The life and times of the pipe and tabor

by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Music at King Edward's School

“My setting forward was somewhat before seven in the morning; my Taborer struck up merrily; and as fast as kind people throwing together would give me leave, through London I leapt.”

Will Kemp

Will Kemp was a renowned clown and Morris dancer in the 16th century. He was a member of William Shakespeare’s acting group, the Queen’s Men. He achieved such stardom when he Morris danced from London to Norwich over nine days, that he wrote a book about it, humbly entitled, ‘Will Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder’!

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The cover picture from Kemp’s Book

The merry Taborer mentioned, was called Thomas Slye, and he is pictured above accompanying Will with his pipe and tabor.

The pipe and tabor are separate instruments: a three-hole pipe, played with the left hand, and a drum, or tabor, hanging from the left wrist, elbow or shoulder. This was sometimes called the whittle and dub, the name probably deriving from whistle and tub. This combination is surprisingly hard to play well (I’ve tried!) because you have to provide a convincing rhythm whilst skilfully navigating the pipe’s perilous harmonics to play a jaunty melody. Few instruments of the 16th century were as well suited to accompanying dances as this combination. It was a tremendously efficient use of a musician.

Another famous taborer was Dick Tarleton (see below), a founding member of the Queen’s Men, who would have worked with Will Kemp. He was also a famous actor, musician, fencer and the favourite clown of Queen Elizabeth I.

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Dick Tarleton

The three-hole pipe had two finger holes and a thumbhole. This arrangement worked because it could be easily played with one hand so you could do something else at the same time.

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Some three-hole pipes


A player can achieve multiple harmonics by blowing harder or more softly into the instrument. In this way, a skilled player can secure a range of an octave, plus a few extra notes above and below.

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Range and fingering of the pipe

The tabor can be any size of round gut-snare drum that can be hung from the shoulder or wrist and played with one hand. The name may come from a corruption of the French ‘tambour’ and Italian ‘tamburo’.  In the Provence region of France, they strike directly on to the snare to create a continuous sound. It is usually played on the snare head of the drum.

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A tabor

A different instrument called the string drum often accompanied the three-hole-pipe. This was particularly the case in France where it is still in use today. It consists of an oblong sound box with two or three strings wrapped round it. A player sounds the instrument by hitting all the strings with a small stick. It added simple harmony, in the form of drone notes, to the arrangement.  This was particularly useful in the middle-ages because tonal harmony was yet to become the norm, so pieces were often accompanied by repeated tonic and dominant notes.

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A string drum


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Morris dancing derived from “Moresque” dancing, which was exotic dancing from Africa and the Middle East. This was fashionable as a court and civic entertainment from the early fifteenth century, accompanied by the pipe and tabor. In the Tudor times it involved a series of forward leaps and steps, which would have been really hard work and would have moved along quickly as opposed to the rather stationary modern version. In his book, Kemp enjoys describing a number of people who tried to keep up with him for long distances, and were left far behind.


‘Indeed my pace in dancing is not ordinary’

Will Kemp.


Here is a link to Pierre Hamon, who can make the pipe and tabor sound beautiful in a Middle Eastern style. He has a unique haunting tone and an atmospheric quality to his playing. Enjoy!

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A pipe and tabor player from a medieval manuscript

The pipe and tabor even developed a small family, depicted by Praetorius as a treble, a tenor and a bass variety.

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Praetorius’s drawing of a pipe and tabor

The bass was 30 inches long with a 23-inch crook. A family was common among instruments of the time because the aim of musical instruments was to imitate the human voice which is divided into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The voice was considered the pinnacle of musical achievement because God had created it.

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A bass tabor pipe

The pipe and tabor enjoyed a long stretch of popularity as the primary instrument to accompany the Morris dance, which was still popular by the 19th century. It was also in demand for accompanying village dances. In the Tudor times, each region would have a player who was usually in a guild of musicians. He could be hired and would take apprentices. He would teach an apprentice tunes by heart, which is why only a fraction of the period’s folk music survives.


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A talented bear

Its popularity is proven by the plethora of illustrations that were made which include the instrument. Many of these you can see in the text. The combination can even be seen carved in the stone of some cathedrals.


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A relief at Gloucester cathedral


The pipe and tabor inevitably diminished in popularity during the 19th century and was almost obsolete by the 20th century. However, in the rediscoveries of recent times, it has made a comeback and is now often seen at living history and traditional events such as the York Mystery Plays.


The pipe and tabor has had a similar level of popularity in France, as in England. The Provence region of France has exceptionally strong pipe and tabor tradition, with their own type of tabor pipe, the galoubet. This is a small tabor pipe which plays at a very high pitch. This is augmented with the tambourin, a very long drum with a resonant tone and strident snare.

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A galoubet player

You can hear the galoubet here:

Perhaps the oddest variant of the three hole pipe can be found in Slovakia and is something of a cross between a tabor pipe and a didgeridoo. It is called the fujara and is used to accompany agricultural singing. It has a deep and rather unique tone with a length of some two metres.

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A fujara player

The pipe and tabor was deeply rooted in the world of country-dance. As fashionable music fluctuated, it was unable to cross musical borders. In addition to this, amateur musicians would have found it very challenging to play, because it was two instruments in one. They opted for musical alternatives, such as the recorder and the flageolet, which were easier to master.

However I do believe that the pipe and tabor can be a truly magical experience to listen to, and should not be lost to the mists of time.

To finish, here is one last quote from Will Kemp’s book.

‘I crave pardon; and conclude this first Pamphlet that ever Will Kemp offered to the Press, being thereunto pressed on the one side by the pitiful papers, pasted on every post, of that which was neither so nor so, and on the other side verged thereto in duty to express with thankfulness the kind entertainment I found.’

Will Kemp


By Nathan Cornish UMJ.

Music at King Edward's School