Time for a new trumpet?

Beginning vs. Intermediate vs. Pro quality horns

Beginner's trumpets are made by machines in large quantities, with numerous compromises in manufacturing to keep the prices reasonable. They are also designed, at least in theory, for inexpensive manufacturing, durability and easy production of tone, rather than quality of tone and intonation. At some point, the limitation of the horn limits the advancement of the player, though I would note that I recently attended a performance of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, and the first trumpet player was playing (superbly) on an Olds Ambassador, probably the best student horn ever, but nevertheless a student quality horn which one could buy used for $175. Beginner's trumpets cost new between $300 and $500.

Unfortunately, the intermediate trumpet line is more of a marketing maneuver than a distinct quality of horn. These trumpets are beginners' trumpets that are silver plated, have fixed third valve slide rings, first valve hooks and better cases. They cost $200 to $250 more than beginners, but that doesn't buy a much better trumpet.

Pro quality horns are the next step up. The leading mass produced makers in my opinion are Vincent Bach (the Stradivarius line), Yamaha (Professional line), and Besson (the "New French Besson" line, though made by Kanstul in California). People who make their living daily with their horns often play these. These are priced generally between $1000 and $1300 from national mail order companies. You are likely to pay at least 15% to 30% more from a local music retailer, given their overhead, and most local music stores do not stock very many pro quality horns. Other quality horns are made by Getzen and Holton, though you don't see may of these used professionally or in college. The same is true of the current products of UMI (Conn, King, the new Benge), which seem to emphasize student line horns.

There are also a couple of limited production, but reasonably priced, handmade horns which range in price from $1500 to $1700, the Kanstul Signature line and the Schilke, which are used extensively by professional trumpet players and advanced players. These are exceedingly fine horns which retain their values quite well. There are also even smaller production more expensive horns from Flip Oakes, Callet, Callichio, Blackburn, Lawler, and Monette, but these would not be practical for anyone other than (well paid) professional musicians.

We are lucky in that trumpets are probably the least expensive professional quality instruments. For comparison's sake, Yamaha's most expensive piston valved B flat trumpet is priced at $1100 (at Giardinelli), the professional clarinet $1606; tenor sax $3363; double french horn $4440; and flute $9060.


How do I even start to pick one?

First things first: The horns described below are all exceedingly fine instruments. Each of them would no doubt meet all the demands you could place on them throughout high school or college. The difference in horns is minimal compared to the differences in players. If you practice, the horn will sound great. If you don't, a quality horn isn't going to help you any. We all sound pretty much the way we sound. If I play your horn, I still sound like me. If you play my horn, you still sound like you. There may be some differences in tone quality and intonation which could be heard by attentive listeners, but most of the difference is in flexibility, response, and ease of use which are more felt by the player than heard.

Pro quality trumpets differ from each other primarily in weight, bore size (diameter of the tubing), and bell size and shape. Each maker makes a number of models in varying combinations (The Giardinelli catalog lists 17 different models of Bach, 12 French Bessons, 8 Yamahas, 10 Schilkes, etc.), though many of the models would be for specialized use or for someone with unusual needs or tastes. So it isn't really that overwhelming: Most players play horns with medium-large bores (.459 to .462 inches). And generally though any of the horns listed below could be easily employed for any use and perform very very well the heavier weight horns are more suited for orchestral and symphonic band type playing, the lighter weight horns for jazz or smaller ensemble playing. All but Schilkes are available in lacquered brass (gold color) or silver plated (Schilke in silver only). The silver adds about $75 to the price, but is worth it because the horns maintain their appearance and value better, certainly smell better, and, again, in my opinion, play slightly better. Some professional players prefer the lacquer horns, suggesting that the sound is "warmer."

There are certainly more, but to cut the task down to a manageable size, I suggest ten models of pro horns which I believe are worthy of your investigation. Where possible I have tried to link the horn to the manufacturer's web site description.

Bach: Although Yamaha has made some inroads, Bach trumpets are still the leading orchestral horns in the United States, played in most large orchestras. They make many different models with different combinations of weights, bells, lead pipes, etc., but any specific request usually meets a long waiting list and delay. Bach has had a reputation for inconsistency (i.e., various samples of the same model horn playing differently). One still runs the risk of getting a clinker from Bach, though Bach's best horns are very good indeed. The Bach 180S-37 is the most common. It is medium large bore, in silver, with the most popular and versatile bell, the 37. These are standard weight horns, but Bach's standard weight is heavier than everybody else's. They are priced at Giardinelli (the large New York mail order house) at $1275 (in silver). These are made in Elkhart, Indiana.

Yamaha: The Yamaha pro quality horns have made great strides in the last few years.They initially imitate another company's popular and successful design and then attempt to refine it. They are available in Heavy Weight, Standard Weight, and Light Weights. The Yamaha YTR 6335HIIS Heavy Weight is very popular and plays well. It shares similar design and playing characteristics with the Bach 180S-37, though the quality control at Yamaha is superior to Bach. Some find Yamaha horns to have less personality, however. Yamaha also makes lightweight horns which are similar in design to Schilke, at several hundred dollars less than Schilke, including the Yamaha YTR 6310ZS, designed by jazz trumpet player Bobby Shew. It has a unique step-bore design where the bore is medium in some areas and larger in others, but which can be overblown by strong players. Yamaha also makes a standard weight, the Yamaha YTR 6335S, which is a very fine versatile all around horn. For comparison's sake, the Yamahas at Giardinelli are all priced the same at $1100 (in silver). The Yamahas are assembled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of components made in Japan.

French Besson: Early in this century, symphonic trumpeters all preferred French Bessons. Vincent Bach and Elden Benge each designed their horns in the model of the Bessons and tried to improve upon that design. The original line halted production in the 60's and was revived by Boosey & Hawkes in the early 80's. The horns are made in Anaheim under the direction of Zig Kanstul and are of very high quality. The Classic French Besson (96CB) (bore .462) is a relatively new design by Dennis Nijoom of the Milwaukee Symphony and has similar playing characteristics to the Bach. The New French Besson (92A), designed and individually play tested by studio musician Marvin Stamm, is a lighter more versatile horn which is designed specifically and comes with accessories like single radius tuning slide, heavy valve caps, and valve cap spaces to allow the player to alter the horn to fit better the playing circumstances. These horns represent the best bargain in new pro quality horns, priced at $874 in lacquer and $942 in silver, without a case, from Tulsa Band Instrument Co (e-mail Donovan Bankhead, the manager, at TulBand@oklahoma.net), who also sells a case at cost for $55.

Schilke: Although Schilke also makes a heavier horn, Schilke's claim to fame is their lightweight B series. These horns are very responsive and exceedingly well made with many hand fittings and adjustments. After playing them, heavier horns feel "sluggish." Some have criticized Schilkes as not having the tonal presence of the better Bach horns, at least for orchestra work. The Schilke B1 is a medium large bore, large bell horn which is very free blowing and good for almost any purpose. The Schilke B5 is a medium large bore, medium large bell horn, equally good, though it has more resistance and a more compact sound. Schilke does not publish the numerical bore measurements of their horns because the bore varies throughout the horn as a result of extensive experimentation and scientific testing to determine the optimal bore sizes to maximize the intonation on each note. Schilkes cost $1580 at Giardinelli without case. Schilke is old fashioned and has no web site, though information can be gathered from The Schilke Loyalist. Call Schilke for a catalog and price list at (708) 343-8858.

Kanstul: The Zigmat (that's his first name) Kanstul Signature collection are similar in quality and expense to the Schilkes, but emphasize heavier darker sounds, employing copper bells on a number of models, including the Kanstul ZKT 1503, which is suitable for all round use, and start about $1395 from Tulsa Band. It can be ordered with a brass bell, or for extra cost, a copper bell for darker tone. Kanstul also makes the Chicago CHI 1000, a faithful reproduction of one of Elden Benge's earliest horns. It has a full orchestral type sound in the middle registers but brightens up in the higher registers. It comes with a wonderful triple gig bag and costs $1295, or so, from Tulsa Band.

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Used instruments: There is a large market of used pro quality instruments. Some students stopped playing and like to sell their horns. Some pro players or serious amateurs go through horns looking for the "perfect" horn. Bach 180S-37's and Yamahas can often be purchased in very good condition for $650 to $900. Used Schilke and Kanstul horns can also be purchased in very good condition for $900 to $1300 also, i.e., at the price of the less expensive new horns. Most pro quality trumpets are owned by people who appreciate them and take care of them, so they are usually in very good condition. Occasionally the classified ads in the local newspapers having listings. Other used horns are available from dealers and individuals all over the country who advertize on the world wide web. Within a fairly short time, most of the more popular models become available somewhere at a reasonable price.

In addition to the horns described here. Older high quality pro models that are no longer made or imported are often available used for very reasonable prices, such as the older California Benges (Zig Kanstul was the shop manager), Selmer (Paris) and LeBlanc (Paris) trumpets, and F.E. Olds pro models. Though somewhat orphaned and older, these are fine horns that can be had for around $500 and would be a significant upgrade to any beginner's horn.


© 1999 by James F. Donaldson / All rights reserved