Often parents unfamiliar with brass instruments are faced with the task of selecting an instrument for their son or daughter. To help you sort through all the possibilities, our Musician's Friend staff has put together this brief guide to choosing an appropriate trumpet.
Types of trumpets
This is easy. Basically, trumpets are all of a kind. You can think of cornets and flugelhorns as kinds of trumpets: same fingering, same key, same range, same basic design. They only differ in shape, length, and bore size. They all have the same kind of tone, just in different colorings. Trumpets have a sharp, brilliant sound. Cornets sound a little thicker and richer, and just slightly mellower. The flugelhorn's sound is very full and soft, even fluffy. Cornets have become more rare over the years but are considered the same as trumpets in school bands. Ask the director. Flugelhorns often serve as second instruments for intermediate or advanced players. There are also several specialty trumpets, such as C trumpets and piccolo trumpets that are mainly used in symphonic settings.
Trumpets are usually ranked as student, intermediate, and professional models. These are not precise categories but rather refer to overall quality and certain features. Use them for general guidance. In most cases, student trumpets are appropriate for beginning players, and intermediate instruments are appropriate for serious students of advancing abilities. Professional trumpets are for advanced players.
Bore is the inside diameter of the horn's tubing measured at the second valve slide. Most players use a bore from around .458" to .460". Horns with larger bores can be played with more power, but require more effort. They are usually used by advanced or professional musicians. For new and especially young players, a horn with a small bore is more appropriate because the small bore makes it easier to support a good tone.
A mouthpipe (also called a lead pipe) is the pipe that goes from the mouthpiece to the main tuning slide. It can be made of yellow brass, red brass, or sterling silver. Red brass is often preferred for student horns because it is less susceptible to corrosion. Yellow brass requires more frequent cleaning. A silver mouthpipe is a step-up feature found on intermediate and pro-level trumpets. There is also a reversed mouthpipe where the tuning slide goes over, rather than into the mouthpipe. It is a step-up feature, desirable because it makes an instrument offer less resistance.
Valves, or rather the valve pistons, come in a variety of metals. Nickel plated pistons are often found in student horns because they are hard, durable, and tolerant of infrequent cleaning. Monel pistons are another kind. Monel is an alloy that is softer than nickel plate and requires frequent cleaning and lubrication to perform at its best. It is super-resistant to corrosion so it can last longer, and it wears in for a great feel. Many professional instruments have Monel pistons and so do some student instruments. More often it is considered a step-up feature of an intermediate horn. Stainless steel pistons are yet another type. They are quite good and occasionally are found in intermediate and professional horns.
The critical factor is that valves play quickly and smoothly. This is the result of valves having been properly "lapped," the final process of making the piston fit the cylinder. Step-up horns often have hand-lapped valves which indicates an expert has performed this finish work by hand and made sure the valves work perfectly.
Bell materials also vary. Yellow brass is most common and is used in horns from student models to professional instruments. Rose brass bells are also common and impart a warmer, darker quality to the tone. Silver bells are less common and usually only found in high-grade horns. Nickel plate is another finish that once was common but is now seldom seen.
More important than the bell material is how the bell is made. The best bells are one piece, hand-hammered into shape over a mold by a skilled craftsman. It is felt that these bells vibrate more uniformly. Student and intermediate horns usually have welded bells. In recent years the technique of plasma welding has made these more like one-piece bells and is sometimes used for intermediate instruments. Bells also vary in size and taper, both of which can affect the sound of the instrument in subtle ways.
Trumpets usually have a clear lacquer finish on a buffed brass surface. Another kind of finish is silver plate which is considered better than lacquer because it dampens vibration less than lacquer does. Silver plate is a flashier-looking finish, however, and a flashier-looking instrument can engender a pride that inspires greater enthusiasm for learning and playing the trumpet.
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