Parts of the Horn: Bell Tail and Bell Flare

This will be the last in a series of posts based on a handout from a Lawson Horns clinic given around 1980.  The materials and processes of horn design and manufacture have continued to develop since then, but I think the information presented in the clinic is still very relevant today.  Depending on your equipment – namely if your horn has a detachable flare and a compatible ringset – different bell flares can be a great way to get more out of your current horn.  Many professionals customize their existing instrument with bells made out of various materials to fit a particular playing scenario.  Here’s the last part of the the handout. (Direct quotes in italics.)


The bell tail continues the taper of the first branch and affects:

1. Ease of playing – A long, slow taper from a narrow first branch to a large bell throat gives a free-blowing quality to the instrument. If the bell taper starts at a large diameter and is small at the throat, the instrument will have a centered sound and will be harder-blowing for the player. Many variations are available.

2. Intonation – The rate and smoothness of taper in the bell tail controls the pitch of the harmonics.

3. Timbre of sound – The alloy and its hardness affect the tone and dynamic range of the instrument.


1. Shape, size, and thickness – Subtle differences in playing characteristics such as ease of starting notes, dynamic range, carrying power are influenced by these dimensional properties.

2. Stability – The internal dampening characteristics of the bell flare influence the stability of the pitch, ease of starting the sound, and the ability of the instrument to maintain sound through slurs.  Dampening is controlled by allow, weight, and hardness.

3. Dynamic range – For a given alloy, the hardness affects the dynamic range. A softer bell flare distorts at a higher input of sound so that more control of dynamics is possible. Varying the hardness gives different degrees of brightness or darkness to the sound.

4. Tone color – The alloy and its hardness controls the timbre or color of the sound. This color change is most noticeable at high dynamic levels.

5. Protective coatings – Lacuqer and plating slightly reduce the output of sound from the bell of the instrument. The advantages of protective coatings are great in that they prevent deterioration of the metal and eventual shortening of the life of the horn.

The lacquer/no-lacquer debate continues, with notable makers and players taking up both sides of the argument.  In my humble opinion, lacquer on a professional quality instrument is ok, as long as it is not too thick.  However, it does seem that a majority of hand made custom horns are produced without lacquer.  In the end this really is a choice that the individual player must consider based on a number of factors.

Parts of the Horn: Cylindrical Section and First Branch

This post is a continuation of a series based on a circa 1980 clinic handout from Lawson Brass Instruments, Inc. (now Lawson Horns).  The first post dealt with the importance of the leadpipe in determining the playing characteristics of a horn, while this one considers the role of those sections between the leadpipe and the bell tail. (Italics indicate direct quotations from the handout, annotations are non-italicized and in brackets [] ).

THE CYLINDRICAL SECTION: This section includes the valves, slides and connecting tubing:

1) Bore – Inside diameters vary in the cylindrical section, but in the U.S. they are usually .468″ ID.  Some European instruments are larger, up to .476″ ID. [In the case of Paxman’s “Dual Bore” system, the ID of the F side is .500″]. The size of the bore has an effect on the performance of the instrument. Manufacturers can control this, however, in other areas.

2) Valves and slides – If these leak, the instrument will not play in an efficient manner and the pitch and center of the sound will be affected. If they do not operate properly, playing technique is hindered.

3) Length of the slides and connecting tubing – The overall pitch of the instrument and the relationship between the various harmonic series are controlled by these lengths.

4) Design of the bends in the tubing or wrap of the instrument – Sharp bends have some effect on the resistance of the instrument and removal of water should be considered in the placement of the bends.

5) Assembly – The parts should be fitted carefully so that the bore is as smooth as possible, the slides are parallel and the soldered joints are strong.

6) Artistic consideration – An instrument can be beautiful or ugly depending on the design of the curves, placement of slides, design of the braces, attention to ornamentation and finish of the metal service.


The taper of this connection between the cylindrical section and the bell tail controls:

1) Slurs – The ability of the instrument to slur easily or with difficulty in different registers and dynamics.

2) Stability – The pitch should remain stable, not float up and down while holding notes.

3) Attack – The notes in all registers should not bounce when started at high dynamic levels.

4) Register – First branch tapers control the ease of playing in the different registers.

5) Sound – The sound should have no roughness and should not growl at high dynamics, but should have the same quality throughout the dynamic range in all registers.

6) Intonation – The pitches of the harmonic series are affected by the first branch taper.

I like this handout because the language is plain and practical, and it is full of tons of great information, rather than being a glorified advertisement for Lawson horns.  In fact the characteristics listed would make an excellent checklist when trying new horns or various modifications to your current horn.  Check back soon for the final post in this series: the bell tail and bell flare.

Parts of the Horn: Leadpipe

Along with the mouthpiece, the leadpipe (or mouthpipe) is one of the most significant and relatively easy modifications you can make to your horn.  As with mouthpieces, a leadpipe change can radically alter the playing characteristics of your instrument.  Digging back through some of my old materials, I came across a clinic handout from Walter Lawson, circa 1980 (before my time, but I must have picked it up along the way at a horn workshop somewhere).  In the handout, he lists some of the ways a leadpipe can be altered, and the corresponding effects.

1.  The ease of register – A short taper provides an easy high register, but the low register lacks power and concentration of sound. A long taper gives strong low notes but is difficult in the high register in that it requires precise lip control and intense mental concentration.

2.  Alloy – A mouthpipe made from a corrosion-resistant alloy is important because this tube is more exposed to the chemicals and food particles blown into the instrument. The taper is most critical inside the mouthpiece and will be adversely affected by corrosion buildup.

3.  The center of sound or efficiency of the horn in amplifying the sound generated by the lips – A mouthpipe with a large cubic content will slur easily, but the harmonics will not be as centered or stable as a mouthpipe with smaller cubic content will produce.

4.  Pitch of the harmonics and relative intonation between them – This is controlled by variations in the rate of taper inside the mouthpipe.

The handout is full of lots of other great practical information, and I will most likely be posting further on it in the future.  If you are considering having a custom leadpipe made for your horn, check out some of the makers (and their websites) below.

Cantesanu Horns

Wes Hatch Horns

Houghton Custom Horns

Lawson Horns

Patterson Hornworks [*Patterson has recently created a custom leadpipe for mellophones – check out the review and hear sound clips at The Mellocast.]

New Lawson Horns Website

Lawson Horns has a reputation for producing some of the most well-crafted and acoustically “perfect” horns around.  For those unfamiliar with Lawson horns, the company was founded by master craftsman Walter Lawson (1923-2007), who retired from horn making and sold his business to Kendall Betts in 2006.  Lawson has recently updated its website and the company seems to be in great hands.  Although the website is of course geared towards Lawson instruments, there is also a wealth of information which can be applied to all horns.  For example, the “Customizing Horns FAQ” includes the following discussion on horn tapers.

With two types of tapers, two thicknesses for the bell tail, two thicknesses for the bell flare, five alloys for construction, and five choices of alloys for the bell, you can customize your new Model 804 in two hundred possible combinations – just another reason why Lawson Horns is a leading maker of custom horns!

We receive many questions about how different aspects of our custom horns affect their instruments. Please take the time below to read as many of the most common questions will be answered.

What is the taper?
The taper, or bore of the instrument as it widens, is how quickly the horn moves from the small size at the end of the mouthpiece to the bell.

Why does the taper matter?
Many horns are built in similar fashion, but even a variance of .001 of an inch can have a critical impact on a horn. Our horns are built to the highest standard and years of research have been done to ensure that Lawson Horns are the most efficient horns built.

What is the thickness?
The thickness of the horn is how thick is the wall of tail (or last turn of the horn) and final bell flare. With most horns, this can vary in extremes from .005” on thin, small brass horns to .020” or larger for large orchestral horns.  This thickness is very important to how the horn responds, and more detailed information can be found on our research page.

What are the playing differences between .020” and .016” (Lite) horns?
The thicker wall yields a little louder sound with a somewhat richer overtone series and certainly is more mechanically sound, while the lighter material seems to have a quicker, cleaner response, lighter tone and ‘locks-in’ a little better. Chamber or ensemble musicians may find a lighter instrument fits that style better; whereas, a heavier horn might make sense for larger classical groups, but it must always be kept in mind that the player has enormous control over the instrument’s characteristic sound.

Can I have my horn in one thickness, and the bell in another?
While many players prefer a matched thickness, we can make bell tails and bell flares in either thickness.

Does the alloy selection really make that much of a difference?
Yes, the material of the horn’s composition, particularly the bell tail and flare, has an effect on the sound, response, and feel.

What is ‘Ambronze’?
In 1979, Lawson introduced a new alloy which had been used previously in architecture but never was applied to musical instruments. The result was a strong, workable metal which became one of our most popular alloys called “Ambronze.”

What is ‘Nickel Bronze’?
A search for the alloy that the famous Kruspe nickel silver horn was made from yielded another new alloy to the musical instrument world: Nickel-Bronze. This is the closest alloy available now to the pre-WWII German nickel silver used by Kruspe.

See the links below for other discussions on the Lawson Horns website.



Lacquer, Heat Treatment, etc.

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