So your horn is busted…now what?

First things first, if you’re not a repairman DON’T TRY TO FIX IT YOURSELF!!! I can’t stress that enough. I have seen a ton of instruments that would have been inexpensive, easy fixes, had it not been for some overzealous dad with a pair of pliers. There are specific tools and techniques to fix musical instruments and, believe me, dad (and your band teacher for that matter) doesn’t have this stuff in his toolbox.

So what do you do? First you need to find a good repairman. Finding a qualified repair tech isn’t always easy but you need to go to a shop with techs that know what they’re doing; otherwise, you could end up paying to have things made worse.

Here is a good resource for finding a repairman:

And if you’re in the Philadelphia metro area, here’s my shop:

Once the repair guy has looked over your horn he’ll tell you what needs to be done in order for the instrument to play well again. There are a few types of repairs that could be needed depending on your instrument but the most common types of repairs are:

  • regulation/re-seating of pads
  • pad replacement
  • dent removal
  • cleaning

Re-seating and regulating means making all the keys and pads line up where they should and close when they should. Small leaks develop over time and the process of re-seating and regulating removes them. When a horn seals well, it plays much easier than when it leaks.

Pad replacement is done when a pad can no longer be adjusted enough during a re-seat and regulate to compensate for leaks that have formed. The reasons a pad may no longer be able to be adjusted are it could have been torn, become too hard over time, been distorted badly, or has fallen out completely. It is normal for pads to go bad with time, how long they last is depends on a variety of factors that I will discuss later.

Dent removal is exactly what it sounds like; dents are removed from the body of the instrument. Accidents happen and when an instrument made of brass falls or gets bumped hard enough, the metal will dent. Dents look bad cosmetically and effect the sound of an instrument depending on how severe.

Cleaning is something that should be done routinely but is very often overlooked by musicians. Having a clean instrument is most important with brass instruments. If a brasswind instrument isn’t cleaned from time to time, a condition known as red-rot can develop. Red-rot is when the zinc that is in the brass alloy gets eaten away by saliva and only copper is left behind leaving little spots that appear red. Eventually these spots will eat completely through the metal and cause air to leak from the horn. Once red rot starts, it can not be stopped so it is best to keep up with cleaning.

So how much is this going to cost me?

It depends. There are a lot of factors that go into why a repair costs what it does and how long it takes. For a job like a cleaning, which should be relatively simply, the cost is usually proportionate to how big the instrument is: A trumpet might cost $100 to clean and service while a four valve rotary tuba could be as high as $280. Dent removal costs depend on how bad the dent is and where it’s located on the horn; sometimes a dent can be in a hard to access place and the instrument may have to be disassembled to do a proper job removing the dent. Re-seating and regulating a woodwind instrument also depends on the type and size of the instrument: generally, the bigger than instrument, the more it will cost to work on. You have to take into account the prices of materials as well.


Overhauling a horn means different things to different people. Some people would define an overhaul to be the reconditioning of all mechanical systems, replacing all consumable parts such as pads and corks, and having all dents removed and the instrument refinished to make it look like new again. Other people might define an overhaul as replacing all the pads and regulating the horn without any cosmetic work. Sometimes it’s a mix of different operations. It can be confusing so it’s best to just ask the repair tech to tell you exactly what will be done. Whether it be the former or the later description, overhauls are expensive: For an overhaul to be done right, it requires a lot of time and materials, so keep that in mind when you are told the price.

A few more things before you go to the shop

There are a couple of things about instrument repair you should understand before you go into a repair shop:

1. Just because you bought a cheap instrument doesn’t mean repairs will be cheap. In fact, it is often the opposite: Cheap instruments are cheap for a reason; they are poorly made and will thus take more work to get them to play properly. If an instrument is of low quality, sometimes the cost of the repair will end up being more than the instrument costs.

2. Good repair shops are highly sought out and they usually are busy so don’t expect them to drop everything for you. Most shops will get things done in a timely manner but remember, you aren’t the only musician out there that needs their horn fixed yesterday. Expect a decent waiting time at highly skilled repair shops.

Hopefully, this gives you some basic insight into the world of band instrument repair!


2 thoughts on “

  1. Dave – I saw the before and after on a bell of a conn 40b. The funny thing is I have the almost exact dent which I need to have taken out as well as some other minor repair work. I am in PA and really would not mind running the horn to you for evaluation. The horn belonged to my grandfather who has passed away many years ago. I borrowed it for concert band while in HS and someone in the band decided to damage it; the perpetrator never came forth. I was never able to hand it back to him because of the condition it was in and at the time (single parent family) we were just getting by. You are fairly local and see you have done some very impressive work. Please feel free to contact me back.


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