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Whether it be a new mouthpiece or leadpipe, upgrading a horn can be a fun and worthwhile investment. For someone on a budget especially, customization and updating can improve your playing without having to invest in a new instrument.
I have upgraded several horns myself, all with great satisfaction. I also have played professionally on a number of hybrid horns – stock instruments with significant custom upgrades.
A mouthpiece change might be a good place to start. It is one of the easiest and least expensive upgrades to pursue.
Most mouthpieces range from $30 to $100 USD, depending on how fancy you get. Before shopping for one, it is probably a good idea to understand the basic mechanics of mouthpieces, and in turn, what might work better for you.
- Horn Pedagogy Week 1: Choosing the Mouthpiece and Horn
- Choosing a French Horn Mouthpiece (I): The Basic Parts
When mouthpiece shopping, an excellent tip to remember is that the process is somewhat subjective and personal. Don’t get too hung up on particulars or what other people might tell you is ‘right’.
- Will a Different Mouthpiece make much of a Difference?
- The Mouthpiece Wheel of Doom
- Professor Corno: About your Mouthpiece Choice
If your mouthpiece is screw-rimmed, a simple rim change may make all the difference in the world. It did for me.
A leadpipe upgrade is a more significant investment, both in terms of cost and in terms of the feel of the horn and how it blows.
Prices can vary from the mid-100’s, upwards to $900 USD on the high end.
3.) Bell flare
On the opposite end of the horn is the bell flare. Changing it out can have an impact on how your horn resonates and sounds, especially at a distance.
David Griffin (hornist in the Chicago Symphony) spoke previously of how his Alexander flare added more substance to the middle-low register of his custom Lewis horn.
- A Garland on Your Bell: Not Just Bling
- Professor Corno: Cut your Bell Already
- So, you’ve decided to cut your bell. Now what?
Prices for a bell can range from $300 USD for pre-owned, upwards to $1500 for something new.
From an article by Dave Weiner:
A stripped horn resonates more efficiently.
Walter Lawson did research some years back on the effect of different types of lacquer on horns. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but nitro-cellulose-based lacquers (commonly called “air dry”) had a damping effect on the resonance of less than 1 decibel, which is technically considered not discernible to the human ear. Epoxy-based lacquers had an effect more in the range of 2 decibels.
So, the type of lacquer applied makes a difference. If you have epoxy-based lacquer on your horn you might get more of an advantage stripping the horn than if you have air-dry lacquer on your horn.
(More – Should I strip my horn’s lacquer?)
Even more on the topic is here – Lawson on Lacquer and on Freezing.
The cost for lacquer removal can be relatively high, ranging from the mid-to-upper hundreds in dollars. A great tip – ask around for a reliable and reputable repair technician before just looking one up on the Internet and sending your horn off.
Other options for improving your horn, in one way or another, might lie in one of the many devices available on the market.
- Heavy Metal Devices
- Is a Heavy Mouthpiece Better?
- Professor Corno: Put a Water Key on your Horn Already
- A Photo-Review of Abalone Valve Caps from Ion Balu
- Discs under the caps
It may seem like a little thing, but a pencil clip on a horn can be a lifesaver. It is the least expensive upgrade that can be made on a horn. Most pencil clips cost around or under $2.00, and so there is very little excuse to not have one.
For people with small hands, several after-market options are available to make things more manageable.
There are many other devices out there of course, including the AcoustiCoil, which neither John nor I have written about. That being said, they are all worth looking into and at least trying out.
Total makeovers and shipping
If your budget is under $2000, you might even consider a bunch of upgrades being done, all-at-once.
As a final word, when sending a horn off to be worked on be absolutely sure to pack it well for shipping.