The Sax Mouthpiece Doesn’t Matter! Really??

Today,  I am reviewing a garden hose. Ok, not really but I might as well be.  Every week, I get emails saying:

  • The mouthpiece doesn’t matter, you will sound like you no matter what mouthpiece you play……
  • Charlie Parker could play anything……..
  • You sound the same on every mouthpiece. It’s you not the mouthpiece…..
  • You would sound killer on a Yamaha 4C, why are you wasting time trying all these….
  • It’s the player not the equipment……
  • A mouthpiece change won’t change your sound…….

I received this email from a visitor to my site the other day.

“Steve,  I’ve listened to all of your mouthpiece reviews over the years and the truth is that you would sound good on a garden hose!  I don’t think it matters which mouthpiece you play, your sound is your sound.  That being said, which tenor mouthpiece would you say is the best of all the ones you’ve tried?”

(I thought the last sentence was a bit of a contradiction if you think about the question but let’s move on……)

I can sound great on even a garden hose! Really?

After hearing these comments so much over the years and receiving this email, I had the thought to post this demonstration of me trying to play a mouthpiece that just will not work for me.  I will not reveal the brand so don’t bother asking.  As painful as this mouthpiece is to play, for the sake of this demonstration,  I have decided to bear with the pain for a couple of minutes for your sake. (Although you can hear my patience growing thin during the clip…….)

I am playing a brand new Rigotti Gold 2 1/2 Light reed on the mouthpiece that I chose as the best out of four.  I attempted to warm up for 10 minutes before recording but honestly, I couldn’t make it.  I think I played for about 3 minutes and then decided I needed to get this horror show over ASAP or I would stab my ears with the sharp end of a pencil!

For those of you that might think it sounds great and what’s the problem:

  • Notes wouldn’t respond consistently
  • It sounded really nasally and anemic
  • The intonation was a bit off
  • It wasn’t even up and down the horn
  • Middle D was all muffled and tubby sounding
  • It was so hard to play and I hated the sound…….ALOT!!

Discuss amonst yourselves in the comment section below.  Does the mouthpiece really not matter?  Because if I had to play this mouthpiece every day of my life I would be an accountant right now………..

     Thanks, Steve

Mystery Garden Hose Mouthpiece

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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 30 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. Avatar Joe Graziosi says

    Steve,

    Excellent post. I’m (regrettably) chuckling to myself listening to the pains you are going through with this piece that obviously hates you, music, art, and all things beautiful.

    I think the key is balance. Yes, of course the mouthpiece matters! If you are trying to paint with only a spoon, then I’m not sure that’s the right tool for the job. If you are playing saxophone in a wind ensemble and you are using a Guardala with a high baffle and huge tip opening, then I’d be quite confident saying that you are using the wrong gear for the job and you will not achieve the sound you are expected to have.

    But remember: That new, expensive Wanne mouthpiece isn’t going to help you if you don’t memorize your major scales, consistently practice long tones, or listen listen listen!!! There are no shortcuts!

  2. It does not blow free.

  3. I agree that the mouthpiece matters. I still think that people sometimes obsess over equipment too much at times. It seems to be an issue of status more than one of music. A number of years ago I bought a mouthpiece that was terrible indeed. The mouthpiece is so bad that I couldn’t justify reselling it to anyone so it’s still sitting in a box in my cupboard. It is stuffy, tubby, does not project worth beans. I didn’t play it long enough to check for intonation. It’s very sound is God-awful. It wasn’t cheap either. I once had a cheap alto mouthpiece, I think it was an old King, it was white, made from plastic, and it played great. I leant it to a teacher friend for a student of his (and never got it back darn it). On the other hand a new student will always have an immature sound even on the best mouthpiece so people aren’t entirely incorrect. But I have to agree with you the mouthpiece matters. In fact it all matters, your horn matters, the reed matters, and the player matters. But the threads I hate the most that I’ve seen on sax discussion groups is the “what’s your setup” thread. I don’t really care what anyone’s setup is, I mean how boring can you get? Why not ask what your favorite color is.

  4. Avatar Magnus Karlsson says

    I was told a lot of things when starting playing the tenor. Start with an cheep Yamaha 4C, since a tenor is so difficult and need a lot of air. After 4 hours of practicing I didn’t get out the low notes, got back to the shop and changed for to a 5C. Wow, what a difference, much more free blowing and the lower notes came out much easier. Why stop now? after testing a huge amount of mouthpieces, I ended up with an metal otto link STM NY with 7* opening, for a warm and dark sound, and a Berg Larsen ebonite with the corresponding opening of 105 SMS/2, with a bit of a more edge due to the baffel.
    For my soprano I use a rubber otto link 8*, with soft reeds when I want to play some jazz, yesterday I got a Jody Jazz HR* with 6* opening which required a harder reed, now the back pressure and embouchure is pretty close the clarinet, and almost the sound as well, at least in the higher octave, the lower octave is still nasal sounding.

    When it comes to reeds, cane gives the most familiar sound, i.e., it sounds as it always has. But since I play in church and sometimes it takes more than 30 min. between the songs, the cane dries out and generating only higher harmonics becomes an issue. Plastic reeds, fibracell was to fuzzy/buzz, perhaps works with rock, Légère signature gives you a more pleasant and consistent sound suitable for softer music. Forestone black bambo with a carbon mixture works also pretty good and not as expensive. I have used the signaures on my clarinets for several years now with good results.

    The sound changes when changing gear on the clarinets is not that obvious as it is on the saxophones, it is more of a comfortable feeling for the player, and personal preference.

    Best regards

  5. Avatar Steve Keller says

    Well…. you still sound like you 🙂

    More precisely, you sound like you struggling with a poorly made mouthpiece that has a bad facing and/or poorly placed baffle. If you were trying it out in a store, it would have hit the reject pile after about 30 seconds.

    That said, I think the point of finding the right mouthpiece is to select one which encourages you and helps you travel down the path to the Nirvana of tone. One which does not fight back (as this mouthpiece clearly does). One which allows you the full range of tones and volume that you need in your pursuit of good music (to say nothing of surviving tonight’s gig).

    So, the mouthpiece matters most to YOU, the player, and not at all to the audience except to the extent that a good mouthpiece will encourage YOU, the player, to give a better performance.

  6. Hey Steve, and Sax lovers,

    I work in a brass and woodwind specialty shop here in Brisbane, Australia as the resident sax nerd. I don’t get paid commission, so I feel like I’m free to just give good advice. I also happen to be pretty big into mouthpieces, particularly because I’m fascinated by what you can change with small details, just in the mouthpiece.

    Of course a mouthpiece matters, just like having a working and functional saxophone matters. It’s so important to have the gear that helps you get what’s in your head out into the world. If you have a high baffle piece and you’re looking to sound like Ben Webster, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. It’s simple. This being said, as aptly pointed out a number of times, it doesn’t change the player. I have actually told some players to stick to their 4Cs because there wasn’t enough of a change for them because they weren’t ready to move on from there.

    On tenor at the moment I play a Jody Jazz DVNY 8* with a Jazz Select 3H unfiled, and i have plenty of horn players scrunch their noses up at me as if I let the mouthpiece do all the work, then when they try my set up they realise how much air I pump through the horn to get the projection and focus that I like. It’s a big shock to a lot of people. I play a Selmer short shank soloist that’s been refaced to a 9 on alto with Hemke 3 reeds, people get really surprised by that too. My pieces don’t generally suit the next sax player, and vice versa. OF COURSE THE MOUTHPIECE MATTERS, and it’s important that you get what you like!

    Clearly the mouthpiece doesn’t suit you, whether it’s a design/finishing flaw, or that it just doesn’t suit you I’m not sure. It sounds really resistant and like the facing curve has a serious issue causing the reed to not vibrate consistently. Your tone still sounds good where it comes through, but it doesn’t sound as easy as it should be (grunts aside)

    As a last note, Steve I love your site! It’s actually one of the best tools for me. When someone asks me about mouthpieces I can’t get my hands on (which is often, I mean I live here in Australia), or they are looking for something specific, I usually refer them to this site. I tell people to listen not just to your sound, but more importantly how the mouthpiece effects your sound. Listening to those details make your mouthpiece reviews some of the best around. I find that instead of listening to you just play one mouthpiece, it’s great to listen to you playing a whole bunch of similar mouthpieces to help find the little details.

    Cheers,

  7. With consideration to dynamics, tone and intonation. Yes the mouthpiece, its size and the material that its made of really matter. Your teeth and saxophone must correspond to the mouthpiece. But it is a comfort thing for me as well as a preference.

  8. Bro you sound killer on that piece! Sell your vintage Link, Brilhart, Dukoff!!

  9. Avatar Mark Newton says

    I am going out to Home Depot right way to pick up some hose.

    Thanks for the article, Steve. It was nice to hear you play something that sounds lousy.

  10. I think it may matter differently depending if you are playing or listening. You may sound similar to me on two mouthpieces that you find very different in ease of control. In that sense I might say it doesn’t matter that much but you would say it does. I feel that way with regard to some of my mouth pieces … while some others both sound and play differently.

  11. Avatar Jerry Pritchard says

    Steve,

    SO funny! It reminded me of my feeble attempts as a beginner playing on an old beat up, cheap Bundy with a nondescript, unbranded and inadequate mouthpiece. What a shock and relief when I first played on good equipment.

  12. Jerry, I hear you! For a short time I played on a Claude Lakey mouthpiece and was so sharp in the upper register. I was fighting it and fighting it! Trying to get it in tune. I bought a Beechler six months later and it was perfectly in tune. No more fighting…….it just was! The mouthpiece is important!

  13. Thanks Dave! I’m pretty sure you are being sarcastic!

  14. Thanks Ben! It sounds like you are giving great advice over there. Thanks for suggesting my site to Australians. I feel great when I get an email from someone else around the world who has benefited from my site and found a great mouthpiece for themselves because of it. Steve

  15. Rob, I think people ask what the setup is because that is the easiest to achieve. You just need some money. Everything else requires work and practice. That’s hard! If I go to a concert and Bob Mintzer sounds killer on a Navaro Bob Mintzer mouthpiece, I can order one that same night and I think that is a step I have taken in the right direction. No effort or practice needed. It’s easy! It might or might not get me what I want but it’s worth the gamble to most of us because it can be done very easily and effortlessly……..

  16. Avatar Don Stapleson says

    What ligature do you recommend with a garden hose? Keep up the great work. I love your site.

  17. Steve, I agree with what you say regarding Mintzer but I don’t see how a long endless list of people’s setups like you see on those “what’s your setup” posts helps much. Two different animals. What really helps is your great reviews. I can tell you’re a real monster on the sax and you know what you’re talking about and that means something to me. Long lists of I play a Maserati mouthpiece with four on the floor and five on the roof with a Googenheimer saxophone and a rubber band ligature, meh. Your reviews are much more meaningful and helpful.

  18. Avatar Allen "The Note" says

    I play a REALLY old Berg Larsen rubber piece on an Amati tenor with Bergotti Gold #3 hard reeds. I was having really hard time getting the altissimo to respond consistently, but the rest of the ranges sounded great. I was starting to look at other mouthpieces, but before buying one, I did something that changed the whole altissimo responce. While cleaning my Berg, I noticed that the inside of the chamber was extremely rough. I took my pocket knife (yes, I can hear the gasps from the saxophone collective) and scraped out the chamber until it was smooth. IMMEDIATELY I had total control over the altissimo up to D. Same mouthpiece, different result. When people ask me “how can you play that setup” I use the old line that Liberace’ used when people asked him how he could play with all those rings on his fingers – “very well, thank you!” It does make a difference, but NEVER solves all of the tone issues. Thanks again for your great work. I wish I had your help and direction when I was in my 30s, not my 60s!

  19. Avatar Jefrey Brown says

    My own personal experience says equipment does make a difference, and that comes from hearing students blow on a good horn and good piece and sound a lot better as well as having spent good money on pieces that helped me solve playing and sound issues myself.

    I also record a lot, have had enough different horns etc. On a Selmer I sound like myself, on a Selmer. On a King I sound like myself, on a King etc….. I always sound like me but the horn and piece do leave a stamp of their own.

    That being said, you’re a great player Steve. I can obviously hear you struggle on this piece, but sound wise, you’d be hired in my band.

    I’ve experienced this myself: a friend and former teacher of mine who was a great player, played on a Yamaha YTS-23 and a Meyer mouthpiece from the 80’s. This was about 2006 and he had been playing on his Yamaha and Meyer setups (alto and tenor) for years after his Mk6 horns were stolen back in the 80’s. His own words were he was out to prove that it’s the horn, not the player. He was such a great player I never payed much attention to his actual tone. I heard great ideas, mature playing and phrasing that I did all I could to learn from. Then one day after about 3 years I really listened to his tone and to my ears it sounded bright, nasal, not to my liking at all, but I still loved his playing. He said to me one day his needing to prove it’s all the player was just a naive, macho notion he bought into and would sure love his old horns back!

    So that’s the first thing I hear on the recording. Some great playing to aspire to. The tone and struggle is a bit of distraction.

    Thanks for sharing! JB

  20. I’d like to add that there is a very important addendum to this question and that is, if a person’s concept is weak … the mouthpiece doesn’t matter. I do a small amount of teaching as well and it’s much the same thing. You can give a student the best equipment, and the best knowledge but if they aren’t really hearing it, the sound stays the same. I’ve also listened to a wide spectrum of players try very expensive, handmade mouthpieces and the results are quite varied.

    1. Players who are not very strong players but have a strong concept in their head often respond well when the equipment suddenly supports them in the direction they are going in. These are people who have been listening for a long time to the music they like or an artist who they admire and have picked up the concept of that idiom but whose experience and skill level are intermediate.

    2. Players who pursue gear but don’t really play or even listen much to music will sound very basic or sometimes even poor even on the best made pieces. I find that this second category of player isn’t hearing what they play before they pick up the instrument. Typically, this person is hoping that the gear will make up for the work required to play an instrument. They change setups all the time and never have a mouthpiece or a reed that works.

    3. High level players whose sound doesn’t really change much no matter what they play. This person may find things they don’t like about a particular setup but you’d never really hear it. The things they can’t do with a setup that they don’t like are not as audible because he or she has spent so much of their artistic lives overcoming the limitations of the saxophone on every level. Things that would stop a less experienced player don’t affect these folks as much because their actual livelihood and professional reputation depend on being in top shape all the time. They are akin to a professional fighter who trains constantly: not exactly the weekend kickboxing type. These people usually gravitate to very good equipment but often after years of overcoming an inadequate setup. Guys like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Joel Frahm, Donny McCaslin et al sound fairly similar no matter what they are using because they’ve mastered the instrument first. Mastery is not a word to be trifled with!

    When people comment on the ‘sound’ of a mouthpiece, we have to remember that the mouthpiece doesn’t move or change when we play. The player and the reed are responsible for that. No mouthpiece can breathe into itself!

    Steve, you’ve done a great job of giving people an informed choice as a professional as to what works better for you and I’d like to think you’ve saved a lot of people their time and money making poor choices. In the end people have to make a choice however and stick with it for a very long time before they really ‘know’ their setup.

    I wrote a short article on this subject that speaks to the responsibility of the consumer or artist (preferably both) to make choices based on their musical concept and not shift the responsibility to folks like Steve Neff who provides a free service to the public to help them on their way.
    http://www.sebastianknox.com/single-post/2016/06/14/The-online-review-or-the-case-of-the-disappearing-opinion

  21. Thanks Sebastian! Your comments are very insightful. I appreciate you taking the time to add to the conversation. Steve

  22. Just listened to the sound clip and I can tell you’re struggling to get to the notes. Whoever said mouthpieces don’t matter, hasn’t played too long or is talking out of their behinds.

  23. People always seem to go off the subject. This guy was only talking about sound,he never said nothing about easy blowing, intonation, A 4 lay, An 8 lay, A short lay, A long lay, A good lay,A trip to the moon, or anything else for that matter. all he did was comment on a personal sound.

  24. Of course, it is important to use correct and suitable equipment. So I take my yellow pipe for jazz and the green one for the classical quartet

  25. The reed matter;
    the ligature matter;
    the mouthpiece matter;
    the saxophone matter;
    the saxophonist matter;
    even the saxophonist’s strings of the shoes matter!

  26. Hi, Steve,
    I understand the reasons why you can’t say the name of the mouthpiece that is not exactly perfect; but, at least, could you tell us, if not the brand, some reference to stay away from it? Was it badly refaced? Is it a standard commercial piece? Is it a commercial piece gone wrong? Or even with particular factory defects? Is it of a known brand? Is it, as it seems to me, on hard rubber? What is the price? Also to understand if I managed to guess the brand!
    Thank you…

  27. It’s a brand you never heard of……….

  28. I don’t think even Charlie Parker would have played well with a sax without pads or with a broken mouthpiece!

  29. Thank Steve; strange, this mouthpiece sound like mine… 🙂 I was joking!

  30. But I think that, in good part, Sebastian wrote something with which I agree!

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