This is a brief treatise for those who would like to begin playing the bombarde but don't know where to find one or what kind to buy. We'll get you headed in the right direction with reeds as well.
We'll cover certain specifics of choosing and purchasing a bombarde in a "non-Breton" environment; that is to say, for those who don't have access to a teacher or other information on the instrument. For a history and basic description of the bombarde, please see one of the following pages:
ABC of the Bombarde
Included is information on the key the instrument might be in (pitch), as well as the "Keys" the instrument comes equipped with, reeds, and bombarde makers. Also, other instruments bombardes are commonly played with as well as who plays them. Bombarde hybrids & alternatives are mentioned. This is a only brief treatment of the subject.
If you play with a highland piper you ONLY need Bb. This is the path of least resistance if you wish to delve into this art mostly because of the loud nature of the bombarde. But, obviously, to do this you must first have a highland piper to play Breton tunes with. The bombarde is not a "solo" instrument.
Also playing with Scottish border or lowland pipers (usually in the key of A), Breton biniou kozh (usually in Bb, A, G or F) or any of the louder European pipes such as the Spanish gaïta, (C or D) Breton veuze (G, A, Bb, B, C) etc. is possible and recommended.
As far as playing with fiddles, accordions (recommended if you're not playing with pipers), or other "standard" instruments goes, G would be the most logical key. As a beginner, you'll be hard pressed to get more than one octave out of the instrument, therefore your effective range on a G bombarde will be from F (or F# depending on the instrument--see "keys" below) to the octave G; this will give you the ability to play in Am and G easily. It is within this range that most modern Breton bands (Skolvan, Kornog, Kurun, Storvan, Pennou Skoulm, etc.) play. It is not the perfect key; owning an "A" and "D" bombarde as well would cover most of your bases. There are high D bombardes--pitched like a pennywhistle--and low D bombardes--pitched like an Irish flute; the latter is known as a tenor bombarde. "C" would not be unusable, but you'll find "G" to be more versatile. A list of usable keys, might be: G, A, D and then C (but C & D need proprietary reeds--see below) would all be useful and will give you the ability to play just about any Breton tune you'd hear played by the above mentioned bands. John Skelton of The House Band, perhaps the finest non-Breton exponent of the bombarde, plays a D bombarde most often, but also uses an instrument pitched in F as well as a "rustic oboe" in D. The House Band actually play little Breton music, therefore John has his own reasons for choosing these keys.
You may also consider a subois. Subois is a play on words with the concept of the Hautbois (French for "oboe") Hautbois means "high wood" and subois means, with tongue in cheek, "under wood." This is a bombarde/rustic oboe hybrid made exclusively by Hervieux & Glet (see below). It is basically a rustic oboe body altered enough to be in tune when played with a tenor bombarde reed. The sound is indeed somewhere between a bombarde and an oboe, but leaning toward the oboe side. It doesn't have the power of a bombarde, but most people outside of Brittany would find the tone more "civilized." The concept was invented by Youenn LeBihan of the group Skolvan. He called his version a piston (so named by Jean-Michel Veillon for reasons we won't go into here). His tone is unmistakable and gives Skolvan a very unique sound. The subois is not a piston, but it's the closest you'll come; Youenn doesn't make pistons for anyone but himself. And he also makes his own reeds for it using a proprietary system. However, I'm very pleased with the sound of my subois.
As any piper knows, a well honed reed can make all the difference. But first, you need to know where to get them. Below are two very good reed makers. Daniel LeNoan from Tregor is one of the best reed makers in Brittany. He not only makes some of the most consistent reeds but makes and sells them in bulk or in smaller orders. Korzenn (Reed in Breton) are in Lorient and make very good (but stiffer) reeds. They also make different reeds for each key of bombarde, where Le Noan makes only 2 kinds, one for C and D and one for Bb - G. There are other makers, but they are either less consistent or do not make them on a regular basis (or I've never heard of them!). Neither maker below speaks English but may be able to read it well enough. However, you may consider having a French speaker on hand when contacting them. Cost is usually about €12.00 - €16.00 depending on the type.
Daniel Le Noan
(note: "33" is the country code for France and "2" is the area code for Brittany. Within France the code is "02," but calling internationally it is just "2.")
A couple of things you'll
need to know about reeds:
In order to close the reed more (bring the two blades closer together), take a small pair of pliers (without teeth) and grasp the reed so that the plier grips are positioned halfway between the cork and the string. Grip the reed so that the wide side of the reed is facing up as you look down the end. Squeeze the reed slowly and carefully. Be careful not to close it too much or it won't play at all, especially after it gets wet; experiment. Logically, you would think that squeezing two flat surfaces together in this manner would open it, not close it. But you're actually squeezing the metal staple inside the reed, shaping it in such a way as to cause the blades that are wrapped around it to close the two pieces of cane. Later, if you want to make the reed louder, of if you've played it so much the cane has become soft, you can open the blades in the opposite manner.
It's always a good idea to soak your reed in water for about five minutes before playing. This will condition the reed to the natural playing environment (inside your mouth) and put it closer to the intonation it would eventually reach when playing for a period of time. There are several schools of thought as to where the reed should be placed in the mouth. But just remember that the further into the mouth the sharper the instrument will be and generally louder. Find a comfortable position and go with that.
With a G bombarde I recommend 3 keys: an F and F# key below the low G, and an octave key. An octave key is necessary due to the fact that bombardes are more difficult to overblow. You might also consider a C# key. An instrument like this will cost about €450 - €500. With a Bb bombarde, you'll definitely need an Ab key below the Bb. This corresponds to the Highland pipes. Although strangely, many older bombardes have only an A key below the Bb key, and I've heard recordings of bagadou in which the bombarde players are honking away on A while the pipes are hitting Ab! This, while quaint, is not recommended. You might go ahead and ask for an A key as well just to keep your bases covered.
face="Trebuchet MS, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" To further soften the instrument (volume wise), have them make it out of boxwood. It's not only cheaper, but softer woods produce softer tones. If you want a loud instrument--to compete with the pipes, the denser woods (ebony, rosewood) are better, but more expensive. By the way, if anyone at a session yells "Run away!" when you pull out your bombarde, politely explain to them that the average Rock-n-Roll Joe might behave equally childish upon seeing a pennywhistle or pipes for the first time, like the time a BANJO player made fun of mine!
Gilles Léhart and Hervieux et Glet are the most popular makers, but don't buy from a mail order house here in the States. Both makers are very consistent but often have a long wait, sometimes over a year. Both makers speak English and will be more than happy to take your order either by phone or mail. It may take awhile to get the instrument, but it's worth it. No deposit is required. Léhart's are probably the most beautiful instruments you'll find and are just as good as H & G. He also tends to have a shorter wait.
Georges Bothua is also an excellent maker; some say the best. I own an older Bb of his and it is very good, better than the Bb Hervieux et Glet I own. I can't speak to the wait time though. He makes instruments for many of the bagads (bagpipe and bombarde bands).
Also, Korzenn (the reed maker above) has a relationship with a maker who makes very beautiful bone and peweter inlay instruments. They are considerably more expensive but worth it of you can afford it. Contact them for more information.