The Innovation Series: An Interview with John Gough

Age: 29
From: Boulder, CO
Instrument: French Horn
Job Title: Freelancer & Studio Recording Musician; Owner/Chief Craftsman at Elemental Brass
Favorite Brew: Coffee with tons of cream and sugar; Iced Tea; hoppy IPAs

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

John Gough: In 5th grade we had to do one of two things: we had to either be in choir, or pick a musical instrument. I’d been in choir at our church for a long time, but the day before I was given my choice an assembly was held at school and a woodwind quintet performed. They all stood up to talk about their instruments, and when the horn player stood up he jokingly said, “the best part of being a horn player is that they get all the girls.” I didn’t know that that was supposed to be a joke, so decided that’s what I wanted to do!  

CR: *laughter* very nice! When did you realize that horn could be a career pursuit for you?

JG: To be perfectly honest, I never thought I’d be doing this. I had every intention of joining the military, but having Type 1 Diabetes I’m ineligible for service, a rule I didn’t find out about until right before I graduated high school. I panicked, so I applied last minute to a local community college as an undeclared major. They didn’t have student housing either which meant I had to find an apartment, and that first night I remember realizing my independence and deciding that I was going to become a professional musician. The next day I auditioned at the college, had a long talk with the horn teacher about what was in store, and he was honest with me that I was going to have to practice constantly in order to catch up. So that’s what I did. In fact, during my second semester of college I won my first audition and from then on I was hooked.

CR: How did you manage that?

JG: I wanted to be better every day, and every time I practiced I got a little better. However, the things that have led me to any kind of success as a musician is by seeking out the advice of everyone I could, and was lucky that people were willing to give me their time.

CR: I love that it’s non-traditional, something you really had to catch up with.

JG: Yes, there definitely was stuff that I had to work through. The only skill that I feel I have that’s inherent is working with my hands. When I was really young my parents bought me a Playstation and I would mess around with it for a week, beat a game, then take a screwdriver and tear it apart. I once repurposed a chainsaw motor and used it to drive the axle of a go-cart I had made; it was the most dangerous thing, something out of a horror film. But, horn playing really doesn’t come naturally to me. I spend a lot of time working day-to-day on fundamentals, keeping things solid.

CR: If you feel comfortable talking about it, what’s a specific obstacle that you’ve had to overcome?

JG: Making the switch from being a student to being a professional is one of the hardest steps. It’s really hard to accurately evaluate where you are as a student, in relation to what’s expected of you as a professional. I had to learn what people around me at gigs needed me to do, as well as learn when to lead. That may not sound like a huge obstacle, but doing that requires that you have a complete and total command of your instrument, as well as a complete understanding of the role you’re in. Overcoming that has earned me a lot of success, especially when I won my job in China.

CR: Excellent point. What was it like playing for the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra?

JG: Well, I loved traveling and performing in a different culture; it was incredibly transformative, seeing architecture, tasting different foods, and learning Chinese. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had that job, but I left because I wanted a career with more longevity.

CR: I definitely understand that feeling. What did you do upon returning to the United States?

JG: I went to brass repair school in Colorado at CIOMIT and took to it like a duck to water. After graduating I called Dennis Houghton down at Houghton Horns to ask if he could give me a job pushing a mop around the floor for a while. He said yes, so I moved down there and began as a shop assistant. During the year I quickly progressed, and before long became a shop craftsman, taking on major projects and restorations.

CR: So what ultimately convinced you to pursue starting your own repair business and leave Texas?

JG: Things were working out really well in Dallas, and I really loved it there. However, my fiancé lived in Nashville so I made the decision to move. I ended up taking the majority of my savings to purchase a bunch of equipment, and sought out the advice of the most talented and successful people I knew; I didn’t ask them for the answers, but I asked them to point me in the right direction. They gave me books to read, articles from The Horn Call, and when all was said and done I opened by business in July 2016. It was daunting at first, but now I feel I have two equally successful parts of my life that I’m very happy with.

CR: Congratulations! Do you know if you are the youngest repairman and horn maker? I’m unaware of anyone else your age who’s building their own horns and starting their own repair business.

JG: I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess I don’t know if there’s anyone else my age building their own horns. There are many passionate young craftsmen in the U.S., but I don’t know if anyone else is building their own horns.

CR: What’s that like for you, being the alleged youngest horn craftsman?

JG: Do you know the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”? Jiro spends a lifetime attempting to perfect the simple task of making sushi, and while he is regarded as the best in the world, he still views himself as a student. I personally connect with Jiro quite a bit, and though I believe I create excellent products, I don’t consider myself a master of my craft yet because life is a constant journey of learning. So, to answer your question I never really thought about age being a restriction; I just knew that this was something that I could do, and want to continue learning how to improve upon. 

CR: Very true. In terms of your business, what do you provide to your clients?

JG: I want to be the high end fabrication and customization shop located in Nashville. I believe that with the experience I have as a horn player, a brass repairman, and a horn maker, I am able to quickly help another musician diagnosis a problem and find solutions to help them achieve their desired results. I’m also a very warm and friendly person, but I want people to know that I provide very fast turnaround and friendly prices while also maintaining an extremely high standard of craftsmanship.

CR: Sounds like those in Nashville are incredibly lucky to have you, John!

JG: Well, even if you aren’t in Nashville I make myself available to everyone. I always encourage people to come to my shop, but I also installed a 4K TV with Skype so I can determine exactly what the issue is and talk you through it. At the end of the day, what is most important is making sure customers are happy, are enjoying making music, and enjoying playing their horn. It may be fun for my wallet to sell lots of products, but I want to see people in the shop, whether in person or over Skype, I want to listen to them explain what’s going on, and use the experience I have fixing instruments to offer solutions.

CR: That’s very innovative of you! For anyone that reads this, how would one know if an issue lies with them or their instrument?

JG: We all know there’s no magic to what we’re doing on a horn, but there are always very specific components that affect how you play and sound. It very well could be something technical that someone still needs to learn in school and in practice, but sometimes it an equipment issue. Sometimes moving a brace, releasing tension in metal that still needs to be annealed, correcting a taper, or opening a leadpipe with a reamer will fix an issue. That’s also why I wanted to know how to build a horn, to experiment with that and see how I could improve upon common equipment issues.

CR: What was the learning process like, and what are some of the specs of your horn that address common equipment issues?

JG: My mission was to build a horn that was comfortable to play, beautiful looking, played well in tune, had easy response, light in weight, and incredibly consistent. I needed to come up with a design that would give me all of that, so I put together a Geyer style horn that had extremely open curves, brand new forms of bracing, and slides that maximized resonance and response. In relation to opening the curves, the biggest difference lies in a completely unique leadpipe pulling process, along with a pipe bending process only done in the Elemental Brass shop; this leads to the F and B-flat sides sounding identical. Additionally, bracing on the horn is minimal. I have addressed the issue of twisted bell tails, a common issue when removing a stuck bell, by creating a tripod like structural system of braces. This bracing allows you to twist with less restriction and also allows the horn to resonate like crazy. All in all, I tried to keep the horn as simple as possible, and in terms of my process in coming up with solutions to common issues it was just a lot of trial and error in making educated decisions on how a horn is built from start to finish.

CR: What sorts of responses are you getting from people about your horn?  

JG: I’m getting very positive responses regarding the sound. Because of the leadpipe I make for my horn, the instrument has a completely unique tone leaving people with a sound that’s very familiar and very resonant with lots of core and projection. Every time I go and play it for someone, or someone plays it themselves, the sound is what they immediately notice and comment on.

CR: What about your leadpipes?

JG: I took a tremendous amount of time to decide on a design. Through several different sessions of writing an equation, hand turning a mandrel on my lathe, drawing the leadpipe over the mandrel, freezing and bending it in my shop I finally developed one I liked. It’s fascinating because every single horn I put that pipe on sounds better and plays better. For instance, I have a gentlemen in Nashville who struggles with his high register. He was in here one day saying that with my leadpipe it felt like he was playing a piano, where it’s just as easy to press one key as it is to press another.

CR: Wow, that’s quite an achievement. Are you going to be showcasing your horns anywhere soon?

JG: Yes. I’ve started bringing my horns and leadpipes around to various schools and professionals in the country. I will post on my Facebook page and my website the upcoming shows, schools, and symposiums my horns and leadpipes will be shown at.

CR: How much is each product?

JG: Right now my horn can be purchased for $9800. I include two water-keys, a customized leadpipe and main tuning slide, engraved valve caps, a detachable bell, and can include a case. The leadpipes I am charging only $500 to produce, and install for free with purchase.

CR: Do you recommend a mouthpiece that plays best with your horn?

JG: It’s a very universal horn and works exceptionally well with many different kinds.

CR: Specific to this endeavor, what’s something that you want to encourage people our age to do, whether it’s making their own horn, opening their own shop, etc?

JG: I’m a big believer in obnoxiously positive stereotypical messages *laughter*. Don’t limit yourself! The only thing someone is limited by is one’s inability to motivate themselves. The world in which we live is profound, and we have a huge access to information at our fingertips all the time. If you want to learn how to build a horn, that is not an impossible task. It’s very hard to come by the information, but you can do it. When I decided to be a hornist, there was no guarantee; I just had to get up in the morning and start practicing. When I got the opportunity to go and play in China, I of course was nervous about it, but I did it anyways. If you want something, you just go do it. Performance anxiety is awful, and all of us have been affected by it, but we’re all just going to have to face it at some point. Either view it as a negative, or use it as another step in the process to going after what you’re passionate about.

CR: Excellent advice. Is there any final statement you’d like to leave with readers?

JG: I hope people take an interest in my product and are willing to try out my horn! The EB1 horn is exceptional and a true joy to play. I think it’s so great that many people are making horns right now, but I have total confidence in what I’ve created because it embodies what I’ve always wanted to see in a horn. I demand a lot out of the horns I work with, and I treat every instrument that comes to my shop as if it were my own instrument. Also, if anyone ever finds themselves in Nashville, come on by, or if anyone needs a consultation, add me on Skype!

CR: Great! Thanks for talking, John!

JG: Thank you!