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Do Lacquered Instruments Sound Better or Worse? (Explained)

When you’re looking to buy a new instrument, you’ll find many different types of finishes, including lacquer.

Whether you’re purchasing a trumpet, trombone, saxophone, or clarinet, you’ll want a finish that produces the best sound.

Let’s talk about how lacquer affects the tone quality of instruments.

Here’s How Lacquer Changes the Sound of Instruments:

A lacquer finish only makes a slight difference in tone quality, if at all. Lacquered instruments may be more mellow with less projection. A silver finish may produce a bright tone. Raw brass has a “wide” sound.

Do Lacquered Instruments Sound Different?

A lacquer finish is a clear coating used on many instruments to protect from scratches and corrosion.

Even though its purpose is to preserve the outside of an instrument, some players claim that lacquer finishes can improve tone quality.

Even though this topic is highly debated, lacquer may slightly dampen the sound of instruments. Lacquered instruments are said to have a more compact and centered sound. They might not have as much projection as a raw brass instrument.

If an instrument like a saxophone doesn’t have a lacquer finish, it’s known as a raw brass horn. These are more free blowing, loud, and have more projection.

There are many different types of finishes, but these will not drastically affect sound quality. A lacquered finish may have a slightly different tone than a silver or raw brass instrument, but it may not be noticeable to most listeners.

A few professional instrumentalists have conducted studies to figure out this debated question.

One saxophone player blindfolded himself before playing a couple of Yanagisawa tenor saxophones, only one of them being lacquered. He found that the unlacquered saxophone produced a wider tone.

However, he also mentioned that this was such a small difference. Whether lacquered instruments sound different seems to depend on personal preference rather than objective quality.

Do Professionals Use Lacquered Instruments?

There’s no standard finish that all professionals like to use. Each professional player will have their preference when it comes to finishes.

It also varies based on what instrument the professional plays. Between a professional trumpet player and a professional saxophone player, they probably won’t agree on the best finish for their instruments.

Most professional trumpet players use instruments with a silver finish. This is probably because silver is the most common finish for professional-level trumpets. Even though saxophones are available in many different finishes, lacquer is the most popular.

Some professionals prefer unique horns. Trumpet players might choose raw brass horns because of their distinctive appearance. Saxophone players might favor an unusual finish, like black lacquer or nickel plating.

It ultimately comes down to personal preference. Professional players have tried many different finishes over the years and decided which one they like the most. Some claim that a certain finish has a much better tone quality, but others choose an instrument based on its unique look.

What Are the Most Popular Types of Lacquer Used?

Instrument lacquer can either be a paint, powder coat, or a baked epoxy finish.

Powder coating is most widely used in instrument manufacturing today. Yamaha uses this process to lacquer their instruments.

The lacquer is applied as a powder form and then baked, which liquefies it with powder coating. This produces a consistent finish which is much more evenly applied than previous lacquering processes. A powder coat is thin and durable, adhering to the brass very well.

Nitrocellulose lacquer is a solvent-based lacquer painted onto an instrument and allowed to dry. This was a very common form of lacquering until fairly recently.

When using nitrocellulose lacquer, you’ll notice that it is very durable and flexible, but it does have its disadvantages. If exposed to too much sunlight, it can easily crack or show other forms of severe damage.

Nitrocellulose lacquer is pliant, so it moves well with instruments when they expand and contract with temperature changes. However, this lacquer is too flexible to protect against scratches and scuffs.

A baked epoxy lacquer is sprayed or painted on an instrument and baked. This process was popular for older horns but is still occasionally used today.

Baked epoxy lacquer is thinner than nitrocellulose lacquer, so it doesn’t affect the instrument’s tone quality as much. It is also harder, being able to protect against scratches.

Over the years, some baked epoxy finishes haven’t bonded well to brass instruments. When this happens, it starts to flake off.

Does Raw Brass Sound Better Than Lacquered Brass?

This question has created a divide in the music community. Some players believe there is a massive difference in tone quality, while others think different finishes are purely cosmetic and aesthetic.

Raw brass and lacquered horns have a different appearance and slightly different tone quality. Most players will probably prefer the sound of either a lacquered instrument or raw brass.

Raw brass is a horn without a finish. It has a warm, natural sound that some players describe as “wide.” Some players claim that lacquered brass only dampens the sound of raw brass horns.

Even though some players love their sound quality, raw brass instruments are harder to maintain. Different types of finishes were developed to cover raw brass. Modern finishes exist to maintain the metal of instruments, helping them last longer.

Without a finish, raw brass tarnishes much faster. However, many players love how tarnished raw brass looks. Some even try to speed up the tarnishing process so that their horn looks “aged.”

Like every finish, it’s ultimately up to the individual player to decide. Even though it is mainly an aesthetic decision, some professional players are bothered by the slight tone changes caused by lacquered brass.

What About Silver Finish Vs. Lacquer Finish?

Players choose either a silver or lacquer finish because of its color. You might prefer the darker color of the lacquer finish or the sleek and bright color of the silver finish. However, there are other factors to consider when choosing between these finish types.

There may be some differences in tone quality. Some players believe that all instruments with a silver finish have a brighter tone. In contrast, lacquered instruments produce a more mellow, warmer tone.

Lacquer can also discolor over time. As you play your instrument, the oils on your hands will wear away certain areas of the lacquer.

A silver finish can last much longer. It’s less likely to discolor and tarnish over years of use.

Horns with a silver finish are slightly harder to clean. When the instrument faces some tarnish, you have to use silver polish. With lacquered instruments, you can use a damp cloth.

A silver finish is applied thinner than lacquer, allowing for more resonance. Some professionals believe that lacquer dampens the sound of instruments.

Some players disagree, saying that different finishes are only for aesthetic value. It’s best to try instruments with silver and lacquered finishes to see which you prefer.

Final Thoughts

Many musicians debate over the issue of lacquered instruments. Some players are adamant that lacquer changes the instrument’s tone quality, but these are very small differences.

If you are an advanced musician, you could notice these slight changes. You might hear that lacquered instruments have a more dampened, mellow sound. In contrast, raw brass might sound brasher. Silver finishes may produce a brighter tone.

It’s important to play an instrument with each of these finishes to see which one you prefer. Although different finishes won’t have drastic differences, you may prefer the slight changes with a new finish.


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