Today, I’m going to write about an important subject that I haven’t addressed very often on my site here. This article is about the elusive search for the “Holy Grail” of saxophone mouthpieces. I have encountered thousands of sax players over the years who have been searching for their “Holy Grail” sax mouthpiece. They might not use those words but the sense of urgency in their voices, texts and emails imply that they are desperate to find their “perfect” mouthpiece. Many times this search for the perfect mouthpiece leads these players down what I call the “mouthpiece black hole”. Like a real black hole, the mouthpiece black hole can be endless and lead you to a gravitational pull that is next to impossible to escape.
You see, the endless powerful pull of the mouthpiece black hole is the belief that there is a mouthpiece out there that will be the answer to all our saxophone problems and by attaining it, we will become better instantly and without much effort. When we finally do find this legendary “Holy Grail” mouthpiece that we believe is out there, the search will be over and we will live the rest of our sax playing days in bliss and contentment.
The Mouthpiece Black Hole
I am a firm believer in the fact that a mouthpiece can help you play better and achieve a certain sound on the saxophone. When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I remember getting the album Voyeur by David Sanborn. I played only alto sax back then and this album blew my mind. I had never heard anything like it before. I can’t remember what mouthpiece I played on alto sax (it might still have been the one that came with the sax since I started in 7th grade) but I remember spending countless hours trying to get that “Sanborn” sound I was hearing on that album.
I remember that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get that sound like Dave Sanborn on my alto sax. I figured out how to make it brighter and get it to lean in that direction by hardening my embouchure and blowing harder but I could never get it to the point that I was happy. I remember going to a music store and trying a Beechler hard rubber mouthpiece and a Claude Lakey mouthpiece that immediately helped me get light years closer to that sound that I was hearing in my head. It wasn’t there 100% but I swear it was like 80-90% closer to that Sanborn sound I wanted at the time.
Years later, I started playing the tenor saxophone after hearing Michael Brecker play with Steps Ahead in Buffalo NY in 1986. I was playing on a Brilhart Levelaire tenor sax mouthpiece at the time. Although the Brilhart gave me a powerful bright sound, I was never happy with that sound. I played that mouthpiece for four years on tenor and no matter how hard I tried or how much I practiced, I could not get that “Brecker” sound from my horn that I heard in my head.
Around that time, I was studying with Jerry Bergonzi in Boston and he let me try out a Sugal JB model tenor mouthpiece that he had. It was a high baffle mouthpiece that was pretty bright and powerful. I took it home and remember playing it for the first time and finally, after 4 long years of playing the tenor sax, I was in heaven. It wasn’t like I was magically bestowed Michael Brecker’s sound but I was like 85% closer than I had been on that Levelaire mouthpiece that is for sure. The next week I bought that mouthpiece from Jerry and was a happy camper. Sure enough, for the next 4 years the most common words I heard on gigs were “Man, you sound like Brecker”. I thought it was great until a number of years later when I started to get annoyed by it but that is a different subject……..
I write about these two events to make the point that a mouthpiece can have a huge affect and impact on a player. I believe that with all my heart because of these two experiences. Sure, I could have kept banging my head against the wall with the original alto sax mouthpiece I had or the Levelaire on tenor, or even the Claude Lakey that I was wildly sharp with on alto my first year of college. The fact is that I made some mouthpiece changes and things got better and the path to the sound I wanted seemed to open up for me. Finding a great mouthpiece can be like heaven to a sax player when it brings us closer to a sound that we have in our imagination or mind.
The problem comes when the search never ends. The reality is that no matter what mouthpiece you are playing on, there will be positive and negative features to it. You might think the new mouthpiece you are playing now is perfect but a time will come when you will notice something about it that you might not be happy with. Trust me, it will happen.
If a mouthpieces strength is that it is loud and bright, there will be a time when you think it is too loud and bright for a setting. If a mouthpiece is dark and lush sounding, a time will come when you wish it was brighter sounding. If a mouthpiece is really spread and huge sounding a time will come when you wish for a more direct focused sound. The low end might be the most beautiful fat tone of all time but one day you find your self holding a high F and thinking it sounds a bit too thin. etc……. I could go on and on with countless examples. (I have heard them all……..)
The Mouthpiece Black Hole
You know you are starting to be sucked into the mouthpiece black hole when you’re first response to one of these issues is “maybe that mouthpiece over there will fix this issue” not “what can I do and practice to make this better”. The reality is that a mouthpiece might very well fix the issue but guess what, it will have another issue that you will need to deal with. No mouthpiece is perfect!
I once sold a mouthpiece to an adult student of mine and I honestly thought he sounded great on it. So much better than any other mouthpiece he tried and so much better than the mouthpiece he had been playing. I was amazed at how much better he sounded. He was excited about it and bought it. A couple of weeks later he came in for a lesson with a different mouthpiece that he had just bought. He didn’t sound half as good in my opinion and I asked why he had switched. He replied “I couldn’t play a high F# on the other mouthpiece.” I tried to tell him that he sounded so great on the other mouthpiece and that he would figure out how to get high F# if he stuck with it but he was convinced that this new mouthpiece was the answer. Instead of spending whatever time it took in the practice room figuring out how to play high F# smoothly he took the easier route of just buying another mouthpiece that fixed the issue for him but in my opinion he took a step backwards tone wise.
The main point of this whole article is this, finding the “Holy Grail” sax mouthpiece isn’t about finding that one mouthpiece but more about developing a Holy Grail relationship with a mouthpiece. I know that sounds weird but in my opinion it is true. It is a relationship that is built over time and countless hours in the practice room using the mouthpiece you have chosen.
For me, it was a Beechler hard rubber S5S mouthpiece which I played for close to ten years on the alto sax. On tenor sax it was a Sugal Super Gonz I that I played for 7 years. Both these mouthpieces had weaknesses and deficiencies that I could write about but the truth is that I worked with these tools and learned how to use them in a way that only time and effort can do. I figured out over time and practice how to make these mouthpiece sound like I wanted and needed them to sound. It wasn’t automatic. I didn’t buy them and the next day I had my sound. It was years of practice and hard work. It was years of frustration and trying to figure it out. The key here is this, I had to learn to adapt and change to get what I wanted from those two mouthpieces and through that struggle and effort a close relationship was built. I had a thorough understanding of what the perfect reed played like on each mouthpiece, I knew what I had to do to wail on any altissimo note or whisper a low Bb. I knew exactly where my embouchure had to be or had to change to get a multitude of sounds from the saxophone. I knew where the perfect placement of the reed was and where exactly to place my ligature for the best results. Most importantly, I felt like I had developed my own individual and personal sound with both these mouthpieces.
I remember spending hour after hour in high school trying to make the sound of my alto sax on that Beechler fatter and fuller like Cannonball and Phil Woods. I remember learning which notes were sharper and flatter and learning how to work with their tendencies so it was closer in tune. I remember spending countless hours learning how to get a brighter Brecker type sound out of the Super Gonz I even though it had a darker more spread sound than a typical Brecker sound. I remember countless hours working with each of these mouthpieces with overtones and altissimo. Finally, I remember so many breakthroughs and victories that were hard fought and sometimes seemed like they would never come.
Along with these stories of victories was all the times I played where I was dissatisfied. I’m not loud enough, It’s not fat enough,It’s not bright enough, It’s not dark enough, etc…….We have all been there! Not to mention when another player sits down next to you and blows you away with a quality in their sound that you think you are missing in your own sound. It all starts to mess with your mind. You start sweating and feeling despair or panic. What can I do? What is the answer? Have I practiced so hard for nothing? …….and then it hits us. You turn and ask “What mouthpiece you using?”…..
With one simple question we feel better. It’s not me, I don’t have a weakness, there isn’t something I have to spend endless hours to practice. Whew! All I need is that mouthpiece and everything will be perfect we think as we fall head first into the mouthpiece black hole spiraling down and down…….
The Mouthpiece Black Hole
Next thing you know you have countless sax mouthpieces and you switch mouthpieces about as often as you mow your lawn. The problem with that is that you never build that deep connection a master has with his primary tool. You never truly form that bond where you and the mouthpiece are connected and become one. Those of you who have experienced this know what I am talking about. That feeling like when you are playing and it all comes together magically and flows. You think of something and it happens. You are rarely surprised because you know everything there is to know about using this mouthpiece you are playing. What notes are sharp, how each note needs to be voiced, what you need to do to scream an altissimo D and then play a PPP low Bb. You have mastered this mouthpiece and can play so quiet that it can barely be heard or so loud that you can wail over the obnoxious guitar player who is way too loud behind you. Even though this mouthpiece is a brighter piece, you have such a command over it that you could play a classical concerto on it and come out feeling pretty good. This mouthpiece is your go to mouthpiece. You feel like you have come such a long way with it and you always get the job done with it. If you were playing the most important audition or gig of your life you would have to have this mouthpiece. You and it are one! No other would be good enough!
Here’s the important lesson to take from all this: The “Holy Grail” mouthpiece isn’t the one that is out there somewhere that you can never find. Instead, it is the one that you have developed that “Holy Grail” relationship with and can use as a master saxophonist. The relationship is built and strengthened through your practice, focus and hard work.
If you look at the picture in this article, it is a picture of some of my favorite tenor mouthpieces I have collected over the last 10 years. As you look at the picture you might think “Yeah, but which one is the best Steve?” Which one is the “Holy Grail?” Can I buy the best one from you?
First, I have kept all these mouthpieces because they played great for me. They all have different tendencies and qualities but what they have in common is they work for me. Some are darker, some are brighter, some are louder, some are fatter sounding, some are edgier, some are smoother. I honestly believe that any one of these could be my “Holy Grail” if I spent the next 5 years playing it for countless hours everyday. It’s not about which mouthpiece but about forming that bond and relationship with one mouthpiece. I know that any weaknesses that each one of these pieces has can be overcome or at least greatly lessened by diligent practice.
Secondly, my “holy Grail” will not necessarily be your “Holy Grail”. I am madly in love with my Lamberson J7 and JVW Otto Link but have had many students try them and absolutely hate them. I have sold mouthpieces that I thought were some of the best of the best only to see the buyer put them on Ebay a week later. My point is this, the Lamberson J7 and JVW Link are so special to me because I spent all the hours I needed to figure them out and use them the best I could. They still have weaknesses. The JVW is still too bright and edgy at times on a jazz set and the Lamberson is still too spread sounding on loud pop solos. I’ve made headway to overcome those weaknesses though. How? By practicing and figuring out what I needed to do and or change in my own playing to overcome those issues.
If you know what I am writing about here then you understand. If you don’t then you might very well be pulled into the gravitational pull of the mouthpiece black hole. I will leave you with this question: Which is better, to have a solution to a problem be outside of yourself so that you are always searching for it. Or rather, to have the solution be already inside of you just waiting to be awakened or discovered? Both scenario’s require effort and searching but only one requires change of us. I think you will find that looking within to develop that “Holy Grail” relationship with the really good mouthpiece you are playing is so much more rewarding than continually looking outside of yourselves for that legendary “Holy Grail” mouthpiece that you might never find……….
Many of you think that finding your “Holy Grail”mouthpiece is a one step process. You buy that special mouthpiece and it is done. But it isn’t a one step process. It is a two step process. Step 1: You find that mouthpiece that gets you close to the sound you want and that you find you can express yourself on. Step 2: You build that “Holy Grail” relationship with it by becoming the best you can be with it through countless hours of practice.
If you keep going back to step 1 without ever spending a substantial amount of time on step 2 then you might very well be caught in the “mouthpiece black hole” and might never ever find your “Holy Grail” mouthpiece because you aren’t spending the time required with one mouthpiece. Spend a substantial amount of time on step 2 with the pretty good mouthpiece you have and you might be surprised what will develop over time with practice.
Let me know what you think about all this in the comments below. Steve