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What to look for when buying a second-hand brass instrument

Introduction
Brands
Physical inspection

Valves
Slides

Design issues
Intonation


Introduction

At some point in their musical development, enthusiastic young musicians usually consider purchasing a musical instrument of their own rather than using the one provided by their educational institution. Because of financial constraints, many consider buying second hand instruments rather than new ones.

As in the case of buying a used car, it is always a good policy when buying a used musical instrument to question why the owner wishes to part with it. The following paragraphs are intended to serve as a general guide to the sort of things to look for.


Brands

As is the case with just about anything else, brand reputation is as much a question of clever marketing as it is quality and price. Musicians - especially non-professionals - can be just as easily influenced as any other consumer. Reputable brands include Yamaha, Besson, Schilke, Vincent Bach, Olds, Selmer and Conn, as well as dozens of others. Most have student, intermediate and professional line models, and almost all of these companies will claim to have special coatings, designs, materials, or workmanship and quality controls that make their products superior in some way to those of their competitors.

 Dizzy Martin used a specially modified trumpet with an upturned bell. 

There is also a long tradition among musical instrument manufacturers in which companies pay world class performers substantial sums in order to get them to endorse their products. I am sure you have seen the advertisements, so I won't bother listing the names of companies concerned. I am not going to recommend a particular brand. However, on the basis of experience I would strongly urge readers avoid Lafleur and the cheaper Chinese brands such as Lark!

Impressed by what the jazz greats of yesteryear used? Then maybe you should know that Louis Armstrong played a Selmer trumpet, Miles Davis used a Besson flugelhorn, and Dizzy Martin used a specially modified trumpet with an upturned bell. Does that help you make a choice? Probably not.

The fact is that the basic technology involved in making brass instruments - as well as their designs - has not changed very much in the past 100 years. The critical factor is workmanship, and while this is sometimes associated with particular companies, quality varies even in the best of companies. Some companies are known for producing good quality tubas, for example, but also produce trumpets which somehow do not seem to meet the same standards. Just like good wine and vintage cars, brass instruments made by particular companies in particular years can be better or more reliable than other, newer models.

Naturally, all this can be a great advantage for the discerning second hand buyer. For example, I own a Reynolds trumpet manufactured in Texas (USA) in the late 1960s. It is in perfect condition, and sounds every bit as good as the latest range of Vincent Bach models currently so popular with Singapore's well-financed community bands.


Physical Inspection

When inspecting a brass instrument for possible purchase, look for for the following telltale signs:

General appearance:

  •  

Check for dents. All dents will affect the intonation of an instrument. The bigger the dent, the more serious the potential intonation problem.

  •  

Check for pitting, especially around the valve casings. This is usually the result of heavy use by players with excessive acid in their perspiration.

  •  

Check the water key for leakage. This key may be misaligned, or the cork may need replacing.

  •  

Look for small pink dots (actually copper residue) inside the leadpipe or the slides. This is called red rot, and is a condition resulting from the dezincification of brass. It is evidence of neglect. DO NOT BUY SUCH AN INSTRUMENT. Once dezincification has begun it is impossible to stop.

Valves

 
  • Take out the valves and look at them closely for signs of wear. A poor playing habit is to press the valves at a slight angle rather than straight down. This damages the coating on the valves, and is usually evidenced by a heavy vertical line.

 
  • Do the valves "wriggle" inside the casing? This is an even worse sign of excessive wear, and suggests that the instrument may give serious trouble. DO NOT BUY SUCH AN INSTRUMENT.

 
  • Do the valves bounce when pressed and then released? This indicates that the springs need to be replaced.

Slides

  •  

Check that all slides can be removed and replaced freely.

  •  

Check the slide and valve compression by pulling out a valve slide, then depressing the corresponding valve and listening for the 'pop' as the air pressure equalises. The absence of such a sound indicates that the air seal has been compromised. [This is suggested as a test only. Do not make a habit of doing it. Excessive 'popping' can damage the instrument.]

  •  

On a trombone, check for slide compression by placing one thumb over one end of the tube openings and the thumb of the other hand on the other opening. If the slide moves, then the compression is weak. DO NOT BUY SUCH AN INSTRUMENT.

  •  

Trombone slide alignment. The slide should move freely. Poor alignment is also indicated by well-worn spots on the slide.


Design Issues

  •  

Euphoniums and tubas should have no less than four valves. Cornets and trumpets should have an adjustable third valve slide.  If they do not, reconsider your purchase. The latter instruments are only suitable for beginners.

  •  

Consider the sort of sound you want before you buy. A large bore instrument with a small bell produces a brilliant rather than a broad tone. However, a broad tone can be produced by a medium bore instrument with a large bell if a mouthpiece with a medium to large cup is used.

  •  

Silver or nickel plating is more durable than lacquer finishes. Do not be influenced by the common belief that lacquer finishes produce a darker tone. There is no scientific evidence for this. Nor is there any evidence to back up the widespread belief that different brass alloys (red brass, gold brass, nickel silver etc) produce significantly different tonal qualities.

  •  

Inspect the bell carefully. Sometimes it is possible to discover if it has a lateral or an axial seam. Two-piece bells have a lateral seam and are easier to make. They are therefore cheaper than one piece bells with axial seams. Most high quality instruments have one-piece bells for improved resonance and projection.


Intonation

As is explained in the section on scales in music and physics, it is simply not possible to design a practicable brass instrument that is perfectly in tune with the tempered scale that forms the basis of Western music. This means that just about any instrument will fail a casual intonation test using an electronic tuning device. Manufacturers have attempted to build compensating systems into their designs, of course. However, in general you will find that:

 
  • Valves one and two in combination are moderately sharp.

 
  • Valves one and three in combination are very sharp.

 
  • Valves one, two and three in combination are extremely sharp

 
  • Valves two and three in combination are slightly flat.

So, is there any intonation test worth attempting on a second hand instrument? The answer is 'yes'.

A simple but very effective test is to ask an experienced performer to play a well known tune while you listen for any consistently off colour notes. If this is not possible, or you have reason to doubt your own sense of discernment, try using an electronic tuner to test that the partials are reasonably in tune. On a trumpet, this would mean playing long notes beginning with middle C (concert Bb) and working your way up using the same open fingering (no valves depressed) by playing G, C, E, G and finally top C. If the electronic tuner shows the second-hand instrument is as good as other instruments available to you, then you can be reasonably confident the one you are buying is acceptable.

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