O.J.'s Trumpet Page Interview

A talk with Bob Reeves and John Snell

Bob Reeves 
Bob Reeves carving a rim.

I have been following the podcast “The Other Side of The Bell – A Trumpet Podcast” since it started some years ago. The latest podcast is number 22 – an interview with Jerry Hey. The one before that, number 21 was with Mario Guarneri.  In other words, we get to know more about top players in the world. Produced by Bob Reeves Brass, it is one of the few trumpet podcasts in the world.

After listening to all those great podcasts, I wanted to know more about the persons behind it. I contacted John Snell, who is the podcast host, and asked for an interview. He agreed and suggested we should make it into a joint interview with Bob Reeves and himself.

About the two men, we can read the following on the webpage - www.bobreeves.com:

Bob Reeves holds an AA degree in Arts and Engineering from China Lake Naval Ordinance Test Station where he apprenticed for six years as an experimental machinist and toolmaker. He also worked for the Eldon Benge Company, in Burbank, California. Originally, he was hired as a bell and toolmaker but soon ended up building every part of the trumpet, as well as assembling trumpets when needed. During that time, he also worked with Carroll Purviance, where he honed his skill as a mouthpiece maker.

Bob will always be a musician, and in his younger years played the trumpet. He studied the trumpet with John Clyman (the principal trumpet with the 20th Century Fox studios for twenty-five years) at Los Angeles City College while pursuant of his AA degree in Arts and Music.
Bob Reeves has been working with brass players, making mouthpieces, and adjusting their instruments since 1964 and continues to study and improve upon the methods and products that he develops.

John Snell started working for Bob in 2001. He manages the shop and works daily with customers and dealers. He has aligned thousands of valves over the last ten years.

John started playing trumpet at the age of five, studying with his father, Keith Snell. He received his Bachelor's Degree in Trumpet Performance at California State University Northridge where he studied with William Bing. His other teachers include Robert Karon, Charley Davis, Bob Slack, and Dr. Howard Shear.

Welcome to The Brass Herald, Bob and John!

Bob, could you tell us about your background? First, how did you discover the trumpet? How did you get into the brass instrument profession?
Bob - Because of how involved these stories are, I’m going to answer these questions together.

At age 6 in grade school I first heard and saw the bugle at assemblies. That was what I wanted to be. My family was living in Long Island, New York. My Mother said you will blow your brains out, so, she gave me a guitar instead because that was what was used by cowboys. I was always around horses growing up so the guitar was my first love. In fact, at 11 years old I auditioned for the circus as a trick rider and was hired. My Mother said "No way!" so I never joined. It would be funny to think about how my life would be different had I joined the circus.

When my family moved to California in my early teenage years, I still had my guitar, but I started listening to more and more trumpet. My friends and I listened to a lot of Jazz and Dixieland music. My life changed drastically when I received a draft notice from the U.S. Army during the Korean War. I tore up the draft notice and went straight down to the Navy recruiter and enlisted that day. In the service, I attended a machinist school and found that working with machines came naturally to me. I served for four years on a Navy destroyer in the engineering department. For three of those years, I was the ship machinist responsible for fixing everything. I had to be pretty crafty when we'd be out to sea for six months at a time. After my service in the Navy, I apprenticed as a toolmaker at China Lake.

During my last year in the service, I decided to pick up trumpet. I had settled in Los Angeles and started studying with John Clyman, the first trumpet in the 20th Century Fox Studios. John was a great musician and mentor to me. After about a year, John asked me about my background. When I told him about my experience in machining he started asking me to make things for him. During one lesson, he asked me how much a new lathe and some tooling would cost.  When we next met, he went to his desk and wrote out a check for $1600, which, in 1964, was a lot of money. He told me to go buy a lathe and get making mouthpieces.

John Clyman knew everyone in town. He told me to ask Carroll Purviance, a custom mouthpiece maker in Hollywood, for a job. He also connected me with the Benge Company in Burbank, where I learned all the steps in making and assembling a trumpet.

You started the business in 1964. How were the first years?
Bob - In the early years I had the lathe that John Clyman bought me in the back of my mother’s house. At the time I was working for Purviance and Benge, and while also doing work for players in my mother’s garage. It wasn't until 1968 when I leased a little space near the studios and Musician's Union in Hollywood that I officially opened up shop as Bob Reeves Brass.

When we brass players hear the name, Bob Reeves, we think about mouthpieces. What made you become a mouthpiece maker?
Bob - On my first day at Purviance’s shop, I saw what he was doing, and within 15 minutes I made my first mouthpiece. I thought this was going to be easy! It wasn't until a year later that a light came on and I realized that, even though I could make a mouthpiece, I knew absolutely nothing about how a mouthpiece worked. I knew my usefulness was limited if I couldn't advise the players who came into the shop. That’s when I really started to learn about the service side of custom mouthpiece making.

I started measuring every mouthpiece I could get my hands on, plotting them on graph paper. I could easily see the differences between them. And when top players started walking into my shop hours before a recording date – I didn’t have the luxury to tinker around. Many times they needed an alteration to fix a problem they were having and they needed to leave with confidence in their equipment. Situations like this left me with little margin for error. Using the studio players in Hollywood in those early years, I was able to get a clearer picture as to how the parts of the mouthpiece functioned. Later on, I would complement my own research with the scientific research of William Cardwell. I collaborated with Bill for many years and am thankful for his passion and dedicated research into the acoustics of the trumpet.

There are many brass instrument makers and brass repair people, who are not players. How is being a trumpet player useful?
Bob - This is a complicated issue. If you don't understand the job and the difficulties playing the trumpet then you often can't figure out how to help your customer. Trumpet is such a physical activity - it’s tough to imagine the feeling of just creating one note if you've never played. But, even with all of the research done so far, there are still many facets of trumpet equipment that remain a mystery to science. You could read all the research out there and still not know exactly how things work. A little first-hand experience goes a long way.

But with that being said, I believe the main thing that factored into my success was that I kept my mouth shut and listened! I don’t believe it’s my job to teach the trumpet to the person coming through the door, or suggest things that work or don't work for myself. My job is to use what I know about equipment to help the person coming into my shop do their job better when they leave. But even then, it's not just knowing the equipment -- because I’ve had so many different types of players coming in, I have to have an ear for what the trumpet should sound like in many different settings.

I’ve been asked questions like this many times from up and coming mouthpiece makers and I usually boil it down being able to do three things: manufacturing, understanding the physics of the trumpet, and having a great ear. I suppose you could also add the ability to work with people to that list too.

Every trumpet player is unique, so the solution you have to come up with is unique as well. There are no cookie-cutter approaches to helping musicians.

Bob, you also have other products in your shop.
Bob - I'm always looking for ways to help trumpet players make more music. I make adapters that allow you to use a cornet or flugelhorn mouthpiece in your trumpet, as well as an A adapter that allows you to use the Bb pipe on a cornet shank piccolo in A without having to pull the tuning bit out so far.

For many years I’ve made leadpipe swabs. The most common problem I hear from players is consistency in their playing. It’s funny because most trumpets I see in my shop are quite dirty. It would make sense that as dirt builds up from day to day the trumpet plays a little different. With the leadpipe swab, the dirt gets pulled out of the leadpipe and, if used regularly, never has a chance to get deeper into the instrument. This means the trumpet will play the same from day to day, which will help you, start to narrow down where your consistency issues really are!

We also have a great valve oil, H2Oil, which is petroleum, based but is formulated to mix with water. The problem with it is that it last so long that customers reorder after a few years instead of a few months!

A good mouthpiece is of course a very important part of a good brass instrument. What other parts or variables are important?
Bob - There are hundreds of variables in the trumpet and mouthpiece and one quickly learns that everything affects everything. That is, every minute change affects something about the instrument. However, many changes are imperceptible to most players. Also, one can quickly paralyze themself by trying to analyze and change too many variables.

One variable that I found quite important early on was the alignment, or vertical positioning, of the valves. There were a few studio players in Hollywood who kept coming back week after week for mouthpiece adjustments. These were some of the strongest, most consistent players in the world at the time yet the mouthpiece that worked a week or two ago was not functioning the same. I knew the mouthpiece hadn't changed in that time. I also knew that these musicians hadn't changed during this time (otherwise they wouldn't have been working in the studios!). This made me begin to look at the trumpet. Around the same time I saw a master class and noticed the player used alternate fingerings. I asked him about it and he said that he preferred the sound of certain combinations. I connected this with my work building trumpets at Benge and started measuring the alignment of the valves.

I had no idea at the time how much the alignment could affect the instrument. After the first few trumpets were done, word got out quickly. One symphony trumpet player sent in one of his backup instruments as an experiment. When he got it back he was livid. He called me on the phone and cussed me out because he owned 26 trumpets and now he would have to have them all aligned!

Besides putting the valve where they should be, a critical aspect of the alignment is stability. I ran into problems during the early years because, even though the alignment was adjusted correctly, players were still coming back in after a few weeks. At the time, I used the original pad material that came in the instrument and adjusted the valves. I found out that most materials are unstable and will change from week to week. The material we use now lasts 5 to 10 years as opposed to 5 to 10 weeks like felts, neoprene, and rubber. To this day we are still researching and looking for something even better.
John Snell
John Snell at the CNC machine

John, what about your trumpet background?
John - My father, Keith Snell, is a professional trumpet player and arranger, so I grew up around the trumpet and brass chamber music. I remember in grade school you could play a stringed instrument in 3rd grade and had to wait until 4th grade to play a wind instrument. I begged my parents to let me play violin. They said they couldn’t afford to get me one, but they did have an extra trumpet lying around (a Conn Director). Thinking back I’m glad, my parents nudged me in that direction.

I dearly wanted to make a career out of performing; however, the more I worked the less I enjoyed playing the trumpet. There were days I dreaded taking the horn out of the case. I decided to switch careers and went to graduate school in a completely different field. After not touching the horn for a few months, I took it out and played a little. It was so much fun. I had found my love again, and all I had to do was take the pressure of making a career away.

What made you start working for Bob?
John - I had been working for a web design firm as a day job to pay my way through school when out of the blue, I get a call from Bob Reeves Brass asking if I was interested in a job. Apparently, they had asked my trumpet teacher (and good friend of Bob’s), Bill Bing, that they were looking for a college-age trumpet player to help out at the shop and he recommended me.

I don’t think Bob knew what he had gotten himself into. I had never visited the shop; in fact, I barely knew who Bob Reeves was. I certainly had never heard of valve alignments, sleeves, or anything of the sort. They hired me on the spot and the first thing Bob told me was that if I ever dressed that way again in a machine shop (I was in my best suit), he would fire me.

Could you tell us about the podcast? What made you start it?
John - We have such a wide array of players come through the shop and one of the best parts of working here is hearing their stories. The idea really came from Bob because he always wanted a way to get their stories out to the world. Bob thought it would be a great service to the community to hear these stories, and a service to these players many of whom worked their whole careers in the studios with little or no credit.  I happened to be familiar with the podcast medium, listening to a number of them myself, so we put two and two together and came up with “The Other Side of the Bell.”

We’ve played with the format a little bit, as we’ve gone along, but basically, the show is an open-ended interview with trumpet players. Being based in Los Angeles, we have easy access to the studio musicians out here, but we try to get as much variety as possible. We’ve posted 22 episodes to date and already have three more interviews ready to go.

Do you have any new plans with the podcast?
John - “The Other Side of the Bell” will keep to the same interview format. Now it is just a matter of expanding our reach to interview different trumpet players. I’m so thankful that the podcast has been a success because it is much easier now to approach players for interviews.

We are starting a second podcast in March that will feature advice and discussion on trumpet playing and equipment. We may have special guests join us, but the focus will be more on a specific aspect of trumpet like choosing a mouthpiece or mouthpiece buzzing vs. non-buzzing. It will also be a great opportunity for the guys at the shop, Brett Kendall, Mike Davis, Keith Snell (my dad!), and of course Bob, to share their expertise.

A trombone version of “The Other Side of the Bell” is in the works. Noah Gladstone, founder of The Brass Ark, who we are collaborating with to design a new line of trombone mouthpieces and sleeves, will host this podcast. Look for the trombone podcast to start before mid-year.

Finally two questions to both of you.
What advice can you offer to someone searching for a new mouthpiece?
Bob - Don’t get a new mouthpiece! This may sound odd coming from a mouthpiece maker, but I don’t think of myself as someone who makes a product but as someone who provides a service. Most new customers that contact me do not end up with a new mouthpiece.

There are three things to look at before you even consider a mouthpiece change.

First, make sure your trumpet is clean. I mean spotless. The inside of your leadpipe should reflect light like a mirror.

Second, check and correct the alignment of your valves.  There is no mouthpiece that can overcome improperly positioned valves. I sell a lot less mouthpieces to customers once they have had a valve alignment because their trumpet is set where it is supposed to be and will not change.

Third, do my paper trick (instructions at bobreeves.com/paper trick). Try adjusting the gap of your current mouthpieces. Many problems with pitch, slotting, articulation, and blow can be adjusted and fixed with the gap. I’d much rather adjust your mouthpiece and dial it in than start from scratch.

Now, if you have gone through these three steps and you are still looking to improve something in your playing, let us look at the mouthpiece.

Nail down the rim first. I want you to find a rim you love. Notice I said “love”:  you don’t marry the person you just like. The same should be true with the rim. I don’t care about the rest of the mouthpiece. If you find a rim, you love, save it! Thread or copy that rim and put it on every mouthpiece you use.

The rest of the mouthpiece (we call the underpart) should be right for the job you have to do. There is no such thing as a cheater mouthpiece. The audience doesn’t care what equipment you are using. They just want to hear you get to your song.

John - Be logical and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Many times players take a “shotgun approach” to finding a new mouthpiece, buying every size and shape they can find. Even though there are thousands of combinations in the Reeves mouthpiece line, we can narrow the choice down to one or two models after a brief consultation.

Just a little bit of forethought can save you from going on an expensive and fruitless mouthpiece safari.

I would like to do as you do in the in the podcast - end with this question:
If you were to give one advice to aspiring young brass players, what would that be?
John - Always keep in mind why you do what you do. Trumpet is so physically demanding and making a living in the music industry is so daunting, we often lose sight of the music. It’s the song that inspires us, creates moments, and connects us with each other.

Bob - Don't listen to the next 1,000 trumpet players that offer up advice. Find what works for you by listening, observing, and practicing twice as much as everyone else.

o.j. 2015 - This interview will be published in The Brass Herald