The alto horn, also called the peck horn and the tenor horn in Europe, is famous for its easy playability. Yet, a good alto horn delivers amazing accuracy. Directors love the instrument for kicking out crisp after stucco notes for marching bands.
No band sounds truly balanced without an alto horn or two because it easily fills the middle gap present in many bands. The range of color intonations produced on this instrument is simply amazing.
My top recommendation is the Yamaha YAH803S offering exceptional quality because the lead pipe wraps around the bell. This instrument is perfect for the soloist because its large bell and easy blow-ability allow musicians to project the instrument’s sound easily.
I have played music for 44 years and graduated from the University of Northern Iowa. Never content to rest on what I already know, I have spent countless hours putting together a review of some of the best alto horns for beginners.
The Best Alto Horn
While the British call this instrument the tenor horn, while the Americans call it the alto horn, there are some things you will want to keep in mind when shopping for a new instrument.
Manufacturers use different materials to construct alto horns, and this difference causes different instruments to sound differently. Generally, those made of softer materials will have a warmer darker sound while those made from harder materials will be more responsive.
If an instrument does not say that its construction material, then it is a safe bet that it is made with yellow brass containing 70 percent copper. These instruments produce a bright direct sound.
Gold brass instruments contain 85 percent copper giving the notes a fuller tone. Rose or red brass instruments contain 90 percent copper giving the instrument a mellower tone. The main place where you will hear the difference is in the bell.
Players can find alto horn bells in two different styles. The two-piece design is harder to play, although the sounds it produces can be much richer.
New players will want to consider instruments with a one-piece design because it is much easier to move air freely through them allowing the musician to produce unrestricted vibrations.
Depending on the bell’s design, the material will be thinnest in different parts which affecting the instrument’s sound. With one-piece bell designs, the maximum stretching of the metal occurs at the bell rim while with two-piece bell designs, the thinnest part is normally the bell tail.
The size and material of the bell means that bells weigh differing amounts. Lighter-weight bells produce a livelier sound while heavier bells project better offering a wider dynamic range.
Different alto horns have different bell flares. This is the speed at which the bell opens up to its full width.
As a general rule, instruments with a slower bell flare produce a crisper sound while those with a faster bell flare produce a warmer sound. Bell flares on alto horns are usually either medium flare or large flare even though they can be the exact same length.
Those with a medium flare play more accurately especially at the higher range while those with a large flare project their sound better. The player needs to decide which choice is right for them.
The amount of bracing can also affect the instrument’s sound. The absence of strong bracing or bracing that is not in the correct place can cause the instrument to produce unusual vibrations especially when certain notes are played.
Usually, more soldering on an alto horn produces a deeper sound. Keep in mind that soldering that is not done perfectly can decrease an instrument’s beauty as well as affect its sound.
Spun Vs. Hand-hammered Bells
Pressed from a disk, a spun bell is thin at the screw ring and thicker at the outer edge. These bells have a lighter sound than hand-hammered bells that are created by hand with a disk used only in the last step.
Hand-hammered bells are thinner on the edge. Therefore, these bells often have a garland attached to protect the vulnerable edge.
The addition of the garland produces more resistance causing a rounder sound that can become more brassy suddenly at higher octaves. Hand-hammered bells usually produce a more brassy sound when played fortissimo while they produce a warmer sound when played quietly.
Lacquered vs. Un-lacquered Instruments
Musicians often argue about whether applying lacquer to an instrument affects its sound. Those who feel that they can hear a difference, find that a lacquered instrument dampens the high overtones while helping to eliminate extraneous instrument noise.
There is no doubt, however, that a lacquered instrument is easier to keep shiny over a period of time.
Players can easily change an instrument’s sound by changing the mouthpiece. Lively sounds come from mouthpieces with fast taper rates while warmer sounds come from those with slower taper rates.
Different manufacturers arrange the instrument’s pipes in different ways. The less sharp bends air has to make to reach the bell, the easier the instrument is to play. Additionally, the shorter the pipes, the less resistant the player will feel when playing the instrument.
Generally, alto horns have plastic, Monel or nickel-plated valves. Unless of extremely high quality, buyers will want to avoid plastic valves because they will not stand up to playing over a long period of time.
Many players find that Monel valves have a graininess to them causing them to drag especially if they get dirty. In the beginning, Monel valves are harder than nickel valves, so one would expect them to last longer.
The problem is that Monel valves are extremely susceptible to changes in temperature. When they get too warm, the material softens decreasing their ability to make a tight fit.
Look carefully at the base of the valve, and you will see cross-hatching called lapping. The finer the compound used in this area, the less lapping there will be resulting in less air leakage and a better sounding instrument.
Our Top Alto Horn Picks
When choosing an alto horn, it is vital to keep in mind that an alto horn in the United States is a tenor horn in Europe. Therefore, different manufacturers label their instruments differently depending on which side of the ocean they are on.
Working with alto horn player Sheona White, who has played the instrument professionally for over 15 years, Yamaha raised the bar in tenor horns with the Yamaha YAH803S.
This instrument has a more complex appearance than Yamaha’s Prestige which has been loved for players for many years because the lead pipe runs around the bell before entering the third valve casing.
This extra contact between the lead pipe and the bell adds extra sturdiness to the instrument so players should be able to enjoy it for many years to come. The valve slides on this instrument are more substantial than normal.
The second valves sits behind the first and third valve. This instrument provides a lyre stand with a large nut on the third valve making it easy for players to see the music to play.
This stand is substantial enough that it will not fall off in the wind without the player noticing it. This instrument looks much bigger than its well-balanced weight of about 12 pounds. The large main tubing slide makes it easy to keep this instrument in tune.
While inexperienced players may find the top notes a little sharp, more experienced players of this professional model should easily be able to keep this instrument perfectly center. It provides great octave in-tune octave jumps from mid-G to upper-G where most players will be playing.
This instrument is particularly free blowing in the middle and lower ranges allowing players to easily project the instrument’s sound through the yellow brass 8.268-inch bell. This instrument provides a very robust sound below middle C while playing quietly at the top register is easily accomplished.
While mellower than many comparable instruments, this Yamaha alto horn is still better suited for the soloist than in a big brass band. This silver-plated instrument is available from Musician’s Friend for about $4,200.
The Besson BE950 alto horn features a bell rim wired over brass wire for added strength and protection to its eight-inch upright bell.
This instrument is easy to play because it features three buttons that line up perfectly making it easy to hold the instrument in the left hand while fingering with the right hand.
The buttons are easy set with mother of pearl so that players can get on and off them very quickly. This instrument features Monel valves with Delrin valve guides allowing the valves to operate very quietly.
Helping players maintain the instrument with ease, this Besson alto horn features precision-fitted slides. This Besson instrument features nickel-silver inner valves that will not corrode.
Taking care of the valves is never a problem because each valve is top-spring loaded allowing players to get to them easily for cleaning and oiling. Three water keys with synthetic rubber seals make it easy to remove any trapped moisture so that this brass instrument does not corrode.
While it is difficult to find an alto horn that is capable of sounding great in a big brass band and as a solo instrument, this Besson alto horn does a great job at both. Brand new, this instrument runs about $5,000.
If you are looking for an instrument that sounds great in a woodwind ensemble, then you need to consider Cerveny VFC-TH6344T alto horn. This Emperor horn offers a simple design that is very responsive at every register.
It has a hand-shaped 8.11-inch yellow brass bell reinforced with wire helping to protect it. This instrument has a tuning slide trigger making it easy to keep the instrument in tune even during a performance.
The three valves on this Cerveny alto horn are stainless steel trimmed in nickel-silver adding to this silver instrument’s beauty. It has a unique look because part of it is polished silver while other parts are beautiful polished gold.
The instrument’s .468 inch bores make it easy to project the sound coming from this alto horn. The top-action valves make it easy to play this instrument which is available for about $2,550.
Parents who are looking for an easy-to-play instrument for a new player will want to consider the lighter Jupiter JAH700 Series alto horn. Its smaller size allows new players to feel successful at a faster rate.
This instrument is easier to blow because of its .433 inch bore. Students will find that this yellow brass instrument is easy to keep polished and looking sharp. Jupiter chose to make the three stainless-steel valves top action so players can easily get to them for cleaning and oiling.
The sound easily comes out of the 7.2-inch upright bell. Helping to add to the beauty of this instrument is its beautifully applied lacquered finished. This instrument is available on Musician’s Friend for about $2,400.
To recap, here are some of the best alto horns: