In the headquarters of HornSmasher.com, John Pedersen inserts the nozzle of an air compressor into the mouthpiece of a clarinet that he has filled with peanut butter. He adjusts his safety goggles and apron.
“Hold on,” he says.
Then Pedersen, 64, forces air at 100 psi through the clarinet. Its silver keys fly across the small workshop as smooth (not nutty) peanut butter squirts out of the bell and tone holes. It’s messy.
In its own way, Pedersen’s clarinet experiment is as effective as when he ran over a Sousaphone with a steamroller.
“Cut,” he says.
Hornsmasher.com is the new side business of Pedersen Band & Orchestra. Occupying two tidy buildings in Burbank, the 40-year-old musical instrument repair, sales, and training company has branched out with a series of free web videos that teach musicians how to care for their clarinets, trumpets, and trombones.
Along with marketing instrument-specific cleaning kits, Hornsmasher.com peppers its training video series with these intriguing snapshots of the day the music died.
“I’ve repaired or built over a million instruments in my career,” Pedersen says. “After that, the temptation to chuck one out in the street is quite strong.”
Pedersen’s shop has seen everything from the wreckage of trumpets run over by schoolbuses (“The typical scenario involves unloading the trumpet from the back of the bus for a football game and then forgetting it’s there,” Pedersen says), to trombones dropped off bleachers, to “would-be-repairman fathers who just tear the horn to pieces,” to books.
“Yes, books,” Pedersen says. “Kids put books in their horn case, close the lid, and crack! I have made a lot of money from books.”
Pedersen also owns an impressive but cruel-looking array of metal rods, cones, and something called an expanding mandrill that he uses to realign and smooth battered brass sections. In addition, he takes instruments apart for a comprehensive chemical swabbing that removed “about 28 years of gunk” from this writer’s ancient baritone horn.
You don’t see a shop like his on every street corner.
The constantly-changing face of consumer technology makes it too easy to say that Pedersen is part of a vanishing breed, simply because the tools of his trade haven’t changed much over the past century.
“We still put a cork joint on a clarinet the same way it was done 100 years ago,” he says, “although now some of the tools are electrified.”
Similarly, the devices he uses to repair everything from piccolos to tubas are similar or identical to the ones he used in his apprenticeship in the 1960s.
He gestures to the power lathe, drill press, band saw, and more esoteric implements (like “graduated dent balls”) around his workbench.
“This workshop looks a lot like the one my mentor had when I started in Tucson,” he says. “I remember thinking it was the neatest thing I’d seen in my life.”
Pedersen started playing trombone in the fourth grade. When he was 16, Pedersen’s father took him to a local shop to get the trombone repaired.
Fascinated with the machinery and the process of the repair shop, the young Pedersen began a 4-year apprenticeship with the instrument repairman, Charles Unruh.
“In addition to being extremely knowledgeable,” Pedersen says, “Charley was incredibly patient with me. After two weeks, I told my dad that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And my father said, ‘You’re just the man for the job.’
“My father was a master electrician and could do a lot of things,” Pedersen says. “When the lights went out in Tucson, he went to work. And he was always very encouraging of me, whether it was in music, or anything.”
In 1967 Pedersen left Tucson and moved to Burbank, where he worked at the tiny Benge Trumpet factory. The Benge Trumpet, in its heyday a prized possession of musician’s musicians like Herb Alpert, was for several years operated out of founder Elden Benge’s home on Burbank Blvd. Production later moved to Los Angeles and Anaheim, though the “Burbank Benges” are still in demand long after the company’s closure.
“But I wanted to get back into instrument repair,” Pedersen says, “so I started taking in work on the side.”
Pedersen gradually developed relationships with local music shops and, later, school districts. He launched J.C. Pedersen Band Instrument Repair in 1971, renting workbench space at first and then moving into larger buildings.
His current location comprises two small houses that contain the store (managed by his French Horn-playing wife, Nedra), small practice studios where instructors give lessons, an instrument rental closet that goes from 100 flutes and clarinets to zero during the school year, and a 2-room workshop in the back.
In the early years, despite several healthy school band programs in L.A. County that provided steady repair work, Pederson needed to augment his income. He taught several years of Wind Instrument Repair at Pasadena City College and, from 1985 through 2002, worked for the L.A. Unified School Department in its instrument repair shop.
He cherished the experience of honing his craft with a specialized crew that at one time grew to 22 people, and he learned a great deal. But big city band departments can change a man.
“In one school, we saw students do some horrible things to, on, and in a piano,” Pedersen says with a shudder. “We drew straws to clean the soundboard.”
Retiring from L.A. Unified in 2002 and comfortably moved into his new location with Nedra (she had retired from Disney’s Legal department two years earlier and was now working at the store full time), Pedersen for the first time expanded his focus from the standard roles of the community music store—sales, rentals, lessons, repairs—to the idea that would blossom into Hornsmasher.com.
“The training videos were the first thing,” Pedersen says. “I didn’t know if I’d be cutting into my own bottom line by telling people how to take care of their instruments, but maybe it was decades of seeing people come in with the same damage to their horns. If they would simply not put their books in their cases…”
As a way to monetize the videos, Pedersen developed nine different cleaning kits—he just sold 40 to English-language schools in Saudi Arabia—and then his 18-year-old daughter had an idea.
“Nobody wants to see an old buzzard swabbing out a French horn,” she said. “You should be like a rock star.”
In the Hornsmasher series, Pedersen is absolutely not a rock star; he is more of a giddy scientist. A chance conversation with a Burbank neighbor who happens to be a professional videographer resulted in a series of ensemble videos that claimed the lives of a clarinet (peanut butter), Sousaphone (steamroller), and a bassoon (wood chipper).
“We’re going to throw a few oboes on the barbie in the next one,” Pedersen says.
In addition to cleaning kit sales and increased foot traffic to his store, Pederson says the Hornsmasher videos have brought a small degree of infamy.
“Some people have said, ‘How could you destroy a perfectly good instrument?’” he says. “But all those instruments were way beyond economical repair or playable condition. I can assure you that they’re in a better place now.”
And what about Pedersen?
Watch any of his videos and you will see an energetic man, but he says that, at 64, the time is coming for him to really retire. Will he take on an apprentice, too?
“Nobody’s asked,” he says, “and I can tell you this is not the most lucrative business. But if I can use the next few years to become the Guru of Instrument Repair, I think that will be a nice gift I can give.”
See also: Hornsmasher