Buying an Instrument by Jeff Purtle

Buying A Trumpet Or Brass Instrument

Please email me if you are interested in buying or selling a Claude Gordon Selmer, Claude Gordon Benge trumpet. I occasionally have requests to help people locate these and will pass along names for free.

The topic of buying an instrument often arises as a beginner starts or as a player progresses and desires a better instrument. The first point to consider is that an instrument is an investment that will have returns in the player's improvement and satisfaction and will even have future monetary gains. A high quality instrument will increase in value with age while a lower quality instrument will lose its value and not be desirable to future potential buyers. For example: A student model trumpet in the 1980s that sold for $350 would not return more than $250 now and a professional trumpet that sold for $500 easily could be resold now for $1000. A properly cared for quality instrument will increase in value.

Instrument salesmen usually try to convince the buyer to purchase based on the "appropriate level" for the student. They also discuss the "quality" of the instruments. The categories of Student, Intermediate and Professional levels are mostly a sales strategy to obligate the buyer to return to buy more instruments. The Intermediate instrument is basically a decent Student model instrument. The subject of a one piece bell verses a two piece bell is a significant one, but not as much as the factor of design and construction. The priority order should be as follows: Design, Construction, and Materials. They are all important. But, the most costly materials won't make a better instrument.

There are those that think that each instrument is an individual creation and different. If two instruments of the same make and model play different it is because they are not assembled with the same accuracy and consistency. Consistency and quality are dependent on the workers building the instrument. There are basically two ways instruments are manufactured, Handmade or Assembly Line Made. The focus of the Assembly Line is quantity in the number of parts and components each worker turns out. The individual worker in the Assembly Line usually does not fully understand the big picture because he does not participate in the final assembly. In the smaller Hand Made factory, where there are fewer employees, the workers have a better understanding of the big picture. In a factory like Selmer they turn out 16,000 trumpets per year in contrast to the Schilke factory which produces 1250 per year. The noted makers of the past started out in small shops building hand crafted instruments for their professional playing friends. They became popular, got bought by a big conglomerate, and then production numbers took priority over quality. This can be seen in Bach, Benge, King, Conn and others.

When trying out a new instrument the player must have a strategy to evaluate the instrument. To begin, the player should have maintained a level of practice for at least two weeks to ensure that he is in the best shape to judge how the instruments feel. When playing the instrument he should start with slurring of harmonics with the same fingerings in order to feel how the instrument centers on each note. Does it feel stuffy on a certain fingering or a certain range of the instrument? Do the notes feel like they don't lock in? Next, he should play scales and intervals in all keys in order to evaluate intonation by ear or with the help of a tuner. If the player is playing correctly the tuner can reveal tendencies in how the horn will play by observation of where the pitch centers in with a good resonant sound. The player should play at a wide range of dynamics to see how the tone changes and the instrument feels at all volume levels. Next, he should inspect the horn for clean straight assembly and make sure all the solder joints (even inside the valve piston) are sealed to avoid leaks. By looking into each valve slide, one can tell roughly if the valves are in alignment. Next, look the instrument over for straight assembly of parts and braces and if all slides line up. (I have seen crooked and uneven assembly in expensive instruments.) Some things can't be seen, such as if the instrument was put together with tension and then soldered, or if there are loose pieces of solder around the inside of the joints of the instrument. (That can sometimes be detected in the response of the instrument if is uneven and the tone lacks a full range of color.) Finally, look over all solder joints and plating or lacquer. After all of this, the decision to buy can easily be made. How the instrument plays is the most important factor.

Remember, playing an instrument for 15 minutes is not the best way to decide. As the player gets used to an instrument things such as Tongue Level adapt slightly and the instrument may feel slightly different. After two weeks of playing a regular routine on the same instrument with the same mouthpiece the player should be at home. Unfortunately, one is not often able to try an instrument for that length of time.

Seek advice from a competent teacher over the advice of salesmen or advertising gimmicks. Be cautious about some new design and remember Solomon's wisdom that "there is nothing new under the sun." Use your brain. After you settle on the instrument forget about it and practice and never blame your equipment for your playing challenges. Remember, great players from the past did it on instruments far worse than yours!

©2003 Jeff Purtle