Monday, February 1, 2010

Mouthpiece Design


“Play the widest diameter mouthpiece possible.”
“A general purpose mouthpiece is a compromise of playing characteristics.”

“A mouthpiece can either limit or enhance high or low timber, dynamics, or range, but it cannot produce sound. Only the player is capable of that.”

“A brass player should choose a mouthpiece for its playing characteristics, not to mask the weaknesses in their playing.”



One of my lifelong friends is an excellent professional trumpeter. His playing credentials include performing with every major theater and symphonic orchestra in Chicago. He studied with Jake and drove him to and from his downtown studio for the last ten years of his life. Jake was almost totally blind from glaucoma which was the main reason he retired from the Chicago Symphony.

Early in his career, my friend was convinced that the key to his success would be to find the “perfect mouthpiece.” He amassed a collection of thousands before he discovered that there was no perfect mouthpiece.

Later after studying with Jake, he learned that the mouthpiece could have some influence on timbre, dynamics and range, but it did not produce sound. Jake made him aware of the fact that the sound could only come from him and the he had the greatest influence on the sound not the mouthpiece.


Too many brass players choose a mouthpiece in an attempt to disguise their inadequate range, endurance, or tone. They don’t realize that the mouthpiece and instrument together make a “lie detector” that cannot hide anything.


“A musician should develop their playing skills to the limitations of a large mouthpiece rather than using a small mouthpiece to mask the limitations of their skill.”


One of my former graduate students, from Vandercook College of Music, is a fine trumpeter and excellent middle school band director in the Chicago area. He starts his beginning trumpet students on a Bach 1C mouthpiece, the largest mouthpiece in the Bach catalog. He very challenges his students to develop their playing skills to the level of tone production associated with the 1C, rather than the much smaller 7C, which directors commonly use with beginners. He has had great success with this approach for many years.

I noticed that some trumpet players attending Vandercook College of Music, were still playing the same 7C mouthpiece they started on as beginners eight or nine years earlier. They still had the tone of a first or second year player.

There are four principal elements of mouthpiece design. Each element will have an impact on playing characteristics, timbre, or comfort, which is an important consideration regarding mouthpiece placement. There is no standard system of mouthpiece cataloging among manufacturers. Since each manufacturer has their own numbering and lettering system. The only way to determine the playing characteristics and size of a mouthpiece is by reading the description in their catalog.

THE BRASSWIND catalog has an index that attempts to compare the playing characteristics of mouthpieces among several manufacturers.


Wide vs. Narrow

A wide rim allows greater comfort when playing higher frequencies. Increased contact pressure is required to help maintain the shape of the embouchure. With a wide rim, the contact pressure is dispersed over a greater amount of lip surface. Trumpet and cornet mouthpieces have a wider rim relative to cup diameter than horn and low brass mouthpieces.

A wide rim will contact a greater amount of tissue, so it is more difficult to maneuver over a broad range. It is used primarily for specialized playing in the upper register and within a limited range.

A narrow rim, where contact pressure requirements are reduced, is more desirable for low register or low brass instruments. It allows easier maneuvering between registers.

Most trumpeters compromise by playing a medium wide rim mouthpiece. Horn, and low brass players tend to play more narrow rim mouthpieces.

Flat vs. Rounded

The contour of the rim can vary from almost flat to well rounded. A flat rim will maintain contact of lip surface securely but it may be uncomfortable if a brass player has braces or irregular teeth. It will also reduce flexibility making it more difficult to maneuver between registers.

A more rounded rim will allow greater flexibility and will be more comfortable for playing in the upper register.

Most trumpet players use a mouthpiece with a well rounded, medium wide rim. Most horn, and low brass players play a relatively flat and narrow rim.

Inner Transition, Well Rounded vs. Sharp

The transition from rim to cup can influence articulation and comfort. A sharp transition will be easier to play marcato attacks but smooth slurs will be more difficult. It may also be uncomfortable for a player with braces or irregular teeth.
A more rounded transition will be more comfortable playing in the upper register and it will be easier to play smooth slurs. However, sharp attacks are more difficult.

Most trumpet players play a mouthpiece with a rounded inner edge while horn and low brass mouthpieces tend to have a sharp inner edge.

Some manufactures provide changeable rims that can be screwed onto the cup.


DIAMETER, Wide vs. Narrow

Since the cup diameter determines the length of the embouchure, the largest size will have the greatest potential for tone production. A smaller diameter may make it easier to play high frequencies but there will be diminished resonance. Most brass players are not willing to sacrifice tone to make high notes easier.

A wide diameter mouthpiece requires a strong embouchure. Motivated young players, who start playing with small diameter mouthpieces, should be encouraged to gradually develop their embouchure strength for larger mouthpieces. They should transition to a larger mouthpiece every two years until they are eventually playing a professional size mouthpiece. For trumpet, that is a Bach 1½ C or 1C. I recently encouraged one of my motivated 2nd year high school trumpet players to transition from a 5C to 3C. I expect her to be playing at least a 1½ C by the time she enters college.

The transition to a larger mouthpiece must be gradual. I tell my students to gradually increase their playing time on the larger mouthpiece until they are comfortable enough to play it all the time.

DEPTH, Shallow vs. Deep

The depth of the cup determines how much the lower partials in the harmonic series are emphasized in the tone. A deep cup will emphasize the lower partials and will produce a “darker” timbre. Conversely, a shallow cup will emphasize the upper partials and produce a “brighter” timbre.

It will be more difficult to play a shallow cup mouthpiece at very loud dynamics. The great Maynard Ferguson specialized in playing extremely high and loud on the trumpet. Interestingly, his mouthpiece has an exaggerated cup depth. It is a “V” or funnel shape like a horn mouthpiece but with a trumpet rim. Most trumpet players play a medium deep Bach “C” cup mouthpiece.

Since the horn is essentially a tuba playing in the upper register most of the time, the mouthpiece has evolved with an exaggerated funnel cup to produce a dark timbre. If the horn mouthpiece is too shallow, the instrument will sound more like a flugelhorn or cornet.

Most brass players playing symphonic music play deep cup mouthpieces. Jazz players tend to play more shallow mouthpieces for the brighter timbre and lighter sound more closely associated with their smaller bore instruments. The shallow cup mouthpiece also allows easier flexibility for complex Jazz solos.

Some low horn, euphonium, tuba, or bass trombonists like to use a shallow cup mouthpiece when playing technical passages in the extreme low register of large bore instruments. The smaller cup helps control the sound.


Jake frequently played an adjustable cup mouthpiece. A few manufacturers still make them but they are not widely used.


The throat is the opening at the bottom of the cup leading to the backbore. It functions like a valve regulating air flow through the mouthpiece. There are various degrees of open.

The larger the throat opening, the less resistant the mouthpiece is to air flow and there is greater potential for playing very loudly. However, soft playing is more difficult and the mouthpiece will tend to fatigue the player if they don’t have a strong embouchure.

Conversely, a smaller throat opening will be more resistant to air flow. It will be easier to play very softly but difficult to play loud. The general purpose mouthpiece will have a compromise opening that allows the playing of loud and soft dynamics comfortably.

Once the throat has been enlarged, the alteration can’t be reversed. I know several trumpet players who experimented with opening the throat of their mouthpieces. In many instances, the mouthpieces eventually became expensive candle holders.

THE BACKBORE, Open vs. Closed

The backbore is the shape of the tube transitioning from the bottom of the cup to the end of the stem. A closed backbore will be a more cylindrical tube and an open backbore will be more conical.

A cylindrical backbore will produce a brighter tone with less amplification. The conical backbore will provide greater amplification and produce a darker tone. It may be more fatiguing to play if the player has a weak embouchure.

SCHMIDT BACKBORE (trumpet only)

The Schmidt backbore is a compromise between the open and closed backbore. It is cylindrical for only a short distance at the bottom of the cup. It becomes conical from there to the end of the stem.


Some brass players prefer to play massive mouthpieces machined from very large blanks that leave much of the outer material intact. They are very heavy and tend to help produce a darker, heavier, and more resonant sound, especially in the low register. The effect may be more psychological than acoustic.

Mouthpieces can also be machined from lighter materials such as wood or synthetics that will help produce a lighter or less resonant sound.


Some players are allergic to one metal or the other. I play both gold and silver mouthpieces and have not noticed that the plating had any impact on the sound.


For acoustical reasons, Monet and some other trumpet manufacturers solder the mouthpiece and leadpipe together. I don’t know if there is real physics involved or if the design is more psychological. The downside is the fact that the player must always use the same mouthpiece with the same trumpet. Interchangeable leadpipes are in common use on smaller trumpets.

For psychological reasons, I think of the tuba as an extension of my mouthpiece.


“The instrument is an extended mouthpiece with valves or a slide.”

“Play the mouthpiece, not the instrument.”


Most brass players do not use a variety of mouthpieces for general playing. They find a mouthpiece – instrument combination that produces their desired sound. The primary reason for choosing a particular mouthpiece must always be for its characteristic sound associated with an instrument. The choice should never be to disguise weaknesses. That will never happen!

A small mouthpiece has limiting factors. It is best if the brass player develops their skills to perform with the largest mouthpiece possible.


“You can make a large mouthpiece play with the characteristics of a small one. However, you cannot make a small mouthpiece play with the characteristic of a large one.”


  1. Interestingly enough, I have a mouthpiece that Maynard played - given to me while I toured with him in 2004. The depth is not exaggerated, but very shallow with a slight V to the cup. Early in his career he played a very small diameter mouthpiece... the "Groovin' High model is a .590. Later models did get slightly wider, but never near a 3C!

    Small diameter mouthpieces only have limitations if you move your aperture. I tend to believe that you can make a smaller diameter mouthpiece work like a larger one if you know what you're doing! Roger Ingram would disagree with you as well about a smaller mouthpiece...

    Keith Fiala

  2. What would your suggestions for the progression that you give Trombone/Baritone, Horn and Tuba

    I am inclined to do

    Trumpet 6C Cornet 6
    Horn Farkas MDC
    Trombone 6.5 AL or maybe a 7C

    Franklin E. Hotzel
    Saint Paul, MN

  3. Interesting post. I have always thought that the 7c was too small for beginners - mine certainly was a nightmare until I moved to something larger. I do however think that there is not 1 set size for anyone to play on, nor should the prescription of moving larger always be the case. I think finding "your" size is important. Let's face it - Nakariakov sounds AMAZING on a 7C and 10 1/2C and Maurice Murphy sounds AMAZING on his MM2C Denis Wick - which is quite large. The list is an endless one - gotta find what works.

    The idea of starting a student on a 1C is IMO a superb idea - it allows them the space to let the lips vibrate - oftentimes when I would teach, a child who cannot produce a tone on a 7C will almost always produce a tone on a Denis Wick 2. It is in my opinion that for the first few years the student should start with as close to "middle ground" as possible - say a 3C, and when a certain level has been reached then some intelligent selection can be made - smaller or larger.

    Your point about players using a mouthpiece to hide flaws is spot on - and you don't need my seal of approval, but it is great to see it in writing. Select for sound. This is what Lew Soloff does... Lew can play like a badass!! Seriously. And I haven't heard him sound bad!

    I am enjoying your posts - keep it up!


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  5. Some people claim they can make a small mouthpece sound like a big one. But I have yet to hear someone who can do it. It's true that some players can sound good on small mouthpiece (Roger Ingram being one of them). But they do NOT sound like Maurice Murphy or Adolph Herseth!!!!

    In my 40+ years of playing (most of them as a full-time professional) I have fallen to the temptation on occasion to try to make a go of smaller mouthpieces. I've never been able to make them sound good enough to satisfy myself. On the other hand, I do find that if I practice enough, and practice correctly, I can make bigger mouthpieces (Reeves 43C and bigger up to a Bach Mt Vernon 1) work quite well for me.

    Best wishes,

    John Mohan

  6. Very interesting, but i still do not understand the difference between an open backbore and a tight backbore. Which will have the greatest impact on brighter tones? Btw Monette now added threads to their mouthpieces so it still looks integrated but you have the option of putting a different mouthpiece.

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