Buying a French horn can be stressful. These high-priced brass instruments are complicated and come in many styles, configurations and budget levels. Combine this with often misinformed music salespeople who pressure parents and students toward their “preferred” brands. This list is geared toward newer to intermediate players who may be doing this for the first time. We’ve identified 9 important questions you must consider before purchase:
1) Rent vs. buy. Starting out, it’s typically a good idea to rent for the first 2-4 months if a school horn isn’t already available. Rates typically run at around $75/month. Many music shops will allow your rental rates to apply toward a final purchase, however consider all your options–including buying used–before going this route.
2) Price. A brand new intermediate double horn will start out at $3000 and go up to $5000. Used, the same brands can be had for $1500-$2500. Just like buying a new car, there is steep depreciation after taking it off the lot. For this reason, it can often be a better value to buy a good used horn that will hold its value. Bargains can be had for under $1500 but require some more diligence and sometimes compromise (read our article on bargain horns).
3) Single vs. double. Single horns in America typically stand in the key of F, while double horns add a Bb layer of tubing to the existing F layer. The extra Bb set of tubing makes it easier to play in certain ranges. The player switches between the F and Bb sides with a thumb key. Single horns are good for only about 1-2 years. Then the student will need to move to a double. For this reason, we recommend renting single horns instead of buying. However, consider that you might save some money on renting with a cheap used single horn from eBay. They can be found for as little as $400 in fair condition (check used options here).
4) Silver vs. gold brass. This isn’t just about aesthetics. Different materials will affect how the horn responds. Gold brass horns typically produce a darker tone and have slightly slower response time. Silver horns respond quickly and have a brighter quality. But just looking at color is misleading. The horn layout also affects the darkness vs. brightness. In fact, makers of “darker” horn layouts such as the Conn 8D or Yamaha 668 (Kruspe style) will use the more responsive silver to counter the already dark design. Makers of “lighter” horn layouts such as Conn 11D or Yamaha 567 (Geyer style) will use gold brass to darken the lighter instrument. We recommend using a material that best matches your style of instrument (read our Geyer vs. Kruspe article to learn more about these layouts).
5) Condition. If buying used, it’s important to check to ensure the horn’s in playable condition. Things to ask about include: How freely to the rotor values move? Do all the slides move? Are there any dents, and if so, how large? Has the horn been repaired in the past? Does the horn have its original bell and lead pipe? When is the last time it’s been fully cleaned on inside?
6) Brand. As a new buyer, you’ve likely heard conflicting advice about the best horn brands. Don’t listen to those who advocate a single brand above all others. It’s true that some brands are better made and more reputable than others. It’s also true that variation exists within a given brand, depending on the year of manufacture and model. In general, American, German and Japanese brands are well regarded. These include Yamaha, Holton, Conn, Alexander and Hoyer. And in general, cheaper Chinese brands (they often come with white gloves) are unreliable with little to no resale value. Read our article detailing some top recommended models by well regarded brands.
7) Fixed vs. detachable bell. Many advanced players prefer horns with screw bells, allowing the instrument to fit in more compact cases with backpack straps. If you plan to travel with your horn, the detachable bell version is highly recommended. Most fix bell horns cannot be carried on the airplane and are at high risk for suffering damage below the plane. However if cost is a concern, note that fixed bell horns can be converted to screw bells at a later date.
8) Mouthpiece. French horn mouthpieces come in hundreds of shapes and sizes. For newer students, we recommend using the standard mouthpiece and relying on a private teacher to recommend additional experimentation. Mouthpieces good for one horn may not suite another.
9) Where to buy? There are many options depending on the horn and service level you’re seeking. Local music stores are more expensive, but often offer maintenance plans. eBay has a large inventory with a lot of lower-price options with some level of buyer protection. The IHS classifieds are great for higher end horns. And there are many horn-specific retailers selling new and used, though the target market is typically high end and expensive.
Comparing used horns? Check out our Used Horn Deal Tracker