Instrument Manufacturers are not Reinventing the Wheel (No, really, they aren’t no matter what you heard on your discussion board)

March 16, 2021

by Rob Phillips

When I hear instrumentalists, especially trumpet players talk about instruments like they truly understand how the horn is built, I have to bite my tongue.  Manufacturing musical instruments is a craft.  This craft, be it done by an individual artisan or a large manufacturing company, is relatively the same.  There are no real secrets as to how musical instruments are put together.

Having walked the aisles of manufacturing as a designer, engineer, and musician, I can confidently tell you that how you think instruments are made is generally not true.  The musical instrument industry is not innovative.  Why?  There just isn’t enough capital in the industry to create anything truly new.  Automotive, computer, aerospace (pick your major industry), are vastly different.  These industries have deep revenue streams that allow, promote, and require innovation.  No one’s actual life depends on a musical instrument.  As such, the methods of manufacturing have remained relatively the same for decades.  

Tradition in this industry looms large because no one can risk pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into radically new processes.  A failure to capture a significant market share from that innovation could be the end of that company.  Besides, the characteristics of sounds that we have all come to expect and love are derived from the long rooted traditions of manufacturing; a new process could (and likely would) change the sound of an instrument.  Sure, there are some boutique companies that are making instruments out of carbon fiber and some that are hand-crafting instruments, but their instruments cost exactly what you would expect them to.  The mainstream manufacturers (read those who produce mostly for the education market and weekend warriors without a lot of free money to burn) can’t afford to invest significant amounts of money into a process that they will never be able to see the financial benefits from.  Just like any industry, the big players compete for customers (especially schools and their limited band budgets) on price.  Costs must stay down as much as possible.  

The shrinking of the market for band instruments (and our love of Capitalism) has allowed for, and perhaps actually created, a market space for extremely low-cost, and in some ways, disposable instruments.  That market has largely been filled by Chinese manufacturers, and to a lesser extent, Indian manufacturers.  Some of the instruments coming from these manufacturers are nearly impossible to play and will certainly lead to a young student getting frustrated and deciding to quit Band.  It isn’t hard to find YouTube channels who make a living trying out these terrible instruments.  However, there are some manufacturers who produce instruments of fine quality.  One brand in particular has a growing following among professional tuba players (and their students as a result).  Why?  They produce a musical instrument that is quite good at a much lower cost than European competitors.  

Vincent Bach was a true talent.  But many don’t realize he was using what he had available to him.  He didn’t have the luxury in his early days to custom order brass to make his trumpet bells.  He went to the local brass mill in New York and asked what materials they had available that he could afford.  Those unique trumpet bells were unique because that material was left over from some other manufacturer of, say lamps, not wanting the last remaining roll.  Later on, manufacturers would experiment with different formulations of metals, but nothing that was a radical departure from what was already in existence.  The composition of a trumpet bell from 1920 isn’t much different than a trumpet bell today.  The musical instrument industry just doesn’t have the volume of demand for our products to earn a commanding presence in the metals industry for them to cater to musical instrument manufacturers.  If the music industry wants research into different metal compositions for their instruments, they will have to pay for it themselves.

Getting back to the beginning of this post, the manufacturing of trumpets, trombones, French horns, and saxophones has never been a very disciplined industry.  Tradition, it’s large presence ever hanging over the industry, saw master craftsmen pass down manufacturing techniques to their apprentices, not in the form of extensive written documentation, but by showing them and having them do it.  As stated, no one’s life depended on a clarinet, so documentation and manufacturing certification has never been a necessity (they aren’t manufacturing parts for a Saturn V or the latest airliner).  The need to trace every facet of a part’s creation and existence simply isn’t needed.  If a cork needs replaced, I just grab one out of the parts bin and move on to the next horn.  When musicians say they want to buy, for example a saxophone, that was built in a certain era, they may get what they want within a couple of years.  The big BATs of yesteryear were far less common than today and they were not manufactured on a regular basis, but rather when ordered.  The quality of tuba you ended up with might depend on which artisan was there that day and made your instrument.  If you got a master with decades of experience, you probably ended up with a great horn.  If the new guy was there and made it, well, who knows what you might end up with.  The point of this little diversion is that even an instrument made at the same plant, the same year, using the same tooling, might be quite different sounding and playing based on who made it, and there is no documentation to say who made it.  This contrasts with, say a bolt on an airplane.  Every single part that goes into an airplane has documentation and can be traced to the hour it was produced and the name of the inspector on that shift.  Your life matters when on an airplane and a parts failure could be your end.  Your life still matters when playing your instrument, but it isn’t going to end if a key breaks during a performance.

The point of this is that musical instruments are products of character.  The manufacturing processes have changed drastically over the years, but have fundamentally stayed very much the same.  The designs of clarinets, flutes, trumpets, and trombones are basically the same as they were 75 years ago.  Who makes them and the character that is creatively incorporated into them is what has changed.  You might think you know everything there is to know about your instrument, but chances are, unless you made it yourself, there is still a lot about your instrument’s creation and life that you don’t know.