Q: What pro quality trumpet should I buy?
This is an essay that started its life as a handout that I gave my students (and, more importantly, the parents of my students) who were looking to upgrade from a beginner’s horn. I fatigued of repeating the same information, or worse, repeating half of the same information and leaving the parent with half a lesson. The market is daunting for those with little experience in it. This hypertext version is greatly improved over the hard copy as it contains links to the manufacturers’ page about each model that often includes pictures and other detailed information. Please do not hesitate to write me if you have any questions or comments.
Links and prices checked and updated May 2008.
A note about pricing: The prices here quoted are those drawn from the web sites of the large volume retail discount music stores such as the Woodwind and the Brasswind (owned by the same parent as Music 123 and Giardinelli) in South Bend, Indiana, and Dillon Music in Woodbridge, New Jersey. I have often rounded up to the nearest round number. Sometimes I have picked the lowest price, sometimes not. Like anything else, it pays to shop around. Where there are particular retailers that I know of who offer unusually good prices on particular instruments, I have noted it.
The prices are likely to be less at these higher volume places than at your local music store. I post these prices because the alternative–list prices–are pretty much useless. Almost no one pays full list price. There are many reasons to visit, support, and buy from your local music store, but because of their more modest volume and higher overhead per unit, it will likely cost you more because they will discount less from the list price. However, your local music store often provides repair services, sponsors local music festivals, and promotes local school or youth music, all of which are worthy of community support. You may find that the premium price is justified for the intangibles also purchased. And you never know when you may need a favor.
I have generally listed only the price in silver. Most high school kids would rather take their mother to prom than play something other than a silver plated trumpet.
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 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. For a somewhat eccentric and highly personal view of student trumpet alternatives, go here.
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 (oh the temptation!), have fixed third valve slide rings, first valve hooks and better cases. They actually cost $300 to $450 more than student models, but that doesn’t buy a much better trumpet.
Pro quality horns are the next step up. They are made to meet demands of professional players. The materials are better, the construction more precise, the designs more tested and scientific. The options are extensive and can be overwhelming.
Pro quality trumpets differ from each other primarily in weight, bore size (diameter of the tubing), and bell size, material and shape. Each maker makes a number of models in varying combinations (the catalogs list 17 different models of Bach, 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 – $120 to the price, but is worth it because the horns maintain their appearance and value better, certainly smell (that’s right–smell–I don’t know why) better, and, again, in my opinion, play slightly better. Some professional players prefer the lacquer horns, suggesting that the sound is “warmer.” But that doesn’t matter anyway, since nearly all high school trumpet players would rather appear in public with their parents all in swimwear than play a lacquered trumpet. Lately, a number of manufactures have added other extra cost finish options like brushed (sometimes called ‘scratched’ or “beaded”) lacquer, silver, and gold, a kind of a dull matte finish, and bright gold plating. These can be fun but add cost and may reduce resale prices down the road.
There is an amazing number of other makers of pro trumpets. They are rarely played by high school or college students or community band members because they are available only in small quantities, somewhat difficult to purchase, and are more expensive. They are made in a variety of configurations, with many custom options, and are generally sold directly through the manufacturer rather than through music stores or other distributors. One often needs to visit the factory or a tradeshow to get to play or test one of these. They are sometimes available used and represent very good values as used trumpets. These include horns from Calicchio, Chicago Brass Works, Lawler, Edwards, Phaeton, Oakes, Scodwell, Spiri (from Switzerland), Stage 1, and Stomvi (from Spain). There are even still smaller production and yet more expensive horns from Blackburn, Fides (from Spain), Anton Posseger, Doc Severinsen’s Destino trumpets (now made by Kanstul), Laskey-Pinc, Marcinkiewicz, Miles, and from England, Smith & Watkins, Eclipse, and Taylor, and of course, the most amazing horns of Monette, but these would not be practical horns for anyone other than (well paid) professional musicians or the occasional dentist. All of these are essentially custom made and involve waiting lists lasting for several months. It is, however, fun to surf through the world of cost-no-object trumpet exotica, however, and I invite you to do so. Lots of weird and interesting things.
Also manufacturing horns but not used much professionally or in college is the current designs of the smaller divisions of Bach-Selmer: Holton, LeBlanc, Martin, Benge, King, and Conn, with the exception of the Conn Vintage One (see below). In the last fifteen years, the company, and its predecessors, emphasized student line horns and have not made a competitive or popular pro quality instrument except the Vintage One. Now their student horns are all pretty much made in China.
Blessing claims to make a pro quality horn at the price of a student model, but, in my experience, it just is not true. I have yet to play one that was any good, whether student or pro line. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. I never recommend them–there are always better more cost effective alternatives.
Musical instruments are one of those areas where you get, more or less, what you pay for. There are some relatively good values within the range of prices, but given the durability and consistency of design of pro quality trumpets, for most people saving a hundred dollars or two at the time of purchase may well be a false economy considering the number of years you use the horn. It is not unusual for professional players to play horns for twenty or thirty years. Active serious amateur trumpet players could (and do) play their whole adult lives the horn they got in high school.
We are lucky since trumpets are probably the least expensive professional quality instruments. For comparison’s sake (as of May 2008), Yamaha’s basic professional piston valve B flat trumpet (the Xeno) is priced at $1900, the professional clarinet $2400; tenor sax $3400; double French horn $6,000; bass clarinet $6100; and flute $7500.
So where do I start?
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, college or community band and orchestra. The difference in horns is minimal compared to the differences in players. If you get one of these horns, you will never be able to blame it on the horn. Ever. If you practice, the horn will sound great. If you don’t, a pro 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 subtle differences in tone quality and intonation that could be heard by attentive listeners, but most of the difference is in flexibility, response, and ease of use that are more felt by the player than heard. The best horn for you is the one that makes it easiest to produce the sound you hear in your head.
These horns are all versatile, as opposed to specialized, models, suitable for playing in any situation. All of them would more than adequately meet the needs of most players. Most share similar design features though each has its own personality and individual appeal.
To cut the task down to a manageable size, I suggest below a dozen models of pro horns from six manufacturers that are worthy of your investigation. They have wide distribution networks and are available from national retailers. Where possible I have tried to link the horn to the manufacturer’s web site description. These are priced generally between $1800 and $2300 from those national companies. You are likely to pay at least 15% to 30% more from your local music retailer, given their overhead, but as stated above, that may be worth it.
Unless you are in or near a very large city, most local music stores do not stock very many pro quality horns because of the high inventory cost. Oftentimes, if you want a trumpet not in stock, the local stores will not let you return it for a refund if you do not like it. Somewhat ironically, many of the national retailers do have a reasonable return and refund policy, e.g., the buyer paying for shipping both ways if the horn is returned.
The easiest way to test pro trumpets is to play those owned by the people around you, e.g., your teacher and the members of the bands in which you play. You can do that for a more extended time, in places in which you actually play, and can often compare side by side. If none of your friends play any of these horns, you should consider new friends. Besides it’s fun. For further information on testing trumpets, also take a look at:
Bach: Although Yamaha has made some inroads, Bach trumpets are still the leading orchestral horns in the United States, played in most large professional orchestras and dominate high school and college ensembles. The Bach 180S-37 is the most common. It is medium large bore, in silver, with the most popular and versatile bell, the 37. My guess is that it outsells all other Bach models combined. The Bach that I personally prefer is the Bach LR 180S-37, which has the same bell, but has a lightweight body (for more responsiveness) and a reversed leadpipe (for a slightly more open blow). If one of those is around, it would be worth playing. Bach makes many other different models with a dizzying combinations of weights, bell shapes and materials, lead pipes, etc., but if it isn’t in stock, any specific special request usually meets a long waiting list and long delay. You could graduate first. Bach made and sold up to 20,000 mass produced Stradivarius trumpets each year through most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which resulted in some inconsistency among the same models and poor quality control. One always ran the risk of getting a barking dog from Bach, though Bach’s best horns are very good indeed. It is perhaps more important with Bach than other brands, that one actually play the horn before buying it. It is even better to have several horns of the same model to try, so that one can pick the best. Historically this has made it a little risky to buy via mail order or online, at least from the larger retailers. Bach has made lots of mediocre horns and if you are a high school kid is Sunflower Seed, Kansas, you might get one of those from the big mail order houses. In April 2006, the Bach factory went on strike. The factory was reorganized without the union in 2008, and prices greatly increased. New Bach Strads are currently priced between $2250 and $2350 in silver, the most expensive of the dozen recommended horns, more than the consistently higher quality handmade Schilkes and Kanstuls. It will be interesting to see over the next few years whether Bach’s market share dips because of the much higher prices. It will also be interesting to see if Bach quality and consistency improve after the recent cataclysmic changes–the early reports are that they have.
Yamaha: The Yamaha pro quality horns have made great strides over the last twenty years. They initially imitated another company’s popular and successful design and then attempted to refine it. They have the largest stable of artists and tend to listen to their comments about design. Some find Yamaha horns to have less personality than the horns they copy, however. Their construction quality is nearly always first rate and the horns are very consistent. Thus, they are a good risk for mail order or online purchase. Yamaha trumpets are available in Heavy Weight, Standard Weight, and Light Weights. The third generation of Yamaha Heavyweight, their copy of the Bach 180-37, the medium large bore Xeno YTR 8335S, was introduced in Spring 2001. These have some incremental improvements (thicker valve casing braces, new mouthpiece receiver length, new valves stems, caps and finger buttons) to the 6XXX Mark II design and can be found for $1800 in silver. The most interesting of these new horns (i.e., the one I like the best), the YTR 8335RGS (called the ‘Special Model’ on the Yamaha web site), has a heavier gold brass bell and a reverse leadpipe design, which is $50 more. Yamaha also makes a lightweight horn that is similar in design to the Schilke B6 and B7, at several hundred dollars less than Schilke, the YTR 8310Z, designed with assistance by jazz trumpet player Bobby Shew. It has a smaller step-bore design where the bore is medium in some areas and larger in others. It is very easy to play, but can feel stuffy and be overblown by strong players. In silver, it is $1750. Bobby Shew himself recommends the lacquer version (and wishes they didn’t even make the silver one) that is $100 less. Yamaha also makes a line of limited production Artist model trumpets that are priced at around $3400, but are beyond the needs or budget of most. If you are reading this, they probably aren’t for you. One note: Yamaha often redesigns its website every three weeks, at least so it seems to me–so if these links are dead, please let me know.
Conn: After a number of years of making disappointing mediocre and generic trumpets, Conn, now owned by the Conn-Selmer conglomerate, engaged the services of Fred Powell for seven years, ending in early 2005, a well known and respected instrument designer who has previously worked with Kanstul and Lawler, and introduced a new professional model in May 2000, theVintage One. Like the Bach, it is available in an amazing number of bell materials, leadpipes, and finishes, but the 1B-SP would likely suit most folks’ needs. It has a medium large bore, one piece yellow brass bell and comes with two tuning slides (a square and a round one, to oversimplify), a gimmicky modular weighted valve cap system, and most importantly, it is silver plated. Over the past few years the V1 has made a serious impact in the pro trumpet market because it is well designed, very well made, and a great playing horn–certainly the equal of the horns mentioned here. They are about the same weight as the Bach 180s and Yamaha Xenos. They are priced at $1950, in silver.
Conn-Selmer (i.e., Bach), owned by Steinway, and Yamaha are large corporations with huge product lines. They have very extensive almost saturation marketing and authorized stores everywhere. It makes it easier to find, try and buy their horns locally.
Schilke: Although Schilke also makes a heavier trumpet, Schilke’s claim to fame is their lightweight B series. These horns have a clear brilliant sound, are very responsive, and have great intonation. They are exceedingly well made with many hand fittings and adjustments. In terms of quality per dollar, they are the best value on the page. After playing them, heavier horns feel “sluggish” though some criticize Schilkes as not having the tonal presence of the better Bach horns for orchestra-type work. The Schilke B1 is a medium large step bore, large bell horn that is very free blowing and good for almost any purpose, probably the most free blowing medium large bore trumpet available. The Schilke B5 is a medium large bore, medium large bell horn, with slightly more resistance and a more compact sound because of its tighter copper bell, though both the B1 and B5 are characterized as medium large bore instruments. The bore of Schilke step bore designs 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 are handmade in Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Schilkes are sold for around $2200, without case or mouthpiece, although from Washington Music Center one can often find them less expensive. The above links take one not to Schilke’s official web site, but to a more informative (he modestly notes) unofficial site called The Schilke Loyalist, written by, uh, me.
Kanstul: The Zigmant (that’s his first name) Kanstul Signature collection is similar in quality and price to the Schilkes, but emphasize heavier builds and darker sounds even more than the Bachs. The Kanstul ZKT 1503 is suitable for all round use and is perhaps the most versatile of Zanstul’s top of line. It can be ordered with a solid copper bell, at extra cost, for an even darker tone. They are priced at $2200 in silver, without case or mouthpiece (just like Schilke). Kanstul also makes the Chicago CHI 1000, a faithful reproduction of one of Elden Benge’s classic horns. It is lighter but still very versatile. It is at home in almost any setting. 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 sells for $1900, in silver. Zig Kanstul has been where the action has been in trumpet manufacturing for more than 40 years, having served as designer and shop foreman at Olds and Benge. He has been making trumpets bearing his own name for 25 years. The horns are made in Anaheim, California. The Tulsa Band Instrument Company often has the best prices on Kanstul instruments.
Getzen: It used to be that Getzen trumpets were second tier, appealing primarily to high school students and community band players. Few professional or college students played them. Over the recent past, however, Getzen not only has survived the convulsions of the brass instrument manufacturing business, but has been reinvigorated and is making trumpets that are genuine alternatives to the above. It is an innovative and feisty company, committed to making high quality instruments in the United States. Getzen valves have lifetime warranties and are bought by other custom trumpet makers. The Custom 3050 is a versatile horn, well suited to all kinds of playing. It is a relatively heavy model, similar in design and performance to the Bach 180-37 and Yamaha Xeno. The Artist 3001MV , designed with the assistance of jazz trumpeter Mike Vax, is similar to the Custom 3050, but adds a lightweight bell and modified tuning slide for a brighter, more responsive livelier horn. The Custom sells for $2000, the Artist for $50 to $100 more. Lately, Getzen’s increased popularity has resulted in some delays in getting inventory to its dealers, which, while annoying for potential buyers, is testimony to their improved market standing.
Schilke, Kanstul, and Getzen are all small family owned companies that don’t also make motorcycles, electronic gear, or grand pianos. As a result, occasionally they have eccentric marketing ideas that reflect the business philosophies of their owners. They do usually have local distributors, but it is sometimes tough to find models in stock. It is however worth the effort.
Lacquered brass horns are always cheaper than silver-plated ones, and play as well. I know that most high school kids would rather play a silver plated Happy Meal toy than a lacquered brass pro quality horn, slaves to fashion that they are, but for those who are more interested in the sound, terrific buys can be found in lacquered brass horns. They are often $200 less than their silver plated counterparts.
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 Burbank and Los Angeles Benges (Zig Kanstul was the shop manager), Selmer (Paris) models, such as the K Modified and Radial, and LeBlanc (Paris) trumpets, Conn Connstellations from the 60’s, the King Silver Flair (from the ’60s and ’70s–and not to be confused with the current lousy intermediate model marketed under the same name) and F.E. Olds pro models, such as the Super, Mendez,Recording (my favorite) and Opera. Though somewhat orphaned and older, these are fine pro quality horns that can often be had for around $500 (and up) and would be a significant upgrade to any beginner’s horn. Some folks with lots of money prefer these horns anyway.
For good advice (unedited for political correctness) about used trumpets, Forrest Buchtel, former lead trumpet player with Woody Herman and the creator of the very popular Schilke 14A4a mouthpiece, can’t be beat:
A trumpet is like a woman. If you lose one, just wait patiently and eventually a good one will come your way. And the older ones are a little better if you wait patiently, and a lot less expensive.
© 1999 – 2008 by James F. Donaldson
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