Smith-Watkins “Professional” Bb Cornet


Dr Richard Smith and Derek Watkins are two names most brass band players don’t really know well...

Given a choice of a new cornet, trumpet or flugel horn, most opt for the tried and tested group of makers that they have either grown up with over the years, or have seen advertised on the back of a brass band contest programme, and shy away from the smaller more specialised makers. This is a mistake.

The Smith-Watkins Company has been making high class, top quality cornets and trumpets as well as flugel horns, soprano cornets and fanfare trumpets since 1985 and has built itself an enviable reputation. Richard Smith was the man responsible for the design of the famous Besson Sovereign cornet 928 range as chief designer at Boosey and Hawkes, whilst Derek Watkins has an international reputation as a leading trumpet player, performing with such people as Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, James Last and Maynard Ferguson. Together they formed the company that bears their name and have produced a series of instruments that are internationally recognised as some of the very best in their field.

The company makes two cornets – the "Professional" and the "Soloist". The difference between the two (according to the blurb in the excellently produced sales brochure) is that the "Soloist" offers the unique facility for swapping calibrated leadpipes, enabling changes in musical quality for varying playing styles and environment. In English that means you can change the main shank with up to nine different pipes to suit the way you play. (If only one could make me sound like Maurice Murphy).

We therefore asked if we could have a look at one that has been quietly breaking into the banding world and gaining many admirers – the Smith-Watkins "Professional" Bb cornet.

The instrument is up against strong competition in it's field from the likes of the new "Prestige" cornet from Besson plus fine instruments from Courtois, Yamaha and Bach. Could the Smith- Watkins cut the mustard?

As usual we looked at four categories worth 25 points each to give a final score out of 100. Some weeks ago we tested the "Prestige" and it came up with 89 marks – a very good mark from us for a top class cornet. This is how the Smith-Watkins got on.

Instrument Review:

Build Quality:
The first thing you notice about the instrument is that it bears a not too distant cosmetic looks to it as the old 928 Besson Sovereign. However, look a bit more closely and you really see and feel the difference.

This is a superbly built bit of tackle and for us fully justifies it's "Millennium Products Award" it obtained in 1999. It's as robust as a Hungarian shot-putter and has the feel of a product that has used quality materials in its production. Water keys, valve tops and bottoms, triggers and shank keys are sturdy and very practical, and there's a sense that it has been designed very much with the serious player in mind. The silver plate finish was excellent and the leadpipe fitted snugly and without any wobble. It accommodates any bit of mangled metal you may call a mouthpiece without any problems as well.

It was well balanced to hold and your left hand had no trouble operating both 1st and 3rd slide triggers – you didn't need a hand like Jeremy Beadles to make it work properly. The valves worked a treat and were very quiet and smooth, whilst the triggers worked well and without sticking. It did what it said it would do "on the tin".

This was very impressive indeed. 24 points.

Again the very informative brochure told us how the instrument works (silly us, but we thought you just blew into the damn thing) and with "sound waves" and "transmitted energy waves" on our minds we expected to be a bit disappointed when it cam to actually playing it. Again, the instrument came up trumps.

Judicious use of the triggers helps with the problems encountered with bottom D's and C#'s but the great thing for us was that throughout the range it felt very "true" and centred in pitch. Up the scale and even top G's and A's weren't sharp, especially at a loud dynamic and there was little or no need to use the lip to bend things into shape. A joy – nothing more to say.

Excellent – 23 points.

Ease of blowing / tonal quality:
Given that the blurb states that they give 27 acoustically different models to choose from, it could be like dipping into a bag of Dolly Mixtures to find your favourite cornet to suit your needs. However, the changes are subtle rather than substantial and anyway as long as it plays in tune and it doesn't make you sound like your playing a Chinese "Jupiter" import, who cares?

There's a lovely rich dark quality about the tone, which retains its timbre at both ends of the dynamic range. It's calls for an experienced player to get the most out of it, but the reward for doing so is substantial. At the higher end of the scale the tone becomes brighter and there's a distinct sheen to it, whilst below the stave the intonation remains true, even when blowing loudly.

It's a very freeblowing instrument and the makers have three bore sizes for the player to use plus an optional "thin bell". This gives a choice to the player to enable them to accommodate their ability to shove a lot of air through without straining to fill the instrument. (This is where many tuning problems arise in brass bands) The more delicate flowers amongst the cornet section can therefore get an instrument much closer to their blowing requirements rather than having to shove a bellows up their jacksy.

The impression left is one that it's made for the serious player who knows he can rely on good basics that means he has only got to worry about the notes and not the tuning.

Fine stuff over all the range – 23 points.

Overall performance / Value for money:
It's a surprise to us that not more serious players are performing on a Smith-Watkins in brass bands. Perhaps it's because it's seen as a very select bit of metal work or that many bands when given the old lottery grant made their way straight to the so called "Big Boys" to cash in their chips. Whatever the reason, we think a lot of players and cornet sections could benefit from the instrument.

The build quality is the best we have come across (by a large margin in many cases) and there is a real feel that quality has in no way been substituted for quantity. The intonation is very good indeed and the instruments, due to the extended choice on offer, give the opportunity for freeblowing without the strain on the nether regions.

The instrument also comes with a case that is nigh on indestructible and only costs an extra £49 when ordered with the cornet or £189 without and enough room to fit a dwarf escapologist in as well as three mutes.

The makers also give a free consultation to each player to help choose the correct model for them to play and you can have your name etched on it or even your bands name if you are a real saddo.

The price of £1443 including VAT for the "Professional" model or £1893 for the "Soloist" is very competitive.

Can't fault the guys – 23 points.

Overall Score: 93 points – It's the biz for us - super stuff


Bore Sizes: .460 (medium), .464 (medium large) or .470 (large) (for both models)
Leadpipe Choice: 9 for Professional model. 9 interchangeable for Soloist model
Free Consultation: Yes
Slide Operation: 1st and 3rd slide triggers (both models)
Waterkeys: Main and 3rd slide (both models)
Piston Material: Monel (both models)
Piston Location: Metal cross bar (both models)
Finish: Bright silver plate or Laquer (both models)
Optional Case: £49 when ordered with cornet. £189 when ordered separately.
Lyre Holder: (both models)
Price: £1443 in VAT for "Professional" model. £1893 for "Soloist" model.

The Verdict:

Build Quality:




Ease of blowing and tonal quality:


Overall Performance and Value for Money:





For further details about the Smith-Watkins cornets: Richard Smith Musical Instruments 110, The Vale, Southgate, London. N14 6AY.
Telephone: (44) 020 8882 1580
Fax: (44) 020 8447 8567