It’s rare to find a musician who not only plays his instrument, he also makes them.
Peter Pickett and his team blend musical and engineering talents in a small shop in Lexington, producing hand-built Pickett-Blackburn trumpets as well as mouthpieces for brass instruments. Tom Martin visited the shop.
Question: Let's begin with how, in college, you came around to blending engineering and music.
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Answer: I went to Virginia Tech in 1991, finishing a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering as well as a bachelor of arts in trumpet performance. My master’s was in acoustics and had a lot of the acoustics of trumpets built into it. So, it really did come to a head by combining those in my master’s.
Q: You left college with this combination in your head. Did you go right into that blended field or something else?
A: No, because that's a little bit of a pipe dream. When I was looking for graduate schools, I was looking to do auditorium acoustics and concert hall acoustics. That seemed like a grand exciting thing to do. But, I was politely told along the way that there are a select few people who do that and then that's that.
So, even though I wanted the acoustics job, I ended up moving to Lexington to work for Lexmark, initially hoping to get the acoustics position, not musical acoustics of course, but acoustics of printers, and computers, and such. That didn't work out either. But as part of my acoustics work, it was a lot of mechanical modeling and making up mathematical models to predict mechanical systems. And that easily applied to acoustics as well as printers. And so, I started working for Lexmark doing that.
Q: How did you make the connection from printers to brass?
A: After starting at Lexmark in 1998, I was playing trumpet in the community orchestra. And one of the main brands of instruments that I'd always wanted, I couldn’t afford. So, I went out to my garage and I had a small little metal lathe and made the finger buttons that went on top and a little bottom cap that screwed onto the bottom. And I’d go to community band and my friends would say, “Oh man, Peter, those look awesome. Can I have some?” And so, I would make ‘em a set as a favor and then somebody else would ask. And pretty soon, I had a burgeoning business making these little parts by hand. Eventually, I got tired of that and we actually scaled up and started in 2003 making finger buttons and bottom caps for trumpets.
Q: Did that expand into the mouthpiece business?
A: Yes. We were known for these trim kits with the buttons and the bottom caps for a while, but that business is fairly limited. It’s like buying 22-inch rims for your Honda Civic. Man, you look cool, but you're only gonna buy one of those sets and then you're done. Whereas on the mouthpiece side of things, there’s more of the commodity turnover for musicians and they'll buy a new one every once in a while to try something new. And so, in 2007 or 2008, we made some initial mouthpieces on the machines that we had. And that has grown into the meat and potatoes of our business.
Q: And what's the market like?
A: The competition is several fold. Here in the U.S. there are a number of small manufacturers that make very good mouthpieces. Everybody has their unique look, sound and philosophy. And frankly, we all get along. We all know each other. And we have a great time when we meet up at various conferences. Internationally, it's similar. Europe has a lot of good makers. And China and Asia also have some makers.
Now, in terms of manufacturing, that's where you start to get competition. There are manufacturers overseas, not only in China, but in Europe that do offer very competitive manufacturing costs and bases. But we have the benefit of being in the U.S. And so, for our large U.S. customers, it’s much easier to do business.
Q: Can you describe what goes on when you go to a trade show or to some kind of event where people are interested in taking a look at a mouthpiece or two?
A: Yes. We'll take 2,000 to 3,000 mouthpieces with us. And as a result, we probably have something that people are looking for. We go to these shows because it's a face business. People want to put the mouthpiece on their face, hear what it sounds like, feel what it feels like, and look at it under a bright light and go “Wow, that looks really amazing.” It becomes a very personal purchase.
Q: Because everybody has their own embouchure, correct? The shape of their mouth.
A: Yes. Everybody's face is different and that includes not only their embouchure and their muscular structure, but their dental structure, their oral structure, and their chest cavity. All those things factor together in how an instrument plays for you.
Q: When did you evolve into actually building the whole trumpet?
A: We have been a contract manufacturer for a number of years for other instrument makers. We can make various parts for trumpets. We partnered with one brand in particular, Blackburn Trumpets, a number of years ago. We made parts for them for years. Cliff Blackburn and I had been friends for a while and he's down in Tennessee. It made sense as a domestic manufacturer to have somebody almost up the street making your parts for you. He decided that he wanted to retire. It had been a small shop for 30-35 years. And he wanted to do something else. And since we had a close relationship, he approached us and asked us if we would be interested in continuing that line of instruments and the brand, Blackburn.
Q: And when was that?
A: The official acquisition was just over two years ago now. We’re in year three now of making the instruments here in Lexington.
Q: And how many trumpets do you turn out in a week, or a month, or a year?
A: Since it's a boutique instrument, it’s very few. We have several projects going on at a time. But on average, it's about one every week or every 2 weeks.
Q: Are they custom made?
A: Yes. These instruments are very personal to the individual. And so, if somebody is interested they typically come to our shop and play the horn. We talk about what kind of music they play, how they play. We watch them play. And we listen to them. Often people will bring somebody else with them that is used to how they hear or how they sound. And so, they can offer a nice opinion. And then from there, we design the horn, we pick the pieces and parts that make sense, and then we make that horn for them from scratch.
Q: What are the advantages of hand shaping versus machining the trumpet bell? And the bell is really important, isn’t it?
A: Yes. When Cliff Blackburn approached us, the main issue was being able to make the bell such that we got the same result as Cliff. Cliff is an age-old craftsman and made them by hand, self-taught. And so, we had to repeat that process such that we got the same result. He was very low tech: it was him, a stump, a hammer, and an anvil. And he sat there and beat it up. And that process produces the result that we get. There are faster ways to make bells instead of the 10 or 12 hours that it takes us to make a bell. But the fact is, the reason these bells sound the way they do is because of how they're made.
Q: Tell us about your crew. All of them are musicians?
A: Yes. We’re all musicians. I chose to hire musicians because they represent us extremely well at trade shows and most musicians have some technical or mechanical aptitude. So, you can teach them to be craftsmen and machinists in the shop.
Q: Do you see the company continuing doing what it does now indefinitely or do you have some thoughts about expanding?
A: We are continually growing. We're a small company, so any growth is large for us. We have been rather successful here in the past number of years, which I'm very proud of. The acquisition of the Blackburn trumpet line has been pretty significant and it's not huge dollars, but it's a huge reputation increase and it's a lot of work. But we will master it and we will get it done and that will continue to grow for several years.
Tom Martin's Q & A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.