Is A Raw Brass Trumpet Better?
Have you heard that a raw brass trumpet is darker than a lacquered trumpet? Perhaps you've seen some famous jazz musicians with their unfinished instruments, appreciated their dark tone, and wanted to replicate it for yourself!
The truth behind raw brass
Brighter tone with a silver trumpet? Darker tone with raw? Here's a secret...
It's actually a myth.
Now, it's possible that if you stripped down a lacquered horn so far that you actually were shaving off the metal itself and making it more brittle, that may end up having an effect on the color of the instrument. But that wouldn't be a safe choice for your trumpet.
The reality is that if you hold all other elements equal, including the mouthpiece and taper of the bell, you won't notice any audible difference between different trumpet finishes.
But unfortunately this is one of those rumors that continues to propagate by less-informed brass players or probably band teachers who associate the cosmetics of professional horns with the tone that professionals exhibit, assuming it must be accounted for by the finish of the trumpet.
So if it doesn't affect the color, why should I?
Just like with any high end possession, people naturally want to personalize their instrument and make it a topic of conversation. Beginner trumpets are almost always lacquered as it helps protect the metal of the trumpet. That transition into later middle school or high school usually seems to be accompanied by the excitement of their first silver trumpet (Bach Strads are popular choices). And naturally, as a raw brass trumpet takes more work to maintain and has an "iconic" look to it, it attracts the attention of professionals and advanced musicians.
The raw brass look is often accompanied by added metal to the crook and slides, which does have an impact on the tone color. So you will see many custom trumpets like Harrelsons and Monettes that incorporate the added material with raw brass alongside engravings on their custom trumpet models.
Maintenance of raw brass
One thing to bear in mind is that raw brass is harder to maintain than say a lacquer trumpet. In fact, all modern trumpets started off as raw brass, and then lacquer was applied to specifically help maintain the metal. The phenomena of stripping the lacquer away in order to display the raw brass is a relatively recent development.
In fact it's almost turned into a joke, "What is the best way to take care of my raw brass trumpet?"
Lacquer is meant to protect the brass, and without it, the raw brass is subject to tarnish more quickly. Now for many, it is this patina is a desired quality on a brass instrument.
In fact, some trumpet players are so obsessed with developing the patina of their trumpet that they try various means to speed up the process, as normally this can take years to develop.
While I can't recommend any of these methods personally (and you should do your own research before attempting any of these), here are some ways other trumpet players have "aged" their horns:
Don't wipe down the outside of your trumpet, and definitely don't give it a bath
Tear up oak leaves and use the leaves and sap with a bucket of water to soak the instrument in
Leave the trumpet in a sealed bag with a cup filled with vinegar sitting inside
Mash up hard boiled eggs and put the trumpet in an airtight box with the eggs
Seal the trumpet in a bag filled with air
And others, of course, scoff at these methods of advancing the aging process of the horn. They believe the aging process and how it changes over time is part of the history of your instrument which continues to grow and change just as your own musical journey does.
On the other end of the raw brass aficionado spectrum are those who prefer to give their instruments a good shine. They don't like the natural patina that develops over time and would prefer to keep their instrument looking clean.
If that's the case for you, you'll want to regularly polish the instrument to give it that extra shine. You may also consider using a wax that you rub over the top to help protect it.
Should I strip the trumpet myself?
If you've made it this far, and you have decided you want to take an existing trumpet and strip it, I highly recommend bringing it to an expert to help remove any existing finish.
While some have success simply leaving their older instrument in hot water for several hours, I've watched far too many videos of YouTubers unsuccessfully attempting to use various sanders and other tools to strip down the finish. On top of that (thankfully) they were using cheap extra horns lying around rather than their primary instrument.
While it's ultimately up to you if you choose to strip the trumpet yourself, it's a relatively high-risk situation for your instrument given that too much abrasion could harm the underlying metal itself.
Raw brass trumpets are beautiful to look at and remain a popular option for many high end trumpets. Don't be fooled into thinking that the finish of the instrument itself is going to unlock the mysteries of dark tone on the trumpet, it's mostly for cosmetic appeal. And if you do opt for a raw brass trumpet, bear in mind that it might take a little extra work to keep the instrument clean and up to snuff.