Does Your Saxophone Equipment Matter?

The ongoing debate in the saxophone community is whether equipment really matters.  By equipment we mean the brand of saxophone, mouthpiece, ligature, reeds, neck, pads and resonators.  Some people will even argue that the type of material, screws and resonance stones on the body of the sax make a difference.  I’ve had students come in with electrical tape wrapped around the outside of the sax neck because it added more darkness to the sound.  Does all this stuff even make a difference or is it all connected to our endless obsession to look outside of ourselves to find change? ( Whoa, that’s deep)  For this post on my blog I thought I would take the opportunity to post a recording of a setup that is less than optimal for me.  This is a typical setup that an elementary student would come in with……………

I’m playing on an Alpine alto saxophone.  The saxophone has some obvious leaks in it but plays reasonably well nonetheless.  I’m using a Yamaha 4C mouthpiece that has a few small chips in the tip,  a  standard Rico #3 reed and a standard no name metal ligature.  In this clip I’m playing Charlie Parker’s solo on Yardbird Suite from the omnibook.

Listen to the clip and see if you can hear a difference between it and my other alto clips on the site.  It is recorded in exactly the same way and I am trying really hard to play the solo to the best ability.   As I was playing and then listening to the recording it was obvious to me that  equipment does matter and have an affect on me.  If it isn’t optimal then it can affect your sound quality, technique, creativity and even your mood.  You need a horn and setup that helps you to achieve what the sound is that you imagine in your mind but the question always comes up………….when is the time to change gear or make that jump?  I always tell my students that it is when you feel like you have taken you current  gear  as far as it will go.  A  fourth grade student in elementary school doesn’t need a Selmer Mark VI.  Even if they jumped from a beat up Bundy to a Selmer there wouldn’t be that much of a difference if any because the student hasn’t  learned the fundamentals of the horn and  gone far on his musical path yet.  Even adults will come in to take lessons and want to know what saxophone to upgrade to or what mouthpiece to get and many times I will tell them that they have more work to do on their current setup or horn.  To drive home the point sometimes I will play their horn and mouthpiece just to show that I can get a good tone out of it and not squeek.  If you are uncertain of your own situation it’s best to get an outside opinion from a reputable teacher.

In this clip I am struggling a bit with the ergonomics of the horn,  the closed tip of the mouthpiece and even the sound and tone of the mouthpiece and horn.  It has a very one dimensional and flat sound to my ears.  I do believe that if I was on a desert island and this was the horn and setup that washed up on the beach I would do fine with it.  I would practice like crazy and in the end hopefully get the sound out of it that I would want.  That being said,  I’m not on a desert island so I think I’ll stick to my Selmer.  I’m sure you will form your own opinions about this clip and subject while you listen.  I have had a number of people that have asked me to do a recording like this just to hear how I sound on average equipment so here you go.  Anyways,…..let me know what you think.

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. Glad a player finally made one of these clips…
    unfortunately I have a feeling it won’t keep kids from buying 10M’s and Mark VI’s here and there…

    Based on the video I would say yes, but then its arguable to a point. For one, the 4C is simply small to you. If you’ve been playing a 4C forever, the problem might not be the same because you’re fighting the horn in this case; the mouthpiece is the most important part. It might be significantly better if you were playing an Early Babbitt alto piece on the horn, thus possibly yielding a most accurate result.

    Regardless, you still sound good on this video, and I think that’s the most important part. If you suck on a YAS-23, you’re gonna suck on a Mark VI. You’re just gonna suck with pride or something like that..

  2. Avatar Gerardo Avila says

    Phil Woods said one time that he was that kind of guy looking for the magic horn and magic mouthpiece until he heard Charlie Parker playing his horn. He stopped that endless journey and begin to “Practice!”.

    He says that in his video “Life in Eb”

    Steve: you don´t sound much different from the other clips you have.

  3. Avatar Dayton Eckerson says

    Thanks for doing this. Compared to your usual alto sound, I agree that this recording sounds “one dimensional and flat,” as you said. At some point in the future, it would be really interesting to hear you play (1)the same tune with your own alto and mouthpiece; (2) the same tune with your mouthpiece and the student horn; and (3) the same tune with your horn and the student mouthpiece.

  4. Great to see someone address this. I think the bigger issue is that for a new player or student, horn quality actually matters more. Think of the automatic adjustments you do when you play a different horn to get it to sound “right”. With a new player, they don’t have that experience or knowledge and they’re just trying to get it to play reasonably well.

    I think for new students, horns make a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be a Mark IV but a solid mainstream horn that’s been looked at by a tech gives them a good change compared to being frustrated but not having the knowledge why.

    Same can be said about mouthpieces, the right size for a player is key.

  5. I think the biggest deal with students is having a decent horn and decent mouthpiece. I recently talked to Jay Mason of the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band. The first thing he does when he has a new student is play their horn. It needs to be in proper adjustment. Then there is the mouthpiece factor. To be honest, the Yamaha 4C is a GREAT student mouthpiece. The one I’ve grabbed for an ebay alto demo (giveaway piece) was excellently faced, better than most babbitt pieces. Even so, the fact that they use a cheap hard plastic gives it that 1 dimensional sound I think we’re hearing. About every professional I’ve come across have all agreed that ultimately you want the student to gain control. Eric Marienthal was HUGE on this when I talked to him last. Control, then worry about finding the setup you love most.

    As for what I feel would be GREAT for a student who needs to develop:

    1. YAS-23 (good intonation and keywork)
    2. Yamaha 4c (does the job right)

    If a student really want to bump it up:
    1. YAS-23 or better (still is a great horn and does the job for professionals alike)
    2. Refaced babbitt piece or Morgan piece or something else that’s quality hand finished/Vandoren pieces (no struggle with the mouthpiece being bad, only the player)

  6. This recording seems to prove that top notch equipment is not essential in getting a good sound, however, (IMHO) it does NOT prove that equipment “doesn’t matter.” When I listened to this recording next to the others on your site, I noticed that the overall tone has slightly less life to it. This is most noticeable when you sustain a note without vibrato. The other major difference is that the different timbres and pitch tendencies of different notes are more apparent.

    The difference is very slight, and had you not announced the less than desirable setup, it would have simply sounded like you were having maybe a slightly off day. I also consider the fact that you are a very accomplished saxophone player, meaning that you probably have a greater ability to cover up a mediocre setup.

    All things considered, here is my final conclusion: for the accomplished player, equipment makes only a slight audible difference.

  7. Avatar Scott Meier says

    I have an opinion about the question of gear that’s based on decades of teaching and careful observation. These are things that I believe. 1) The human brain continually adapts during any repetition of behavior (practicing fits in here) and establishes habits, some of which we aren’t even aware. 2) It takes some students an enormous amount of effort and time to extinguish a bad habit. Especially if that habit has been reinforced for months and sometimes years. 3) Mediocre gear causes the creation of compensations in technique that can clearly be defined as bad habit. Based on these principles, the conclusion clearly has to be, find a great teacher and with their help, buy the best gear you can afford. Then have it thoroughly checked for functionality buy an expert.

  8. Avatar Pastor Alexander says

    I bought a $700 new sax, a $33 legere synthetic reed and leather ligature $6, yamaha 4c mp $50. my teacher has a $1400 custom mouthpiece a $15000 con tenor sax. He is a well known performer. I got him to adjust my sax with a screwdriver. He keeps saying in surprise how good my tone is. His gear sounds different but not better. Tried his otto link mp on my sax, again different but not better.
    I have not hit the end of what I can do yet with my equipment either.
    I have 53 years experience playing other instruments but 4 months on sax, passed intermediate and starting advanced.

    • That’s a very mature viewpoint Alex. Many players still have a lot of room to grow with the equipment they have now. They don’t need a 500 mouthpiece yet because they might not be getting all they can get out of the Yamaha 4C mouthpiece they have been playing for 6 months. Thanks for posting, Steve

  9. Wow! That’s about all you can say. We know your very accomplished Steve, an can play any horn but NO ONE……..especially young beginners should have to experience the struggles of crappy equipment. Everyone wants to feel empowered and this horn obviously does not motivate one to play!
    Thanks for providing this perspective!!

  10. I found this old recording. My impression (adult beginner, back to play after 30 years) sound is totally anemic, off course technique is there but sound man.. sound is horrible.
    I still thinking you need to get the best sax you can afford, specially if you’re a committed adult. A better sax is gonna be way best investment in the long way.
    For a child, not even buy one.. at least the 2 first years, rent one.. a yamaha 23 or the new 26 are impressive sax to learn.. just replace the infamous yamaha mouthpiece for a vandoren optimum and you’re gonna be fine.
    Just my 0.2 cents

  11. With music, sports, everything, I feel that the gear matters most for the intermediate player (say, a first-rate high school or college player), and actually very little for the accomplished pro or for the beginner.
    What does matter a lot for the beginner is gear (of whatever cost/quality or lack thereof… it is not so important) that is in good adjustment ( horn with good pads, no leaks, properly regulated; mouthpiece with a decent facing of the correct moderate length/tip opening; a decent reed of the right strength).
    For an accomplished pro, what really matters for their SOUND (this is not the same as “their druthers”) may not necessarily include everything being in good adjustment (many great players can blow right through leaks, etc.), nor is “top shelf” gear all that important (though it may be their “druthers”). For them, the sax needs to be of sufficient quality that it is durable under severe usage and not “high-maintenance” (= downtime).
    For talented and rapidly advancing intermediate players, serious gear can accentuate their appreciable, and appreciating, talent, sound, etc. Whereas Bird, Stan Getz, Brecker et al would have sounded great on some scrap plumbing materials. And the serious lack of ability and sound concept in a beginner is going to come through loud and clear, even on the finest $15,000 sax and $1,000 mouthpiece.

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