What mouthpiece should I use for an alto trombone?

Without a doubt, this is the question I am asked the most.

I’ll give you the answer I give people pretty much each time I am asked. “It depends.” I think it depends on the sound you are after and the style you wish to play on the alto.

When I made the switch from tenor to alto many years ago, I deliberately kept my tenor mouthpiece because I wanted to keep as much of my tenor sound as possible. After all, I couldn’t sound thin and expect to blend with the big bands and multi-trombone salsa groups in which I was playing. For me, the alto was not a utility instrument for special situations – it was my musical voice and source of income.

Just to see what would come up, I recently Googled the title of this post. The first result came from the Trombone Forum in a post entitled “The right mouthpiece for the alto trombone”. The author wrote something I thought was rather odd: The 6 1/2 AL is a high tenor mouthpiece. It is not any good in the alto trombone. The tone is not bad, at best, but it’s not great, and your intonation and tone and range will suffer.

Well, the mouthpiece I have used since picking up the alto has been the aforementioned 6 1/2 AL. And I’d like to think that my intonation, tone and range have not suffered because of it.

As I’ve written many times in my blog and elsewhere, I think mouthpiece choices are highly subjective AND highly overrated. By overrated I mean that I think people give more credit (and blame) for their hardware than is due. My personal philosophy is that if I don’t sound the way I want to sound, I look to blame me – the player – first. Not the horn or the mouthpiece. Sure, you could be playing a leaky or poorly constructed horn, but for the most part, I think horns and mouthpieces can be willed to sound the way the player wishes them to sound. After all, Charlie Parker played the s**t out of a plastic alto. Even if he had the money, I don’t think he would have incessantly been trying different horns in order to find the “perfect” one.

So my answer to the question is: try the tenor mouthpiece you currently use for tenor and play it enough to get used to the alto. When you start out on alto, the tone will sound odd and your intonation will probably suck. But keep with it and don’t succumb to hunting for the right mouthpiece. After you’ve gained a certain level of proficiency and you still believe that the mouthpiece is holding you back, make a switch. I’d be very interested to hear about your experience. As your ear and arm acclimate to the alto, do you really need to hunt for a different mouthpiece? Let me know.

And, by the way, if you are playing the 6 1/2 AL, don’t let anyone talk you out of it before you give it a fair chance!

 

6 Comments

  1. Roger Verdi on May 17, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for this! I’ve always used a 6.5 AL on my Courtois alto trombone, and have been mostly satisfied with the result–no problems getting the instrument to pitch, or with the flabby tone many say comes with this horn/mouthpiece combination. My regular mouthpiece on tenor is a Wick 5AL, so going smaller than the 6.5 AL for alto has never been feasible for me. I did try the Wick 5bs on alto, but did find it a little large.

  2. Ted Murphy on February 16, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    Trombone has been a life hobby for me not a vocation. As I wright I’m filled with anticipation, waiting for my first alto to arrive. Thanks for this post on mouthpieces, I rest easier realizing I had the same thoughts. A high school And life long friend and fellow bone picker always had a distinctive sound, regardless of the horn or MP he played. Didn’t matter if it was his 88h or his 606, I could pick out his sound. I played for years in a once a week Big band with a retired Hollywood studio player at my side. His nickname wa Dr Leadpipe because even in his 70’s he was still tinkering with horns and slides and mouthpieces. Never satisfied he would actually bring multiple MPs to a gig and ask ” did that one sound ok to you? I I thought it sounded too tubby “.
    I think there’s a lot of the speaker wire syndrome regarding mouthpieces. Sure there are combinations that just don’t work but I think if you stick with what works you true sound will come out no matter what you choose….within reason.

    • Michael Lake on February 17, 2018 at 7:27 am

      The never-ending search for the perfect horn/mouthpiece infects the best of us. Bob McChesney was hanging out the other day in my studio and talking about new horns he was trying and mouthpieces that were catching his eye. He was interested in hearing me try different mouthpieces, which I did. Yes, there were differences, and I could have succumbed to changing to one of them, but I bet that within a few days, it would have felt and performed just like my others. For me, there’s just not enough long-term difference to warrant the time to be constantly testing and switching. I also think that unlike Bob, I’ve still got much more to work on regarding my chops and mechanics before I blame the equipment!

  3. Andriy Lassowsky on May 18, 2019 at 7:50 am

    I’ve been using the alto horn mouthpiece on my alto trombone that came with my alto horn. It works quite well — range, flexibility, and tone color are desirable. With this setup, articulation is quick, fortes are powerful and brassy, and the embouchure is pretty comfortable. Does anyone else use a similar setup (or know if it’s common?)? I haven’t seen or heard much about this setup very much. Thanks!

  4. Marty Heyman on March 14, 2020 at 10:55 am

    I am late to the conversation and long from active play but I must say two things. In music school, back in the early ’60s the general run of all brass players was collecting and obsessing about mouthpieces. I roomed with a bassoon player and I understood his obsession. My High School rombone teacher was principle trombone for the NY Phil and his very clear instructions were to “never change you mouthpiece unless you move to Bass ‘Bone.” And I didn’t even then.

    • Michael Lake on March 14, 2020 at 11:51 am

      Marty, I agree. I’ve used the same basic 6 1/2 AL for 40 years. I’m married for life! Did NY Phil player ever play alto?

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