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A trombone, like most musical instruments, is possibly more akin to a motorcycle than a bicycle. Okay, maybe they’re not that complex, but they are more complex than they seem and small changes to their individual parts can have wild impacts on their functionality.
Most notably for a trombone, the choice of mouthpiece can have a grand effect on your tone. Here’s a breakdown of how to find the best trombone for you.
Bottom Line Up Front:
A genre of music (eg. jazz, ska) in which soloing or horn hits are a heavy feature may necessitate a mouthpiece made of silver, titanium, or steel.
The relative hardness (titanium, steel) or density (silver) allows trombonists to more strongly articulate pushing their sound out front. A shallower cup will also help these instruments provide the bright, piercing tones across the entire range.
A traditional brass mouthpiece might be your best bet for playing with an orchestra. Brass mouthpieces have a thicker, heavier tone which helps the trombone blend better. A deeper cup will also help the trombone create the necessary rich tones.
Basic Things to Help Prepare You to Shop
1) Before you start shopping for a mouthpiece, it is important to have music prepared that you are comfortable with playing through can really impress with. When you’re trying out new mouthpieces, you don’t want to mistake your own inability to play through a musical piece as a fault of the hardware you’re playing with.
Obviously, if you’re a beginner, you may not have any music that you are comfortable with. In which case, even a simple scale will do. If you don’t have that, then you’ll be looking for a mouthpiece that will get you comfortably acquainted with the instrument.
At this point, the “shape” or “color” of your tone isn’t as important as the simple comfortability and ease of playing.
2) Next, it is important to answer the general questions: “What type of music do I play?” or, if you’re just starting out, “What type of music do I want to play?” Do you (want to) don a tuxedo and lose yourself in an orchestra, playing symphonic music in a concert hall? Or maybe you’re more into playing fast jazz in a dark, seedy nightclub?
Or maybe you dream of playing outdoors in New Orleans as you march through her streets? This is a pertinent question to jump off from as different trombone mouthpieces are better suited to different “styles”.
3) Once you answer that, it’s great to follow up and question: “What are the limitations of my current mouthpiece? Where am I trying to go with my playing that I can’t currently arrive at with my setup?”
This is similar to number one. If you’re unsure of what your limitations are, is your dissatisfaction a factor of your musical ability or of the music hardware you’re playing on?
The Technical Aspects of Trombone Mouthpieces
The same pitch on different trombone mouthpieces will have a noticeable difference. This is an effect of:
a) the mouthpiece’s material and
b) the mouthpiece’s size, factoring in the size of the individual components of a mouthpiece.
Trombone mouthpieces are made of the following materials: brass, plastic, silver, stainless steel, and titanium. Each of these materials has a different density and a different hardness on the Mohs scale.
Mouthpieces, much like the instruments they fit into, have historically been made of brass. Brass is a metallic alloy composed of copper and zinc, though there is no specific ratio between these two elements.
Brass mouthpieces are plated with silver or gold to protect the player from potential brass poisoning and exposure to other contaminants in the alloy such as arsenic and lead.
Brass scores a 3 on the hardness scale and is one of the denser materials (~8.5 g/cm3) from which mouthpieces are made. Brass mouthpieces generally possess a thicker, heftier sound with the articulations being less present.
Initially created as a novelty, the pBone and Tromba plastic trombone gained popularity after being introduced in the early 2010s. It was created as a lighter, sturdier, cheaper, and carbon-friendly alternative to the traditional brass trombone.
Plastic is far less dense than its metal counterparts and scores around a 3-4 on the hardness scale. The sound plastic instruments produce is generally described as being quieter and less bright than brass.
Silver is the densest material (~10.5 g/cm3) of which mouthpieces are made. It is also a relatively brittle metal scoring a 2.5 on the Mohs scale.
The metals’ density allows the instrument to exaggerate articulations, hitting the transient quicker and playing its notes with more sizzle. These nuances help push the trombone’s sound to the forefront, to be a bit more present and brighter.
Steel is another alloy, mainly iron with varying percentages of carbon. While steel’s density is closer to brass (~8 g/cm3), it has a higher hardness rating (4). Stainless steel mouthpieces allow the players to really pack a punch.
They produce a tone that has been described as clean and dark. A stainless steel mouthpiece tends to cut out some of the pitch’s overtones which focuses the sound and tends to push the trombone’s sound to the forefront.
Titanium is far lighter and less dense than brass (~4.5 g/cm3) but twice as hard, scoring a 6 on the Mohs scale. Considering its hardness, it also produces a clean and dark sound, tightening it up, pushing the trombone to the forefront.
Titanium absorbs your body’s heat much quicker than other metals. In terms of “warming up”, titanium does this…quite literally.
Custom trombone mouthpieces have been made of various materials including wood and cow horn. These mouthpieces are made to order and craft a very specific and niche sound.
If you’re moving on to a custom mouthpiece made of a (relatively) abnormal material, you are already positive of what it is you need from your mouthpiece and an article on the internet is not going to help you make that determination. If you’re not at this level, then these mouthpieces are not for you and this article is also not going to help you.
(Keep a close eye on your lips, the skin surrounding them, and mouth muscles as you begin playing with (any of) these mouthpieces. A rash, soreness, and/or stiffness of the mouth muscles are some common symptoms of an allergy/sensitivity to the mouthpiece’s material.)
The tone mouthpieces produce are affected by more than just the overall size of the mouthpiece. The individual measurements of the mouthpiece’s anatomy, so to speak, can change the tone. Brass mouthpieces are composed of a rim, cup, throat, and backbore.
The measurements of the rim and cup are, generally, the only measurements that can alter the tone. While different throat and backbore measurements may not alter the tone, they may affect the playability of the instrument.
Before understanding how a mouthpiece is categorized based upon its size, it is helpful to understand how the different parts of a mouthpiece lend themselves to the overall tone of a mouthpiece.
Breakdown of a Mouthpiece’s Construction
The rim of the mouthpiece is the circular cross-section of the cup that the musician places their mouth onto. The rims will be engineered on a spectrum stretching between possessing a rounded contour or flat. For those that are more rounded, a player will have more flexibility.
This means that a player’s mouth/lips will have a greater range of motion, allowing for a greater variety of tones. That flexibility comes at a price: rounded contours require stronger lips and more lip pressure to produce the desired tones which can be uncomfortable and, ultimately, a deterrent for some players.
Conversely, a flat contour demands less lip pressure. to produce sound. While they are more comfortable, mouthpiece rims with a flat contour allow for less range of motion and, therefore, less variety of tones.
However, if a musician doesn’t yet possess the embouchure needed to play a rounded contour, they will end up pushing the air into the mouthpiece with too much force, which (momentarily) weakens the dexterity needed to play it. This ultimately defeats the purpose of trying to play a mouthpiece with a rounded contour in the first place.
The cup is the, well, cup-like structure that you probably envision when you hear the word “mouthpiece”. As the rim is where the musician places their lips/mouth, the cup is the next part of the mouthpiece that the musician physically sends air into.
Wider (cup diameter) and deeper cups (cup depth) generate darker sounds with an easier ability to play louder. Conversely, shallow cups produce lighter tones.
While a deeper cup is easier to play louder with, a shallower cup gives the player more control. Similar to how a rounded contour will give a player more flexibility at the cost of requiring more strength, a cup with a large diameter does the same. A beginner trombonist should consider a cup with a smaller diameter.
The exact definition of the shank varies. Sometimes it’s used to describe the entirety of the mouthpiece that “connects” the cup to the rest of the instrument. Other times, it is used to describe the part of the mouthpiece that exclusively houses the backbore. In any regard, attached to the cup are the throat and then the backbore.
For trombone, the shank is categorized as small, measuring in at .427 inches, or large, measuring in at .5 inches. Small shanks are used for smaller trombones: instruments for beginners and those which are more favored by jazz players (a smaller bell is better attuned for the “punchier” tone needed for jazz).
Large shanks are for larger tenor and bass trombones which are more generally favored among orchestral/symphonic players.
The throat is the cavity connecting the cup to the backbore. Throats are categorized as small or large. Large throats give the player more flexibility in terms of volume and tone.
A larger throat also sharpens the higher register (making it easier to reach for the higher end of a trombone’s range). A small throat tends to “choke” the tone across the entire range.
This pulls the higher notes down (flattens them) and raises the lower notes (sharpens them). A larger throat ultimately permits more air to enter the instrument. As such, musicians will find more difficulty in playing softer dynamics with a large throat than they would with a small throat.
The backbore is the last part of the mouthpiece. It is housed by the shank and ushers the air from the mouthpiece into the instrument.
The proportions of a backbore to the mouthpiece’s other components are crucial as well as its proportions to the bore (size of the tubing of the instrument itself, beginning at the point of the mouthpiece’s insertion) of the instrument itself. ie) There is no universal backbore size that will play as well with any individual cup depth, tubing length, etc.
A backbore that is too small will cause higher pitches to flatten. Too large and the musician will encounter too little resistance when pushing air into their instrument, ultimately fatiguing the musician’s embouchure (the way in which a musician applies their mouth to the mouthpiece)*.
Size, in and of itself, is not a reliable factor to categorize backbores as the shape of a backbore, regardless of size, can affect the tone and pitch. A narrower backbore allows for greater ease in playing high notes.
It also brightens the tone and increases the resistance. Conversely, a more open backbore will assist with the lower register, darken the tone, and decrease resistance.
*while this may seem counterintuitive, a certain level of resistance is necessary when playing (wind) instruments. In short, wind instruments create their tone when a standing wave of air is created inside them.
The material, shape, and size of the instrument will create each instrument’s unique sound. Without the resistance, the standing wave will not be created and the air will be wasted.
Brass instruments use two different systems for sizing up their mouthpieces.
The Bach System
This system is named after Vincent Bach, a man as virtuosic as a musician as he was an engineer. The Bach System is a numbered system spanning from 1 to 22: the smaller the number, the larger the mouthpiece.
It is not limited to just trombones but covers all brass instruments (though each brass instrument has its own scale ie. a number 7 for a trumpet is not equivalent to a number 7 for trombone).
The size of the mouthpiece in the Bach System is a measurement of cup diameter. A #1 possesses the largest cup diameter whereas successively larger numbers have successively smaller diameters.
ie) 1’s diameter > 2’s diameter > 3’s diameter…
The Bach System also utilizes letters to signify cup depth: The closer to the start of the alphabet, the deeper the mouthpiece.
ie) A’s cup depth > B’s cup depth > C’s cup depth…
A mouthpiece model that does not have a letter is considered that size’s standard cup depth. That standard sits between A and B.
The Schilke System
Named after Renold Schilke, another instrumentalist turned engineer. Yamaha mouthpieces are named for Schilke who was hired as a consultant by them in 1966 to develop a new line of brass instruments. The Schilke system is a numbered system running from 5-68.
Converse to the Bach System, the higher the number and further into the alphabet, the wider the cup diameter and deeper the cup, respectively.
ie) 5’s diameter < 6’s diameter < 7’s diameter…
ie) A’s cup depth < B’s cup depth < C’s cup depth…
Unlike The Bach, the Schilke System also has ratings for its rim contour and backbore diameter.
For the rim contour, the numbers range from 1 to 5. The higher the number, the rounder the rim.
ie) 1 is flatter than 2 is flatter than 3…
Backbore depth is also a lettered system. The closer to the start of the alphabet, the smaller the diameter.
ie) a’s diameter < b’s diameter < c’s diameter.
What Will These Different Sizes Do For Me?
To summarize, the larger the individual measurements of the mouthpiece (larger cup diameter, deeper cup depth) the lower the pitch of the instrument (or, rather, the stronger the lower overtones are compared to the higher overtones).
Conversely, smaller measurements lead to higher pitch (or, stronger higher overtones compared to lower). Knowing this, it’s a good rule of thumb to match the mouthpiece with the pitch of the instrument.
For example, lower instruments (tuba, baritone tuba, bass trombone) require mouthpieces that maximize resonance. Thus, they require larger mouthpieces.
Bach 6 1/2A
For beginners, the Bach 6 1/2A is a great mouthpiece. It’s accessible for beginners to approach with their (lack of) embouchure while the shallow cup helps prevent advanced players from fatiguing theirs.
- Accessible size and shape to learn to play
- Warm tones
- Higher registers are not as easily played as the lower registers
An ideal mouthpiece for bass trombone players, the Yamaha YAC YEO Signature Series produces a hefty and rich sound owing to the cup size. The Yamaha YAC has a semi-flat contour which is easier on your embouchure and allows for better endurance while playing.
While the gold-plating certainly catches the eye, gold has antimicrobial properties which will help keep your mouthpiece clean over the course of its life. The Yamaha YAC is probably one of the more versatile mouthpieces out there and a great investment for those playing either in an orchestra or jazz.
- Versatile. Easier to transition across the boundary between the necessary sound required for orchestra and those for jazz.
- Hammered by hand for superior and attentive craftsmanship
- Full, rich sound
- If switching from tenor trombone, it will take some work to hit the higher registers on a bass trombone with this mouthpiece
If you’re looking for a non-brass recommendation, Giddings makes some fantastic steel and titanium mouthpieces. Their mouthpieces create a tone with a solid and clear core.
A bright, piercing projection helps these mouthpieces stand out amidst the background, perfect for genres like jazz or ska. With all different sizes, you’re certain to find a stainless steel or titanium mouthpiece that works for you.
- Allergies to steel/titanium are less frequent than brass allergies
- Bright projection
Answer: A Bach 6 1/2A is a great standard mouthpiece for beginners. It is near the median of trombone mouthpiece size. The Bach 12C, a mouthpiece on the smaller side, is also a standard for students.
And the Bach 7C splits the difference between these two mouthpieces. However, being great for beginners/students does not imply that these mouthpieces are only for students.
Answer: The cheaper options might hover around ~$40 whereas the most expensive trombone mouthpieces can cost hundreds of dollars.
Answer: No. Bass trombones, for example, are large bore instruments and require a large (shank) mouthpiece to play. Tenor trombones are small bore instruments and require a small (shank) mouthpiece to play.
While throat and backbore size can vary greatly from mouthpiece to mouthpiece, the size of small and large shanks are standardized into a neat binary. If your large shank, for example, mouthpiece doesn’t fit into the trombone, you know that a small shank mouthpiece will.
Small shank: .427 inches
Large shank: .5 inches
There is no definite right answer. Whichever mouthpiece you can play well and produces a tone that you are happy with is the right mouthpiece for you. Even if you were to follow the guidelines of ‘best mouthpieces for x-genre/playing style,’ there are plenty of successful trombonists across the spectrum of styles/genres who buck those trends.
Considering the information above, you can piece together which trombone mouthpiece might be right for you. If you’re a beginner, it might be better to choose a mouthpiece that is easiest on your embouchure.
Choosing a mouthpiece to carefully craft your tone should take precedence when you have more mastery over your instrument. For now, choose a mouthpiece that allows you to learn your instrument the easiest.
Once you have mastery over the slide positions and a better-developed embouchure, you can think about obtaining a larger mouthpiece or a mouthpiece made of a different/rarer material.
Brass is also a strong standard for beginners considering their long history as the only option. The material is very familiar to most, if not all, intermediate and advanced players including those who will be teaching you.
If you’re a beginner, a plastic trombone/mouthpiece may also be your best bet. More affordable than the typical brass instrument, this trombone will still do everything that a beginner needs a trombone to do.
If you’re considering a genre of music (eg. jazz, bebop) in which soloing is a heavy feature, you might consider a mouthpiece made of silver, titanium, or steel.
The relative hardness (titanium, steel) or density (silver) of these metals add a lot of force to the articulations and help the instrument stand out amidst the rest of the ensemble they are playing with. A shallower cup will also help these instruments provide the bright, piercing tones across the range that is a popular feature in jazz.
If you’re leaning more towards an orchestral setting, traditional brass might be your best bet. The thick, heavy tone allows the trombone to blend in better with the rest of the orchestra. A deeper cup will also help the trombone create the rich tones necessary for that genre of music.
A simple mistake to make when considering which mouthpiece is best for you is attempting to replicate a specific tone simply by buying the exact same mouthpiece that one of your musical idols plays.
There is so much more to the overall tone that a trombone produces than just the mouthpiece (embouchure, talent, design of the instrument itself, etc). The tone you desire is a product of many factors and cannot be simply replicated using the exact same mouthpiece as somebody else.
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