What exactly is a Meehaphone?
Let's step back 40 years, and into a whole new world- forget about fully chromatic 3 valve brass, and embrace the G bugle.
It's the 1980s- and DCI has been marching 2 valve bugles for a few years. These instruments were gradually introduced into the activity from 1977 through 1979, and entirely replaced the single valve bugle. And DCI was not ready for 3 valve bugles- while they did expand the low range, and make the instruments fully chromatic (capable of playing all the notes within their lower and upper range), bugle manufacturers were already scrambling to cover costs for new 2 valve bugle tooling and were not going to be able to afford to develop more bugle tooling. To quote DCI,
“Note: DCI would like to go on record as being permanently opposed to any three-valve instruments."
So, we have 2 valves now, and for the foreseeable future. What can this 2 valve alto brass do? Well, here's a little fingering chart from a 1970 Olds Ultratone catalog:
So yeah, these two valved alto bugles? They're actually amazingly capable. We can now play basically all of our notes (as long as we're okay with playing in our upper range, which was a small sacrifice for the time) so it's time to take advantage of all these notes. It's time for a revolution in instrumentation! Or at least, a standardization.
The New Alto
By now, horn lines had mostly standardized on the Soprano, Baritone, and Contrabass bugles- but not so much on the alto bugle. In fact, alto brass in the wider musical world had just found itself with a new member- the mellophonium. The Conn 16E Mellophonium was an iteration on an existing- and very popular- instrument: the concert mellophone. The concert mellophone, was a very popular alto horn in American bands. Billed as a budget competitor to the French horn that we know and love, it was typically played upright somewhat like a trumpet- but instead of the bell facing forward and inline with the leadpipe, it bent downwards towards the floor. The mellophonium was a modified mellophone with a new wrap, but crucially, a new bell design. The Mellophone had always had a bell that pointed downwards- but the mellophonium was bell-front, allowing for sound to actually project on the field and parade route. And with popular groups like Stan Kenton's orchestra centering their bands around a section of mellophonium players, the marching world wanted this instrument on the field.
And so, the bell front mellophone was born- an adaptation of the mellophonium which managed to solve most of its playing issues, whilst also bringing the horn to the marching field. The first mellophones hit the field in the early '60s, but it wasn't until the '70s that the instrument truly took off. Modern mellophones actually can trace much of their design details from this era- instruments like the Olds Ultratone Valve-Rotor Mellophone (designed by Zigmant Kanstul when he worked for F.E. Olds and Sons) have obviously influenced modern designs from companies like Yamaha.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves- our alto section is growing: we have the mellophone, pitched in the same octave as the soprano; the marching french horn, pitched an octave below the mellophones and sopranos; and even flugelhorn bugles have been added to the mix.
How many Altos do you need?
But is it better to have all these instrument types? In the 80s, the Garfield Cadets decided to experiment- they cut their marching french horns and marching flugelhorns, and switched to purely mellophones. A streamlined alto section like theirs has a few advantages, but most importantly: you can divide the alto section on the field.
If you had, say: 10 mellophones, 8 flugelhorns, and 5 french horn bugles, you were quite limited in how you could split up the section without the balance of sound changing based on someone's position inside the audience. When you just have 20 mellophones, you can split them 2, 4, 5, or even 10 ways- and keep the balance of sound.
Eventually, most of the nation's premier drumcorps followed the Garfield Cadets in adopting sections made up purely of mellophones. If we were to fast forward to today, you'd find that most of the better high schools bands and marching groups also follow this blueprint- the mellophone is typically the primary alto instrument, and other altos are only present for solos or features (like this flugelhorn solo from the Hebron High School marching band's 2022 show: Oddysey FM. The solo was even cooler in person!).
Well, there was one downside to everyone using the same setup for alto brass- you have to work harder to distinguish your sound from the rest of the corps and bands. And that's why the Blue Devils marched an entirely different instrument from everyone else from 1987 to 1991- the Meehaphone.
Enter the Meehaphone.
The Blue Devils wanted to create a unique but cohesive alto sound by replacing all their alto horns- the mellophones, flugelhorns, and french horn bugles. And they did this by making an unholy combination of a french horn bugle and a flugelhorn bugle. And they only made (at most) 2 dozen of them.
But what does any of that mean? Well, it struggles to play... anything besides the staff. It has a unique sound: a blend of the mellophone, french horn, and flugelhorn; it is tremendously- preposterously- loud; and the horn feels like nothing else to hold or play.
To create this instrument, Blue Devils Brass staff Jack Meehan (who is this horn's namesake) and Wayne Downey commissioned the Meehaphone from Zigmant Kanstul's own company, Kanstul. They were delivered in 1986 (according to this random forum thread, but the date does make sense), and played from 1987-1991. One of my personal hypotheses is that they only stayed in service for so long because they were a large investment, but, it's also possible that the unique sound outweighed the challenges of playing the meehaphone- because there was a 3 valve prototype in the key of F (which is the same key as the marching mellophone) made, presumably as a product to sell to schools and marching ensembles.
Fun fact: the Meehaphone was actually designated 'Model MFL' by Kanstul (this model name is engraved on the bell), which officially stood for 'Muffle Horn', a reference to the muffled tone of the instrument. Unofficially, it stands for Motherf***ing loud- because it's one of, if not the, loudest alto bugles ever made.
How do you know all this?
Well, there are resources online- but more specifically, I came across this video:
This video actually prompted me to set up a saved search in eBay to try and catch any Meehaphones that were to go on sale- I didn't need to wait long. Soon after I set the saved search, I got a hit! I was able to buy Tiffany's Meehaphone (the very one from this video), and I managed to snatch it up before anyone else. For $974.25 I was now the owner of a Blue Devils Meehaphone- S/N 1028. Unfortunately I do not have the original mouthpiece, nor have managed to obtain diagrams detailed enough for me to commission one (the original design documents were in Warburton's factory, which burned down in the 2000s.)
But since this seems to be nowhere else on the web, the mouthpiece used by the Meehaphone is a modified flugelhorn mouthpiece with a french taper- and I found that a Marcinkiewicz Bobby Shew (Couesnon Taper) mouthpiece (not ideal, but it was the easiest french flugel mouthpiece to buy that was of high quality) actually worked rather well!
The Story Continues!
As I mentioned above, I still want the original mouthpiece. Here's what I know, and what I'm planning on doing!
- I believe the mouthpiece was called the Downey BD
- I do not know what shank the mouthpiece was, but I tested a Bach (small morse taper), Yamaha (large morse taper), and french taper Marcinkiewicz. The french taper was the only one which seated properly and played even remotely well in the Meehaphone, so it almost certainly is what was used.
- Terry Warburton manufactured the mouthpiece, which was designed to Wayne Downey's spec.
Warburton's factory burned down, and while they offered to make me a mouthpiece, I have no clue how accurate of a replica it'd be. So I'm not really intent on spending hundreds of dollars on a mouthpiece which may not work well, when I could wait and hope to gather more info on the Downey BD mouthpiece.
I know that BAC Music bought Kanstul's tooling, so they might also have documentation on the Model MFL Meehaphone. I reached out to them via their socials, and hopefully they have useful documents related to the Meehaphone, and hopefully those would also include info on the mouthpiece. Bit of a long shot, I know, but it can't hurt! If they have documents and send them to me, I'll post them here and on archive.org.
The only (living) members of this story appear to be Wayne Downey and Terry Warburton, so if BAC can't help I'll contact Mr. Downey, and then maybe reach out to Zig Kanstul's son (who I believe went into the family business, and might know something about the Meehaphone mouthpiece).
There were quite a few sources for this article, but, here's the ones I think are worth mentioning the most.
Firstly, middlehornleader.com is an incredible resource for mellophone and alto-adjacent content. Run by Scooter Pirtle, this site exists to archive content he wrote in the 90s on the topic and also has been updated to feature discussions on some newer content. I highly recommend giving this site a thorough read. The specific resources I leaned on were: his Evolution of The Bugle, specifically part 4; and his interview with Wayne Downey.
Tiffany Johns, the prior owner of my Meehaphone, also wrote a short article on their blog describing their experiences with the horn.