(Cape Breton Piper)

Pipers, Pianists, and Guitarists of Cape Breton

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Updated: December 24, 2007


Cape Breton piping is a unique, generally solo style of piping centered on dance tunes. Played for dancers, this makes for glorious music. And it is played with wonderful skill and passion


(castlebaymusic.com) Tracey Dares & Paul MacNeil --- Castlebaymusic.com (Castlebaymusic.com, 2000). From the first tune this CD is absolutely brilliant. To my mind, Paul and Tracey are redefining bagpipe and piano music, solo and together, for listeners of Celtic music. This joyous, swinging, thrilling, dance music in the finest Cape Breton tradition will be a revelation to many. Among the fine pianists and pipers on Cape Breton, Tracey and Paul are recognized as very special, for their extraordinary musical gifts, their amazing ability to project the joy of this music to audiences, and for their particular grace as people. And this CD truly does them justice. Recorded largely in the kitchen of their home, it has a wonderful, warm, informal and comfortable feel. It consists of 12 tunes and 1 lovely waulking song sung by Paul's father with the rest of the family doing the chorus. The beauty of these tunes just jumps out and hits you between the ears. 65 minutes of musical bliss. This is, quite simply, an Esssential Purchase. Buy several and give them to your friends.
(Fosgail an Dorus) Paul MacNeil and Jamie MacInnis -- Fosgail an Dorus/ Open the Door. (Gigs & Reels Productions, Inc.) Jamie is a wonderful piper and when Jamie and Paul are together, clear the chairs, because nothing will bring a crowd of Cape Breton dancers to their feet faster. This is high energy dance music and very fine piping. Give this CD to your stuffy friends that think Scottish bagpipe music is nothing but military bands playing marches.
(Piper cover)

Ryan J. MacNeil - Piper (self-published 2005). Its been awhile (too long!) since I've gotten a new CD of Cape Breton piping. But the wait is over, and Ryan's does not dissapoint. You may know Ryan as the piper from the group Beolach. Here, his superb playing on  border pipes and on various whistles (that he also designed and makes) is out front in a way not possible in Beolach, and you are in for a great treat. Ryan's playing is superb. No surprise there. What I particularly enjoyed is the wonderful variety of the pieces on this CD. There is a lovely song from sister (?) Katriona MacNeil, and several rousing live recording with folks whooping in the background, a set of waltzes, a lovely guitar duet from Paddy Gillis and Sheamus MacNeil,  and some blistering reels. Ryan is very able accompanied by Wendy MacIsaac on piano, Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery. (Very highly recommended)

(Cape Breton Piper) Barry Shears - A Cape Breton Piper This is only the third CD available that reflects the unique Cape Breton style of bagpiping. At the time the immigrants left Scotland for Cape Breton, piping had not became entrapped by military bands and formal competitions. It was played to dancers. Barry has done as much as anyone to rescue this exhilirating, foot-tapping style and teach it to a new generation. For anyone seriously interested in Cape Breton music, this is an essential purchase. Available from the Cape Breton on-line dealers or directly from Barry at caper@ns.sympatico.ca (Very highly recommended)
(Stepping on the Bridge) Hamish Moore - Dannsa' Air An Drochaid - Stepping on the Bridge (Greentrax 1994). Moore is from Scotland, but intimately familiar with Cape Breton music, and one of the key figures in introducing Cape Breton music back to Scotland. This CD is an homage to the piping of Cape Breton legend Alex Currie. Recorded at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton with local musicians fiddler Jerry Holland, pianist Hilda Chaisson, and guitarist Paul Macdonald. Moore is also a renowned pipemaker and founder of the Ceolas school of music in South Uist in the Hebrides. The CD also has excellent liner notes.
Slainte Mhath - Prophecy (1998) This young group consisting of several of the younger Barra MacNeils is one of the most popular groups in Cape Breton among the young folk for their very high energy playing, but also surprizingly by the older generation out of respect for the quality of the playing.

You can also hear bits of Paul MacNeil's and Slainte Mhath's CB piping on several of the sampler albums mentioned elsewhere.


"Another factor...which makes Cape Breton music so distinctive today is the unique piano style. Before pianos were introduced to Cape Breton the accompaniment to the music was the rhythm of the stepping feet. The Cape Breton style of piano playing has developed directly from the rhythm of the steps and has evolved into a sophisticated chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. A typical dance in Cape Breton will have one fiddler and one pianist providing the music." - Hammish Moore from the liner notes of Stepping on the Bridge.
(Crooked Lake) Tracy Dares -- Crooked Lake (Ground Swell 1995). With her own style, Tracy has raised piano playing from an accompanying role to the forefront. If you had told me I would love piano leads in Celtic music, I never would of believed you. But that was before I heard Tracy play. She is accompanied on this album by Dave MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster and others. A reviewer inDirty Linen wrote: "Dares plays tunes with all the grace and ornamented complexity of a fiddler, while adding her own chordal accompaniment; no fiddler and precious few guitarists could dream of doing that...an exciting album." You can also hear Tracy play on Natalie MacMaster's Fit as a Fiddle CD.
See the review of Tracy's and her huband Paul MacNeil's superb CD, Castlebaymusic.com, in the piping section just above.

Mac Morin - Mac Morin (self-published 2003) In an island with many good pianists, Mac has legions of  fans who find his playing outstanding. It is easy to hear why. Mac can play driving rythms that get the whole crowd on its feet dancing, sensitive airs, and a vast array of strathspeys, jigs and reels to fit any occasion with unique and creative contributions to them all.  IMO, Cape Breton pianists can get caught in the rut of being a fairly mechanical accompanist to the flashy fiddler. In Mac's case, his piano playing is at least as intersting as the fiddling and frequently carries the melody. In constrant demand to accompany the best fiddlers on the island, Mac remains sleepless and self-effacing. I first heard Mac when he was touring with neighbor-from-Troy Natalie Macmaster and the two of them dancing, as if they had been doing it together since they were kids was one of the high points of my Cape Breton experiences. When I've been to Celtic Colours, Mac has been all over the place, playing with the best fiddlers or in the grouip Beolach. I figure after those 10 days he could probably sleep until Christmas.  This, his first CD, is an excellent collection of tunes set to the piano only one track with a fiddle. Fair enough, since one can here Mac playing with fiddlers on many of the best CDs, let the piano rule for awhile!  Sample sound tracks available on Mac's website. (Highly recommended)

Troy MacGillivray - Boomerang (Trolleymac Music 2003). Before Cape Breton heard Troy fiddling up a storm in 2004, he was better known as the excellent piano player in sister  Kendra's band.  This is 2003 album features Troy playing the piano on all 10 tracks, and since this is a studio recording, playing the fiddle also on 5 tracks! Sample sound tracks available on Troy's website at the music page.  (Highly recommended)

(Pure Celtic Hearts) Maybelle Chisholm McQueen - Pure Celtic Hearts (self-published 2001) Maybelle has been a great pianist in Cape Breton and a favorite partner of nearly all the great fiddlers for decades. She has a highly percussive style that instantly identifies this music as Cape Breton. This is her first CD, and it shows off well her talent. A special treat is the presence of legendary fiddler Cameron Chisholm (her brother) whose presence on recordings at live concerts has been very rare. Also on the CD is Brian Doyle (her son), an astonishingly good guitarist, and Jason Roach, a teenage friend and fellow pianist. This CD is the genuine Cape Breton sound. It has a suprising variety in the choice of tunes and arrangements, and is a great pleasure to listen to. (Highly recommended).
(Fiddler's Friend cover) Barbara Macdonald Magone -- The Fiddler's Friend (Culburnie Records 1989). Barbara grew up in Detroit Michigan in a community of Cape Breton musicians that had come west for employment. Spending her summers in Cape Breton exposed her to all the great musicians and she was an enthusiastic listener. Now located in southern California, Barbara frequently accompanies Alasdair Fraser in concerts in this area. Here, with a little help from Alasdair and local guitar maestro Jody Stecher, Barbara shows what the piano can do as the lead instrument in Cape Breton music.
(Judique Flyer) Buddy MacMaster - Judique Flyer features fiddler Buddy on every set of tunes. However, it is also a good showcase for 14 of Cape Breton's best pianists. The honor roll on this CD includes in order: Joey Beaton, Betty Lou Beaton, Tracey Dares, Marie MacLellan, Maybelle Chisholm MacQueen, Dave MacIsaac, Joel Chiasson, Jackie Dunn, Mac Morin, Hilda Chiasson, Mary Jessie MacDonald, Howie MacDonald, Doug MacPhee, and Mary Elizabeth MacInnis.
  John Morris Rankin - This gracious man and wonderful musician was taken from us too young, but he left an enormous legacy in Cape Breton. His playing can be heard on The Rankin Family/The Rankins CDs and on Buddy MacMaster's early CDs. Look for a tribute CD to appear for him soon.
Jason Roach - Jason Roach (2007). The volunteer drivers for the performers at the Celtic Colours Festival raise money each year and donate it to some young musician to pay for his or her first CD. In 2007, there choice was Jason Roach, a 23 year old pianist from Cheticamp with impeccable Cape Breton musical roots.. The "Festival Drive'Er's members know their music, and the choice invariably worthy. Being more a fan of fiddle rather than piano music, I think it is particularly challenging to make an entire CD of mainly piano music. Jason has done a fine job here. Not only is his playing stellar, but the variety of the tunes and arrangements thoughtful and varied. Jason is a superb on traditional Cape Breton tunes, but his college degree in jazz gives him a breadth and variety that shows through on several tunes, several of which he wrote himself.  He is very ably assisted by Mike Hall on fiddle and Ian Hayes on guitar. This album was a joy to listen to. (Highly recommended)


(Minnie Sessions #3) Scott MacMillan  - The Minnie Sessions, Volume 3 (Tamarac Records, 1998) Scott is a spectacularly good guitar player and this album contains 8 wonderful guitar tracks, two beautiful tracks from fiddler Jerry Holland, 2 songs by Lenny Gallant and 2 great sets of tunes from Newfoundland Acadian button accordian star Bernard Felix. A terrific album.
(From the Archives) Dave MacIsaac -- seems to play on virtually everyone's albums, on virtually every stringed instrument.  His latest album - From the Archives (1999) - best shows off his Celtic guitar playing and his wonderful fiddling . His album Nimble Fingers was named the East Coast Music Awards 1996 album of the year. Guitar Souls tends to showcase his talent in blues, rock, and other music and contains only two tracks of traditional tunes. There is more information in review in Dirty Linen.

Other Exceptional Cape Breton Guitarists:

What am I missing? Send me an e-mail: jim@sfcelticmusic.com

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