The trumpet is one of the oldest known instruments, dating back to the day people first figured certain seashells and animal horns (adapted into instruments called “shofars”) made a great sound when one blew into them. Metal trumpets were made as early as 1500 BC, as both bronze and silver trumpets were unearthed in King Tut’s tomb. Other ancient trumpets have been excavated in Asia, South America, and Scandinavia.
The Israelites, Tibetans, and Romans used the trumpet in religious ceremonies or for magical purposes such as warding off evil spirits. In other places, such as ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East, the trumpet, which could only play one or two tones, was primarily used by militaries to relay messages over distances or to proclaim royal decrees. Trumpets produce an official, important sound, which is why they were a key part of many landmark historic events well into the 14th century—before people finally considered using the trumpet for music. In the king’s court, these horns were usually pitched to the keys of D or C, while military trumpets, or "bugles," were pitched to E-flat or F.
The folded-bore shape of the trumpet appeared in the Middle Ages to make these horns, which were often 6-feet long, shorter and easier to handle. This is now known as a “natural” or valveless trumpet and it could create a limited number of “harmonic tones.” Shortly thereafter, the “tromba da tirarsi” was invented, a mouth pipe fitted with a slide, which, when played, could produce a chromatic scale. (That instrument was the predecessor to the trombone.) As the art of trumpet-making improved among Nuremberg, Germany, metalworkers in the 1500s, composers began to write for the trumpet in works such as fanfares, toccatas, and sonatas.
In classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, as well as Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and Johann Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Joseph Haydn), were among the first prominent composers to put the trumpet, pitched to the key of F, to good use. In Bach’s time, the Baroque era, natural trumpets were 7 or 8 feet of tubing with a shallow mouthpiece, which was then folded twice before the bell at the end. Musicians had to change their lips on the mouthpiece to produce different notes, which is why few composers of the day used to the upper, or “clarino,” register on the trumpet—it was just too difficult for most players to reach. Instead, they tended to stay with the lower “principale” register.
In the late 1700s, crooks were added to F trumpets so that they could reach as low as C or B-flat. A trumpet with keys like a clarinet appeared around the late 1700s, but it was unpopular because it sounded too much like an oboe. Joseph Haydn, however, wrote a concerto for the keyed trumpet in 1796, because the natural trumpet was too limited for a full piece. In the early 1800s, the trumpet was adapted with valves and shortened by 4 1/2 feet (making the horn about 14 inches long when folded), which allowed it to play the chromatic scale more readily and made the horn louder. Thanks to these improvements, the trumpet became a standard instrument in orchestras. Late in the 1800s, larger orchestras exchanged the long F trumpet for the louder, brighter, shorter-valved B-flat and C trumpets.
During the early 19th century, similar horns to the trumpet such as the cornet and the flugelhorn were invented. The main difference is that the cylindrical bore of the trumpet stays the same diameter until the bell, whereas the diameter of a cornet’s or the larger flugelhorn’s conical bore increases slightly through the length of the tubing, from the mouthpiece to the bell. While Rimsky-Korsakov, Vaughan-Williams, and Tchaikovsky all wrote separate parts for trumpets and cornets, musically, the parts are in the same key and can be played interchangeably.
When phonographs and radios arrived in the 20th century, few instruments translated well. But the bold, brassy sound of the trumpet stood out on 78 RPM records, propelling master trumpeters like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbacks, and Roy Elridge to jazz superstardom as early as the 1930s. They were followed by Dizzy Gillespie, Theodore “Fats” Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Harry James in the 1940s, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, and Donald Byrd in the '50s, Herb Alpert in the '60s, Chuck Mangione in the '70s, and Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s...
The modern trumpet is a soprano brass instrument most often keyed to B-flat or C. It has a folded bore, a cup-shaped mouthpiece, three valves, a tuning slide, finger hooks for easier holding, and a bell or flare where the sound comes out. Most trumpets are made of brass, plated or lacquered in another metal like nickel; if the horn is lacquered in gold, the sound from the bell will be smoother, but if it is silver plated, the sound will be more brilliant. Rarer trumpets have been made of German silver, copper, and gold. Some manufacturers make bells out of sterling silver, and top-of-the-line trumpets often come with removable tuning bells, as the size of the bell affects the sound. To play a trumpet, the musician buzzes his or her lips over the mouthpiece while manipulating the valves and slide. The mouthpieces are interchangeable, and the size used depends on the kind of music one plays. Jazz tends to be played on narrower mouthpieces.
In North America, the warmer B-flat trumpets tend to be used for jazz and band music, whereas the brighter C trumpet is favored by orchestras. The D trumpet, still used to play Baroque music, was popular during the 19th century. Rare trumpets include the E-flat trumpet (used by Haydn); E (used for Hummel concertos); F (used to play Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto); and G (particularly hard to find). The small piccolo trumpet, pitched an octave higher than a regular B-flat trumpet in the key of A, is also called a Bach trumpet, and is intended for pieces that require a trumpet to reach an unusually high register.
Charles Gerard Conn played cornet for the Union Army band when he served during the Civil War. After the war, he returned to his home in Elkhart, Indiana, and opened a grocery and bakery. In his free time, he played in a community band, and after a bar brawl led to his upper lip getting split, Conn grew interested in making a new rubber-rimmed mouthpiece that would suit his damaged lip. With the help of brass instrument maker Eugene Victor Baptiste Dupont, Conn introduced his first cornet.
In 1879, Conn brought skilled Europe craftsmen to his Indiana factory, and by 1905, the C.G. Conn Company had become the world’s largest musical instrument manufacturer, selling winds, strings, percussion, and a portable organ as well as the brass. People who would become Conn’s biggest competitors originally worked as his factory, including Ferdinand A. Buescher, F.E. Olds, and Henry Charles Martin. In 2002, Conn merged with Henri Selmer Company, which has purchased many of these brands over the past decade.
Frank Holton also hired skilled horn makers for his instrument company in 1907, which was first based in Chicago before moving to Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Esteemed cornet and trumpet player Vincent Bach was a Holton artist in 1917 and 1918 before he launched his own company manufacturing trumpets and mouthpieces. Some musicians like Chicago Symphony principal trumpets Edward Llewellyn and Renold Schilke briefly worked for and endorsed Holton. Others, like trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Maynard Ferguson, helped design their own lines.
Austrian-American musician Vincent Schrotenbach (known as Vincent Bach) had a Pittsburgh trumpet repairman destroy his mouthpiece in 1918, and that’s when he began to attempt to make his own. That year, he set up a mouthpiece production company in the back of a Selmer shop in New York City. In 1922, his company started producing trumpets and cornets under the "Stradivarius by Vincent Bach Corporation" brand. At the end of 1928, Bach stopped using the “Faciebat Anno” on his horn bells and replaced it with model numbers. Some bells are marked “New York 67,” which is not a model, but a postal code. The Bach brand was eventually purchased by Conn-Selmer.
Bach isn’t the only professional to become a trumpet maker. Elden Eugene Benge went into manufacturing after more than a decade as the principal trumpet of the Detroit and Chicago symphony orchestras. In 1939, he began to advertise his Benge trumpets as “the world’s finest.” Eventually the Benge brand was purchased by King; Conn-Selmer makes them today.
Inspired by his Holton training, Renold Schilke took up metallurgy and sound physics, as well as music, and started an instrument company to address his frustrations with the instruments available at the time. In the 1950s, he founded the Schilke company with French horn player Philip Farkas. Schilke’s scientific research led to changes in how brass instruments are lacquered.
Buescher Band Company of Elkhart, Indiana, often custom-made B-flat True-Tone Trumpets for top musicians such as Louis Armstrong, who, in the late 1920s, used a Buescher True-Tone 10-22R when he recorded. Originally, the Aristocrat had been a True-Tone professional trumpet, but when Selmer took over Buescher in 1963, it became a student horn. The next level below True-Tone is the Buescher 400 True-Tone, which sounds more modern and better suited for big-band jazz; the silver-plate Super 400 featured a bell of pure sterling.
The Selmer Company was known for its clarinets, but produced its first trumpet, the Armstrong, named after the popular jazz trumpeter, in 1933. This same trumpet was later named Balanced and then Harry James. The company released its esteemed K-modified trumpet in 1954, the Radial 2 in 1968, and the Series 700 in 1977.
Trumpet maker F.A. Reynolds got his start working for J.W. York and then H.N. White, the maker of the King brands, before he founded his own company in his name in 1936. While still with his own company, in 1939, Reynolds helped the Martin Band Instrument company develop its Committee trumpet (the Martin brand was sold to Leblanc in 1971). The Reynolds company made a successful line of brass instruments, sold to the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. In 1946, when he was 61, Reynolds sold his company to Scherl & Roth. While Reynolds meant to retire, in 1948, the F.E. Olds company recruited him to help them develop its Ambassador line of brass.
Another instrument designer, T.J. Getzen, left Holton to make and sell his own trombones in 1939 in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. In 1947, he started producing trumpets and cornets as well, and in 1949, his company started producing bugles as well. Even Vincent Bach had to acknowledge, "They certainly are very beautiful horns, and Getzen can be proud of being able to turn out such a fine instrument." The Getzen family sold the company in 1960, and two years later, the new owners enlisted trumpeter Carl "Doc" Severinsen and top musicians to help the company develop a line of professional trumpets, cornets, and flugelhorns.