Buying a Horn: The Question of New or Used, Factory or Custom or Upgraded

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Buying a horn there are a lot of questions to weigh and consider, especially for the more advanced player. Regular readers know that I have been tossing elements of these questions around for years in articles here in Horn Matters; the focus of this article will be on the central topics of new and used horns and factory, custom, or upgraded horns, with a focus on the double horn.

Looking for a new horn?

For many years, until the late 1960s roughly, a professional could actually order a new horn from a local music store and reasonably expect to receive a horn that played and sounded great. With that statement I am primarily thinking of the classic Elkhart Conn 8D, but they were not alone in the market in that day.

Today however stock model factory horns from standard band instrument lines are not seriously considered by professional horn players, at least not without modification. Why this is eventually relates to sound but also the mechanical side of the horn. A pro wants a horn with great valves that sounds and plays great as well, and that great sound is driven by a great bell and a great leadpipe. What happens though is in a factory environment they are geared toward making horns for students and school orders that are rugged and sell at a low price. As a result the instruments are made more heavily (to not dent easily) and some precision is lost in critical areas like the lead pipe, first branch, and general quality of assembly.

This has led to an increased demand for used vintage horns, custom horns, and upgraded horns (tweaked with new leadpipes and other adjustments) that address the needs of the professional and higher end market. Certainly among working professionals there has been a strong trend away from factory horns, especially from traditional band instrument makers, and toward custom horns or horns from smaller production shops who aim for that higher end, professional market.

A playing test confirms

In our second studio class of the semester this fall at Arizona State I wanted to look at this topic in more depth with the studio. First, I had them read the “Kruspe or Geyer” article I posted a few months ago and also I borrowed for testing purposes five horns to bring to class, in alphabetical order a Conn Vintage 8D (recent production — more here), a Hoyer G-10, a Lewis (about 15 years old), a Schmid double, and a Willson custom Geyer. To those we added in an Eastlake Conn 8D, a Hoyer 6800 series horn in brass, and a Yamaha 667 from studio members.

In the first portion of class I did the playing and for testing purposes I focused on two passages from the Romanze of Willy Burkhard which will be featured on an upcoming recital. What I was looking for was a lot of contrast; the opening passage is soft and lyric with slurs across harmonics and fingerings, and the passage at the bottom of page 1 is articulated, loud, and goes from the lower into the upper register.

In a way some of the differences between the horns were small and difficult to describe in words but yet they were also really easy to hear in the room. Some had that “pro sound” and others did not quite have it. You could tell clearly that there was an audible difference between how they each came across for tone color and articulations.

So try some horns yourself!

Then in class students got to try the horns themselves, like at a horn workshop sales area. One thing that was really striking for me was how from the playing side of it the studio LOVED the Schmid. It really is in a separate galaxy in terms of playing qualities, a very light horn with some very distinctive characteristics that you can’t quite conceptualize without playing on one. But I liked all of the horns actually to varying degrees. Each one hits the room differently and has a different feel both in your hands and in terms of playing qualities.

The Results?

To give a bottom line on this whole experiment, overall it reinforced a thought that I have had more and more often in recent years, that the most commercially viable sound type today in the USA is the type of sound produced by a custom Geyer type horn. Custom horns of all types do lead the pack, but you can get other models of horn to hit that general level where they begin to really sound professional with upgrades. A couple stock model horns get really close to having the sound but most are not quite there even in the hands of a fine player. I also updated yet again my longer article on this topic in Horn Articles Online; more results of this day of testing may be gleaned there.

Be very aware, too, that the custom Geyer is a very “American” approach and probably won’t work well overseas, and speaking generally Kruspe type horns are not used much outside the USA either and are not a great choice if you plan to play in orchestras outside the USA. Right or wrong, those are the facts, borne out by for example the list of what horns professionals around the world use, linked from this article. Above all you want to be seen as a player that fits in and does not stick out.

I have been thinking about a change of horns for a few years and I was anticipating, going into this, that I would likely be looking at upgrading a stock model horn to get personally back toward that custom Geyer sound (something I did some years ago to a Yamaha 667). It is a big topic to consider carefully in relation to your budget and goals.

UPDATE (2017):

To the above I would simply add this. Over time my feeling is that I am less and less in favor of upgrading an existing horn. Speaking generally, you will be better off looking for a better horn from a higher quality level, especially with so many now out on the market.

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