Highly Customized Trumpets Have Revolutionized the Market

Music Support Features

Volume XCIX, No. 10November, 1999

Fred Sautter

Years ago, you could go into a music store and try out different instruments, maybe taking one with you to test on the job. There are just a few music stores like that left, and I don’t know of any in my region. Instead, I’ve been working with private builders for years – dating back to the ’60s, when I bought a Getzen instrument. Periodically I would drop by the factory and Merle Heuermann, the designer, would suggest changing some aspect of the instrument. Each time we did this he came up with ideas that made my instrument better. That developed a taste for getting more out of an instrument than I could from one purchased from the factory.

When Dave Monette moved to Oregon in the late ’70s we started testing equipment and materials together, intensively. Ever since then I’ve played his instruments, or other instruments that he’s worked on, and they are all highly customized. Monette started out “improving” standard instruments and, in trying to do things that would get more out of an instrument, he came up with a whole new line, started his own company, and revolutionized the industry. Although his latest instruments are considered “standard,” in the traditional sense they are very customized.

Unlike stringed instrument players, trumpeters generally buy new instruments. For many years, trumpet prices were in the $1,500 or less range. Since Monette and other custom builders have come along, prices have risen – both because of the degree of customization, and also as a result of changes in the way these makers build their instruments. Although they have standard parts, there’s a lot of “cut and fit” to ensure that the instruments are well balanced. The custom builders test every instrument to make sure the parts fit together correctly. They make an instrument that plays to its optimum, rather than one that manufactures quickly. The bottom line is that it takes more time to build a trumpet today, and the man hours add a lot to the cost. Today a standard instrument might cost between $6,000 and $9,000. It takes seven people a full month to make Monette’s top of the line trumpet, the Samadhi, which lists for $19,000.

I’ve worked with many students over the years. Sometimes their instruments are pretty good, and sometimes they’re garbage. Usually I’ll work with them for a period of time, showing them why they need something better than what they have. The mouthpiece is the first thing I encourage them to change, because that’s the most important part of all. It’s interesting that, after a mouthpiece is changed, whatever is wrong with their instrument becomes far more apparent. Then we begin to search the market for good used instruments that will bring them to their maximum potential. I’ve found that when students get to a competence level where it’s warranted, they will decide to go out and buy the best instrument they can afford. By that time, they usually have the ability to make a good choice.

If a person is looking for the finest of instruments, I would encourage them to shop around. There’s Blackburn, Malone, Schilke, Scott Lasky in Chicago, Zig Kanstul in Southern California. As they have been doing with their Edwards trombone line, Getzen now customizes their trombones by offering different parts that can be put together in different ways. These makers are all very good. There are some standard instruments on the market that are really worth trying, and I encourage people to do that. Bach trumpets are still widely purchased and used.

Advertisements are an important source of information on what is available – especially in the International Trumpet Guild Journal, which should be in any decent library. All the manufacturers advertise in there. Also check out the big conferences, the big national conventions, the educator conventions and similar events, where you can actually try out instruments. The best place of all is the International Trumpet Guild conference, because the instrument makers usually all show up there.

Trumpet builders have made dramatic advances on the standard instruments since the 1970s. People should try them all and not get caught up in the hype. It’s a big purchase – sleep on it.

Fred Sautter is principal trumpet in the Oregon Symphony and teaches privately. For many years, he was on the faculty at Portland State University. His video – “Sound the Trumpet: A Technical Book and Video on How to Play the Trumpet” – is available from Imperial Productions, (503) 292-8629.