While the trumpet is centuries old, it’s more than proved its staying power across multiple genres. The trumpet is an unmissable element of classical music, and when it comes to jazz, it’s probably the most iconic of all time. Even countless popular songs have included its unique voice, all the way from seventies reggae and ska to more recent EDM bangers. Here, we cover the history, take a deep dive into the anatomy, have a look at the many variations and playing techniques, and list some legendary masters of this popular yet notoriously difficult brass instrument.
- Tree Bark & Shells
- Soft & Pure
- A High Entry-Level
- Hitting the High Notes
- Imagine the Notes
- High Blowing
- The Mouthpiece
- The Brass Section
- Always on Paper
- Different Tunings
- The Trumpet Family
- Listen to the Greats
- Good to Know
- The Anatomy of the Trumpet
- Loud, Louder, Loudest
- Essential Classical Trumpet Players
- Essential Jazz Trumpet Players
- Essential Lead Trumpet Players
- Essential Pop Trumpet Players
- See also…
The trumpet is first and foremost a wind instrument and forms part of a wider family of brass instruments. With an astonishing 4,000 year history behind it, the trumpet has been applied to every musical genre under the sun. When part of the horn section, or brass section, together with maybe one or more saxophones and trombones, the trumpet will take care of the highest note range, which will almost always be the melody. “The beauty of the trumpet is that you can take it in any direction”, explains trumpeter Erik Veldkamp. “For me, the trumpet functions much like vocals, in that I can use it to make any sound that I want and can inject as much expression and emotion as I want. You can play loud, ear-splitting notes, or soft and lyrical notes. It’s this broad variation that really makes me love the trumpet. If I’m just rehearsing at home, these days I’ll often play through some classical etudes and exercises. But if I’m playing a gig, I’m usually the lead trumpet or I’m playing jazz improvisations.”
Erik Veldkamp has been playing the trumpet since his early youth and has grown to be considered the best lead trumpet player in the whole of the Netherlands. As a freelance musician, he’s played lead trumpet for giant names, including The Glenn Miller Orchestra as well as various orchestras both at home and abroad. At the beginning of his study at the music conservatorium, he switched from classical to light music and has gone on to mainly choose light music as his profession. “I’ve never really found playing in a classical orchestra that attractive. As a trumpeter, you’re rarely playing through the whole piece, so there’s a lot of sitting and waiting. My role as part of a big band is far more essential. At least it feels that way. As the lead trumpet, I’m actually the concertmaster of the band.”
(Photo by Jelmer de Haas)
Tree Bark & Shells
We’ll start off by taking a dive into the long history of this instrument, the origins of which stretch far back to the first primitive ancestors that existed around 2000 BC. It’s speculated that as soon as humans realised they were able to produce sound by blowing through shells and other hollow tubular objects, the first trumpets were born. The very first trumpet-like instruments that we know of were made from nothing more than tree bark, shells, horn, hollowed out ivory, bones, branches, and bamboo. People may have used these instruments during ceremonies, as part of rituals, or to send messages. One of the oldest texts to mention a trumpet is the Bible, which describes the buisine: a straight, silver trumpet that’s around fifty centimetres long. Ancient Egyptians would have been familiar with this instrument, but during the early middle ages, the trumpet was virtually unheard of in western Europe. However, the Islamic world knew the trumpet well, and as these things tend to go, the trumpet made its way from that region to Europe during the crusades of the tenth and eleventh centuries. By around 1300, the trumpet was the most essential instrument when it came to battle signalling, festivals, and tournaments. Around the same time, multi-voiced pieces for wind instruments were being composed, and by the fifteenth century, the world had seen its very first curved, more serpentine trumpets, where the pipe could be anywhere up to two metres long. Then came extendable variations, where the mouthpiece could be pulled out to play the chromatic range – so every note. Before that revelation, any trumpet was only able to produce whole notes.
On the left you can see another of the trumpet’s ancestors: a Peruvian instrument from circa 300 AD. The natural trumpet (on the right) is more directly related to trumpets with valves and can only play natural notes. This instrument is still played in classical genres.
Soft & Pure
In the Baroque period between 1600 and 1750, the trumpet found its way into high-brow music and the instrument experienced a boom. Trumpet players of the time had to learn to play soft, pure notes to mix with other instruments like the violin, which demanded a conscious development of the embouchure – or blowing technique. During this period, the trumpet became lighter and the sound became brighter. In the late Baroque period and after, the trumpet was used more and more as a tutti instrument (an instrument that joins with other instruments to create a single, whole sound), which required trumpet player to span different tunings. This forced the issue with instrument builders who needed to invent new forms of the trumpet to keep up. While various innovations emerged, many of them proved detrimental to the sound. The true breakthrough didn’t come before 1815, when instrument builders Stölzel and Blühmel added a few valves (see the image of the trumpet anatomy). This revelation wasn’t just significant for trumpeters, but for all brass musicians. With the addition of valves (the trumpet has three), an instrument can cover the chromatic range while retaining consistent sound across the whole register. In 1839, Frenchman François Perinet refined the originally square valves by developing rounded valves and making them more airtight. Meanwhile, the Belgian instrument builder, Adolph Sax (the inventor of the saxophone) made his own distinct stamp on the development of the wind instrument. This rate of evolution saw many different instruments developed with a strong relation to the trumpet – and we’ll take a look at these later. The trumpet is still a feature of much classical music, but it was the dawn of Jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century that put the trumpet centre stage and from there, it grew into a pop-music mainstay.
A High Entry-Level
Is playing the trumpet difficult? “The instrument has a fairly high entry-level,” says Erik. “Much higher than a saxophone, for example. A beginner musician is more likely to get a nice sound out of a saxophone quicker than they can out of a trumpet. Playing the trumpet demands more time practising. Also, with a saxophone, you’re producing sound by vibrating a reed, while with the trumpet, it’s your lips that vibrate to generate sound. This vibration has to be really precise, and since it’s not exactly natural to tense your lips and cause them to vibrate, it takes some practice, and even when you finally produce your first note, it’s likely to sound awful. In the beginning, you play three notes and you’re already exhausted.”
As a professional musician, Erik insists that daily training is crucial. “You need to maintain the muscle strength of your lips. I very rarely go on holiday to make sure I always stay ‘in shape’ which, since I’m the lead trumpet, is essential.” The lead trumpet, or first trumpet of ensembles like a big band have a very similar role to that of the first violinist, A.K.A. the concertmaster of a classical orchestra. Both have a central musical role and the lead trumpet usually has the most influence over timing and phrasing. “When a big band plays tutti (every musician in the band plays at once), then the lead trumpet takes on the melody”, explains Erik. “Together with the drummer, the lead trumpet dictates the phrasing, swing and sound of the entire band.” And, according to Erik, it’s not an easy role. “As a musician you need to have really clear ideas and be able to communicate them with the rest of the band. You almost have to radiate zen and keep your playing consistent, so that the other musicians know exactly what they need to do in terms of timing and phrasing. I sometimes play second or third trumpet as well, so I can follow the lead trumpet and feel a bit more mentally relaxed. You can even feel it in your lips.”
Hitting the High Notes
Playing lead trumpet is also physically taxing, which Erik knows well. “When playing the trumpet, you’re forcing air through a tiny hole. In fact, of all wind instruments, the trumpet and the oboe have the smallest throat, or hole, so as you’re blowing, you can feel a lot of pressure in your head, and the higher the note, the more the instrument works against you. You have to work harder to play clean higher pitched notes and it challenges your embouchure. In the lower registers, you don’t have to work half as hard since the trumpet will virtually take over.” The lead trumpet also plays lead voice, so the highest notes. “That means that you need to have a wide note range beneath your fingers and be able to keep up. At every crescendo you need to be able to play the high registers. These are the moments where the pressure placed on you as a musician is at its highest.” Being able to hit those high notes is the ultimate for many brass musicians. “There are a lot of lead trumpeters that can hit the highest registers naturally, and have an immediate aptitude for it,” says Erik. “But I’m not totally certain how this is possible. It’s something I’ve tried to figure out. So, it might be to do with the build of their lips, but to be honest, I haven’t been able to find any physical similarities between players that have this natural ability. I think it’s more mental. Most of the time, they’re players that have adopted the right approach from the very first lesson.”
Imagine the Notes
While there are many that find it easy, there are plenty more trumpeters that find it hard to produce high pitched notes. On top of that, most of the high register notes always come up during the crescendo, which usually lands at the end of a piece. This places the trumpeter under extra pressure, and it’s precisely because of that steady build of tension that things can go wrong when those high notes finally hit. If you’re tense, your breathing is unlikely to be optimal and your embouchure might be retaining unnecessary tension as well. “Fortunately, I’ve always been fairly safe in the higher registers,” admits Erik. “But at some point, I started to dig deeper into it to find a more efficient way of playing. Sometimes, trumpet players come to me for help because they’re struggling with their high notes. They often think it has something to do with the lips or breath, but that’s usually not the case. The problem is usually mental and musical. Like a gymnast visualising moves before they perform them, you need to have a clear mental image of the note you want to reach, and know exactly what needs to be done to reach it. Otherwise, your body will be badly prepared to do what it needs to do to produce the notes. The same applies for vocalists. Of course, you need to be well trained already to do this, and have built up the stamina needed to maintain it for an entire concert.” Erik isn’t alone in this, since his theory is shared by plenty of other eminent musicians, including the trumpeter Bill Adams and the tuba player Arnold Jacobs. “They also view it as a mental thing, and insist that it’s crucial to develop a good mental map when playing wind instruments.”
It’s also possible to hit extremely high notes with a trumpet by blowing harder to put the mouthpiece under more pressure. “A professional lead trumpeter needs to be able to guarantee a pure G3, and high blowers can hit a C4 and higher. The technique for both is generally the same. While you can get a kick out of high blowing, in terms of musicality, I find it less interesting. For example, I’d rather hear a lyrical Chet Baker solo than Jon Faddis screaming over a big band.” Wayne Bergeron, Eric Miyashuro and Jon Faddis are the most famous high blowers right now. Maynard Ferguson, who passed away in 2006, is perhaps the most famous of all time, and one of the most recognisable examples of high-blowing featured on Gonna Fly Now – otherwise known as the theme from Rocky.
So, the trumpet is played in classical, Jazz, and pop music, but does each genre demand a different technique? “Yes,” admits Erik. “There’s especially a massive difference between classical and Jazz. Classical music demands a different sound from the trumpet. It needs to carry and have a full and broad timbre. In Jazz, the trumpet and especially the lead trumpet, needs to keep the sound compact and concentrated and full of sizzle (high overtones). In Jazz, there needs to be a lot more air compression behind the note – the air pressure is higher and the pressure on the mouthpiece is usually higher as well. This requires a different breathing method and, naturally, a different way of shaping sound.” Classical trumpeters generally use an abdominal breathing technique. Lead trumpeters want to apply more air pressure, so they breathe deeper and some use a sort of yoga or meditation breathing technique which involves a full breath intake. This places more strain on the supporting muscles of the lungs to raise the air compression. Lead trumpeters also tend to use a smaller and/or shallower mouthpiece than classical trumpeters.
There are many different variations of the trumpet mouthpiece. The mouthpiece you choose depends more on the kind of sound you want your instrument to create and can vary from round and full to shrill and penetrating. You can see an overview of different mouthpieces in the image below.
Different trumpet mouthpieces
The Brass Section
The trumpet player in a pop band generally makes up part of the brass section. “A brilliant example of a brass section is Hey Horns, put together by Jerry Hey”, advises Erik. “They’ve worked on every Michael Jackson record that includes horns and plenty more work produced by Quincy Jones.” So, what makes a musician a good member of the brass section? “You need to be good at blending in. A section of three, four, or five horns needs to sound like one cohesive block, just like when you play a chord on a piano. This means that every member of the brass section needs to have great timing, phrasing, and be able to play cleanly. The sound of the individual horns also needs to sit well together. If you’re playing as part of the brass section, you also need to be good at reading music, to the point where (preferably) you’re able to play something through flawlessly on the first go.”
Always on Paper
A gripe among some musicians is that wind musicians almost always have to play from sheet music, while the rhythm section (the drums, bass, guitar, and piano or keyboard) always play from memory. According to Erik, there’s a good reason for this: “The rhythm section studies the structure of a number, and this structure keeps repeating, while the brass section develops over the course of an entire song. There are hardly any repeats so it’s impossible to memorise everything unless you play with the same band all the time and that band sticks to the same set of songs. So, if you’re a session musician or play for multiple bands, you’re never going to pull it off. Sometimes, you’ll even find yourself playing the same song with a different band, but the arrangement is different so you can easily get mixed up.” Besides missing the high notes, what other possible pitfalls are there for trumpeters in bands? “It’s often the case that trumpeters haven’t been able to listen to the arrangement they’re working and aren’t able to deliver the same phrasing and timing as the original. Because of this, the arranger always needs to include phrasing notes in the sheet music, so carets, dashes, dots, etc to make it absolutely clear how the piece needs to be played. The part basically needs to be as clear as possible, especially since a freelance horn player will often be reading it for the first time during the performance.”
Trumpeters prefer to use the first and second valves only. The third valve is the hardest to control because the muscles of the ring finger are linked to the muscles of the little finger.
You can get trumpets in a range of different tunings. Trumpets tuned in Bb are commonly used to play fanfares and lighter music, and when you play a C on a Bb trumpet, then you’ll hear a B♯ (so a note higher). The Bb trumpet is also the largest, so has the fullest sound. The range of the Bb trumpet is:
Because most trumpeters play a Bb trumpet, especially in Jazz, there are countless pieces written including brass sections playing in F, Bb, and Eb. These are the keys that include one or more flats and trumpet players love to play in these keys since it means they can stick to the first two valves which are played with the index and middle finger – the fingers that are easiest to move independently. Pieces that include sharps are harder on trumpet players because it forces them to use the third valve which is controlled by the ring finger. This is harder because the muscles of the ring finger are linked to the muscles of the little finger which is gripping the finger hook (see image), making it more uncomfortable to move the ring finger. It’s for this reason that many trumpet players choose not to use the finger hook at all or avoid playing the third valve altogether.
Classical composers tend to spare even less thought for the trumpet, so trumpet players regularly have to transpose the music as they read it – meaning they’re playing in a different key than the key than the score is written in. But trumpeters in general are really adept at transposing sheet music on the fly, or they use an instrument with a different tuning, like a piccolo trumpet in A. However, in popular music, trumpeters are often faced with a lot of sharps simply because the writer is often a guitarist, and guitarists tend to write in E or A.
The piccolo trumpet:
The Trumpet Family
Because there’s a trumpet in every tuning, the trumpet family is extensive. One of the more remarkable models is the piccolo trumpet, which is the smallest family member and can most famously be heard on Penny Lane by The Beatles. Then there are two brass instruments that are so closely related to the trumpet that they also have a place in the trumpet family: the bugle and the cornet (see images). The playing technique of the trumpet, bugle, and cornet, are actually the same, but the bugle is larger and has a wider, more conical bell so it has a more round and warm timbre than a trumpet. The conical structure means that the lead pipe gradually widens, while a cylindrical pipe will have the same diameter at the start and end. The cornet looks smaller than a trumpet, but in terms of pipe-length is actually just as long, but a little more compact because the structure includes more bends. It also has a more conical shape, and these two factors make the sound much rounder than that of a trumpet, but a little less round than a bugle. Then there’s the more rare slide trumpet which has a slide like a trombone, but sometimes has valves like a trumpet.
You often see trumpet players using mutes to dampen the sound and alter the timbre, and the decision whether or not to use a mute usually falls on the composer. When accompanying a soloist, a mute is often used so that the sound of the solo is pushed further to the front. Below, you can see photos of different mute models. The most commonly used are the straight mute, cup mute, harmon mute (also known as the tin mute), the bucket mute, and the plunger mute.
The straight mute is the oldest form of the mute and is generally used in classical music:
With the plunger mute, you can create that classic ‘do-wah’ effect:
The harmon or tin mute shapes a really clear and penetrating sound. This mute was made famous by Mile Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. The ‘muted trumpet’ sound of most keyboards is actually based on that Miles David sound:
The effect of the cup mute differs from brand to brand:
The bucket mute is commonly used by the brass section of big bands and softens the sound while lowering the volume:
Listen to the Greats
What can a trumpet player do to get the best out of themselves? “Dig deep into the material,” advises Erik. “Learn the biggest names from way back and the biggest names of right now (see below). Study videos as well as the recordings so you can actually see what they’re doing. You don’t have to imitate them exactly, but you’ll be learning where it all came from. My biggest inspiration has to be Jan Oosthof (the lead trumpeter for the Metropole Orchestra) because of his timing and phrasing and so on. Other great examples of lead trumpeters include Snooky Young from Count Basie’s big band, and Conrad Gozzo, who played on almost every Frank Sinatra record. Basically, Gozzo laid the blueprints for any good lead trumpeter.”
What advice can Erik offer trumpet players that work with pop bands? “The same applies: listen to the greats of pop music. Try writing out what they’re playing and listen closely to how it’s being played, especially the phrasing. Then try playing the part you’ve just written down before playing along to the original. You can also find plenty of parts scored for the trumpet on the internet, but it’s actually better to try figuring it out yourself, because you’ll learn more from doing it and it’ll actually stick in your head.”
Good to Know
The Anatomy of the Trumpet
The average trumpet is made from a 70% zinc and 30% copper alloy. The higher the zinc content, the brighter the sound, and the higher the copper content, the warmer the sound. While most trumpets have valves (like the one in the photo above), the original trumpet: the natural trumpet (without valves) is still used to play classical music today. Using your embouchure (or blowing technique) you can only play whole notes, or natural notes on a natural trumpet. As the pitch gets higher, the notes get closer together. The range of a natural trumpet tuned in C is C, G, C, E, G and so on (so, the root note, the perfect fourth, and the major third). Following the development of the valve (see the section on this earlier), the trumpet is able to cover the chromatic range (all twelve notes) and is able to retain the timbre across the entire register. The trick that’s played by the valves, is that they slightly lengthen the pipe and create a small diversion for the air as it flows past. As that diversion gets bigger, the pitch gets lower. A trumpet has a set of three valves, where the first valve lowers the pitch by a whole note (so a C becomes a Bb, and a G becomes an F), while the second valve lowers the pitch by a semitone, and the third valve by a note and a half. Using their embouchure and the valves, trumpeters are able to play every note from the western twelve note system.
Loud, Louder, Loudest
If you’re measuring in decibels, then a trombone is actually louder than a trumpet, but that’s not how we experience it, since the trumpet not only sounds louder but more penetrating. This is because a trumpet produces more of the frequencies that are clearly captured by the human ear, while the trombone doesn’t.
Essential Classical Trumpet Players
Maurice André (1933-2012) was a French trumpeter and is considered the most influential classical trumpet player worldwide. He was capable of producing stunningly lyrical sound and flowing tone. He is still considered the master of the piccolo trumpet.
Timofei Dokschitzer (1921-2005) can be seen as the Russian ‘counterpart’ of Maurice André.
Essential Jazz Trumpet Players
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), A.K.A. Satchmo was a singer and entertainer as well as a trumpet player. Due to his overwhelming talent, he established the trumpet as a Jazz solo instrument.
Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) was a musical pioneer who introduced Latin music to Jazz. He’s also known for his infamous bent trumpet and giant, bulging cheeks.
Miles Davis (1926-1991) was a trumpet player, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. His highly innovative approach and original, immediately recognisable style still influences Jazz musicians today.
Clifford Brown (1930-1956) had a legendary technique and was an incredible improviser. Despite his short music career (he passed at just 25 years old), he left an indelible mark on the history of the Jazz trumpet and what was to come.
Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008) was one of the great trumpet players and composers. He experimented with free Jazz, and while he made the step over to Soul and Rock, he later returned to Jazz.
Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006) was an incredibly acclaimed trumpeter (deservingly) and is best known as a high blower.
Wynton Marsalis (1961) is one of the most important Jazz trumpeters right now. He plays both classical and Jazz at an entirely new level.
Essential Lead Trumpet Players
Conrad Gozzo (1922-1964) played lead trumpet on countless recordings for artists including Frank Sinatra and the composer Henry Mancini.
Al Porcino (1925-2013) played in a number of big bands including the Louis Prima band, Gene Krupa band and the Count Basie band. Until 2009, he also led his own big band.
Buddy Childers (1926-2007) played with Stan Kenton for a long time.
Snooky Young (1919) is a master of the plunger mute (see above) and has played with all the big names, including Count Basie.
Benny Bailey (1925-2005) played in various big bands and toured with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. He spent the last part of his life living in Amsterdam.
Derek Watkins (1945) is one of the most famous lead trumpeters, and is best known for his work on the James Bond theme and for playing with the James Last band.
Wayne Bergeron is based in Los Angeles and is the lead trumpeter responsible for almost all studio work.
Essential Pop Trumpet Players
Jerry Hey, Gary Grant and Chuck Findley are the most important trend-setters when it comes to pop and R&B brass. One or more of these guys has appeared on almost every famous pop song that includes brass that you could think of. And they’re still doing it right now. In the clip below, they form a three-part trumpet section:
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