Choosing the Right Trumpet Mouthpiece

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a specialist on the trumpet – for the most part, I play a certain style of jazz and stay in the middle range of the horn. As such, I’m not always the best guy for certain types of gigs and sessions. I don’t play classical music, I’m not a high-note lead guy, I’m not too loud, I don’t play incredibly fast. (Hard to believe I have a career, isn’t it?) I’ve often found myself drawn to similar players – Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Miles Davis, etc – not the most technically versatile, but each with their own unique voice on the instrument.

I preface this article with that piece of information because you should know that I am not an expert on mouthpieces. I have one I like and it suits me well for everything I do. However, many professional trumpeters, especially those who are called on in sessions to play in a variety of styles and ranges, make it a priority to find the perfect mouthpiece for each musical situation.

My good friend, Willie Murillo, a first-call session player in Los Angeles (you may also know him from his many years as Brian Setzer’s lead player), is one of those players. When I sit next to him in a section, he is constantly changing mouthpieces not only from song to song, but even within songs as certain musical passages approach. So, I decided that you, the reader, would be better served on this topic by his knowledge and experience, and he consented to be interviewed. (For the purposes of this interview, I’m going to play dumb, but I have to save face and tell you I know a little more about mouthpieces than I’m letting on!)


TG: Hi Willie. So, tell me, why should players consider using multiple mouthpieces? Some would argue that, in some way, that’s cheating.

WM: Well, when people see me switching mouthpieces, they sometimes remark, “That must be a cheater mouthpiece.” I always answer, “If there is such a thing as a cheater mouthpiece, I want to know about it!” Because, whatever makes the job easiest should be what we’re using at any given time. Every mouthpiece requires skill, practice and effort. There’s a stigma about smaller mouthpieces being better for playing high notes. The “cheating” accusation is only considered when we cheat “small”. However, no one seems to have an issue with cheating “big” – using a bigger mouthpiece to get a big sound. There’s no such thing as “cheating” – it’s our job to have the right sound and hit all the right notes.

There are inherent qualities in the cup size that help you play “big” and inherent qualities in compression that help you play “high”. But everybody is different physically, and this has more to do with it. My friend, Don Clarke, uses a tiny mouthpiece and gets a huge sound, and he’s got a big old melon of a head (sorry, Don!) and massive lips. Byron Stripling is physically the same as Don, but uses a much bigger mouthpiece – equally big sound.

TG: What should someone start out on?

WM: Generally, a bigger cup size does allow for a bigger sound, more room for tonguing, etc. I do recommend starting out on a bigger mouthpiece, perhaps a 3C, to develop your sound. Most learning is done with more traditional music, and developing a “purity of sound” is crucial not only to traditional music, like classical, but to every player’s development. So, since the basics will be taught using traditional music, it’s a good fit to start with that kind of mouthpiece. You certainly don’t start a student on Maynard Ferguson solos!

TG: So, even the advanced player who is drawn to a more classical style should probably be on something like a 3C?

WM: For the record, I don’t really like the labels “jazz player” and “classical player” – I just like “trumpet player”! But yes, in general something like a 3C or 1-1/2C seems to be appropriate for classical music.

My “big” mouthpiece is a Bach 3C, although it dates from the 1950s, so it feels different than today’s Bach 3C. When the stamps were originally cut for mouthpieces, they would change a little with each “stamp”. The 100th mouthpiece wasn’t identical to the 1st mouthpiece because the stamp would deteriorate slightly. So they weren’t always consistent even within models. These days, that’s less of an issue, since the methods have improved.

TG: And jazz players?

WM: Well, “jazz” players are all over the map. If you’re a soloist, you may be going for a big sound like a classical player. But a lead player who needs to hit those high notes probably needs to be on a smaller mouthpiece. Smaller, again, equals more compression, which makes hitting the high notes much easier. Not easy, but easier!

TG: Tell the reader about mouthpiece sizes – how do you wade through all the different numbers and letters available.

WM: Every company has a different numbering system, which makes it all a little confusing. For Bach, the letter, as in a Bach 3-“C”, represents the cup size. A “D” would be smaller and “E” even smaller. The number, in this case a “3”, refers to the backbore rim. Yamaha is similar. However, Schilke, I believe, uses the number to refer to the cup size. They’re all different, and you’ll need to learn about each company’s standards separately, unfortunately. If you find a mouthpiece you like and want to look at similar mouthpieces from other companies, you’ll need to ask around which models are similar to the one you like. A Schilke 3C is not necessarily the same as a Bach 3C. In general, a 1C in a Bach standard will be much bigger than a 3D. A 1C will be bigger than a 10-1/2D.

TG: Since people will want to know, which mouthpieces do you personally rely on?

WM: I have a mouthpiece pouch that holds four. I keep them in order. My main on is the Bach 3C – I warm up on this one. The next one is the Yamaha 14A4A, which is similar to the Bach 3C, but slightly smaller. My next one is a bigger Bobby Shew, and then my last one is a smaller Bobby Shew. I use that last one when I need to nail a double-high A, or something like that.

WM: There are gimmicky mouthpieces – tiny ones for screaming high, weighted ones for getting a darker tone, like the one you use Tony, which is sort of considered a “mega-tone” style. Lots of companies make these, and there is something to each of them. But again, I don’t think of them as gimmicky. Use what you need to in order to get the sound you need to get! Of course, with every “gimmick”, you lose something. You might sacrifice low tone to get those high notes out, or you may sacrifice range to get that fat lower sound. A 3C might give you great sound, but the 10-1/2C might get you the high notes. And you may find something in between that gives you a combination of both. Switching too much between vastly different sizes can be problematic – if you play a ton on a small mouthpiece, your lips may puff up and suddenly you can’t respond to your other mouthpiece until they come back down.

TG: Thanks, Willie. I’m sure this has been helpful to all the readers.

WM: You’re welcome!

TG: See you on the next gig!

I hope this was helpful to you. Good luck finding your favorites! For the record, I use a Yamaha 16C4-GP on Trumpet (and sometimes a Bach 3C) and a Getzen 3C-FL on Flugelhorn. Although, now I’m inspired to find a nice “cheater” mouthpiece…I’ve always wanted to play the high notes!

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