It's "just" a practice chanter...
When I started my piping back in the 1980s, the options for buying a practice chanter were basically "wood" or "plastic". And the price tag (wood = more expensive vs. plastic = less expensive) was likely the only decisive factor. But options have grown over the years and selecting a practice chanter is no longer as simple for a beginner piper. Generally speaking it is a matter of taste and budget, but following is a list of points to ponder I have gathered over the years on this topic.
So what is a practice chanter and why do I need one? A practice chanter is a simplified version of the highland bagpipe. It includes a blowpipe and a chanter; but no bag and no drones. It's purpose is to learn how to play the bagpipes, as well as to learn and practice new tunes before playing them on the bagpipes. It is likewise a cornerstone for steady blowing and tuning. The Highland bagpipe is in fact one of few musical instruments that have a simplified and economical version of it to learn and practice on.
Wood or plastic? Wood practice chanters are often made of African blackwood (mpingo), same wood used for most high quality bagpipes. Plastic practice chanters are made of a very hard plastic commercially known as polypenco (polyoxymethylene). Though wood practice chanters will produce a somewhat richer sound (more harmonics), either material will provide a sufficiently rich sound for the overall purpose of a practice chanter. Polypenco practice chanters will be sturdier, less prone to breakage and often less expensive than a wood practice chanter.
Long and regular lengthed practice chanters is also an option on the market. Long practice chanters, as with the bagpipe chanters, will produce the Low-G note from the lower holes on the side, while the regular practice chanters will produce the Low-G note out of the bottom end of the practice chanter. There should be no perceivable difference in the sound quality among these two designs, though the long models (when played without leaning against a table) will have a weight balance feeling somewhat closer to that of the chanter on the bagpipes.
Regular (top) and long (bottom) practice chanters
Low-G hole (lower left corner) on the side of a long practice chanter,
in line with the bottom end of a regular practice chanter.
The base of the practice chanters may have a sole or an enlarged external diameter. The soles originally exist to avoid the wood splitting. Soles and enlarged ends add richness to a bagpipe chanter's sound, but don't make much of a difference in a practice chanter. Soles are mostly decorative in the case of practice chanters.
Enlarged external diameter (left) and sole (right)
Ferrules on the blow pipe are also designed to prevent splitting of the wood. Plastic practice chanters will not necessarily need a ferrule (would be for decorative purposes if it has one) but wood practice chanters will likely need a ferrule. Engravings on the ferrule are purely for decorative purposes.
No ferrule on plastic practice chanter (left),
engraved ferrule on wood practice chanter (right)
Regular holes and countersunk/recessed holes? Regular holes are simply cylindrical-drilled and deburred-finished. Countersunk and recessed holes are either conic-drilled (with the larger diameter on the outside of the practice chanter), or have a concentric circular groove around the hole itself. Either enlargements are often sized to the corresponding hole in the bagpipe chanter, and thus approximate the tactile feedback.
Regular holes (top-left practice chanter),
recessed holes (lower-right practice chanter)
Practice chanter reeds are typically included when buying a practice chanter from a reputable retailer. Practice chanter reeds normally have plastic blades, though ones with cane blades are also available. Local pipe band suppliers become especially valuable when buying practice chanter reeds, as this gives the opportunity to test the reeds for hardness and volume, as well as tuning.
Two types of plastic practice chanter reeds
Best of both worlds? In case you are thinking of it, yes, there are "hybrid" practice chanters where the blowpipe is made of plastic, and the chanter made of wood. The plastic blowpipe would resist most of the wear and tear (biting, moisture, expanding of the chanter's joint) and the wood chanter would give that [relatively] richer sound quality.
Water traps are relatively new features, in response to a very old problem. Mouth-blowing into a practice chanter will sooner or later collect an amount of moisture that can make the reed collapse. Temporarily solving this moisture collection is as easy as counter-blowing the reed (from the read seat, out through the blades) and the blowpipe. Disassembling and letting the practice chanter dry after the practice session is the next step in the process. Water traps on a practice chanter help delaying this inevitable saturation.
Electronic practice chanters are so cool! Yes, they are, but you'll not get the blowing practice (strength and steadiness). You'll regret this when you step up to the bagpipes, as the blowing will be considerably larger than on a [blown] practice chanter. I don't think the FAA has banned the use of these on airplanes, but that's probably the only situation where I see an electronic practice chanter (with ear phones) would come in handy.
What about kitchen pipes, shuttle pipes, and small pipes? Would you be going the extra mile if you use one of these instead of a practice chanter? Consider kitchen pipes, shuttle pipes and small pipes as instruments in them selves, not as practice/learning/sidekick instruments. Kitchen pipes, shuttle pipes and small pipes are in my opinion more for intermediate and advanced pipers. A beginner piper will get more out of a practice chanter for its simplicity. Using these other instruments would be going in the opposite direction, especially if they are bellows-blown (i.e. no blowing practice).
A goose is a basically a bagpipe with the drones (or drone stocks) corked/stopped and a practice chanter's chanter instead of the bagpipe chanter. Besides a way to stop the drones, all this takes is what is known as a goose adapter which is a cylindrical piece (often made of polypenco) that compensates the difference in diameter between the practice chanter's chanter and the bagpipe chanter's stock. This is a relatively inexpensive gadget to help transition from the practice chanter to the bagpipes. In my opinion beginner pipers should not plan to use a goose for too long, as the transition from the practice chanter to the bagpipes is more about building-up blowing and stamina than just adding the bag to the equation. The transition that I recommend to my students is to play the bagpipes without drones first, then gradually add the drones to the mix. If this is too tough, then start with only one drone, then build-up to all drones, then stop the drones and start with the chanter (to later re-add the drones one by one).
Should you get a beginner/learning kit? I do not recommend self-learning how to play the bagpipes, as a book (or even the best video posted on the Internet) will not tell you what you're doing wrong. So the answer to this question would be to ask your instructor what book he/she intends to follow. If there is a kit that includes the right practice chanter and the right book, then go ahead and get the kit. Otherwise just get a practice chanter and go with whatever training material your instructor recommends.
Rubber o-rings or hemp? The purpose of both these is to keep an air-tight joint between the practice chanter's blowpipe and the chanter. Waxed hemp (black or yellow) and o-ring joints will be less affected by moisture/dry cycles, while non-waxed hemp (yellow) will swell and contract with moisture/dry cycles. This swelling and contracting will likely produce a non-air-tight seal when dry, and is prone to splitting the blowpipe if too swollen when moist.
Practice chanter with black-waxed hemp (left),
practice chanter with yellow not-waxed hemp (right)
Practice chanter with o-rings
and cane reed (source)
Where does one buy a practice chanter? though practice chanters are a simplified version of the bagpipes, one must still search for reputable vendors and makers. It's apparently simple design has enticed many amateur luthiers and lathers to offer their models, and the market virtually flooded with a wide range of designs, materials and qualities. I would recommend starting by taking a look at the retailer's (or maker's) piping backgrounds, as many world-top players are also in the pipe band supply business. Many of these offer testing and tuning services for the bagpipes they make and/or sell, and likewise for their practice chanters. If you have a local pipe band supplier, invest the time to see and test the products before buying them. Here's a list of makers and retailers I have successfully dealt with over the years. Whenever possible, I would recommend beginner pipers to seek advice and testing from a seasoned piper before buying anything. Remember, you will be using a practice chanter throughout your entire piping career.
2nd-hand practice chanters are also offered online (e.g. e-bay, Amazon, Craig's list, etc.), where in this case I would (a) recommend checking this seller's reviews, and (b) make sure you know what you are buying, i.e. is this a practice chanter a reputable vendor would offer? does it include a reed? is it in good conditions? what are the reason for selling?
How much does a practice chanter cost? Designs and options are abundant for both practice chanters and bagpipes, but expect the price of a practice chanter to be about 10% of the price of that of a comparably designed set of bagpipes.
Surely more options are yet to come, but in summary you are seeking for practice chanter that will address both your learning and practicing needs, in line with your budget and vendor options.
See also Wikipedia article: Practice Chanter