Buying a Horn II: What I Bought

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As noted in part I, we had a playing test of horns recently at Arizona State. I primarily set it up so that students could hear and try horns and get their minds a bit more opened up to the range of horns out there on the market. However, I have been looking off and on for years and had been giving serious thought to switching to a Custom Geyer style double horn as my main horn for a while. When I try horns at shows they always tend to stand out as the ones that feel the best, and from the audience side of it too they tend to sound to my ear the best out in a hall.

A what?

It started out innocently enough. I went to a local store to borrow a Hoyer G-10 and a Vintage 8D for the playing tests for studio class. However, they also had three of last new Willson horns in the USA. [But scroll down to the UPDATE, they are available still.] Willson is a big name for those that follow the Euphonium. This Swiss brass instrument maker has a line of horns too and tried to break into the US market but recently pulled out. [See UPDATE]. The horn that caught my attention was this CS-250 custom Geyer style horn. My first impression with a standard mouthpiece was not impressive, but I thought it had potential as perhaps a project horn at the price they wanted, and was I very impressed with the horn ultimately when played with a European shank mouthpiece. More on that in a minute.

Some possible reasons the Willson had not sold

One look at the horn told me it was really well made, on the level of a custom horn. And this horn must have been tried by a whole bunch of people before me who did not buy it. Besides the fairly high list price, why did they not buy it? A number of things came to mind looking it over the next few days. Most of them are not negatives really; just choices that made the instrument stand out against what buyers might have perceived as the standard way a custom Geyer type horn should look.

  • As a first impression thing, the finger levers are a trifle low for me and can’t be adjusted easily because of the mechanical linkages.
  • Mechanical linkages are also not traditional to Geyer style horns in general in the USA, and the valves when you look at them closely are intense! All the screws are Allen nuts, etc. It is very Swiss and I am in no doubt they are extremely well made but they are intimidating to a buyer in their own way.
  • The nickel silver valve slides. It is just a visual thing of course but traditionally Geyer style horns have brass crooks on the slides.
  • The badge. It is another small thing but the nickel silver badge (not very visible in the photo, but down near the ring on the bell tail) is a detail I suspect that buyers could do without; it takes away from the traditional USA Geyer look. (Like the famous movie line, “Badges, we don’t need no badges!”)
  • The long leadpipe. It is also a visual thing mostly but the leadpipe is longer than is usually seen on a typical Geyer style horn. Which leads to what was probably the actual, main problem this horn has at least for the average player testing it in the USA:
  • Mouthpiece fit. I first tried this horn with a standard shank mouthpiece, and it feels pretty generic with that in the receiver. Noting it looked to fit in too far I had with me at the store a European shank version of my mouthpiece and tried it there. It was better and with more use I would confirm, on that mouthpiece the horn sings! But with a standard mouthpiece again it feels fairly average.

I always carry two mouthpieces with me when I am trying horns at stores or workshops, but most purchasers don’t. No wonder it did not sell. More information on European shank mouthpieces may be found here.

To offer one other neutral element (at least so far as I am concerned) the screw bell has rings that are similar to Schmid rings but just a bit different. I have found that I can get a Schmid bell on the horn but can’t get this Willson bell on a Schmid horn. This could be seen as a positive or a negative, depending on the buyer, but Alexander compatible rings are normally seen on Geyer style custom horns in the USA.

What I really liked

As to positive elements,

  • With the right mouthpiece the horn plays great, really nice slurs and connections between notes.
  • It sounds great too. With the back to back testing done in class it has a lot of the sound of the Lewis but with some of the feel and sound of the Schmid.
  • The high Bb is great.
  • The horn has great valves and a very nice bell.
  • The weight feels great in the hands and is nicely balanced.
  • Overall construction details are as already mentioned excellent, right up there with most any custom Geyer on the market.
  • It is a bit freer and more open feeling than some custom horns, a quality I also liked about the horn.
  • With finger pads added the valve height is fairly comfortable for me (more on finger pads here), and the thumb valve position and throw are very nice for a Geyer style horn.
  • It is brand new, and the discounted price I could get it for absolutely could not be beat.

Ultimately, what horns we buy are regulated somewhat by $ and by what is available to purchase at a given point in time. New custom Geyer horns can only be purchased after a lengthy period of time (often in the neighborhood of five years!) on the waiting list of a maker, or you can buy a used one with patience and luck. In this case I am happy to own without a wait a horn that I could potentially play just like it is for years and could upgrade in several ways if I desire (new leadpipe, strip lacquer, etc). Thus, I have made the plunge and gone back to the custom Geyer side of horn playing. I won Third Horn in Nashville playing on a very similar Yamaha 667 coming out of graduate school and it feels great to be back in that groove again.

If you want to buy this same model of horn I am told that you are at this point out of luck if you are in the USA. The local dealer (Milanos) does now have several of their Kruspe wrap models and also a compensating triple still, but this particular model is totally sold out. I am told that I bought the last one in the USA that was available new. [But see UPDATE I, they are available in the USA still]

As to my big Paxman 25A, triple, descant, and the other historic horns that I have, for now I will keep most of them around and make some use of them, they are all great horns. But I expect at this point for general playing to mostly use this horn for the time being. Eventually I will have to “thin the herd….”

But the happy conclusion of the story for now is I managed to unexpectedly and locally stumble onto a nice horn of the type of horn I was looking for at the right time and price. For readers out there looking, good luck on your quest; great horns are out there in unexpected places!

As linked in Part I there is more to be found on the topic of what horns professionals use here, and do also check my Horn Articles Online article on the topic of suggested horns for a few more notes and tips.

UPDATE I. I was incorrect, these are available still in the USA! The current US dealer is HornStuff, http://hornstuff.com/

UPDATE II. [updated 2016] Since the purchase of this horn I have mostly used it as my prime horn, but with several breaks from it. Some aspects I always like very much like (especially the high Bb and wonderful slurs through valve changes–I keep coming back to it for those) but I do wish it had just a bit darker tone and there are things I am not completely happy with, in particular the left hand position really is a bit small for my largish hands. It was still a good purchase at the time but I anticipate that I will move on to a horn from the next price bracket.