When I was a young student, I didn’t have a lot of guidance in terms of proper instrument selection. My first horn was a Yamaha (double), but I’m not sure of the model. Remember, horn was not my first instrument, so I didn’t start playing until high school. However, I quickly fell in love with the instrument and decided to buy my own. I couldn’t afford a brand new instrument, or a nice used instrument either. Someone recommended a Conn 6D, and it just so happened that I found one for sale, so I bought it. It was old, probably from the early Abilene era, definitely not an Elkhart, but it played fine. It served me well until I was in undergrad, and then I used a few different school horns: Holton 179, Yamaha 667, and 668. These horns were serviceable, but I really didn’t like them, especially the Yamahas. It’s funny now, because I have come to really enjoy playing Yamahas, but I hated them back then. Maybe it was my naivety, but it was probably because I just wasn’t a very good player at the time.
When I decided to pursue graduate degrees on horn, my teacher recommended a Conn 8D, specifically an Elkhart model, which is what I found. I played that E-series horn throughout my masters degree and most of my doctoral studies. I was comfortable playing a Kruspe-style horn, and the one experience that I had with a Geyer-style horn wasn’t very memorable (that 667), so I stuck with the Kruspe. Fortunately, I overcame my prejudice against Geyer-style horns, and I have tried many different types of horns over the past few years. I have even owned several different types of horns myself: Yamaha Triple, Yamaha 871, Schmidt, Knopf, Hoyer 801, King Fidelio. All of the horns that I have owned possess unique/distinctive qualities, and I know that good players can make any type of horn sound great, but I have come to prefer playing on Geyer-style instruments most of all. These instruments not only suit my style of playing, but they also allow me to obtain the sound profile that I want.
For my students, I try not to influence them towards purchasing a particular type of horn, but it’s difficult when our industry, mainly the orchestral realm, is becoming almost Geyer exclusive. Back in the early to mid part of the twentieth century, Kruspe-style horns reigned supreme, and everyone wanted a Conn 8D or something similar. Due to various reasons, this preference has changed, and I make sure that my students understand this. If you want to play in an orchestra, you have to fit in with the sound. Of course, this doesn’t override my true philosophy on picking the correct horn. It’s not about the style of horn or the cost, it’s about choosing the right horn for a particular student, because we are all different. I’ve had many students that hate playing on Geyers, and vice versa. First, you need to pick a horn that is well-made. Then, you just need to choose the one that feels right and helps you to play your best.
With that said, I do have some recommendations for people out there looking for a quality buy. Most of us, including myself, can’t afford a $10,000 horn, so here is the list of horns that I will normally tell people to look at first. These horns aren’t true professional/custom made horns, but they are quality instruments suitable for any student or amatuer at any skill level.
Yamaha: Especially with the introduction of the new 671 model, my go-to recommendation is typically going to be a Yamaha. The 671 is very responsive, free blowing, and extremely easy to play. I like how it feels in the high range, and it is also pretty open in the mid-low range as well. The only downside with the 671 is that it is becoming difficult to find in stock due to its popularity. It’s also nearly impossible to find one used, so one will have to buy it new, which could push this option out of the price range of most students ($4600-$4800).
As an alternative, I will tell students to find a good used 667. There are many used 667s on the market now, but they are still quality horns, especially with the lacquer stripped. It’s common knowledge that Yamaha lacquer is super thick, and after stripping a couple of Yamaha horns myself, I have noticed that the playing characteristic are greatly enhanced after taking off the lacquer. Just the difference in resonance and sound quality alone makes it worth the effort. The 667V (a custom option) is also a great horn, but only worth it if you can find it used for less than $4000. If not, I would stick with the 671. In my opinion, the 671 plays even better than the 871, a custom model. Siegfried’s Call offers a customized version of the 671 that I really love.
The 668 is also a great option, if you want a Kruspe-style horn. The quality of craftsmanship puts it above a Holton and even a Conn 8D, but I don’t know if it plays better than the Hoyer Kruspe-style horns. Either way, it’s a very good horn.
Hans Hoyer: I like Hoyers a lot, and I think that they are well built horns. At present, my main horn is a Hoyer 801. The valves are fast and mechanical, and I really like the sound that the 801 produces. The downside is that it is compact, and the 801 is not as free-blowing as other Geyer-style horns. You really have to focus the air in the high range, and it will push back if you try use too much air. It has served me well the past year, because it is very responsive and produces the sound that I desire, but I do feel that I need a more free-blowing horn now that I’m back to playing at close to full strength. That being said, I still believe that the 801 is a great horn. It’s good for students, and it’s a really good option for chamber music. If you regularly play in a large ensemble, it might fight against you when playing at loud dynamics.
The G10 is the premier Geyer-style horn of the Hoyer line, and many professionals use this horn as their primary instrument. Siegfried’s Call even offers an “in-house” customized version of the G10, which is really nice. My first experience with the G10 came back in 2010. One of the undergrads at WVU had a G10, and I really loved how it played. The mid-range was stuffy on the F side, but felt great on the Bb side. Fast-forward a few years and I just haven’t been very impressed with the G10 since then. I’ve tried at least one at every single Southeast Workshop since 2013, and I just haven’t enjoyed the feel of the instrument. It sounds fine, but it just isn’t fun or easy to play. At the 2018 SEHW, I actually preferred the 801 models over the G10. Please, don’t think that the G10 is a bad instrument just because I don’t like it anymore. Try it and judge for yourself, but I know that it isn’t the best horn for me at the moment.
Hoyer also makes some fine Kruspe model horns, the 6801 and the 7801. You can get them in either brass or nickel silver. I’ve tried several different Kruspe Hoyers, and they are really good horns. A couple that I tried were even modified by Patterson, which greatly enhanced the already good playing characteristics. To be honest, if you want a Kruspe-style horn, I would go with a Hoyer or Yamaha. Coming from someone that played an Elkhart 8D, even though I loved it, they aren’t the best horns. I also don’t really like the new 8Ds, not even the V8D, which leads to the next maker…
Conn: As much as it pains me to say it, I just don’t really like Conn horns anymore. What used to be the gold standard of American horn makers is now falling quickly behind the competition. If you can find an Elkhart 8D for a decent price, under $3000, then go for it, otherwise, stay away from 8Ds. In general, they’re serviceable, but I feel like they have more problems than not nowadays. The valves are sluggish, and depending on the player, the tone is a little too dark compared to today’s standards. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still like to have my old 8D back, but not as my everyday horn.
I also haven’t enjoyed many 11Ds that I have played recently. The horn feels a lot like the newer G10s. There is something off about them, but I just can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong. The high range doesn’t speak well and takes more effort to play than I prefer. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but if I don’t enjoy playing a particular brand of horn, I’m not going to waste my time. You might be able to find some nice customized 11Ds, but the price point increases. In general, I would look elsewhere, unless the deal is too good to refuse.
So, what does Conn have going for it? A few things, but in terms of horns for students or amateurs, I would look for a 10D. These are economical horns, and they play surprisingly well. You can find used 10Ds for under $2000, and Siegfried’s Call has started customizing 10Ds, which makes them even more appealing. The stock 10D does have its limitations, but it’s easy play (a little stuffy in the mid-range) and sounds really good for the money.
Holton: Don’t even think about it, unless you’re buying a descant, or can find one of the elusive Tuckwell 105 models. These horns will play well for a while and then start falling apart after a few years. Holtons tend to have lots of problems, don’t sound all that great in terms of depth, and do not hold their value at all. Don’t take one unless someone gives it to you.
King: A lot of people have forgotten about King horns, especially since they aren’t in production anymore. However, one can find a plethora of Kings on the used horn market. I’ve come across many Kings over the years, but there are three models that you should keep an eye out for: Schmidt, Eroica, and Fidelio. Even the older Kings hold up pretty well due to the robust build quality. The Schmidts are old, but most of the ones that I’ve seen are in pretty nice condition and play very well. Even if you have to restore it, the investment is worth it. You’ll find more Eroicas than anything, which is fine, because they’re really good horns, especially if you can find one from the McCracken era. They’re similar to an 8D in playing characteristics and feel, but at half the cost. Most that I’ve seen are less than $2000, and some can even be found for less than $1000.
In my opinion, the crown jewel of the King line is the Fidelio. It’s a Kruspe-style horn with a medium-sized bell. The Fidelio is very responsive and really easy to play. I wouldn’t even mind having one for myself as a backup, or change-of-pace horn. On both Fidelios that I’ve tried, the high range is super easy, and the mid and low ranges are just as full as on the Eroica. Very even and full throughout the range. I found one for a student a couple of years back for about $1100, and it easily plays just as well, if not better than the Yamaha 671. An excellent choice for the price.
Jupiter, Accent, Eastman, Amati, and other stencil brands: In general, these are decent horns for middle school and/or early high school. Not bad horns for getting used to playing on a double, but don’t think that they’re going to last forever. Buying one of these horns new would be a waste of money.
Briz: We’ve all experienced this at some point in our teaching career. A student walks into their lesson, excited about the new horn they just bought, only to pull out a cheaply made Chinese horn. The worst one that I have come across is the Rossetti, but I can definitely say that the Briz horns are far superior than most other Chinese-made instruments. The Briz is the brainchild of Ken Pope and Ion Balu, two well-respected horn players and repair guys. The build quality of these horns is exceptional, and I think they all play very well. The Briz is available in several different options, including the Geyer/Knopf, Kruspe, and a custom version of the Geyer/Knopf horn (hand-hammered). One of my students bought a Briz, and I’m pleased with how it has held up. For the price, $4100, it’s difficult to find a better option. Currently, these horns can only be purchased through Pope or Balu. As usual, I prefer the Geyer/Knopf version, but the Kruspe-style Briz is pretty good as well. The Custom Briz is a very fine instrument, but at a higher price point ($6000).
Verus: To compete with the Pope-Balu Alliance, Houghton Horns developed its own Chinese-made horn. The Verus is also a Geyer/Knopf-style horn available in two options, the V and VG. The VG is completely constructed of Gold brass, which seems to be the only real difference. These horns are actually priced a little lower than the Briz, $3200, so they are very appealing. I’ve only played on them once at the 2018 SEHW, but they seemed to be very well-made. I thought that they played a little sharp, but that could just be me. I’m waiting to pass a real judgement on the quality of these horns until the next time I play them. For right now, I think the Verus is a very good option, especially considering its affordability. These are only available through Houghton Horns.
Paxman: I like Paxman horns, and the brand has been synonymous with excellent craftsmanship for decades. Around 2008, Paxman decided to venture into the student horn market. I’ve seen a few Paxman Academy horns available, but the most common Paxman students horns are the Series 4 and Series 5. The Series 4 is more of a true student model, with a modified Geyer wrap. It plays fine, but doesn’t offer anything special. The Series 5 is a much better instrument, modeled after the Paxman 20 pro horn. The Paxman student horns are all made in China, but the Series 5 is definitely one to keep in mind. The quality is on par with the Briz and Verus horns, although the price tag is very steep, retailing for $5800. The Series 5 is intriguing, but I don’t think I would recommend it over a Yamaha 671 or a Briz. Good playing horn, just too expensive for the student market. You might as well try to find a good used custom(ized) horn at this price range.
In general, the biggest misconception that I’m sure most teachers deal with is the idea or concept that you have to buy a brand new instrument for it to be good. This is totally false. I have actually never owned a brand new instrument, and I’m sure that there are plenty of other people out there that can say the same. There are plenty of great used instruments available, and if money is an issue, take a look at some of the more affordable options that I mentioned. The “Classified Ads” section of the IHS website is a great place to start. A horn player and technician in Michigan, Bruce Tubbs, posts a lot of affordable and quality instruments on the IHS website, as well as eBay. Just be careful with eBay, because you just never know when someone is being truthful. If you’re interested in an item on eBay, ask the seller some questions about it. If they sound like a horn player or a music technician, then you should be fine, if not, stay away.