This is one of the most overwhelming topics in low brass playing. Most people play on one or two instruments over the course of their life, but mouthpieces are much cheaper than instruments. You can find yourself on the market for a mouthpiece dozens of times.
The main trombone mouthpiece size differences are the rim width, cup depth, throat, and back bore. Rim width determines flexibility, range, and comfort; cup depth determines tone quality; throat determines volume, breath control, and tone control.
Many of us develop an expensive habit of trying out different mouthpieces to get an edge on tone quality or clarity of sound or to extend our range.
But it’s much harder than experimenting with valve oil, because music stores tend to not carry many mouthpieces in stock. One can find oneself glancing through endless variations of shapes, sizes, materials, and types only to think:
What are the differences in trombone mouthpiece sizes?
If you’re in the market for a new mouthpiece, I’d highly recommend finding some way to try it out before actually purchasing (or make sure the online source has a guaranteed, unconditional return policy). This can even mean borrowing one from someone.
There is no general rule that will guarantee how your particular mouth, embouchure, and instrument will react, so testing is important!
For instrument differences, see this article.
Rim Width and Cup Depth
These are almost certainly going to be your primary considerations when buying a mouthpiece. Take the mouthpiece you have and play. Ask yourself if you want a brighter or darker tone. If you want a brighter tone, you’ll want a shallower cup. If you want a darker tone, you’ll want a deeper cup.
Now, think about the type of music you play. If you are relatively comfortable playing full rehearsals without major fatigue, you’ll probably want to stay with a similar rim width.
I highly recommend using width for comfort considerations and nothing more. You can play higher registers easier with smaller rim width and lower easier with larger width.
But it is generally not recommended that you choose a width based on this. If you fatigue in the high range, then a better long-term fix is to develop more strength.
Throat and Back Bore
These are usually secondary considerations. The throat refers to how tightly the hole at the back of the cup pinches. The smaller this is, the more resistance you’ll have. A small throat means you can play with less air, play longer phrases on the same breath, and you’ll fatigue slower.
But a large throat allows you to play louder and fuller more easily. You’ll run out of air faster and need stronger lip strength to play for long periods of time. Large throat is recommended for more advanced players.
But again, don’t be short-sighted. If you are in the beginner-intermediate range, and you think the throat of a new mouthpiece is slightly too large, then you should stick with it. You’ll quickly grow into it.
Back bore is more complicated, because it consists of both size and shape. This is usually made to balance the other aspects of the mouthpiece, and should not really be a major consideration, except in one circumstance:
When testing mouthpieces, you must check tuning in all registers.
I once got a mouthpiece that fit the instrument and felt comfortable, but it totally messed up the intonation in two of my partials. It made no sense to me how a mouthpiece could do this. I couldn’t even find alternate fingerings to make it bearable.
I later found out that the cheaply made back bore was the problem. The shape and taper can greatly affect pitch, so be warned.
A reasonably priced mouthpiece from a trusted manufacturer probably won’t have this problem in modern day (it was the mouthpiece that came with a very old baritone).
Do the Letters and Numbers Mean Anything?
For my euphonium, I play on a Schilke 51C. I used to wonder if those numbers and letters were important to the mouthpiece size.
There are some generic rules, but they don’t apply to every brand. Even the exact same letters and numbers can have tiny variations within the same brand. Your best bet is to look up charts published by the companies themselves for numbers and to try them out.
The general rule is that the number refers to the rim and the letter refers to the cup depth. Unfortunately, the numbers go in reverse, so the bigger the number, the smaller the rim size, which can be confusing.
The lettering is a bit stranger. I think there’s an unwritten convention that “C” is the medium depth for a company, though many companies don’t even have a “C.”
Other than that, everyone does their own thing. If you’re trying to guess based this, you’re going to be in for a surprise more often than not.
Are Baritone and Trombone Mouthpieces the Same?
Low brass players have an added complication that other brass players don’t have. The shank size matters. This determines if the mouthpiece will even fit in the leadpipe of your instrument.
Before you can even think about numbers and sizes of mouthpieces, you have to know what type of instrument you have. This isn’t actually obvious if you’ve never bought a mouthpiece before (meaning your instrument just came with one and you’ve stuck with it until now).
If you have a standard tenor trombone, baritone, or student-intermediate euphonium, you probably have a small shank. If you have a professional tenor trombone or euphonium, you probably have a large shank.
But things get weirder. There is a size between these two, sometimes called a “European shank” or “medium shank” for euphonium. If you play bass trombone, this will be a different shank than a large shank tenor trombone.
The quick answer to the question is that it depends. If you play euphonium, you might not be able to borrow a trombone mouthpiece or even a mouthpiece from another euphonium player in your band.
What’s the Best Mouthpiece for Beginners?
So, you just started or are just coming back to low brass playing. You don’t have a baseline for what feels comfortable, what range you want, how your tone should sound, and so on.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all. But if you absolutely must have an answer, something like the Bach 6 1/2 AL is good. It is pretty medium sized all-around. It’s what I started on, and it worked all through tenth grade, getting me into All County every year.
The main thing I’d think about is to not get too wrapped up in “beginner” mouthpieces that are too small. Beginners grow in technique and strength very quickly, and so a few months on a too-small mouthpiece might mean you’ll be buying a new one sooner than you expected.
What’s the Best Mouthpiece for Jazz?
I’ve put this here, because this article is a part of my “Frequently Asked Questions.” I’m not sure why people have this need for knowing the “best” of everything.
I won’t even make a recommendation. The best is the one that produces the sound you want. Jazz players tend to want brighter sounds, more flexibility, and the ability to solo.
This means you’ll probably want a smaller cup than if you play in orchestra. You will want a larger throat and a thinner, rounded rim to easily get different tone. If you find yourself in the upper register a lot, you can also consider a smaller rim size.
What is a Wedge Mouthpiece?
I feel obligated to put this in here, because I hear this question a lot. I’ve never played on one, but I know several people that do and love it.
If you think about a mouthpiece, it is perfectly symmetrical. You can put it in, rotated any old way, and it won’t affect anything. The rim itself is flat (put the rim on a table, and every part of the rim touches the table).
Wedge mouthpieces aren’t perfect circles: they’re ovals. The side-to-side width of the cup is smaller than the top-to-bottom. So, you must put the orientation dot up.
The rim has a contour that goes along with the natural shape of your teeth. Among other things, this is supposed to help with people who wear braces.
They have a lot of testimonials and famous brass players that endorse them, so I have no reason to be skeptical of their claims that these improvements do what they say. I just thought it was worth a mention, since it’s something you might consider in choosing a mouthpiece.
What About Gold Mouthpieces?
Oh, this debate has been going on forever. Should you consider a gold-plated mouthpiece? It’s an option.
I’ve never played on one, but I can see the appeal. Gold doesn’t conduct heat as fast as the silver mouthpieces. This means that once it warms up, it won’t get cold as quickly.
There are many times I’ve had to sit for long periods of time, and I wish my mouthpiece wasn’t cold (I’m looking at you Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony with no trombone in the 2nd and 3rd movements).
People make all sorts of claims about them. They feel more “wet,” which allows you to use less pressure and adjust your mouth position to get the tone colors you want more easily. They have less feedback in large ensembles.
I’ve seen a lot of claims, but ultimately, they are subjective, like many of the other parts of this article. So, the best thing is to try it out and see if it works for you.[If you’re in the market for a student trombone, check out my buying guide.]