Recently, I had some work done on my Bb trumpet. I was having particular trouble with slotting and intonation in the G-to-Bb-above-the-staff area. So I sent it off to Bill Jones of Trumpet Design Studio, told him what sort of problems I was having, and asked him to do what he thought was necessary to fix it.
I’d been playing on this horn for almost 15 years, and while I liked it better than most other, more expensive trumpets, there were still some issues. The trumpet that came back, however, felt like it was made just for me — things just fit. I can honestly say it has been one of the best investments I’ve made in my musical career.
This improvement got me thinking about the process of trumpet modification, and how very little I know about it. I figured that other trumpet players are likely interested in learning more about tweaking your horn to suit your needs, so I asked Bill Jones if I could interview him and he graciously agreed.
Dr. Jones is a highly respected trumpet soloist and chamber performer, music educator, and trumpet designer. He is the author of many definitive scholarly works on the brass quintet, the co-creator of the Brass Quintet Database (at www.AmericanBrassQuintet.org), and director of the International Brass Chamber Music Festival, to name a few of his many accomplishments. I was honored to have the chance to “pick his brain” a little about the innovative work he does on trumpets.
How did you get started doing design work/ modifications/ customization?
I became interested in trumpet and mouthpiece design while studying with William Vacchiano at the Julliard School. For me this is something that evolved as I experimented with my own equipment, students’ equipment, etc. I am always curious about what is possible. I have also wondered why so many instruments (high quality/professional models) are produced either consistently poor (not possible to play to professional standards) or inconsistently (some play well, some don’t).
Once I considered all of the variables in manufacturing a trumpet, this helped me understand why it is so hard to make two instruments that are exactly alike. Even for expensive custom instruments that are produced to exacting standards, it would be very difficult to produce two hand-made bells that are exactly alike, to produce two trumpets that have the same amount of solder in each joint or to produce two trumpets that have the exact same tension in the bracing, etc.
On numerous days I have had in my hands two expensive, factory-made (professional) trumpets of the same brand, model, design, etc. that are not the same exact length! Once I had two, expensive custom piccolo trumpets in hand that were the same manufacturer, model, etc. The bell diameters and contours were totally different and the leadpipe on one horn was ½ inch shorter than on the other horn (they both played extremely well, however). If I consider all of the possibilities and variables in designing a trumpet then I realize that there are still untested possibilities for design and modifications. I am always curious!
What sort of work are you able to do?
To “tune-up” a trumpet I replace mouthpipes, lead pipes, tuning crooks, and tubing. Sometimes I also exchange bells if this helps accomplish my customer’s playing goals. Many of my customers purchase the parts that they want and send these to me to assemble an instrument of their design.
A popular service that is somewhat different than what has been offered in the past is modifying instruments to play in other keys (converting a Bb to C, C to D/Eb, etc.). A strict “conversion” would entail shortening the instrument using the same parts. I don’t do this.
I replace/trade parts to produce an instrument that will play in tune to professional standards. This is rarely accomplished with just a strict conversion. I am also able to assist performers based on my experience because some horns will not convert to the desired key and sometimes the bell needs to be exchanged to get a horn to play well in a certain key.
I would like to say any instrument could be “fixed” to at least be easy to play in tune. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For example, there is one C trumpet brand that I simply cannot get the bell to play in tune in C. It plays great in Bb.
Do you build trumpets from scratch, too, or do you work only on existing trumpets?
For me, “from scratch” would mean assembling parts that are made by other manufacturers. I design some lead pipes and tunable mouthpipe systems. I make some small parts such as pinky-rings for tunable bell models, etc. Other than that, I do not make parts. My business is currently one-third complete trumpet designs and two-thirds modifying existing instruments.
What is the most common modification you do?
It runs neck in neck between conversions and correcting problems on existing instruments. I “fix” a lot of piccolo trumpets, D/Eb trumpets, etc. that left the factory with problems.
What is the one thing that can be done to almost every trumpet that would result in improved playing (sound/feel/etc)?
Probably making certain that you have a mouthpiece that really suits the instrument. Other than that, practicing and really learning how the instrument plays before modifying it, which probably isn’t what anyone wants to hear! I bought a lot of instruments and mouthpieces early in my career in the quest to find something that would make my life easier.
Truth is, my life is easier now when I perform because I corrected my playing problems. The trumpet is only able to amplify the music that I am producing in my mind’s ear. It will not play the music for me, and it will not make me sound good if I don’t have a good mental concept of sound.
Sound and feel are a matter of taste, the type of music I play, and how I personally blow the horn. Some players create more resistance with their embouchure/blow so they may look for an instrument that has less resistance to add.
Other players depend upon the instrument for most of the resistance required (free-blowing embouchure/air flow). I have two Bb trumpets that I play. One of them, nearly everyone loves it when they play it. The other, maybe one out of ten players like it. However, this is the one I find works better for me when it comes to sound and control for solo playing and chamber music.
So, I guess the answer to this is to get to know your instrument really well before making many modifications.
If someone had a limited amount of cash to spend on improving their horn, what would you recommend they start with?
Normally trading lead pipes, tuning crooks, making gap adjustments, etc. Unless the player wants to replace a part with a very expensive part this is not expensive. I also warn against expecting something from an easy fix. That is, just changing the leadpipe or just changing the crook rarely corrects intonation problems. Aligning the valves or correcting leaky valves will not affect intonation. From my perspective, changing the “blow” of an instrument makes no sense if the intonation is not corrected in the process.
What design job have you done that is your favorite, or that you find the most interesting?
When it comes to playing success, it would be hard to place one instrument over another if I think of my eight or ten most favorite projects. The most interesting project started last year with a player in Sweden that is vision-impaired. He wants a really short trumpet so he can get very close to the music stand to see his music. The first version had 3 inter-changeable short, straight cornet bells. It played well and had a nice sound but my customer wants something with more “zing” for lead playing. We just started building another horn and Cliff Blackburn made a bell for this one that will help produce the desired sound.
Do you have a philosophy that informs the work that you do?
I have always been a performer and teacher so this business nurtures me as an artist and teacher. I like to work one-on-one with trumpeters.
The true value of an instrument is in how it plays. When I return an instrument to a customer knowing that it plays really well I feel like I have accomplished a valuable service.
Interestingly, as a university professor I was reluctant to spend more than a lesson or two with a student (doing a four-year degree) focusing on mouthpieces or equipment. There is so much to learn otherwise that I viewed this as peripheral to the process. However, as both a student and a professional player I have experienced the frustration of having a trumpet in my hands where I know that the D is going to be really flat or the C is going to be really sharp, etc. unless I make a radical adjustment. With the correct mouthpiece and a carefully designed instrument, these frustrations can be eliminated.
For more information about Bill Jones and Trumpet Design Studio, visit www.TrumpetDesignStudio.com