Mouthpiece Numbers (What do they mean?) – Part I: Tip & Lay

We’ve all heard the terminology when it comes to our mouthpieces.  A player will declare “I prefer a medium tip piece with a longer lay” (facing length).  Those further along the clarinerd trail will espouse the virtues of a  “36-22-12-6-106”  over a “36-24-12-6-106”.  These terms and numbers sound abstruse and can be used to impress all of our clarinet friends . . . but what do they mean and why are they important?

Tip Measurements

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Measuring the tip opening with glass and graduated gauge

Since it is the measurement with which most of us are comfortable, let’s start with the tip.  The tip opening is the distance between the reed tip and the tip rail of the mouthpiece.  It is generally measured in millimeters for clarinets and thousandths of an inch for saxophones. We already know that the more open (greater the distance) a mouthpiece is at the tip, the greater the resistance to and flexibility (softer) will be needed from the reed.

Basic Tip Definitions Terms and Measurements

  • Very Close = 0.95 mm – 0.99 mm
  • Close = 1.00 mm – 1.04 mm
  • Medium Close = 1.05 mm – 1.09 mm
  • Medium = 1.10 mm – 1.14 mm
  • Medium Open = 1.15 mm – 1.19 mm
  • Open = 1.20 mm – 1.24 mm
  • Very Open = 1.25 mm = 1.29 mm
  • Extremely Open = 1.30+ mm

Measuring the Lay

We know from previous articles that the lay begins where the facing begins to curve away from the reed table and ends at the tip opening. The means by which most mouthpiece craftsman measure the lay is the Brand method that utilizes prescribed thicknesses of feeler gauges and a graduated glass plate.  When the zero point of the glass plate is set at the mouthpiece tip, the distance to where the paper thin .0015″ gauge falls represents the length of the lay.  The numbers on the gauge represent the length in millimeters doubled.

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Measuring the lay

Basic Facing Definitions and Measurements

  • Short = 15 mm (30 on gauge)
  • Medium Short = 16 mm (32 on gauge)
  • Medium = 17 mm (34 on gauge)
  • Medium Long = 18 mm (36 on gauge)
  • Long = 19 mm (38 on gauge)
  • Very Long = 20+ mm (40+ on gauge)

OK.  So we have the two anchor points of our mouthpiece measurements.  We know that in the mysterious sequence of numbers 36-24-12-6-106 that the 36 represents 18 mm (medium long) length of the lay and 106 is a medium close 1.06 mm tip opening.  But what about the 24-12-6?  Next we will get into the part of the mouthpiece where the real performance occurs . . . the slope.

Common Mouthpiece Problems

After I had worked with Jerry Hall for a while learning the basics of mouthpiece measuring, geometry and facing techniques, he told me “You know everything that I know.  Now go screw up about a thousand mouthpieces and you’ll be ready”.  Needless to say, I learned a great many of the below issues and remedies while destroying those thousand pieces.

What a great many players don’t realize is that most of these common “troubles” (as Erick Brand called them) can be remedied in less than an hour at the bench.  The most common problem I run into is a crooked facing, especially on older mouthpieces that have warped or twisted reed tables.

Squeaks / Chirps

  • Tip rail too thin
  • Crooked facing
  • Hollow or bump on the tip rail
  • Facing curve is too straight near the tip

Stuffy / Overly Resistant

  • Tip rail too wide
  • Too long or too sharp of a curve near the tip rail
  • Facing too short
  • Tip to open
  • “Break” too short
  • Side walls too narrow

Plays Sharp

  • Chamber is too small or short (Usually from over-facing).

Plays Flat

  • Chamber too large or long

Mouthpieces for Beginners

Prior to writing this article, I did a little web research to see what teachers are recommending for their students.  Unfortunately, the most common reference to student mouthpieces that I found can be summarized as “Try to eliminate all stock mouthpieces. Encourage quality student mouthpieces”.  Thanks for narrowing it down so-called experts . . . OK . . . So what constitutes as quality student mouthpiece?

To me, a student mouthpiece must . . .

  • Be comfortable and free blowing: We all know that one of the fastest ways to discourage a kid from playing an instrument is to make him work too hard to get air through the horn.  I use a slight A frame in my JCII mouthpieces that allow for greater ease of blowing but still hold the sound.
  • Allow for slightly heavier reeds: Many student mouthpieces feature a short lay and a fairly open tip which make them great for the soft, orange box reeds but too difficult to play as the student progresses.  I recommend a medium to medium long lay (17 mm – 18 mm) with a medium close tip (1.06ish).  These dimensions allow the student to begin with a “blue” box reed of 2 or 2.5 that will hold the sound while not being too resistant.
  • Provide focused resistance: I teach students to feel the sound in the front of their mouths which requires a mouthpiece to offer enough “positive” resistance at the tip for the student to feel secure.  Even longer faced mouthpieces that can be used with heavy reeds, in my mind, are too flexible for the beginner.  I prefer to allow students the flexibility once they have a grasp of a good sound/air relationship.
  • Be affordable: Convincing a parent to swap out the “perfectly good” mouthpiece that came in the rental or new clarinet he just purchased can be a challenge. All the better if it is not overly expensive.  The tipping point for most parents in my area is $35.

So what fits the bill?  Below are mouthpieces that I believe match up well with what I look for for my students.  Even though I make my own, I feel comfortable when a new student comes to me with any of the below.