Features to Consider when Buying a Trumpet

Trumpet valves

Photo Credit: dmcneil on Flickr

When deciding on which trumpet/cornet to buy, there are a few guidelines that need to be addressed. The bottom line cost is one of the most obvious questions for most people. Unless you are interested in the ultimate, hand fitted, custom made, work of art, one of a kind horn, you should expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,500 for a quality instrument. When I speak of the ultimate, one of a kind trumpet, I am reminded of a situation many years ago when a college first told me about  his friend who was making truly one of a kind, custom trumpets. The new trumpet maker was David Monette. I was very skeptical of the claims given to the talented trumpet builder and when I was offered the opportunity to play on this new Monette trumpet, I jumped at the chance.

I played it for a couple days and one evening while practicing at home, my wife came into the room laughing. I asked her to explain and she asked me if I was trying to make those funny sounds. That does not strengthen your confidence when that happens but I had to agree with her. I didn’t like the sound either. Not more than a week passed until I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Monette at our campus. I shared with him my wife’s comments and he was not a happy camper. I told him that I had a very difficult time producing an acceptable sound and his response was simple and to the point, “I didn’t make the trumpet for you to play on, I made it for (name omitted) to play”. That’s when I became a true believer in the talents of David Monette!

My college’s playing style and background were much different from mine and if the horn was made for him, it’s completely plausible that the same horn would not work for me. So, when David’s promotional material states that the trumpet is built to your playing skills, style and need, it is a fact. Now if you are ready to go on line and order one for your fifth grader, let me first mention that there are no prices listed on his site. The unofficial estimate of the cost of his horns has been posted to be between $5,000 to $50,000. I can not prove nor disprove these figures for I was a university professor and anything with more than two 0’s makes me weak kneed.

If you still want one or more of his horns, please take a number and he will get to you after he finishes with many of the top trumpet players in the world today, including the following- Maynard Ferguson and his trumpet section, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Schlueter, Andrea Giuffredi among others. If you would like additional information on this very talented and personable young genius, check out his web site at http://www.monette.net/newsite/index.htm

Now let’s get back to the basic features to look for in your new trumpet-

  • Bore size- Most trumpets fall into three basic bore sizes (the smallest diameter of the lead pipe) which are Medium, Medium Large or Large. Generally speaking a Medium bore works best for most players and this designation (M, ML, L) is usually stamped some where on the instrument.
  • Bell size- Most trumpets come with a bell size to be matched with the bore size but there are exceptions. I remember playing a dance job with a friend of mine, Mr. Joe Morrissey, who performed with the late Bill Case’s group “Chase” and can be heard on the Pure Music 1974 album. At that time we were both playing Schilke trumpets and we decided to switch horns during the evening. When I brought my (his) horn up to play, the bell completly covered the music. I had to play off to one side in order to see my part. NOW THAT WAS A BIG BELL!
  • Light weight and heavy weight horns- avoid the extremes and go with the middle of the road weights.
  • Special alloy bells- special materials and sizes are for specialized players and their playing requirements. It is best to go with the normal characteristics for the average player.
  • First and third valve slide saddles (U shaped) and rings (O shapes)- These are attached to the corresponding valve slides and are used to improve intonation problems as you play. It is absolutely imperative that you have one on the third slide. Do not buy any trumpet that does not have a third slide ring attached. The first slide saddle is equally important but many good horns are sold without one. Personally, I would not play on a horn that did not have both. I will discuss this later in the section “How to play in tune”.
  • Lyre (music holding device) – this is only important if you are in a marching band and need to hold your music while you play. Many horns serve dual purposes with the third valve ring being removed and replaced with the lyre. For serious players it would be better to have a permanent third valve ring and pay a few bucks for a removable lyre.
  • Keyed in Bb- The trumpet family includes horns pitched in different keys such as Bb, C, D, Eb, etc. The only one you will need at this time is one pitched in Bb. All the others would have little use and you would be wasting your money on any horn other than a Bb. More on that under the section “Why are there trumpets of different keys?”
  • Water keys- As you play and force warm air through your instrument condensation forms on the inside of the tubing  just as it does when you blow warm air on a cold window pane. In order to extract this condensation, exit holes are placed at the stops where the water tends to concentrate. These keys can be one of two basic styles and both work well. One style works like a teeter totter and the other slides from side to side.
  • Accessories- This would include the instruments case, cleaning material, valve oil, brushes, instruction etc. These materials will be fine to start with and as you develop, you will want to fine tune some of these items and I will discuss them further under the heading “Trumpet accessories”.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

5 thoughts on “Features to Consider when Buying a Trumpet

  1. Jason

    Hi Bruce, great article and thank you for sharing your knowledge on trumpets. I have two things to add that are common misperceptions when choosing a new trumpet. First, you can in fact purchase a handmade custom trumpet from Harrelson Trumpets for $2495 (within your recommended price range) during three yearly promotions when the HT3 model is reduced by $500. Second, bore size is in most cases irrelevant and has served as a point of advertising confusion more than anything. The leadpipe and bell tapers are primarily responsible for the air flow, harmonic series and color of the horn. Bore size is probably the most common piece of misinformation on the internet and it simply does not need to be a factor on your list. A large bore Bach has a different leadpipe (which is larger) than on the ML version, which is why it plays more open with a more broad overtone series. I know your article is not intended to be comprehensive by any means, but it is important for people to know that bore size is an inconsistent designation that has little meaning on a trumpet built today.

    • Bruce Chidester

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments. It isn’t often that trumpet designers /manufacturers invest the time to read posts such as mine and I thank you.

      It is very true that in the earlier days (the stone age to some and just a few decades for some of us) the only way to identify the characteristics of the horns was to check two things- 1. the bore size and 2. the bell size. We have come a long way to make the selection of the perfect horn much more difficult as well as making a better fit with the player.

      I do encourage all of my readers to visit this site and look around.


  2. Dan


    I have to respectfully disagree with some of your information under “Bore size” and “Bell size”.

    Bore size: First off, the bore size is NOT the smallest diameter of the leadpipe (that is called the venturi). Bore size is the inner diameter of the cylindrical portion of the tubing throughout the horn, and is most often measure at the 2nd slide.

    You also say that generally medium bore horns work best for most players. This may have just been a type-o, because I don’t think you’d find too many people who agree with this; Medium-large, not medium, has been the standard for quite a while, and is by far the most common bore size out there.

    Bell size: Based on your comment about the Schilke bell blocking your music, it seems like you were referring to the diameter of the bell at the rim. Bell diameter has very little impact on how the horn plays, and is not matched to the bore size like you claim. Bell TAPER, however, plays a huge role in a trumpet’s sound and playing characteristics, though it is more carefully matched to the leadpipe taper, not the bore size.

    I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I don’t want anybody getting the wrong idea from what you wrote.

    • Bruce Chidester

      You have made some interesting point.
      Thanks for commenting.

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