Let’s talk tone: trumpet brands

Tone is one of the most important aspects of trumpet playing we can consider. Is it a magical phenomenon? I ask that because sometimes a player’s tone seems unreproducible. It can be very hard to imitate very personal and idiosyncratic tones like Clark Terry, for instance.

I don’t think that everyone’s ideal classical “voice” on the trumpet is the same. It can’t be because we all have different-sized body parts that affect the trumpet sound. But I do think it’s possible to get close to your ideal “classical” sound that works for you. We can explore how we can tweak our classical sound for certain situations with equipment and the way we play.

In the next week or so, I’d like to explore what factors go into good tone. I think our tone is affected by our setup and by our equipment–most especially the mouthpiece, but certainly also the trumpet. So, let’s start with the biggest elephant in the room: the trumpet itself.

I play mostly on a Bach Stradivarius medium large bore trumpet with a 37 bell. This is very, very “standard.” At a moderate volume, most Bachs have a core with somewhat-blended overtones, yet there is a pronounced higher overtone that gives the Bach its characteristic “ring.” They typically are able to play with a more blended tone at soft dynamics, but will open up with more tone color at louder volumes. This may seem to be a negative thing, but can actually be a musical quality that a good player can take advantage of. During a performance, the tone can change to suit the needs of the music.

From my experience and from talking to some very gifted Yamaha players, the Yamaha trumpets typically have a very blended overtone series. They have less of a pronounced “ring” that the Bach trumpets do. And even at soft dynamics, they will sound colorful. I love the sound of Yamahas (almost as much as my Bach). ¬†They are very reliable, in tune and have the highest quality control.

I also love the sound of Shires trumpets. They typically have a more defined “slot.” This means that the trumpet is going to put the pitch quicker into the place it’s supposed to be (whereas my Bach is a little more slippery). If an entire trumpet ensemble is playing on Shires, then there is a noticeable difference in tuning and tone control, compare to a mixed-trumpet ensemble.

The very expensive Monette trumpets typically have even more slotting. They also have a lot more weight and more bracing. This helps their tone to be more fundamental-centered (rather than allowing a lot of overtones to dominate). They still have a lot of overtones, but when you hear one up close, you might feel that it is a little “dull.” However, far away (for instance, 300 feet), a Monette can sound quite impressive. It might not be my first-choice for a chamber piece, however.

Another factor to think about with a trumpet is the bore size. A small bore can help with efficiency, but the tone can be too bright. I have two Bach C trumpets with a 239 bell. One is large bore (typical for C trumpets) and the other is medium-large (not typical for C trumpets, but quite typical for B-flat trumpets). They both sound fine, but if I need to open up the dynamics a little, then the medium-large bore C will start to “shriek.” And that is not what I want in a large orchestral work.

Most professional, American, classical trumpeters use one of the brands that I have mentioned above as their main trumpet. Probably about 40% Bach, 35% Yamaha, 10% Shires, 5% Monettes (with the remaining 10% using some other brand). This is a guess, but I’d love to know if someone has the actual breakdown.

Please let me know about other brands that you think are also great for classical solo or orchestral work!

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5 thoughts on “Let’s talk tone: trumpet brands

  1. This is very truthful and accurate overview of the major American brands and their capabilities. On Bach trumpets, I’d add that they have more “tonal concentration” than a typical Yamaha. A more dominating sound “footprint”.

    Yamaha’s from the 80’s and 90’s, pre “Artist” models, have a lot more “horn” and “trombone” color in them. Consequently, the sound blends well, creating more of a pipe organ or choral effect to the brass. Heavy wall and MKII Yamaha’s tend to stay within the orchestral or band texture. The problem with this type of sound is that most American orchestra players feel buried in the heavy American low brass sound and have to work too hard to be heard. Hence the move to the “Artist” trumpet sound palate with an increase in focus and high overtones. On the one hand, orchestra brass fortes much of the time should only increase the collective sound of the orchestra and not draw attention to themselves. Other times, trumpets should sparkle, but only in key moments IMHO. With Yamahas it’s quite easy to blend with other sounds in the orchestra but harder to come out of the texture. Bachs also blend well at lower volumes but can really sizzle when the time comes. A bit like driving a Corvette in traffic. Be careful with the accelerator pedal.

    I recently sat down with Justin Bartels and he played my old school MKII C and then played his Yamaha Artist Chicago Model C. Surprisingly similar sound shape and basic color, but the Artist model had distinct high overtones sounding that the MKII did not. MKII’s were made in the 1990’s, pre Xeno trumpets. Or course, Justin could make a $100 plastic trumpet sound great.

  2. Good article, Stan! I played Bach most of my career and now my daily drivers are Yamaha (NY-B-flat and Chicago C). These two are essentially (in my opinion) Bachs that have excellent intonation and increased slotting. I don’t often need a E-flat/D in the orchestra much, but mine is a Bach long bell model. My Piccolo is a P74 Schilke (after many years of playing a 1970 Selmer (Andr√© model). I’m playing the same mouthpieces that I used 30 years ago. I estimate that it has saved me thousands of dollars.

  3. As for emerging trumpet brands, there’s another beginning to emerge in orchestras that I believe has tremendous potential. That’s the Powell trumpet. Fred Powell designs and builds his own horns out of a shop in Elkhart IN. Mark Ridenour plays a Powell as does my friend and former colleague Paul Randall, principal trumpet of the North Carolina Symphony. We have play tested his Powells (he has 2 C’s) against his Bach 229 and his old Yamaha MKII. The Powell creates a distinctly richer and more ringing sound than the other two brands. And it produces less edge and harshness than the Bach while still having sufficient focus and high overtones to project easily when needed. These horns could be the next horn of choice in American orchestras. Currently they are hand crafted and quite expensive with a significant wait time. So it remains to be seen if they will catch on. If one had to characterize the sound in a comparative but incomplete way, they sound like Shires with a richer core sound. I just love it. When you hear them played next to a Bach there’s just 20% more pleasing trumpet sound.

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