Obituary – Derek Watkins (Trumpet Designer) 1945-2013

Derek Watkins, the legendary British trumpet player, died of cancer at the age of 68 on 22nd March 2013.

Much has been written about his legendary status as the #1 studio player over the past 50 years, as is evident in the obituaries and messages from his playing colleagues around the world such as this from The Guardian, but virtually no one describes his 40 year contribution to the design of British trumpets.  It is my privilege to redress the balance.

Boosey & Hawkes Ltd.

From 1974 to 1985, I was the instrument designer at Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. in London.  Initially, I was charged with designing two new trumpets, one for Symphony players and another for Commercial players. This was in the 70s, a time when the UK market was dominated by American and (the new) Japanese instruments. Spurred on by frequently being told that the ‘British cannot make a professional trumpet’, I invited John Wallace (then principal trumpet with the Philharmonia Orchestra) to help with the Sovereign ‘Symphony’ trumpet, which subsequently went into production. I then asked John to name the best commercial/session player who could advise us on the second Sovereign trumpet; his immediate recommendation was Derek Watkins. The ‘Studio’ trumpet was created, manufactured and almost 40 years later, we often hear Americans (in particular) enthusing about it.

Richard Smith (MI) Ltd.

I started my own company in 1985, working from a kitchen table in London. Derek was the inspiration in the design of the professional trumpets that are marked ‘Smith-Watkins’. He knew exactly what he wanted in terms of musical performance and it goes without saying that the highest quality of craftsmanship was essential. It was my job to make the calculations and form the brass into a perfect instrument that he would be happy to play. In true experimental fashion, the first prototype trumpet we made was from parts fixed together with string and tape. The bells could therefore be changed to those of different shapes and I had already designed an easy method to interchange leadpipes. Once Derek had chosen the bell and leadpipe (often soldered together with a gas torch in the back of a Volvo estate in a recording studio car park), I made a ‘proper’ instrument by assembling the parts into one. I eventually presented Derek with a shiny new instrument – but ‘that’s not what I wanted – where do all the pipes go!’ was the immediate response. So that was the beginning of the Smith-Watkins trumpet, which, complete with 15 interchangeable leadpipes, has not needed to change one jot since that time.

Following the requests to make fanfare trumpets for most of the world’s military bands, it was necessary for me to move to a larger property in Yorkshire in 2004. Derek visited us many times to check on the quality of “his” trumpets and also to assist in scientific study, which is part of our continuing work since 1978 (see Library/Technical Papers).

We remained good colleagues and friends throughout this period. Working with Derek was always great fun – I will miss him.

Richard Smith 02/04/2013

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