Well-known brass tech, player offers no-cost idea to bring back unique sound of drum and bugle corps

by John Simpson (john.simpson0@icloud.com)

Publisher’s note: this article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of the on-line magazine Drum Corps World, pages 94 and 96.

Where are the fans?

Should a banjo replace the second violin in the Budapest string quartet? After all, it is a string instrument. Should Bb instruments be used in drum corps?

“Bb instruments are to be used indoors; G instruments are to be played outdoors,” said Ricardo Gabriel, bugle instructor for the USAF Drum and Bugle Corps and retired trumpet player with the USAF Band.

While growing up in Hutchinson, KS, I was a first- or second-year trumpet student. One day I heard a unique and unusual brass sound coming from the local football stadium. I pedaled my bike as fast I could to the source of this brilliant brass sound . . . maybe four blocks from my home.

I saw my first drum corps playing on chrome-plated instruments. Could it be that the incredible sound was created because of chrome horns?

I noticed each instrument had only one valve, unlike the three valves on my trumpet. Having switched from trumpet to tuba my sixth grade year, I was encouraged to join the Sky Ryders. As a result of being issued a bass baritone bugle, that was the beginning of my many years in drum and bugle corps, both as a player and instructor.

Bb instruments were first used by DCI corps in 2000. The issue I have comparing the Bb instruments with the traditional G bugle (single, valve rotary, valve slide, two- and three-valve) is a concept called “overtones.”

Let me explain in laymen’s terms. When a brass instrument is played in the upper modes of the overtone series, a very brilliant sound is produced. Overtones are simply what the word implies — a tone over or above another. Every brass instrument creates the same intervalic relationship beginning with the lowest, the fundamental. Brass players refer to it as the “pedal tone.”

During the 2000 season, my long-time friend and legendary bugler with me in the Air Force Drum & Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C., Tommy Martin, called to tell me that the Bb horns didn’t sound right. Was he ever right!

As each overtone is produced, the intervals between them become smaller. I repeat . . . the higher the overtones, the brighter the sound. Today’s corps, using Bb instruments, are unable to produce the unique sound of the G instrument because they cannot produce the upper modes.

In the days of G instruments, most corps had kids that could play in the upper modes and soloists commonly performed at the 12th mode or beyond.


Today’s brass lines are playing in the 3rd to 6th modes — sometimes to the 8th, but seldom higher. Today’s drum corps sound like bands — not the “in-your-face” sounds of the past. The difference is in sonority.

Have drum corps evolved into bands? Occasionally, there have been proposals to include all instruments. Would this include banjos (four or five strings)?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of sitting next to Sandra and Glenn Opie from Great Bend, KS (a town of around 20,000 in the western part of the state), at a DCI competition. For those who don’t know, the Opies created a very popular and highly-competitive drum and bugle corps in their hometown, the Argonne Rebels, using local kids. Glenn directed the group and Sandra instructed the brass section.

Sandra’s horn lines consistently scored first in brass at nearly every completion during the mid- to late-1960s and into the early 1970s, including at the DCI Championships. They retired from the corps following the 1973 season, then Sandra judged brass for DCI for a number of years.

I have never known a finer brass instructor in my 60 years of involvement in the drum and bugle corps activity. While watching that contest, Sandra turned to me and said, “John, they’re playing on the wrong instruments.” I couldn’t agree more.

In the past, there were many outstanding arrangers for G instruments, including Larry Kerchner, Jim Ott, J.D. Shaw, Mike Duffy, “Red” Winzer, Hy Dreitzer, Jim Wedge, Frank Dorritie, Kenny Norman, Truman Crawford, Keith Markey, Ray Baumgardt, Jim Wren and Robert W. Smith. Their charts, specifically written for G instruments, brought wonderful and stirring sounds to the field.

Here’s an idea. Today, corps using Bb instruments can INSTANTLY change their existing horns to G by holding the 3rd valve down. Of course, the 1st and 2nd valve slides must be pulled. The intervalic relationship is a minor third. Of course, this wouldn’t produce the most ideal sound, but at least arrangers could write in the upper modes and bring back the exciting sound of G instruments and perhaps fans who have decided over the last decade that decided they no longer wanted to hear a sound that resembles a band would come back to the activity.


At one time, drum and bugle corps often marched in local, regional and national parades. Because of its sound, you knew one was coming your way.

In the early 1960s, the USAF corps traveled to Bermuda to march in their annual flower parade. Even though there were several bands in the line-up, spectators at the parade followed the USAF drum corps down the parade route, reaching for a member’s ascot or spat as a souvenir as we marched along. By the end of the parade, there were scores of people following us that stretched more than a block.

The sound was what captured their attention. I’ll never forget that.

Here’s an example I experience at the 2005 DCA Championship in Scranton, PA. During the finals contest, all the corps played on Bb instruments with one exception — the San Francisco Renegades. Until they performed, the crowd reaction had been polite, without enthusiasm.

Seated behind me was my friend, Dick Filkins, a champion snare drummer. We met as members of the USAF Drum and Bugle Corps. During the performance of the Renegades, their show brought the crowd to its feet. When they finished, everyone was standing in approval of their exciting performance.

Dick tapped me on my shoulder and asked why they sounded the way they did. I answered, “They’re playing on G bugles, Dick.” (It’s important to note that even an “old cat” and a drummer at that, heard the difference.)

Frank Dorritie was their brass instructor. The corps was made up primarily of former Santa Clara Vanguard and Blue Devils members.

Today, most of the alumni corps are using G horns. I would challenge any DCI corps using Bb instruments to match the brass sound created by the Hawthorne Caballeros Alumni. You won’t find one Bb instrument in their line.

Will drum corps return to G instruments? It’s a question of leadership. Do we have management who will simply “follow the leader” and play the game of the better corps or show the courage to return their organizations to the once great sound of the past?

If the current trend continues, perhaps the 2020 DCI championships will be held at the local high school football stadium in Russell, KS. (It seats less than eight hundred.)

In closing, I seriously doubt I would have ridden my bike to hear something as common-sounding as a band that day back in the mid-1950s.

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Publisher’s note: I’ve known John since I joined the Sky Ryders’ feeder corps, the Jets, in the spring of 1961. He was my brass instructor through my age-out year in 1970 and we’ve been good friends for 52 years. I stood up for him in his wedding. His background, in addition to marching with the Sky Ryders, includes baritone soloist in the U.S. Air Force Drum & Bugle Corps at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., under the leadership Truman Crawford, affiliated with the New York Skyliners senior corps in the early 1960s, instructing and arranging for the Sky Ryders during the 1960s and 1970s. He probably is known most for his rendition of Rhapsody in Blue that was on a Fleetwood record album, “Portrait in Brass,” featuring the New York Skyliners. It was recorded using a Getzen deluxe G/D half-step slide baritone bugle.
He now frequently attends drum corps shows in Kansas, Minnesota and DCI and DCA Championships.