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
Donna Schwartz says
Terrific article, Steve! You really nailed why doing the endless search for the “fix” to all your problems needs to come from inside you. The mouthpiece, reeds and horn are all super-important, but they are the tools that we use to shape how we want to sound.
Andrew Bowie says
My solution is, having discovered that Navarro pieces are for me, is to use the differing types he makes for different kinds of gigs. I never get bored because I can go darker, brighter, more projection, more volume, more tone, as I wish. Before this I was as described in Steve’s great piece.
Good article sounds like my life story after 45 years of playing I have a few mouthpieces that work well and finally quit buying and trying a few years ago. It really is a “sickness” and an expensive waste of money and time after you have a few to give you 80 to 90 percent of what your looking for the rest is up to you and the woodshed
Frank Zona says
Good article Steve. From someone who has fallen into the mpc black hole this article hit home. True, there is no perfect mpc it’s what the player is comfortable with and what attributes a mpc has that the player wants to use at a given moment. I have 9 tenor and 9 alto mpcs in my inventory I use 2 of each on a regular basis. The others used to be played but fell out of favor. I think I’m good for a while on tenor and alto mpcs. I’m sticking with Theo’s pieces and Pil Engleman’s piece. As for soprano, after a long search I’m committed to my Theo Wanne Gaia. Thanks for expressing the idea of working the piece and being committed to it.
Steve Guy says
Wow how very true this black hole thing has been for me…i have been playing my 10mfan Black Widow for a couple of months and love it…however i still get the urge to try something else…but this time i am trying my best to be disciplined and spend the time i need on it so that i get to the point that i cant give it up
Great article Steve
Michael Edging says
I rarely if ever respond to these types of posts but I have been a player on lots of records, some famous, some not. When I was in about the 7th grade, I discovered the Brilhart mouthpiece for tenor. Why? Because I wanted to sound like Boots Randolph then since I had seem him numerous times with Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer of “Last Date” sound (bent note technique). I met Boots in his club in Nashville on Printer’s Alley and we talked about mouthpieces and he gave me a great piece of advice. “Use what you got, and make it do what YOU want it to do.” I lived in a small town in VA and there was no music store there so I just copied him and took that advice. In college, I learned about the Otto Link and have played it ever since. I no longer care to sound like Boots or anybody else–just me is fine. I played on “Spooky” and “Stormy” with Dennis Yost–I was one of the imaginary Classics IV–the Atlanta Rhythm Section players were the other members. Okay—that’s what I know about the subject of mouthpieces. Saxophones are another story told later!
Your advice rings really true. I’ve also been sucked into that black hole, but in part because my heroes have widely differing sound concepts – Coltrane, Bergonzi, Joe Henderson,
Seamus Blake are all players whose sounds I deeply admire and have tried to emulate. Only of late have I developed a conviction on how I want to sound, which is not really like any of these players. This has allowed me to to settle on a single piece and work on my sound concept. I would say that until one develops a clear idea of how one wants to sound, one might be tempted to chase one mouthpiece after another.
Mark Hollingsworth says
Yes- all very true.
About 1983 I stopped by Dave Guardala’s place and tried some MPs. The ‘Studio’ (not sure exact model) would altissimo like no tomorrow. Super easy to play right off. Then I tried a ‘Tradition’ he had (he never did say what he called it, just handed it to me). It wasnt’ as easy to play, but sounded wonderful.
So I bough the one that gave ME the best tone, and figured how to make it do everything. (I tend to play a big ‘Bright’ – so this MP was a good combo for me and the tone I wanted).
I’ve been playing it ever since, never had another MP.
My soprano I got a C** metal when I got the horn (1978) and still play it. Still love the tone.
Great insight Steve… we would all do well to follow this advice, practice more, and really
build an approach that works for us.
Trinus de Vries says
I keep trying out mouthpieces out of curiosity and hoping I can improve on my sound a notch. But I also keep returning to my trusted otto link tone edge ( the tenor madness EB reissue) which I have been playing since they came on the market. Some pieces came close to be just as good but I ended up selling them again so I quit buying pieces in the same ball park. So you might say I found my holy grail since I could not find anything that plays better for me. The only thing that may be left to try is a metal equivalent to this EB hard rubber link.
Great article. I know some folks who are in constant search mode. When Grover Washington Jr’s family gave me his tenor mouthpiece my tenor search was over. Well, sort of. I’m now on a mission to find one that plays as good so I could leave his piece at home.
Bo Meyer says
Very good and true article. I have been in that “Black Hole” and suddenly no mouthpiece would work, so I bought a dozen of different mouthpieces, and in the end returned to my old trusty Otto Link on tenor and Selmer “Soloist” on baritone. I believe I have more than 50 pieces in my drawer…..including rare old double band Otto Link, 3 different Dukoffs H-F Couf etc.
Allen Halstead says
Great article Steve … my “holy grail” mouthpiece is one which, with a change in reed strength, I can perform in a parlor jazz duo, or stand next to Jay Collins and blow out some blues. As you state in your article, if you like the sound of the mouthpiece, you will figure it out. I use to play high baffles exclusively in order to get the altissimo easier, but think about it. How often do you play altissimo. Changed to a great rollover and …whala!… i can nail the Getz sound and I can get 75% of the (rarely needed now) Clarence Clemens sound …while maintaining a warmth and beauty through out.
Folks, as Steve says, make your best sounding mouthpiece work for you. Once you have lived with the mouthpiece you will be able to get it to do what you want it to do….
Albert Mensinga says
Nice one and thank you. I started on a 1986 Yanagisawa alto on a C*, then Meyer M6 which got me into a few 1st alto seats. When I bought a 1926 Buescher the Meyer sounded too bright so I got myself a Link 6* which has a bigger chamber. Things really changed when a mate gave me a Woodwind nr 2 (a large chamber tip 4) and it took me a year to get MY sound which I knew was in there. I now sound crap on the M6 and great on the Link, which is loud enough for a gig or a session. The funny thing is: I can now pick up any horn with any mouthpiece and I will sound OK. I will never loose the Woodwind!
James Fleet says
Hi Steve, Great GREAT article that rings true to one of my past experiences from long ago. Back in the late 1970s I was Totally into Mike Brecker’s sound. He was incredible then, and his legacy remains so today. Well, back then I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brecker at a club in NYC called Seventh Avenue South, and in between sets Mike gave me the details on his setup, specifically the mouthpiece that he was using at the time, which, if I remember correctly, was a Berg Larson. So the very next day I ran to 48th street, which used to be THE main street for musicians and music stores, and I purchased the exact mouthpiece that Brecker had. Steve, I popped that mouthpiece on my tenor ( a Mark 7, but that’s another story), yeah, I placed that bad boy on my horn and started blowing, and an incredible thing happened: I still sounded like: ME! It had never occurred to me that, first, I needed to put in the countless hours in the woodshed to begin to learn, I mean Really Learn, how to play my horn. Furthermore, I was much too young and inexperienced to understand that even after shedding like crazy, I might come close, but I would never actually sound just like Michael Brecker, nor should I want to! Mike had his own unique voice, and so did I! So, as time went on, through countless explorations on countless mouthpieces, I began to seek, and find, my own sound. It’s been a long journey, and a rewarding one.
That’s a great story James. Thanks for sharing. I never knew Brecker played a Berg at one point. Must have been for a short period as I have never heard that before. Interesting…….
Wayne Land says
No one has mentioned the financial issue in mouthpiece selection. Yes, I fully agree with everything in the article. But finding the best possible piece that you can build that Holy Grail relationship with the most effectively presents a financial problem. Since you can’t really know how a piece might work for you until you’ve played it every day for a week or two, there is a real issue with just knowing what piece to invest your money in. Local music shops aren’t set up for a person to go in and really make a wise choice by comparing multiple brands and facings. I’m 67 years old and still perform pretty often and even though I own multiple mouthpieces both alto and tenor, I was 63 before I finally came across “my” choice for that Holy Grail relationship. And I’m still not certain I have the facing and model that are the best choice for me. Am I in the black hole? I probably was up until a few years ago. Example, in 2004 I purchased a new tenor I’d been interested in and I knew the factory mouthpiece was not going to suit me. So I negotiating the purchase on the condition they’d let me choose a different mouthpiece included in the price. They did. They only had a few choices and I ended up with a Brilhart Levelaire. I used that for years because it was “what I had”. And I enjoyed it. But I can tell you beyond any shadow of doubt it was not the best choice for me. I’ve owned several other tenor pieces since then but what I have now (a rather expensive piece) is light years better than any of them. Still the company that made it continues to bring out alleged improvements and some as much as double the investment. I’m actually considering the purchase of a newer version of my “holy grail” mouthpiece. I really appreciate the article though because it encourages me to keep working with what I have now that I love so much. Thank you Steve, the black hole just might be losing it’s grip on me.
Joe Giardullo says
Good article, Steve. The “Holy Grail” part of it is, unfortunately, a real thing with some players but, I would offer, not what usually motivates the players I know. Those players include household name pros like Pharoah Sanders and solid pros and students alike. It seems the more they actually “know” about mouthpieces, the better they are able to identify what works best for them and what doesn’t. A lot of us gained our mouthpiece knowledge the old fashioned way: we played on them in shops, picked out the one that played best and went home. We didn’t know why THAT particular Link was so much better than the seven other Links we played, though. So, we didn’t learn much. Things are different now and great information is out there and easily accessible. Most saxophonists I have known always seem to think that “they” are the problem and the mouthpiece or horn search is a part of trying to have some impact on those problems. I rarely have met a player who thinks the problem is the mouthpiece, really. Just like you in those “dead” rooms. 🙂 But they are still searching for help. Just as wrong-headed as “get a new mouthpiece” can be as advice is the other side: just practice, because it is all YOU. When I see that knee-jerk anonymous advice, I always think that it is amazing how someone can declare that without knowing or hearing the player and understanding for real what is at work. How many avid musicians have “hung it up” because of the frustrations, not of practicing (which should be a joy and IS a joy to most of us), but of constantly being told that they don’t practice enough and whatever the problem, that’s its source? The saxophone is a complex acoustic environment and each one is different. And so is each mouthpiece. Sometimes the differences not apparent in the sound, but in the response. Sometimes the differences are clearly in the sound. Knowing about mouthpieces is all about understanding your tools as a player. And, of course, as Duke said: If it sounds good, it IS good.
Thanks for the comments Joe. Very insightful!
Fernando Carranza says
Well Steve, I really dig your post!!!! It touches me in a point where I really wanted and advice from you about my sound. I feel very good with my setup, but a lot of people says that I sound like a well renowed sax player, I don´t want to say who was. But I feel this like a compliment (forgive my bad english I live in Argentina, South America) and I want to give a little turn to the sound, it means to sound like this but with a certain variation to achieve a more personal sound. The problem is, I live so far away for a source of mouthpieces that I can try no one of them, I can´t travel because my occupations here. I want to send to you a clip from my band and if do you want (I wish God can do it!!), you can suggest me the way I can follow to search a good option to my setup. Thanks in advance!!! here is the clip….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWUGtCNo99o
Mark Klinefelter says
Excellent article Steve. Swapping out mouthpieces is an expensive habit. I play alto and got tired of the stock mouthpiece and bought a Jody Jazz #8 a year ago. Have been happy ever since with that hunk of metal! On the other hand, it is great to have all the variety in mouthpieces to choose from. Everyone’s oral cavity anatomy, horn etc…are all different so having that variety makes things easier. Sure beats the comment that Henry Ford had years ago when asked about color options for the model-t: “They can have any color they want as long it is black”.
Walter George says
Thanks for the great article. I too have fallen into this black hole. One thing I did learn during this process is – don’t throw away any mpcs, as they may be worth a another try under other conditions. A thicker/thinner mpc pad, a different reed, a different position on the cork, a more relaxed day, can make all the difference, including a tip opening you are not used to and have to adjust to by adjusting reed strength. It does take time to get used to a new mpc, too. Like they say in fishing circles, “hope you catch the big one!”
Soup ! says
I too was lost inside the blackhole . I finally said can’t keep buying different mouthpieces to do different things . I settled on a Johannes Gerber Alto NY Bro’s #6 , Morgan Fry Marble HR 7* for tenor and a plastic Yamaha 5C for soprano , all played with Marc Jean ligatures .
Willard Wood says
Four or five years ago I started playing again after a 61 year career in Engineering. I happened onto Steves website where he stated that the most commonly used mouthpieces of the 40s and 50s (Meyers and Otto Links) were not of the same quality today. He suggested Phil Engleman could make the factory Meyer work as it used to and that Greg Wier could make an exact copy of a New York Meyer. I have them both and use them every day. Steve didn’t suggest that I use artificial reeds but I was sure my time would NOT be spent trying to find a good one. I tried Legere but ruined it trying to make it work and then tried Hartmann Carbon Fiberreed and never looked back. They last at least a year and can be worked on to perfection!
The point of all this is—–Buy a Handcrafted mouthpiece to your specifications !
PS Then you can spend your money finding the perfect SAX !!
Larry Weintraub says
Steve: Great article and I whole heartily agree. You must practice your horn w/your mpc a lot to really learn the horn and the mpc. Yeah, I guess we all start on a stock mpc and go from there once we gain control and can’t seem to find a reed hard enough. Given this there are certain tried and trues.
First off, not everyone has the same oral cavity, lips, tongue etc. So what works for your hero may not work for you. Second, if you like the sound of your mpc but you can’t do certain things like get a good sub tone, fatter sound then you may just want to stick w/the same brand, go to a more open version and try a softer reed. That is what I did and it worked. I was using a FL Link 5* but eventually I could not find a reed hard enough or when I did I could not get the more open sound I wanted along w/the sub tone. I was digging Scott Hamilton’s sound but I couldn’t get it.
A wise person said to stick w/the Link but go to about an 8 to 8* or higher and play a softer reed. Well as luck and good fortune would have it I literally fell into an metal FL Link 8* at a big band rehearsal in 1990 that an ex-Army Band guy was selling. He let me try it for a week and wanted $50.00 for it. Literally the best $50.00 I ever spent. The only change I made was that I stopped using the Link ligature around 1992 and started using a metal silver Selmer lig for metal mpcs.
Okay I am going to quote Dan Higgins the 1st call Hollywood sax/woodwind player here. He said in an article about sax mps that is available in his old articles on his website. Dan said, “there is a reason so many of the greats used a Meyer on alto and a metal Otto Link on tenor. They have a round chamber and a roll over baffle.” He said to be wary of mpcs that seem to play to easy w/no resistence. Especially high baffle mpcs. Yeah you can scream out that super high D but can you sub tone a low Bb softly? Plus those high baffle mpcs tend to play sharp and how are you going to blend in a section.
In the long run the Links and Meyers work great. Now since those mpcs are no longer made by Mr. Link and/or Ben Harrod and the Meyers Brothers what are you to do. Well there in lies the problem. So you try to either find an original or buy a copy for a lot of $$$$’s. So then you start saving up and try out different brands, good luck, there are many to chose from. Find something that works, plays in tune (use a tuner) and gets you close to what you want. Then as you said and I agree PRACTICE it w/that mpc and use it for everything.
One thing Dan Higgins said and I agree is that yes, use that Link and/or Meyer but if you need a brighter or darker sound for a gig then use a brighter or darker reed. In other words change the reed, not the mpc.
As for me I a happy using my metal FL Otto Link 8* on tenor and a (wait for it, it’s coming) a White Tonalin Brilhart 3* that I found in my drawer when I was cleaning. I never got rid of it. I prefer it over the Meyer I had which was worked on. I can play loud on it and soft on it. It’s me and it just works as does my Link.
Well that’s my $25.00 worth of unasked advise. Now go through some reeds and go practice. I actually just finished practicing.
Mike Hutchings says
Hi Steve, You’re articles are always very informative and interesting, but this one hits the jackpot! I lived for 25 years in a country where it was virtually impossible to get mouthpiece supplies and persevered on a stainless steel Berg Larsen 110/0 tenor but try as I might could never get any harmonics other than a top F#. On returning to the U.K. in ’96, through experimentation on various ‘pieces I realised that, for me, I needed a high baffle ‘piece, and gained a lot of knowledge about mouthpiece design and what I needed FOR ME. All your articles on mouthpieces have been an invaluable help with this over the last few years so that now, fifty years later!, the black hole has now spat me out! The Guardala MBII that has performed so well over the last 7 years has now been superseded by a Morgan Fry 7* Super Vintage Tenor, and this will be my last.
One final thought, nobody yet has mentioned what effect different necks/crooks have on sound, intonation etc. My MK VI has much better intonation with a Ref.54 neck, another Black Hole that will not get me! Quite a while ago on a gig a friend lent me his very old Buescher tenor that was just about unplayable it had so many leaks, but the high G harmonic blew so easily it was the best note on the horn, on my MK VI I battle like crazy, go figure! All the Very Best from Spain, Mike.
John Anderson says
Spot on, Steve. I’ve been playing for 45 years, and like a lot of us I have a drawer full of alto and tenor mouthpieces. I played small chamber high baffle tenor pieces for years in order to be heard in big bands. Brecker and Sanborn were my heroes and I tried hard to sound like them. Now I do mostly combo playing, and prefer a Link or something similar.
Two observations: first, after 45 years and countless purchases in search of the holy grail, I’ve come back to a Meyer on alto and a Link on tenor. (check out Dave Liebman’s website for some solid observations regarding mouthpieces) Second, even though my sound has evolved quite a bit over the years as my concept has changed, I still sound like me, no matter what I play. Have fun, guys – it’s all good.
Phil Godfrin says
Great article, as always, Steve!
Because of your work with mpc reviews and other articles, I have been able to mostly avoid
the mpc black hole, and also because I’m cheap! I have also learned from you and some others that matching the reed to the mpc is a key process – and of course the woodshed is necessary.
Being on year 2 with my Navarro Bop Boy (love it!), Rover dark lig., I am finding that after the shedding and a good overhaul I have been able to move up to the RJS (D’Addario) 2H’s. And now ‘magically’ the Vandoren ZZ’s 2.5 work and sound really good (after a break-in period). The Java green 2.5 always work well. I have also started to use the Rigotti Gold 3 lights which produce a brighter sound. I tend to the 2H and ZZs for combo, and the Java greens and Rigotti for big band (don’t play rock much, may need a new mpc for that 😉 ).
So this reinforced a poster’s comment on choosing the reed for the venue. Seems to work
Perhaps your next quest Steve in enlightening the Saxophone world is to discuss the difference between ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ mpc, ‘pro’ and ‘student’ mpc, and matching reeds?
Walter George says
Thanks again for sponsoring this mpc discussion.
One thing that has not been mentioned so far is that it is very difficult to assess a mpc sound yourself. Others have said that same thing point blank in mpc articles and encouraged people to practice and play their horn instead of worrying about the mpcs.
A case in point is that I purchased a used Riffault soprano mpc and initially put aside because of intonation problems. It was picked up again when I was looking for a wider mpc that might fit better in my mouth and came up with the best sounding 3 on my own. My wife had gotten tired of these mpc sound tests but agreed to give her opinion on just these 3 mpcs from listening in the upstairs bathroom with my playing downstairs. She singled out the Riffault as having a unique lingering musical tone, which was confirmed by my musical teacher. This would never have been appreciated had the sound tests not been done with someone else listening.
Some 40 yrs ago, I purchased a 1924 Conn New Wonder I soprano sax and the owner said -” this horn is fine for practice but will never do for professional playing because it just does not have a good sound”. It came with a vintage Selmer Soloist E mpc.He was right about the sound with this mpc. Only later did I find out from online research that a common complaint about the Soloist mpc was the narrow throat opening and that the vintage Conn’s needed a wide open mpc to sound good. Viola, when an open mpc was put on the horn, it sounded great.
Also, mention has been made about mpcs and reeds. One cannot forget the ligature either. That is why one must do the testing with everything the same on each mpc.
Lastly, the player is probably the most important factor, as Steve has been saying. One of the challenges for me has been intonation on the soprano and only yesterday made a break thru on that score as the highest notes ( C#,Eb,E) were prone to go sharp. What I discovered is that if I say Ooo to myself before playing these high notes, they would come into tune.
There are just a lot of variables in getting the best sound from your horn.Good luck!
Darrell Keighley says
Thanks for helping me save a lot of time and money! I had pretty much figured out, already that it was more about Step 2, than Step 1, but you confirmed it.
Granted, I could probably do a lot better with something other than my Hite Premier, but first I have to master that one. By then, I’ll probably be too old to hold a sax in my hands!
Rob Payne says
This is a great article, Steve, very thoughtful and informative.
Here’s a good article on mouthpiece design by Larry Teal that’s very informative even for experienced players:
Just scroll down to page 19 where he discusses mouthpiece design. If you think about it the design of any device is a compromise between different elements. And this is just as true for mouthpieces as anything else. I recall years ago when I worked for Ford Aerospace somebody passed around these cartoons of a car designed by an electrician and a car designed by a mechanic which were fairly amusing. The one designed by the electrician had all the electrical components mounted on the outside of the car body while the car designed by the mechanic had no body at all. Neither one was a very good design. The best designs are compromises rather than extreme cases such as in the above auto designs where the only consideration was ease of access to electrical or mechanical components. This is why I’m more inclined towards “middle-of-the-road” mouthpieces rather than extreme mouthpieces. But everyone’s different with different needs and sound concepts.
At any rate this article by Teal is something any player should read before selecting a mouthpiece.
One thing I didn’t see mentioned is that there is much more to your individual “sound” than just the tone you get. There’s also the way you phrase, how you use vibrato (or don’t) and how you articulate that also make up your individual “sound” that is to say what makes you sound like you. These are all things that you can change if you have a mind to.
Trinus de Vries says
Great article, good reading the comments also. Helps me to not loose confidence and stops me from wanting to buy a new mpc everytime I hit a bunch of not so great reeds 🙂
Claus Hamacher says
Steve, this is a very thoughtful article and what you say is absolutely true.
And it’s a good thing YOU wrote it, because – let’s be honest – your many and well done mouthpiece reviews could easily paint a different picture.
This is no criticism and I enjoy reading them, but it is important that you yourself have put them in the right perspective…
Courtney M. Nero says
Thanks much Steve. Very true for me personally to fall into the hole of thinking that changing one variable/mouthpiece will “fix everything” and to be tempted constantly to try something new. We are also living/working/playing in an industry…in a “market” in which products bubble up all the time touting themselves as “the next big thing” (or claiming to be the next incarnation of that “Dexterish” sound or whatever). The result can be that you are carrying $$$ worth of mouthpieces in your case (or sitting in your sock drawer)…waste of money if you are not playing them.
Thierry Martin says
Thank you for your insights Steve. On both alto and tenor sax I went the route of blending 2-3 hard rubber MPC and 1-2 metal ones, with tip openings ranging from .090 to 0.110. I recently switched to Legere Signature reeds in quarter increments ranging from 2.0 to 2.5 on tenor and from 2.25 to 3.0 on alto. By combining these MPC and reeds with an eclectic mix of 5 alto and 5 tenor ligatures I hopefully immunized myself againt looking for a Grail which doesn’t exist 😉
hemantkumar kulkarni says
Well ! I just got pulled out of the Black Hole after reading this and feeling quite happy with what I have. Thanks for the frank & candid opinions. I just have started loving & soundind being me and it’s a great feeling. I do have a Holy Grail Mouthpiece now.
Well from what I can gather, without reading “everything” written here. There is a fortune worth of MP’s sitting in drawers that are worth something to someone. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, part with them on Ebay and make someone else’s playing, who cannot afford a “good” MP more enjoyable. I for sure I cannot afford an Otto Link of for that matter a Selmer MP. I’m a baby boomer just learning to play and would love to have a MP that has a history of being a renowned piece. I’ll keep my eyes open… 😉
“… The” Holy Grail “mouthpiece is not 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 …”.
I very much agree with this that you write and I think I found my “Holy Grail mouthpiece” even though it is an economic and commercial piece; but I have two problems that create anxiety:
1) if, now that I have found it, it breaks or starts to lose sound due to the aging of the hard rubber, will I find another similar one? Should I buy one “the same of the same brand” to keep as a reserve and, if so, will it sound like this or will I have to start again to study it?
2) if with this cheap commercial piece I found “my Holy Grail”, with an expensive and handmade piece, with which I can develop another “Holy Grail” relationship with and I can use as a master saxophonist, and the relationship is built and strengthened through my practice, focus and hard work with this new “fine” mouthpiece, could I not find even more satisfaction?
You can get another mouthpiece of the same brand and kind but there is no guarantee that it will play exactly the same. You never know though. It’s worth a try.
Just because a piece is cheap doesn’t mean it isn’t the best mouthpiece in the world for you. Bob Reynolds just plays a off the shelf modern Otto Link hard rubber piece. I had a Kanne alto mouthpiece that was pretty cheap that I thought was one of the best alto pieces I ever played. I sold it to a great student of mine because he needed a great piece and didn’t have any money but I can honestly say I haven’t found another piece like that in all these years of trying pieces. It just played beautifully.
If you love what you are playing, just play it and enjoy it. You don’t need to be on a search for a better mouthpiece. Enjoy and grow with what you have. If you play one later that blows you away and is better then you can switch but I wouldn’t be on an eternal search for one if you consider what you have to be special. Steve
Thanks Steve, I think I’m beginning to think that the Martin I have will do me just fine…for now, and as you said..maybe later I will look for something “different’, notice I didn’t say better!![??]
Thanks for reassuring me; I often abstain from trying new mouthpieces for fear of entering into the doubt of which one is the best.
Others, tried ten years after the purchase of mine, of the same brand, seemed to me less expressive, but I had tried them with another sax from the shop, sax of the same brand as mine but newer than thirty years! I didn’t like some tested ones of other brands. Others in the shop seemed to me better than mine but, then, at home, they seemed to me better than mine just for “some” particular aspect but, in general, then I always found mine better, even if it had a little less volume, but then I always came back to choose him again, I found myself more, as if I could express the best of myself in general, I found it more intoned, more expressive, above all …
I notice this especially if I try to play some ballads with the base …
However, there is always the doubt that, the others discarded because they are less preferred “in general”, perhaps, played for a long time, could have been better. Then I keep them aside if mine ever breaks and then, in case, I’ll pick them out.
bryan plank says
Steve, You are talking about life, not mouthpieces or reeds or ligatures and we all might all need to grow up…a bit; our reject pieces and parts are very welcome at local school bands as donations and we have cleaner gear bags; you sure do write well as I’ve said before……..
Mario Perrett says
This was an excellent article I will certainly share with my students. It applies well beyond the saxophone but for any “holy grail” you seek in your life…Whatever you seek you must always look inward and work before it manifests. A simple recipe but it takes great effort and sacrifice.
Shawn Palmer says
Found the “holy Grail” – Runyon Quantum metal tenor #7 that Santy Runyon hand-ground the rails of in his backyard shed. That one got run over by an angry ex. Got a replacement from the factory in Opelousas about a month after Santy died, but in a #12 facing this time cuz guitar players just keep turning up. It’s still pretty “graily”. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when it starts to wear out. Whoever took over the company doesn’t make metal mpc’s anymore, apparently.
James F. says
39 years in playing. Alto sax . S 3., only 2 mouthpieces : s80 c *, later Vandoren V16 – 7M, hard rubber.
S80 would not do the altissimo. V16 does 4 octaves. It’s more difficult to play. But very very flexible, and can have volume.
S80 gives my preferred tone. V16 …. flexibility and over 3 octaves.
Between a rock and a hard place.
Murray Middleman says
Searching for the magic mouthpiece , is a very crazy and expensive habit I have. I admit to having spent over 40 years , tinkering with mouthpieces , and forever being insecure with deciding which one to play . Right now , I have just one tenor mouthpiece that has let me sound like me . One tenor mouthpiece that gets me though the gig, no matter the situation, whether loud and dynamic or sensitive and soft. My tenor Mouthpiece is an older Berg Larsen (HardRubber) ( no markings) (Proto-Type). It has a huge colorful tone.
Anyway , just like love, find a mouthpiece that helps you to express yourself, and to be you, not a copy of someone else, even though that is a a very big aspiration. When you find the one, stick with it! Don’t be foolish, like me, and spend 40 years, looking for the right mouthpiece. Life is too short! Have a very Happy New Year . Murray Middleman, LosAngeles Ca 2020