Buying a French Horn: Establish Your Budget First!
Buying a French horn is a significant investment of money. In order to get the horn that’s best for you, the first thing to do is to establish your (realistic) budget for a new horn. For a double horn, you can spend anywhere between $200 – $18,000, so having a budget is crucial to narrow down your choices.
If you’re looking for a new double horn, I recommend starting your budget at no lower than about $3,500 (more is better), since any new horn costing less than this is generally going to be manufactured in China with questionable quality control. Often times with these cheap horns the valves don’t fit, the slides fall out, the solder joints are poorly done, and the tapered parts of the horn are all messed up. Sometimes the cost of repairing just the valves on these horns is higher than the cost of the horn.
If you’re interested in used horns, I would set a floor of around $1,500 (more is better). For this price, you may be able to find an older instrument, but lower than this and the horn may require significant repairs or be a poorly made horn like I mentioned above.
New vs Used
While it’s a nice idea to buy a brand-new horn, there may be some good reasons to buy something that has been used.
- For most mass-produced, non-custom instruments, used prices will be appreciably lower than the new price. This means you can either save some money, or get a higher-quality instrument for the same cost!
- Horns, like any instrument, have a “break-in period” where they feel a bit stiff and less responsive. A used horn can already be broken in, and lets you skip this.
If well maintained, a used horn can be just as mechanically secure (or even more so) as a new instrument.
- Sometimes a used horn will have additions or improvements that make it superior over the factory-new models, such as adjustable finger hooks or hand rests, water keys, or after-market leadpipes, bells, or even just a better case!
- Good places to look for used horns include Ebay, Ken Pope’s shop (in Massachusetts), Houghton Horns (in Texas), and the International Horn Society’s classified ads. New horns can be found at WoodwindBrasswind, Houghton Horns, Ken Pope’s shop, as well as your local music store (if you have one).
Buying a French Horn: Single Horn
For many beginners (myself included) the first type of horn we play on will be a single F horn. In the US the sound of the F horn is generally preferred, and so it’s become common to start beginners off with horns in F. The one drawback to the F single horn, especially for beginners, is accuracy. Since single F horns are essentially exclusively used by beginners, they will usually be built in a more sturdy fashion. This helps them to absorb some of the punishment they may receive, but they are still lighter and easier to manage physically than a double horn, so they are ideal for younger or smaller students.
If you’re thinking about buying a single horn, consider trying to find a used model, or rent from a local music store that will let you upgrade in a year or two without incurring a financial penalty. Generally, students only stay on single F horns for one to two years, so this will not generally be a long-term purchase.
The brands to look for are the same ones listed in the double horn category below:
- Hans Hoyer
Generally, single horns are around $2,000 new, but as low as $500 – $1,000 or so used.
Buying a French Horn: Double Horn
The double horn (featuring a full horn in F and a full horn in Bb, switched by a thumb lever) is the most common horn for both students and professionals today. Double horns are pretty much expected from high school-aged players and beyond. Good double horns start at around $3,000 new, but used ones can be found for less.
Things to Consider When Buying a Horn
There are lots of things to consider before buying a horn, but here are a few basics:
- Wrap: There are two primary “wraps” of horn: Kruspe and Geyer. Kruspe wrap horns can be identified by the change valve located closer to the “front” of the horn (closer to the player) while Geyer wrap horns have the change valve located on the “back” of the horn (away from the player). While there are lots of thoughts on the changes this makes, here are a few general observations:
- Kruspe wrap horns are generally (though not always) nickel-silver with larger bell throats making a “warmer” or “bigger” sound.
- Geyer wrap horns are generally (though not always) yellow brass with medium bell throats making a “brighter” or “edgier” sound.
- Material: There are generally three popular materials for French horns. Yellow brass, Rose (or gold or red) brass, and nickel-silver.
- Yellow brass: Probably the most common material, it has a medium dark sound, though it’s capable of much brighter sounds when pushed. It’s also right in the middle in terms of hardness.
- Rose brass: A bit softer material than yellow brass, care should be taken to avoid dents. The sound is a bit darker than yellow brass, and not as much tonal flexibility is available.
- Nickel silver: Unlike silver-plated trumpets, nickel silver horns aren’t plated, they are made completely of a different alloy. It contains no silver, and the color is from the nickel. It is a very hard material, which means it can be made a bit thinner on high-end instruments. It naturally creates a very bright sound, which is why it’s usually paired with larger bell throats.
- Bell/Bore size: Many manufacturers will throw around terms like “medium bore” or “medium bell” when talking about their instruments. In the majority of cases, they are talking about the size of the bell throat. The bore (which is the cylindrical tubing of a brass instrument) is generally between .468 and .472 inch for all horns and bells are usually right around 12 inches in diameter. Instruments with a large bell throat generally tend toward warmer sounds, while medium and small bell throats get progressively brighter.
- Fixed or detachable bell: This is mostly a matter of convenience, budget, and personal preference. Detachable bells are great if you travel a lot with your horn (especially on planes), but they do often add a little bit to the cost of a new instrument. The bell ring also adds a little bit of weight to the horn, which can be a challenge for some. While there is almost certainly a difference in sound and playing between a fixed and cut bell, opinions widely differ on which is actually preferable.
- Lacquered or unlacquered: Much like the cut bell question, this is a matter of practicality and personal preference. Unlacquered horns require a bit more care, and yellow brass unlacquered instruments can turn hands green. Lacquer can prevent this, but some say that lacquer “dulls” the sound. For most student instruments, though, the extra protection and reduced care make lacquer a good choice.
Recommended Brands of New & Used Double Horns
Probably the most well-known American horn maker, Conn has had a long and winding history with their instruments. The Conn 8D was the first popular “American” horn (although it was derived from the German Kruspe-style instruments), and it made the quintessential American horn sound that is now well-known across the world. However, changing production facilities and varying amounts of quality control have taken a bit of a toll on Conn’s reputation of late, but they still produce some quality horns.
- Conn 8D: This is the horn that made Conn famous, the 8D was the first large-bell-throated, nickel silver horn to really catch on. For many years, it was “the” horn to have in many of America’s most famous orchestras – New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia orchestra, among others. 8Ds made in Elkhart, Indiana (until 1969) are much sought after. The ones made in Eastlake, Ohio (1986-now) vary between “meh” and “pretty good”. The 8Ds in the interim years were made in Abiline, Texas, and suffered from many manufacturing problems and extremely bad quality control. Price at WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Conn V8D: An attempt by Conn to produce a custom Kruspe-style instrument at the quality level of the Elkhart 8Ds, these are generally very good instruments. The bell material is thinner and annealed, as is the leadpipe, and several other smaller improvements and much more care in the assembly process makes these horns better and more consistent than the “regular” 8D. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Conn 6D: Conn’s original top-of-the-line horn before the 8D, the 6D was a very popular and professional-level horn, but is now widely considered a student-level instrument. Old 6Ds can be found, and are generally great horns, but many have been poorly maintained in middle- and high-school bands. The current 6D is built and marketed more as an intermediate instrument, with thicker metal and heavy bracing to stand up to younger players. It does have a smaller throat than the 8D, and although it’s a Kruspe-style wrap, it plays and sounds much more like a smaller, Geyer-style horn. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Conn 7D: A Geyer-style intermediate-level horn. While I don’t know this for a fact, I’ve heard this instrument is essentially a re-wrapped Conn 6D, with the same thicker-gauge metal, heavy bracing, and the same tapers. It’s just wrapped up in a conventional Geyer-style valve arrangement to make it look a bit different.
- Conn 9D: A version of the Conn 8D with a medium bell throat (instead of large). A little bit of a brighter sound, and a little bit of an easier instrument to manage for smaller hands. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Conn 10DE: A new instrument, this is a modification of the Conn 10D, with the “E” standing for “Enhanced”. Modifications include 2 water keys, nicer valve caps, an adjustable finger hook, and a redesigned F branch to open up the sound and give a bit less resistance. The small bell throat makes this horn comparable to a Yamaha 667, although it remains to be seen if quality control is better than the old 10D. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Conn 11DE: Like the 10DE, the “E” stands for “Enhanced”, and this is an upgrade over the old 11D, with the same improved F branch, water keys, valve caps, and finger hook. The 11DE has a slightly larger bell throat than the 10DE, giving is a little bit of a warmer and “bigger” sound. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
Based in Germany, Hans Hoyer instruments are quickly becoming quite popular in the US. They make a wide variety of French horns – from student level to professional – at prices competitive with the usual “big names” in American horn making, such as Conn, Holton, and Yamaha.
- 6801: A well-done copy of Conn’s famous 8D. This horn (and the 7801) were both designed with the help of Myron Bloom, a well-known horn player famous for his love of the Conn 8D. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- 7801: Very similar to the 6801, but made with “pre-aged” metal, in order to play more like a “broken-in” instrument. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- G10: A Geyer-style instrument, this horn comes standard with some nice additions like an adjustable finger hook and thumb lever. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- K10: The newest horn from Hans Hoyer, this horn is a custom instrument similar to an Alexander 103 (played by the Berlin Philharmonic horn section) with lots of custom features and carefully handmade.
While the past several decades have solidified Holton as a maker of only student-level instruments, they were a premium brand many years ago. While their quality control is a little bit lacking at times (similar to Conn), there are good Holton instruments to be found, but you do have to search them out, and many times the older ones are more desirable than the new ones.
- 179: The Holton 179 is the standard-issue Holton that you can find in band rooms across the country. It is a Kruspe-style instrument, with a larger bell throat and nickel silver tubing. While I’m sure that there are 179s that play well, all the ones that I have come across in high school band rooms are usually in less-than-optimal shape. The Holton 279 is the same horn, but with a detachable bell. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- 177: The Holton 177, while appearing very similar to the 179, actually features a smaller bell throat (closer in size to a Geyer-style, actually) and so sounds and plays a bit differently, despite the tubing arrangement. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- 105: Originally designed by Barry Tuckwell, the 105 was an unusual instrument when it first came out (and still is, in some ways). It features a unique leadpipe system with 2 different mouthpipes that significantly change the playing characteristics of the instrument. It is still a Kruspe wrap, but the rose-brass bell makes an even warmer and darker sound. Not in production anymore. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
Not well known for their horns, they have started to improve their horn models and quality control in recent years, though I have not played one of the newer models.
- 1100 Series: The 1100 series is a decent intermediate instrument with some nice qualities and also some unfortunate compromises. By many accounts, the horn plays quite well for a heavier, more durable instrument, but the mechanical valve linkage can require more frequent oiling to keep it from getting noisy and sloppy. The 1150 features a detachable bell. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and find used on Ebay
King horns were made throughout the 20th century until around the 1980s, when they ceased production. Although all the King horns you see nowadays will be quite old (and some that were high school or middle school horns are in bad shape), they were (and can still be) excellent instruments!
Probably the two most common models of horn you’ll see are King Fidelio and King Eroica model horns. Both were designed in the 70’s by a great horn designer, maker, and repair person George McCracken. They look a bit Kruspe-like with the change valve location before the three main valves, but the tubing arrangement is very unique and they are really a very different wrap. The Fidelio model is a medium bell throat, while the Eroica is a larger throat. If you can find them in good shape, you can pick one up for about $1,500-2,000 and they are a great value!
Check out this Ebay search or the International Horn Society’s classified ads to find them.
Yamaha has an excellent reputation as a builder of quality student, semi-professional, and professional-level instruments. They are are among the best mass-produced instruments both in terms of quality and consistency. As such, both used and new Yamaha horns are a good bet for a player of any age and skill level.
- Yamaha 667: Yamaha’s Geyer wrap has been a quality instrument for a long time. It, like most other Geyer-style horns, sits towards the brighter end of the sound spectrum, and it’s medium bore is great for people with smaller-sized hands. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Yamaha 567: A baby brother to the 667, the 567 is more of an “entry-level” instrument. While it’s not a bad horn, the build quality and playing characteristics are not quite as nice as the 667, since it’s built with slightly heavier metals and bracing (to better stand up to the handling by younger players). Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- Yamaha 667V: A big brother to the 667, this is Yamaha’s “custom” Geyer-style double horn. Mostly hand-assembled, these are excellent instruments for college-level players (and beyond!) who want a horn that plays easily and consistently. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
- BE AWARE! Yamaha is actually very close to updating their Geyer horn models in America. The two new models, the YHR-671 (a replacement for the 667) and the YHR-871 (a replacement for the 667V) will probably be available around the summer of 2016. While I haven’t played either model, all indications are quite positive that these are both great upgrades from the current models. This will likely caused used prices of the 567, 667, and 667V to come down a bit, so the used models may be better values!
- Yamaha 668: Yamaha’s Kruspe wrap horn is the 668, very similar in style to the Conn 8D. Although the Conn horns set the standard, for the past 15 or so years Conn’s consistency has been less than underwhelming, while the 668 is a great adaptation of the Conn design, along with some improvements. Price at: WoodwindBrasswind and used on Ebay
Other Custom Horn Makers
From about $5,000 – $15,000 you can find both used and new custom-made instruments. These are often great horns, but require extra care in handling and maintenance as they often are a bit more delicate than some of the factory-made horns.
Some of the most respected custom makers include:
- Ricco Kuhn
Since many of these horns are handmade by one (or a few) individual(s), the used price can vary from less than to more than the new price. Rauch, for example, recently retired — so his horns will likely appreciate for the foreseeable future. Lewis, Hill and Berg are, I believe, mostly one-person operations and so often have multi-year waiting lists for new instruments, so used horns made by these makers don’t depreciate nearly as quickly (if at all). If you get your hands on one of these — take care of it!
Depending upon the maker and the exchange rate (several of these makers are located outside the US) the new prices for horns by these makers can often exceed $10,000, and many make a wide variety of models. Paxman, Alexander, and Schmid, for example, each make more than 10 models of horns, including single horns, double horns, descant horns, and triple horns, all in a wide variety of materials, configurations, and sizes.
Buying a French Horn: Try it Out!
No matter whether you get a $12,000 custom horn or a used $2,000 horn, make sure you get the chance to try it out before you purchase it!
The majority of quality music stores (both online and off) will be happy to give you a week or two to try out an instrument to make sure that it’s in good condition and that you are happy with your decision. Every horn maker makes horns that aren’t quite up-to-snuff, so it is essential that you are able to play the exact horn you plan to buy. Buying a used horn is no different – whether through a private seller or a music store, make sure you get a few days to play it before committing to buying it.
Generally to try out a horn you will put down a deposit (usually equal to the cost of the horn) that won’t be cashed unless you decide to keep the horn. If you order the horn online be aware that you will likely be responsible for paying for packing and shipping if you decide to return it, but the peace of mind that you won’t get stuck with a dud is well worth it!
While trying out a horn is another topic for another time, make sure to take it to as many different environments as you can. In addition to playing it in your usual practice area, take it into a large room (band room, auditorium, concert hall, etc.) and see how it sounds from far away, since that sound will often be different than in a small bedroom or living room. If you can, try it out during a rehearsal with an ensemble (or ensembles) that you normally play with, to see how it blends in the section. Also ask your teacher (or trustworthy colleagues) for feedback on how it sounds and maybe even let someone else play it so you can step back and hear it from a distance. If there is an independent horn technician in your area, maybe take it to them so that they can inspect it for any mechanical faults or problems.
Remember that most horns work best with specific types of mouthpieces. If you need some ideas check out my Choosing a Mouthpiece page for some horn/mouthpiece paring ideas, and if you are looking for something completely different, my French horn Mouthpiece Comparison Chart can help you find what you’re looking for!
Above all, though, be careful with it, since any damage the horn sustains will be your responsibility if you return it for any reason!
Getting a new (or a new-to-you) horn can be stressful if you’re not a knowledgeable musician or horn player, but use common sense, and if a deal seems to good to be true, it probably is! If you’re not sure about a particular instrument or seller, make sure to ask someone – be it a horn player in your local orchestra, a horn teacher, or even contact me, and I’ll be happy to offer some advice!