In the world of music, there are some instantly recognizable names. People we know, people whose music has left an indelible impression on us. Some, like the great masters, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., left impressions at the time and still do hundreds of years later.
We are often interested to know what instruments they played. Today, we are going to consider one such musician and ask the question, “What Instrument Did Louis Armstrong Play?”
They Come And Go
In the world of pop music, the vast majority come and go quite quickly. A couple of decent songs that stick in our memory. But often, they are here one day and gone the next. There have been some, like the Beatles, whose music encompasses a range of genres and will always be played and enjoyed.
There are some rock bands and singer-songwriters that fall into the same category. Led Zeppelin, Mark Knopfler, and The Who come to mind. All survived the ravages of time.
Some have lost members, but the name carries on, as does the music. There are a few others, of course, depending on your preferences.
But, it is often the musicians we remember most and sometimes for different reasons. There is one genre where the musicians rather than their bands or groups tend to be the ones revered. That genre is Jazz.
A list of the greatest jazz musicians would fill books. They are respected musicians whose appreciation crosses genre boundaries. There are dozens of them we could talk about, but today we will discuss just one, Louis Armstrong.
Where Does He Fit In Jazz History?
Some say that Armstrong was a jazz revolutionary. He certainly pushed the boundaries a bit. But, whether he can be placed in the same class as people like Miles Davis or saxophonist Charlie Parker, and so many others, is another thing. That discussion is for elsewhere.
In The Beginning
Let’s take a look at the man first before we get into Louis Armstrong’s music. He was born into poverty in 1901 and grew up in New Orleans. There would have been no chance of him acquiring a musical instrument when he was young, like some of his contemporaries managed to do.
Instead, Louis Armstrong’s musical experiences started with singing in an all-boys vocal quartet. To earn a little money, even as a very young boy, he sang on the street for any loose change he could pick up. Or he just did odd jobs where he could.
I smile today when you hear some of the modern generations complain because they can’t afford a new iPhone or similar. They should change places with Mr. Armstrong for a while if they want to know what it is like to go without.
His father deserted the family shortly after he was born. So, his mother often left him with his grandmother while she went out at night to try and earn some money. We don’t need to look too closely at how.
A Grim Picture
The picture you get from historical documents of the time presents a very grim picture of how African-Americans were treated. He was branded as a juvenile delinquent from an early age. It got worse when he found himself in trouble with the law at the age of just 11.
He fired six blanks from a gun during an outdoor New Year’s Eve party and was arrested. The gun came from his stepfather. He was sent to the rather quaintly named ‘Colored Waifs Home.’ Nothing more needs to be said on that issue. You get the picture.
Out Of Bad Can Sometimes Come Good
In 1913, while he was incarcerated in that delightful place, he managed to start playing the Cornet. It wasn’t planned; it just happened. Music became his passion. Like most great musicians then, before, and since, he didn’t choose music. It chose him.
When he was finally released, the Jazz bug had bitten him. He spent hours listening to Jazz music when he could. He learned some of the tricks they used on the Cornet and was learning about improvisation. Something that we shall refer to later.
Eventually, his proficiency was noticed, and he joined a marching band. After that, jazz bands, while still at a very young age.
Following His Hero
While he was a “guest” of the Louisiana correction facility, he had listened to King Oliver play the cornet. He was also a New Orleans Cornetist. In 1918, Armstrong was chosen to take his place in the Kid Ory Band.
His star was very much in the ascendancy. Consider the start he had in life and the racial prejudices he suffered that went on throughout his life. If nothing else, this is a lesson in perseverance towards a goal.
His Rise To Fame
We don’t have to list all of his achievements or all the bands he played with. His performance encouraged people like Hoagy Carmichael and Fletcher Henderson to help him along the way.
It was while he was playing with the Fletcher Henderson Band that he switched to trumpet. Aren’t they the same, you might ask? We will look at that a bit later. You might be surprised.
This was where Louis Armstrong’s career took off. Radio and TV appearances accompanied his concerts. He was fast becoming an icon. I suppose you could say the rest is history. From Jazz to “Hello Dolly” and “What A Wonderful World,” everything he touched just seemed to work.
Before we take a look at Louis Armstrong’s favorite instrument that he played for most of his career, let’s go back to check something out.
Difference Between the Trumpet and the Cornet
If you don’t play a brass instrument, you could be forgiven for thinking they are the same. If they were, then when you read about Armstrong going from Cornet to Trumpet, you might be justified in saying, “So what?”
But they are different, and there are different disciplines involved in playing them. Understanding all this will help answer our initial question, “What instrument did Louis Armstrong play?”
The Trumpet Is Older
The trumpet is an instrument with an ancient history. It has been around for thousands of years and was originally made from bone. It was designed to be used as a form of signal or to give instructions, especially on a battlefield.
Over centuries it evolved until, in the more recent past, it was made from metal and given valves. It was the invention of the valves that made it into the instrument we know today.
However, it was never meant to be an instrument to play music. It always had, and still does to a certain degree, have military functions. But, these days, it is recognized as a great instrument that plays across all genres.
This came later, much later. Not until the 1800s, to be exact. Again, like the trumpet, the cornet hadn’t been conceived as an instrument to listen to. This was a post horn that they added some valves to. And they didn’t want it to sound like a trumpet. They wanted it to be its own instrument.
Are They Similar Sounding?
They do, in that they are both brass instruments. But, they do sound different from each in noticeable ways.
Two Types of Cornet
There are two types of cornet – the Standard Bb and the Soprano Eb. Even those will sound different from each other. The Soprano Eb will give you a much higher sound than the Standard Bb.
Both types of cornet play the same, but the results in sound are quite different. To get the full range from a cornet, you might find the player has both Bb and Eb with them. They can often be seen changing instruments during a performance.
The cornet has a very basic sound, with what appears to be plenty of middle range. It has a warm and much deeper sound. The trumpet, on the other hand, is noticeable because it has a bit more top.
Brighter And Livelier
You might say the trumpet is just that. Livelier and brighter. That lends itself to a more punchy sound. Ideal for cutting through either an orchestra or a live band.
When you hear the trumpets in certain orchestral settings, they lift and create excitement. This is apparent in the opening bars of the finale to the William Tell Overture.
The trumpets with French Horns below give off this patriotic blast of sound that inspires. The cornet could not achieve the same effect. However, there are situations where the cornet is the better instrument to be used.
They Might Look The Same, But There Are Two Designs
To most people who don’t play, the cornet just looks like a smaller version of the trumpet. But, whilst the cornet can be seen to be smaller, there are important design differences.
Placement Of The Valves
The valve placement on the trumpet is positioned halfway towards the tubing. But on the cornet, it is two-thirds of the way.
There are significant differences here as well. The trumpet has two 18-degree curves in the design, whereas the cornet has four.
On a standard trumpet, there is a cylindrical-shaped bore. The cornet, on the other hand, has a conical-shaped bore. This is a major design difference. A cylindrical bore has a uniform diameter throughout. The conical bore is designed to taper at one end.
The difference is that the conical-bore design of the cornet will give you a very consistent sound. It will also be a very full-bodied and warmer sound than the cylindrical bore.
The differences here are difficult to see unless you know exactly what you are looking for. For those who have played both instruments, you will be aware of the design difference between the cornet and trumpet.
The cornet has a much deeper “v-shaped” mouthpiece. Whereas the trumpet has a shallower, almost bowl-like mouthpiece. The trumpet is the only brass instrument that has a mouthpiece with this design. That makes the playing action of the mouth different for both instruments.
Is One Easier Than The Other To Learn?
The simple answer to that is, not really. It might seem that the cornet will be easier due to it being smaller. The cornet is indeed lighter at just over one pound than the two pounds of the trumpet. That might be a consideration for young players.
The mouthpiece being slightly narrower might also make life easier for the student. But I am clutching at straws a little bit here. One is not any easier than the other.
Louis Started Here
We have seen that the first instrument Louis Armstrong played was the cornet. And there is no doubt that with that instrument, he learned a lot about music.
It also put him in good stead for when he went over to trumpet. But, he didn’t have a choice as you may. It was an opportunity that just presented itself.
Playing The Cornet Can Be An Advantage
If you are already playing cornet and are thinking about switching to trumpet, your experience this far will help you. But, playing the cornet is not a prerequisite step to playing the trumpet. You can go straight to the trumpet and be just as successful as if you had gone to cornet first.
Any skills, theory, and knowledge you gain are valuable and transferable. It could be considered an advantage without being a necessity. If you want to play trumpet, then play it. The cornet and the trumpet are two different instruments.
What Will Be The Decider?
Only two things in my view. Firstly, which sound appeals to you more, the trumpet or the cornet? Secondly, where do you want to take your music? If you see yourself in a rock or progressive rock band, you won’t find many cornet players. In that case, the trumpet will be the favorite.
Finally, An Answer To The Question
What instrument did Louis Armstrong play? As we have seen, he started on the cornet and became a well-known and respected player of that instrument. But, he switched to trumpet, and that is what he is most known for.
A French Trumpet
His favorite instrument was a trumpet made for him by Henri Selmer of Paris. He had many of them during his career, all of the same specifications. Selmer provided him with a new one about every five years.
He gave the old ones to someone who needed them and would use it. That in itself is worth a pat on the back.
There is one of his brass Selmer trumpets exhibited in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A tribute to the man.
Was He The Best Ever Jazz Trumpeter?
That is a question open to conjecture. Some might say Dizzy Gillespie, and they have a point. Others would say, like myself, the mercurial Miles Davis was possibly the best. But, there is no doubt that Armstrong would be in there somewhere.
Did He Change Jazz?
The answer to that is, yes, he did. That puts him in a unique group of jazz musicians. He changed the way the soloist was viewed and thus the importance of good improvisation.
The improviser became the focal point of the performance. Before, they tended to stand back and play. Armstrong changed all that.
Subsequently, band leaders assembled musicians intending to showcase what they could do. Some might say a bit of a self-opinionated thing to do. But, these guys were the cream of the crop and deserved to be heard and recognized. Armstrong started all that, and for many years led the way.
Resources for Trumpet Players
So, has all that encouraged you to give it a go? I hope so. If it has, here are some things that may interest you.
I happen to think that Eastar makes great instruments at a budget price. They give you a decent instrument and plenty of extras, like this Eastar Bb Standard Trumpet. If cornet is more your pace, there’s this Stagg WS-CR215 Bb Cornet with Case.
And, if you are just starting on either, you are sure to benefit from How to Play the Trumpet: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning the Trumpet Basics and Learn to Play Trumpet/Cornet.
Interested in Famous Musicians?
We have you covered. Take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time, The Greatest Trumpet Legends, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, The 20 Best Jazz Albums of All Time, as well as Popular Jazz and Blues Songs for Female Vocalists for more information.
And, don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Yamaha YTR-2335 Bb Trumpet, the Mendini by Cecilio MTT-L Trumpet, the Jean Paul USA TR-330 Standard Student Trumpet, and the Yamaha YTR-2330 Standard Bb Trumpet currently on the market.
What Instrument Did Louis Armstrong Play? – Final Thoughts
At the start, the question was, what kind of instrument did Louis Armstrong play? But, we went on a journey to understand things outside of that question. Not the least of which was to look at what made the man.
But, he wasn’t just a man or just another musician. He was something very special – as a man and musician. He overcame great obstacles in his life to become something very special indeed. There could be no better way of remembering him.
Until next time, let the music play.