striking feature of the pipes. The Cornish pipes are also good for low rich bagpipe accompaniments.
The chanters have wide cylindrical bores and use large plastic double reeds. They are pitched in low D.
In the present day the number of Cornish pipers who actually use the Cornish pipes is small. This is partly due to the difficulty of the instrument and partly because each one has to be especially made by a craftsman.
References to Cornish bagpipes can be found in traditional Cornish language dramas such as the mystery plays and can also be found in historical records of councils and estate accounts within the Duchy.
Harry Woodhouse’s “Cornish Bagpipes: Fact or Fiction” provides a detailed discussion of the historical references to piping in Cornwall. The Cornish bagpipes available now are based on such references and carvings, the most well known of which is in Altarnun Church. The village church of St Nonna, Altarnun, is famous for its 79 bench end carvings by Robert Daye between 1510 and 1530. These cover a range of subjects including a Cornish piper and fiddler.