Trumpet Mouthpiece Primer: Finding the Best Match for Your Chops

Shopping for a trumpet mouthpiece can be overwhelming. One of the biggest retailers, Woodwind & Brasswind, offers 188 different models in its online store, and each comes in a multitude of sizes. For example, the Bach Standard Series in silver is a popular, inexpensive model and available in about 50 configurations.

No two embouchures are alike, so there’s no such thing as the “best” mouthpiece. No mouthpiece in the world can make a mediocre player sound good, or a great player sound lousy. But choosing the wrong mouthpiece can limit sound, range, comfort and endurance. Most novice trumpeters start with whatever mouthpiece came with the horn, and that’s usually fine. But at the intermediate level, that beginner piece can impede progress. By the time a musician approaches the pro level, the mouthpiece that seemed fine for a college orchestra won’t cut it for screaming leads in a salsa outfit.

Understanding the parameters of mouthpiece construction, and learning which mouthpieces typically work best for which styles and levels of experience, can help demystify the bewildering process of finding the right one.

Anatomy 101

Each part of a mouthpiece’s anatomy plays a role in creating the sound and affects how the musician feels producing it. The important parts include:

  • The rim
  • The cup
  • The throat
  • The backbore

The rim is the rounded edge of the mouthpiece that’s placed against the lips. Because it’s the main contact point between the mouth and the horn, the rim can have a huge impact on comfort and endurance. The key rim variables are width and contour. In general, choosing the width requires a balancing act between endurance and flexibility. A wider rim can improve endurance, but that gain comes at the cost of flexibility because not as much of the lip is free to move. Similarly, choosing the shape of the rim calls for a comfort vs. precision calculation. A rounded edge usually feels better, but a sharper edge allows for a cleaner attack. Players should factor in their own lip anatomy. Musicians who don’t have squishy lips may find that a sharper rim digs in too much and makes it painful to play for very long.

The cup is the hollow bowl-shaped part of the mouthpiece. The size and depth of the cup have a huge effect on the sound. In general, a bigger cup provides a bigger, darker tone, but it requires more control and can cause fatigue. Classical players usually go for a big, deep cup. A smaller, shallower cup creates a brighter tone and makes it easier to play high notes, which is why many lead players prefer a shallow piece. But a shallower version may sacrifice volume, flexibility and richness of tone.

The throat of the mouthpiece is the opening that leads out of the cup and into the shank, which is the part that sticks into the trumpet. A large throat allows more air to pass through, so the player can blow more freely and get more volume with a fuller tone. A smaller throat increases resistance, which creates a brighter but weaker tone and can help less-experienced players with endurance. Throat size doesn’t vary much, but most pros prefer a mouthpiece with a bigger throat.

The backbore is the inside of the shank. In general, a bigger backbore produces a darker tone, but the overall tone effect results from the interplay among all the parts of the mouthpiece and the player’s lips and lungs working together in harmony.

Another variable is the taper from the throat to the backbore. There’s no simple formula for choosing a backbore; in fact, pros sometimes have a mouthpiece adjusted to the opening of the throat or backbore.

Sizing and Complications

To complicate matters further, every mouthpiece manufacturer has a different system for indicating size. And there are dozens of manufacturers out there. Better known brands include Vincent Bach, Schilke, Yamaha, Denis Wick, Warburton, Curry, Marcinkiewicz, Giardinelli and Bob Reeves. So, for example, a Schilke 14A4a has a size 14 cup diameter, an “A” (shallow) cup, a “4” (semi-flat) rim contour and an “a” (tight) backbore. But Marcinkiewicz might call a similar mouthpiece an E12.

The complexity doesn’t end there, either. Quite a few companies, including the well-known Monette, make high-end, specialized mouthpieces for serious players. And this article hasn’t even touched on the gold vs. silver issue. Then there’s the growing array of “novelty” mouthpieces, with asymmetric or wedge-shaped rims or super-shallow cups for stratospheric screeching. Nonexperts should probably forget those quirky designs, but plenty of skilled players swear by them.

At any rate, there’s no foolproof method for finding a mouthpiece soulmate. Go to a music store with a healthy selection and test drive as many as possible, get advice from pros and teachers. It’s worth the effort!

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