A quick look at a vintage horn with piston valves

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A topic that comes up periodically is piston valves, as in why are they not used on horns? They actually have been; a couple examples were featured in this prior article in fact. Those two horns have one big problem, the angle of travel of the valve, it is not very comfortable.

Conn among others saw that problem and made a type of piston valve horn seen in the USA. Rumor I have heard is that these were made in part to fulfill military contracts, because they had standardized on piston valve brass instruments. True or not, I don’t know.

This horn was recently loaned to me for an extended period by one of my predecessors at ASU, Ralph Lockwood, who is an enthusiast for piston valves on the horn. This instrument is a Conn, and from the serial number was made in 1916.

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The notable part is the angle of the valve cluster, seen clearly in the second photo. This allows for a much better direction of travel for the valves.

Also in the first photo you will see it has an Eb slide, but also that the slide allows extra pull to take the horn down to D easily.

So how does it play? Really pretty nicely. What you seem to gain with the piston valves is a very smooth transition between notes, there are basically no “clicks” or “bumps” when you move the valves between notes. I talk a bit more about this in this article.

As noted in the first of the linked articles, piston double horns have been made but piston valves really are problematic with them needing to be really long to support the two sets of slides, and the angle issue as well to render the instrument playable. They will, I think, always be a rarity, but a most interesting one. Thanks again to Ralph Lockwood for sharing this horn for an extended trial.