Finding Sax Mouthpiece Gold Among the Rubble

I’m always amazed when saxophone player’s tell me that they can know within seconds if a sax mouthpiece is right for them or not.  The reason that this amazes me, is that my experience has been so different from that.  For example, I received a sax mouthpiece a few months ago that is an old Barone Jazz tenor model.  The player couldn’t vouch for it because he had never played it due to the fact that the bore was so small on the mouthpiece that it wouldn’t fit on his tenor saxophone neck.  He kindly offered to let me try it and I could send it back if I didn’t like it.

On receiving it, I immediately opened the box and put a Vandoren Java 2 1/2 reed on it. I tried playing it and thought “Wow, this is the worst mouthpiece I have ever played!” No evenness to the scale, high notes wouldn’t come out, low notes had to be honked out and the tone was really nasally.  In all fairness, it was a used reed that had already been used on another mouthpiece so I didn’t let that bother me so much.

I then tried a new Rigotti Gold 2 1/2 Strong reed which also sounded horrible.  I thought maybe it was too soft so I tried a Rigotti 3 Light reed which was too hard and stuffy sounding.  At that point I was frustrated and tired so I washed the mouthpiece, put it back in the box it came in and decided to send it back in the morning.

As I lay in bed disappointed,  I thought maybe I should try a Rigotti 2 1/2 Light reed on it. Maybe the  2 1/2 Strong reed was a bit too hard and I had gone the wrong direction with the reeds.  I got up out of bed around midnight, went to my office and put a 2 1/2 light reed on it.  “Click”, it played perfectly!  Perfect resistance, nice even sound, beautiful dark sound with a nice core! Just what I was looking for.

The next day,  I played it for about four hours straight in my garage.  I loved it!  I played it for the next three days with that same reed and loved every minute of it.

Finding Sax Mouthpiece Gold Among the Rubble

Why am I writing all this?  Well, the picture above is a picture of some other sax mouthpieces I hated at first. Another Barone Jazz, a Navarro BBS, a Lamberson J7, an EB Link and a Florida Link.  I can remember trying each of those saxophone mouthpieces for the first time and absolutely hating them. Trying multiple reeds and even sometimes playing for hours or days with them trying to make them work.  You might think I am exaggerating but I am not.

For each of these sax mouthpieces, there was a moment where something magically clicked.  It might have been a reed change or it might have been a subtle change in how I was blowing and all of a sudden “click” there was a noticeable difference.

What I experienced above with hating the mouthpiece happens quite often with players that are switching to a completely different mouthpiece design.  If you have been playing a higher baffle Berg Larsen or high baffle Guardala for years and try to switch to a lower baffle Otto Link type mouthpiece you will certainly experience this. The same is true if you switch from a lower baffle Otto Link type mouthpiece to a higher baffle mouthpiece.

In either case, you are radically changing the equipment you are playing with.  If you have been playing a high baffle mouthpiece for years,  you are used to picking up the saxophone every day and playing with a certain amount of air, support and blowing strength.  You have learned how to best “voice” your notes in the different ranges of the horn whether you have realized it or not.  You have learned exactly what you have to do to get the low notes out and play the altissimo notes reliably.  You don’t even have to think about these things as they just happen because you have played on this sax mouthpiece for countless hours.

Now, what happens when that same player plays a low baffle, large chamber mouthpiece for the first time?  The tone is usually weak and anemic. It sounds really spread and lacks any core focus in the tone.  Many times,  the high notes and altissimo won’t even come out.  There might be an unevenness in the scale with middle “D” being quite stuffy and muted sounding.

A surprising number of player’s will at this point take the mouthpiece off the horn and proclaim “This sucks!” and hand it back to the owner or seller.  If they bought it online they might package it back up and be angry because they feel ripped off.    They might demand a refund of the seller or just list it for sale again on ebay.

Now, before you wholeheartedly agree with me and say “Yeah,  that’s just Links, they aren’t chops in a box!  You have to put the work in! You preach it Steve!” What I have just said holds true for the situation in reverse also.  I have seen and heard many players who play an Otto Link type mouthpiece for years try a higher baffle mouthpiece with similar results.  Their tone sounds thin, strident, edgy and overly bright.  They can’t get any low notes out and their tone lacks any character.  They immediately hate it and immediately believe that high baffle mouthpieces are the worse thing ever invented.

Finding Sax Mouthpiece Gold Among the Rubble

My point with all this is that external change usually requires internal change from us as well.  We are not used to the new mouthpiece. We are used to playing on our old mouthpiece.  There needs to be some time where we reacclimate to the new mouthpiece to see what the possibilities are with it.  I’m not talking about months here but lets at least say 8-10 hours of playing over 3-4 days.  This means that you play the mouthpiece continuously for those 8-10 hours and don’t go back to your old mouthpiece during that time.

OK, so what should be happening during those hours of playing time?  Here is some suggestions from my own experiences:

  • First, I experiment with saxophone reeds.  To be honest, I hate this part and it is painful for me.  Right now, as I type this I have 32 reeds strewn across my desk (yes, I just counted them) from probably the last five mouthpieces I have tried or reviewed.  Although, I try to use new sax reeds for each new mouthpiece I try, I have to admit that due to economic factors I do usually try some used reeds first lately.  Sometimes I get lucky and find a great used reed that works on the new mouthpiece.  I have a ton of different sizes and a bunch of different brands of saxophone reeds.  The brands are important because some brands of reeds are brighter sounding and some are darker so I experiment to see what I like the most with each mouthpiece.
  • I also experiment with reed position.  This can make a huge difference with how a sax mouthpiece responds and performs.  In general, I put the reed so that it is even with the tip of the sax mouthpiece as I look at it from straight ahead.  In this position, the reed is a little lower than the tip when it closes against the mouthpiece.  Sometimes,  I move the reed higher so it is slightly higher than the tip and the reed closes  almost exactly on the tip curve.  Sometimes I move the reed lower to experiment with that position.  The affects of these movements all vary depending on the saxophone mouthpiece, the facing curve measurements and the reed. Each sax mouthpiece and reed will have it’s own unique results from this experimentation.
  • I also experiment with the ligature position.  I tend to have the ligature positioned on the back half of the mouthpiece body. Sometimes,  I move it up towards the front, sometimes I move it back even farther.  If it is a two screw ligature, sometimes I loosen the front screw slightly to see if that frees up the reed at all.  Many times it does, sometimes it does too much and I tighten it back down a little bit. (I don’t like the response of an overly tight ligature ever but that is just me……)
  • Intonation is pretty straight forward for me.  I make sure the saxophone, neck and sax mouthpiece are warmed up.  Sometimes, I spend 45 second just blowing hot air into the mouthpiece as it is attached to the sax neck while my other hand covers the bottom of the neck opening slightly so that that part of the saxophone gets warmed up quickly.  When the saxophone is warmed up, I tune to middle B so that it is right on “0” on my tuner. Usually, all the other notes fall into place after that.

Finding Sax Mouthpiece Gold Among the Rubble

After this, I spend many hours over multiple days just playing.  Here are some suggestions for playing:

  • I usually spend a good amount of time in the low register of the saxophone warming up.  I play middle Bb and go down chromatically to low Bb. I might do it slowly as quarter notes at around 72 but then usually get faster until I’m doing it as fast 16th notes.  I find this incredibly useful in getting used to a mouthpiece.  When going from a higher baffle sax mouthpiece to a Link style sax mouthpiece this process helps me blow more air into the horn and gets me used to the air required for the mouthpiece.  My goal is to blow at 80% air capacity and to fill the horn with air.  I also try to think of filling the whole room with sound.  Doesn’t matter if I am in a small practice room or large arena, I try to fill the whole room with sound. I’m aiming for making those low notes as fat and thick as can be.  If you are coming from a higher baffle mouthpiece this will take some adjustment and probably much more air and support.  This might take a while to get used to over multiple practice sessions and days.
  • This exercise is also great if you are coming from a low baffle Link type mouthpiece to a higher baffle saxophone mouthpiece.  Most players that try to move to a higher baffle mouthpiece have trouble with their low notes so this exercise is very useful for them also. I do the same thing, I’m trying to get the most robust fat notes possible out of the low end of the horn.  My experience with high baffle mouthpieces is that the low notes get fatter if I blow more air and let my throat and neck expand naturally by relaxing.  Many players try to “open” their throat by trying to force it with muscles but I think this is a huge mistake and just causes tension which you don’t want. If you blow more air and focus on relaxing your throat and neck the area will expand on it’s own from the air column with no tension. It is not unusual for me to do this exercise for 15-20 minutes straight while I warm up.
  • After that, I also do the same exercise with subtone also.  I am aiming for making the low notes as soft as humanly possible.  Barely a whisper!  Although this exercise uses less air, it needs equal if not more air support to keep the subtoned note steady and without wavering. This exercise also helps me adjust to the air and support that the new saxophone mouthpiece needs to work at peak performance for me.
  • After that, I usually just play whatever I think of playing.  I usually will play something with rapid tonguing and articulation to see how the piece articulates.  Some pieces are as smooth as butter and some take more work from my tongue for some reason. The goal with either is to get used to how it feels when articulating.
  • I usually mess around with saxophone overtones quite a bit also.  I play a note as big and as full as I can then I go to the overtone fingering and compare.  The overtone fingering is usually fuller and bigger sounding.  I usually go back and forth between the regular note and overtone fingering over and over while holding the note while I adjust my throat and tongue position to make the notes sound as similar to one another as possible.  This process is huge for me as it gives me insights on how to “voice” the notes the best.  I can’t describe exactly how this is done but I know that practicing this process many time helps me get to that magical  “click” moment I describe in the beginning of this article.
  • The high palm keys and altissimo are equally as important to practice.  Most saxophone players moving to a Link type sax mouthpiece will have a harder time up high. Similarly, most Link type players going to a higher baffle mouthpiece might find the altissimo easier but at the same time it might sound thinner or more edgy.  For me,  this has to do with my lower lip of the embouchure.  I practice going into the altissimo from the front high E fingering. I play high E, the Front high F, then high G with just the top front F key, then high A and back down.  My goal is to get the transition smooth but also get used to the voicing of the notes as well as the best bottom lip firmness.  In general, I tend to make my bottom lip more taunt like a trampoline for Link type mouthpiece in the altissimo.  This makes the altissimo tone brighter and edgier up high. On higher baffle sax mouthpieces, I might try to get more of a pillowy softer texture to my bottom lip so that the notes become less harsh and edgy and maybe fatter sounding.

Those are just a few ideas and suggestions that I use while trying out saxophone mouthpieces.  I will add that I also like to try mouthpieces in different rooms of my house.  That is very important.  You can mistakenly judge a mouthpiece by the effect a room is having on your sound before it hits your ears.  I usually like to play mouthpieces while facing towards a mirror or glass window as I feel like the true sound of what’s coming out of the bell bounces back to my ears immediately.  I also like to try every mouthpiece in my garage (big reverberation) as well as my office (dry sounding).  I do that so I get a good idea how the mouthpiece sounds in those two sound environments.

Finding Sax Mouthpiece Gold Among the Rubble

So, what is this magical click moment I referred to at the beginning of this post?  For me, it is the moment where I feel like I cross a threshold with how to get the most from a new sax mouthpiece. It’s like everything falls into place and I and the mouthpiece are one.  I know, it sounds corny and like hocuspocus but what I am writing about is where everything just seems to fall into place.  The things I was working on above with air and voicing are no longer thought about.  I am doing them but now it is just happening and automatic. The mouthpiece is responding exactly how I want.  I love the sound and tone.   It is perfect.  The whole range of the horn is even and smooth like butter.  The low notes are full and fat.  The subtone is velvety smooth.  The altissimo pops and sings.etc……

Although all those things are amazing, the true value of this magical “click” moment is when I start creating lines and ideas I never thought of before and they are just flowing out of the horn.  I really believe that when you get to that “click” moment where you don’t have to struggle with not liking your tone, with the low notes, getting the altissimo, the high notes being too thin and edgy, with intonation being out of wack and things start flowing effortlessly, it frees up the mind to imagine and experiment.  That to me,  is the true click moment and when I get the most excited!

Here’s the thing, the five sax mouthpieces in the picture above were all hated by me the first time I played them.

The Barone Jazz on the left, hated it for two day and was about to send it back then “click”. Now one of my favorites!

The Navarro Bebop Special, borrowed it from a Skype student and was so surprised when I hated it.  I thought it was one of the worst mouthpieces I ever played.  Four days later, “click”….I begged him to let me buy it.

The Lamberson J7, I bought that because I had heard so much about them and my first thought after trying it was “Crap! This thing sucks!”  A few days later, it was my main piece and I gigged on it for a couple of years as happy as a clam.

The EB Link next to it was another big purchase. I received it and the first hour of playing it was a complete disaster.  I was so mad because I thought I had been ripped off!  Super resistant and would not play.  The next day I tried a really soft reed.  A Rigotti 2 1/2 Light that I just assumed would be way too soft on a 7* Link because it was too soft on every other Link 7* I had ever played………It played perfectly, I was in heaven! (turns out this mouthpiece has a short facing curve that likes softer reeds)

The Florida Link next to it was advertised as the best Florida Link the seller had ever played.  He had probably played thousands.  He was nice enough to let me try it convinced I would love it because it was the best.  I played it for two days and wasn’t impressed. I was about to send it back,  then on the third day, something “clicked”.  I remember thinking in that practice session that this was the best I had ever sounded!  I bought it from him with no regrets.

At this point, I’m not sure if I will ever sell any of these five mouthpieces.  They are really special to me because I got something out of them that seemed to be hidden at first.  I had to work to find that hidden treasure but once I found it I felt like I had discovered something very special and never wanted to let it go.

What inspired me to write this article is that I hear from players time and time again who try a mouthpiece once and say “It doesn’t work for me”.  I have sold some great playing mouthpieces to people over the years and then the next day see them on Ebay.  I email the buyer and ask what happened and they say “I played it and it wasn’t for me.”  I always ask “How long did you play it for?”  I’m astounded by the answers. 15 minutes, less than an hour, a couple of hours, etc…..Wow!

I guess my whole point here is that sometimes what seems to be an ugly duckling could be a swan. A little bit of effort and some time can reveal a lot in my opinion.  A mindset of “What can I do or change within myself to get the most out of this mouthpiece?” can unearth a treasure that you will never want to sell.

I am not in any way saying that every piece can work with every player.  That is not the point of this article.  I have talked to players struggling with a mouthpiece setup for 6 months or longer just thinking it will someday happen.  I’m not talking about that scenario but more about giving a new mouthpiece a fair shot and chance before writing it off.  I would certainly not of discovered those five pieces above if I had not.  They are now some of my favorite mouthpieces to play………..

I have played and reviewed many saxophone mouthpieces where that magical click never happens for me but I always try to go through this process to see what a mouthpiece can do.

I know what you are thinking “Steve, How do I know when the click happens?”  The answer is “It is obvious!”  Sorry to be vague, but answering that question is similar to answering “Steve, how do I know when I’m in love?”  When it happens you know it!  When that magical click happens with a mouthpiece you will know it!  Hope this helps in some way!     Steve

PS.  Let me know what you think in the comments below………..

 

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Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 25 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

Comments

  1. Stephen Young says:

    Great article Steve….I have been reading many of your reviews.
    Any tips when going to a more open mouthpiece? I currently play a Theo Wanne Slant 8 and it is a great mouthpiece …looking at getting a retro revival 8 star Florida style as a contrasting mouthpiece. Slightly more open.

    Would really love to find a JWV refaced link …..my only hesitation is the cost and I live in Australia so not many here to try. Or a good refaced Florida link around 110 to 115 opening.

    Thanks again,

    Regards
    Steve

  2. Steve, there are two 8* RR Florida pieces on SOTW for 450 which is a great price for these…..thought I would let you know……

  3. True dat, I’m sure, Steve.
    That said, I have also played mouthpieces that seem questionable from the start.. and turn out to be… questionable. Rejects.
    A recent example for me was a Runyon Smooth Bore baritone piece. I did spend many days on it, just to be sure. Many reeds… different cuts, strengths… It just turned out to be far too “harsh” sounding for what I’m trying to do.

  4. Mario Lafrésière says:

    Always a great pleasure to read your articles Steve. Just ordered a RR 6* I bought a 7*a few weeks ago sounded great but a little bit too open due to my jaw issue…..I let you know if I feel the click…this article I’m sure will be of great help for’us sax lovers. Thanks Steve

  5. Totally agree with you. When I bought my Metal Robusto I was mortified to find I couldn’t get what I wanted out of it After coming from an open low baffle piece It took me 3 weeks of pain until my scowl turned into a huge grin. After I tried to go back to my Acoustimer and recorded myself thinking I would be well happy with the result, but it sounded abysmal, weak and worthless, Less say that really helped raise my awareness of what is needed for the switch over. Now I am quite happy to change at any time as I know what is required. It also makes me think twice about buying another mouthpiece after reading one of your reviews.

  6. Steve Keller says:

    Nice article Steve. I don’t call it a “click” though – it’s more like a veil lifting. I’ve just had a somewhat similar experience with a Super Session F on soprano. I have an old scroll shank F that I love, and a couple of Bari’s plus a refaced Link 8 that is really nice but somewhat hard to play because it’s way more open than my other pieces. I put on the Super Session the other day, and it sounded OK. A couple days later, during a practice session, I had the experience of “Oh there’s that sound. Wow!”. What it is, you eventually find the right “spot” for the piece, the right reed strength (and maybe brand), the right place for your bottom lip, and you can just play what you feel. The mouthpiece and horn get out of the way, and you no longer think about what you have to do to make the instrument sing. It just sings.

  7. Totally agree, I had 2 Selmer Soloist metal for soprano and I hated them. I sold one and keep another.Magically with a different reed sounded perfect. I used a Lamberson with a lot of projection but the sound wasn´t as round as the Selmer. (I regret I sold the other one!) Same thing happened with a Selmer tenor rubber short shank Soloist, the minute I changed the blue Vandoren for a Plasticover, wow !, the sound changed diametrically.

  8. Bob Vandivort says:

    Steve Good introspective observations of the Love Of playing Sax the way you want to Hear the Sound in your minds eye. Hard work No Timeless Fun Yes!

  9. Steve, thanks for your website and In-depth reviews and info. I have enjoyed coming back to this site time and time again. I just wanted to say thank you for this article as it hit the nail on the head. I have played “successfully” (as opposed to messing around for a week- no: I mean committing for over a year at a time on ALL manner of gigs loud rock and wedding gigs, to blues, straight ahead trio, cocktail hour restaurant gigs big band recording sessions etc…. and making it work for me) on all types of set ups: selmer Soloist short shank E, Jody Jazz HR 10*, guardala Studio, Brilhart Tonalin Great Neck 5*, various Gerber pieces 9*, Link 8*, Jody DV Chi 8, and currently a Dukoff BD Hollywood 6*. Obviously that is a wide range of chambers, baffles and tip openings and I do NOT switch from gig to gig. My experience is the same as yours in that some of those pieces were almost a waste of time at first, but either through naivety or devotion to a romantic idea of playing a certain piece, I found that with time and reed experimentation I was able to find my sound in all of those setups. I say my sound because Of course you always sound like YOU, but at the same time each had varying color palettes and player experiences (IOW the amount of resistance and air and ease of play) and helped me to get into different head spaces, but ultimately I was always me, even if it took two weeks to find it. I can remember forcing myself to give a 5* a chance after playing a 10* for almost a year straight — man the volume was pathetic at first but the tone colors were intriguing enough, and wouldn’t you know that after a couple weeks I was able to figure out how to make a big sound out of that piece so that people would never believe I had made such a drastic change. Most recently I went from a 9* med chamber to a 6* with a very big chamber and of course the first few days were reed hell: I must’ve spent over $100 on reeds trying to figure out the optimum resistance and cut, but my persistence paid off as now I’m in heaven on a piece that, had I given up on it because of the first 3 boxes of reeds sounding like garbage, I would’ve never known how great it really plays on what I finally figured out was the ideal strength. I can’t imagine where I would be had I given up easily and judged a mouthpiece upon the first 15 minutes. This also makes “the search” even murkier because you can’t always trust your first reaction or even your second, but through experience one can learn what traits are dealbreakers, which ones are
    Special and how to match that up with one’s taste and the sound in your head. I wish I could be one of those guys you read about that just play the piece that they’ve always played on since they were young, and in the honeymoon phase I always say “this is it! I’ve found it I’ll never switch”. I know myself too well to say that out loud anymore but at least I have figured out what you described so well above which is: it takes time and patience to figure out what a piece is capable of, a piece can help you let go and find new creative avenues, you always sound like YOU in the end, and also I have to say that my journey through all manner of set ups has taught me a lot about how the saxophone works and the many ways one can accomplish a rich full tone. Thanks again for all you do and I look forward to more!

  10. Steve,

    I think the thing we readers love the most about your reviews and articles is the passion you put in them. Passion for music, for the saxophone and for the communication about them. You are a great musician and educator!

    You are able to put in words a whole process of selection of mouthpieces like no one else would be able to communicate. This selection process is actually very similar to the one that I (and probably many others out there) have been going through in my selection of preferred reeds and mouthpieces, but I had never thought of putting it down on a white screen.

    But something makes my selection process a bit different, I actually ended up choosing my mouthpieces based on my preferred reed (brand and strength) instead of the other way around.
    My preferred reed is the Rico Jazz Select 2M. I have been trying many mouthpieces and many reed types before understanding that this is “my” reed. Then the latest mouthpieces have been chosen to match that particular reed. And once I found the perfect mouthpiece for it, Bingo, the search was over. I totally love the response and sound of that particular type and strength of reed on my mouthpiece. And very important too, every time I open a new box of Rico Jazz Select 2M reeds, it seems that practically all reeds are playing perfectly straight out of the box. So there is no more struggle to find the right reed for the mouthpiece. That’s the most important thing for me, because I really hated it when I was opening boxes of reeds and only found one or two working for the mouthpiece I was playing back then. Such a frustrating thing that was totally spoiling the pleasure of playing saxophone by killing the spontaneous “click moment” that you so beautifully described in the article.

    Thank you Steve for all your great articles!

    Andrea

  11. Bob Vandivort says:

    Hi Been on your Web page for a few years great site enjoy your approachThanksBob V

  12. That’s great to hear Bob. I’m glad you like the site and find it helpful. Steve

  13. Edward Zankowski says:

    Thankyou Steve for your invaluable insights ! Your knowledge about mouthpieces is spot on to me! Please continue to write your great reviews and insights. They are awesome! Ed

  14. Thanks Ed! Will do……….

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