What the Pros Play – Trumpet Artist Bobby Shew (pt.1)
Woodwind & Brasswind Contributing Writer - Tony Guerrero
Bobby Shew is, in my opinion, one of the greatest jazz trumpet players on the scene today, and he has been for decades. It should come as no surprise that, as a Yamaha Artist for many years and one of the few musicians to have their name associated with a horn model, he tends to favor Yamaha instruments. But his perspective on why he likes these horns has far less to do with his association with the company than it does his simple desire to play on the “right horn for him”. His philosophy on selecting instruments can help you choose your own “perfect horn” regardless of the brand or model.
TG: Hi Bobby, thanks for taking the time to share with us. Can you start by telling me which trumpet you’re currently favoring?
BS: Well, of course, I’ve been on the Bobby Shew model Yamaha, the YTR-8310Z, for some time. I like it because it’s the best trumpet of all for me. I actually own 83 trumpets and flugelhorns, and not too long ago I played through all of them. We were doing inventory, and I cleaned them all and played every instrument over three days, and for me, there’s no better trumpet than this one.
Everybody has their own particular concepts of what a horn should feel like and sound like, but I always look for two things, and I think everybody should look for these. First and foremost, the sound – does it fit your personal needs? If you’re playing cornet in a classical setting or a British-style brass band, your sound on the cornet is going to be quite different than, say, Bobby Hackett or Bix Beiderbecke, or somebody playing in a Dixieland band. So, you select the horn by the sound that fits your personal need.
Secondly, there’s the ease of playing. Sometimes a guy will say, “I get a really great sound out of this particular horn, but I have to work really hard.” So, it becomes a toss-up whether you want to sacrifice a little sound to get more ease of play, or vice-versa. When people say, “the instrument gets the sound” I always answer that the instrument doesn’t get the sound as much as people get the sound. So, the person should never really blame the instrument, or even the mouthpiece. More often than not, that person needs someone to troubleshoot them and access the way they play, to see if they have deficiencies in the way their doing things. Like good breathing habits, not developing embouchure muscles properly, whatever. But it always comes back to those two things – sound and ease of play. That’s why I play everything that I play – mouthpiece, horns, etc.
TG: I’ve played on, and loved, the Bobby Shew models from Yamaha. How did those come about?
BS: My great fortune in life has been that Yamaha took me under their wing many years ago and offered me an opportunity to sit down with Kenzo Kawasaki and Bob Malone and design instruments that suited me personally. I wasn’t trying to build a horn that would satisfy everybody in New York, London, Sydney or Chicago, I was just trying to build a horn that was for me. Not many people get a chance to do that!
Of course, in that development process, I was also being educated on acoustics, physics and some of the various mechanics on things like the bell beads, changing braces - all sorts of things. So, I was being educated by those two geniuses, and here I am, a country trumpeter, a cowboy trumpet player from the desert! They really gave me an education, so now I understand quite a lot about the mechanics, and that helps me make decisions about selecting horns and mouthpieces.
TG: And what about your flugelhorn?
BS: I grew up on an Olds flugelhorn I bought when I was thirteen in the late fifties. When I went to New York for the first time, I bought a Couesnon that was great. The sound, the slotting, the whole thing. And I played on Couesnon for years. When I got with Yamaha, I started playing on their old model 631, but that was a little “tubby” for me, so I said “We should do something about a flugelhorn!” and so we went at it. First, we came up with the 635T and then we came up with the YFH-6310Z. Now we have the YFH-8310Z, which is absolutely phenomenal. For me, none of my old horns, which I still own, match up to this horn.
TG: Again, I love the Shew model flugelhorns and have played them for some time now. I’m currently playing on the YFH-8315G that Wayne Bergeron had some input on.
BS: That’s essentially the 8310Z with a couple modifications, because Wayne weighs more than I do! (Laughs). No, he doesn’t. But Wayne does play with more force than I do, so he needed the horn to accommodate his different way of approaching the horn. But it’s almost the same.
TG: Finally, let’s talk about your mouthpiece choice.
BS: On my flugelhorn, I use the Yamaha Bobby Shew flugelhorn that comes with the 8310Z. It was modeled after an old Giardinelli that I had made back in 1958. On the trumpet, I basically use two mouthpieces, and I have for years. I’m not a lead player who is trying to play jazz, I’m more of a jazz player who’s gained some lead chops. So, the primary motivation in music for me is jazz playing. Over the years, of course, I’ve played numerous mouthpieces. For my jazz playing, I played on a Bach 9D for a lot of years and then Roger Ingram brought over a 3D mouthpiece one day and I liked that more, so I switched. My lead mouthpiece started out as a Giardinelli 10S. In the late fifties, I bought one because I could play a high G on it pretty easily. It was $8.00, which at the time I thought was highway robbery! Mouthpieces normally sold for $2 to $3, but I bought it anyway. When Buddy Rich moved me to the lead chair, I got that mouthpiece and played on that. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing yet and wasn’t breathing properly or playing properly and I cut my chops up. To fast forward, when I joined Yamaha, they wanted to start a Yamaha signature line, so I worked with their guy in Japan. I took some of the design elements of the Giardinelli 10S and updated them and that became the Bobby Shew Lead mouthpiece. For the Bobby Shew Jazz mouthpiece, we basically did the same thing off of the 3D. We changed the backbore and some of the configurations and the inner bite. I played on these mouthpieces for a great many years with a lot of success.
These days, however, there’s a guy named Jim Kelly, who owns Kelly Mouthpieces.
TG: The plastic ones?
BS: Yes, although they’re not actually plastic, it’s a material called Lexan. We played together when I was a guest at the University of Wisconsin and he was playing trombone in the band. Years later, he took over his father’s tool and dye business and started making mouthpieces out of this injection material. One day, out of the blue, I got a package in the mail from him. There were five mouthpieces in there – red, blue, green, orange, yellow. It looked like tutti-frutti M&Ms! I said, “Oh, my God, look at this…” But one day I decided to pick it up, and, wow! It felt fantastic! It was a 3C. I thought, “This is great!” It was nice and warm and fluffy sounding, soft to the lips, and so comfortable. So, I was playing a gig and took some with me. After a few tunes, I put one in and I felt better on it. People noticed my sound was different, they thought I was playing flugelhorn.
I still occasionally play my brass mouthpieces but for the last seven years I’ve mostly been playing on Kelly’s. He has a Bobby Shew jazz model, and it plays really good. And you never have to warm it up because it’s always at one temperature. He doesn’t make my lead mouthpiece, but a guy at Yamaha in Germany made one out of Lexan for me.
TG: Well, I have a confession. I think many of us had the same first impression when we saw those for the first time. But I have one and have loved playing on it for all the reasons you said, but I was always a little hesitant to pull it out in front of my pears. You’re the first guy of note I’ve heard is playing on those regularly, and I may have to just start using mine more. I really do like it a lot!
BS: Well, you should never be shay about that, because, your peers, well, “later” with them! (Laughs). You’re not here to satisfy them. Actually, there are quite a few professionals who are playing on these. Some top classical and orchestral guys, like Sam Pilafian, cats like that, are starting to use them. Granted, color selection may be an issue. School bands are getting them in school colors. There are some elitists who may cringe, “Ooh, a green plastic mouthpiece…”, but quit looking at the mouthpiece, just listen to the guy play. If it sounds good, something must be right!
There are countless recordings of Bobby Shew you can check out. My personal favorite performance of his is the title track from his 1985 release “Breakfast Wine”, which you can hear here.
Look for part two of this interview in which Bobby discusses his view on students and on the origin of his famous “Shew-Horn”