Larry Ramirez is the world’s nearest equivalent to a one-man marching band. He has mastered every known brass instrument, from trumpet, trombone and cornet to French horn and sousaphone. In addition, he has invented three instruments: the revolutionary Superbone, which combines the valve and slide trombone and is a favorite of such jazz musicians as Maynard Ferguson; a more compact marching French horn, and—soon to be unveiled—his top-secret flugelhorn.
For the past 16 years Ramirez, 38, has been the official horn tester for Frank Holton & Co. in Elkhorn, Wis. He works up to 12 hours a day checking the daily output of 30 to 50 brass instruments in a soundproof room.
Ramirez first inspects each of the $600-to-$3,000 instruments visually for flaws, then machine tests them for air-leaks and pitch. Finally he plays them for “action.” Explains Ramirez, “I play the major scales, minor scales, chromatics—everything I can think of.” In fact, Ramirez plays with such passion that last winter he blew himself into a state of exhaustion and had to be hospitalized and out of work for five weeks. (A back-up tester is being trained.)
Ramirez’ love of brass began at 12, when he spent the first $32 he earned peddling papers in Denver’s tough tenderloin area for a secondhand trumpet. Married to his high school sweetheart, Gloria, he went to Chicago to become a professional musician, but ended up sanding cars on a General Motors assembly line. “Playing my mouthpiece while I worked was all that kept me sane,” he says. When the job of horn tester opened up at Elkhorn, Ramirez took a cut in salary to get it.
He would love to pass along his musical skills to his five children (aged 13 to 21), but so far there are no takers. “That’s the sad part,” says Ramirez. “I could teach any brass instrument. but so far they’ve taken up the piano, the drums and the flute.”