Finding The Right Mouthpiece

If you're new to playing the saxophone or you don't have a lot of experience under your belt yet, you might have the "luxury" of not yet having gone down the rabbit hole of going through the motions of selecting the perfect saxophone mouthpiece for your horn.

I hate to refer to the process in terms of going down a rabbit hole. Because having the right mouthpiece for your saxophone is important. The saxophone mouthpiece affects your sound in so many ways. But for those of us who have done it before (and believe me, there are those among us - you know who you are - who have dozens and dozens of mouthpieces, and ligatures, and brands of reeds, etc., etc.,) it can get to be a frustrating game. Sometimes, it feels like it's never "better," but just different.

The fact of the matter is...

More...

Sometimes, looking for the perfect sax mouthpiece is like looking for the holy grail.

Depending on your personality type, you might be the kind of person (like me) who is always looking for the perfect mouthpiece setup to solve all your problems. Problems like:

  • you can hit all the low notes perfectly. They come out whisper quiet and effortlessly. And they never pop up into the second register.
  • you can play effortlessly in the altissimo register. High notes pop out without having to bite the mouthpiece, or squeezing the crap out of your embouchure. And they're all perfectly in pitch without having to use all kinds of alternate fingerings.
  • it's like the mouthpiece knows who you want to sound like - you can switch from sounding like Kirk Whalum to Kenny G to Dexter Gordon just by the mouthpiece somehow magically knowing what genre you're trying to play in, and it just magically changes tone.
  • it's actually a mouthpiece like HAL in "2001 - A Space Odyssey" and every time you play a wrong note, it says, "sorry Dave. I think you meant to play this note."

Well, ok. Maybe not the last one. But the one above would be nice. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to play the sound you like that the horn player you heard playing that piece sounded like? Wouldn't you like to play a Dexter Gordon piece and have your sound be like that, and then when you want to play "I will always love you," you can play it with that nice, raspy, sexy sound that you hear from Kirk Whalum?

Perhaps part of the problem, if you're always looking for the holy grail, is that you don't always know what you're looking for.

Part of the problem for some people (and it was for me) is that I never really knew what sound I was actually looking for.

And if I can run the risk of poking some of you just a bit, sometimes this problem can even (maaaaaaybe??) reflect some deeper personality traits you might want to look at - like you just don't like yourself, or you're a perfectionist (in a bad way) or you're not happy being who you are.

And I will confess that for me, this was actually part of my problem. For years, I struggled with being so obsessed with the perfect sound that I didn't let myself appreciate that there are a lot of people out there who just actually enjoy hearing me play - like my sound, like my style, etc., etc.

But for the sake of not turning this into a psychology article, I'm going to get back to the more likely scenario: part of the problem with you not finding the perfect moutpiece is that what "perfect" is for you changes far more often than is helpful for you knowing where you want to go with your sound. And if you haven't settled in on what you like in a saxophone sound, you're always going to be enticed like Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship, wanting to be teased and tormented by the sirens as he passes by.

The facts of the matter are these:

  1. your mouthpiece is only one part of the setup
  2. there is more than the "tone" of your sound that creates your sound.

So, let's explore these two ideas a bit to see how you can get closer to what you're looking for.

Your saxophone mouthpiece is an important part of your setup. But it's only one piece in your setup.

The mouthpiece is important. But it's not the only thing that affects your sound. There is the horn; the plating on the horn; the playing condition of the horn. Then, there are the reeds, the neck strap and very importantly, the type of ligature you use to put the reed on the mouthpiece. And then, there is the little mouthpiece patch on the top of the mouthpiece.

If you don't believe me about that little mouthpiece patch some of you put on the top of the mouthpiece makes a difference, let me elaborate a bit about what I mean by that,  just to give you an idea of the subtle things that make a difference in your sound.

The mouthpiece patch, in my opinion, is an essential piece of gear that every sax player should have in his or her arsenal. Not only does it save wear and tear on the top of your mouthpiece, but it saves your teeth, too. But the ways it can affect your sound are two-fold: not only does it subtly change the opening of your mouth (which will change how easily you will play low notes and high notes, helping a little on the low end and forcing you to compensate a little for the altissimo) but it also cuts down notably on the amount of vibration you get through your front teeth when you're playing the sax. And this is one of those differences you might not be aware of. But it does affect how you play. The vibration is feedback to your body. It all affects how you play, and what you are aware of or distracted with. It all makes a difference.

So you need to remember that it's not just the mouthpiece that makes a difference. The reed, the ligature, the horn, the neckstrap and a whole bunch more things all work with that mouthpiece you're testing out to affect how it sounds. So remember, if you're going to test a new piece, bring a fresh reed - or three - with you. That's another rabbit hole, but trust me. It is a good idea.

But now, let me discuss another issue you might not have thought about.

Maybe you've never thought about it before; but there are so many things that affect your saxophone sound other than the actual "tone" of your sound.

My wife and I love to cruise. We've caught ships out of Jacksonville, Florida, and Baltimore, Maryland before. But my favourite place to catch a cruise is out of New York City. And the reason is that there are so many cool music stores in NYC that I have a chance to visit when were are there before or after the cruise.

One of my favourite stores is a little, out-of-the-way place in Queens called K B Sax. Now, I'm going to do a little plug for this guy, even though I'm sure he will have no clue who I am. But that's ok. Because I know who he is. And I will say that if you're looking for a Mark VI horn, this is definitely a guy to get to know and to visit.

The owner, Kim Bock, is a really nice guy. He is friendly, personable, and he is genuinely interested in helping you find what you are looking for. My wife and I popped in to visit him. And in the course of visiting, I tried a mouthpiece at his shop that I liked and purchased. He actually heard some of the "Kirk Whalumish" characteristics to the sound it was giving me before I did, and I've come to enjoy the piece more, the more I've played it.

And on a personal note, I will also say that he went out of his way to help us after the sale. You see, being foreigners to NYC, we didn't really know exactly where we needed to go to get back to our hotel. And we needed to find the subway station. Kim actually left the shop and walked with us down to the subway station to make sure we made our way safely.

He's just a great guy. And if you look at his web site, you'll see he knows his stuff.

I learned an interesting lesson from Kim Bock That day at KB Sax in Queens.

The reason I bring Kim's name up here is because when I was at his shop discussing mouthpieces and sound, he introduced a very interesting concept to me that I hadn't really though of before. Kim told me that one of his teachers once gave him a homework assignment during his practicing that really helped him with sound. The teacher told him to listen to different players and try to identify the different characteristics that made up their sound other than the actual tone from their horns. He was to make a list of the things that made them sound different from each other. And what he discovered (as I recall Kim telling me) is that the kinds of things that he noticed that affected the sound were things like:

  • how a player starts a note - with or without the tongue, hard or soft attack, sudden or gradual volume;
  • how a player ends a note - do they stop the notes with the tongue? Cut off the air?
  • any particular flourishes to the style - little patterns that they tend to play a lot? (For instance, if you listen for it, you'll often notice that Kenny G will do a little "lilt" or rising grace note at the end of a long note at the end of his phrases...)

In other words, there are a whole bunch of things that affect the sound you hear that you associate as tone, and some things you hear in the tone that affect the sound, and though you "feel them" interchangeably, they are different animals.

It's something to be aware of.

Your mouth actually affects your sound. And as far as playing a saxophone is concerned, your individual palate is as unique as a fingerprint.

You might not be aware of it so much, but the shape of your mouth cavity affects the sound of your horn in a unique way.
Now, you might not think so. But it does. One proof of this is the reality that you play low notes better with a different tongue position than you use for playing higher notes. And that different tongue position forms a different size and shape of oral cavity. And everyone's oral cavity is slightly different. Like it or not, you can put your horn in Kirk Whalum's hands, or if he lets you, you could put his horn in your hands, and he will STILL sound more like Kirk and you will STILL sound more like you.

Your mouth and your mouthpiece are a team. And part of what makes your sound is the part of YOU that comes before the horn.

Let me show you a quick video clip here where I explain what I'm talking about here.

And as a last thought, I would say that if you're going to try to find a better mouthpiece, be aware of all the things that will affect how it sounds. And these are things that you should be aware of so you can take a simple step that will improve your odds.

For instance, one thing that will affect the sound of that mouthpeice is the room you're trying it out in. Some rooms are live, some are dead. And if you're testing it in a small, bright room, you might like the sound, only to get home or in your standard venue and feel like it sounds dead.

And so, one thing I would suggest is that when you're testing a mouthpiece, test it alongside your current piece. The best way to pick up on the unique qualities of that new piece is to listen for what the differences are between your new shiny object right out of the box and the one you've grown used to. It helps and can save you some buyer's remorse.

And that brings me to one more point to make in the search for this perfect mate for you and your saxophone:

You don't have to be married to your mouthpiece. But you have to also understand that any meaningful, long-term relationship has to get past the first few dates to even really begin to know the person.

Your relationship with any mouthpiece has to be like that, too. Sometimes, there are reasons why you and your mouthpiece can't "be an item" anymore. Sometimes the piece is made for such a different sound than you want that you need to make a switch.

Breakups happen sometimes. But be careful that what makes you fall in love with that piece in the store isn't the very thing that drives you crazy 6 months down the road. Sometimes the brightness and the edge of the sound that appeals to you when you're trying that mouthpiece out in the store is the very brightness and edge that eventually sticks out at you as the quality that keeps it from being a versatile piece in your setup.

You might want to try that mouthpiece in a couple different venues, with some different reeds. (That one you used when you tried it might have actually been what caused the sound you fell in love with , and not the mouthpiece itself. Just a thought...)

Summary

  • Shopping for a new mouthpiece might be necessary.
  • if you think you really need to shop, take it slow, and be methodical.
  • think about all the things you want (and don't want) in your sound. And think about how many of those things are about your sound that isn't from your tone. Sometimes, the sound you want is really a STYLE that you're after.
  • IF you do need to upgrade your mouthpiece, consider supporting the businesses and dealers that are willing to let you test drive the mouthpieces fo a few days. They may charge more; but consider that you're not just buying the piece; you're supporting a business that is investing in pieces for you to see if you're happpy before tat dealer takes your money. That's worth something.

Don't forget, in all your looking for the perfect mouthpiece, that your ultimate goal for finding the right one is to enjoy playing the horn

You want to have the perfect mouthpiece for your saxophone setup. We ALL do. But don't forget that there is a musical life out there to be had - and you don't want to get so wrapped up in the pursuit of the perfect sound that you forget why you want to be heard in the first place.

Try some gear. Don't be impulsive. If you find something that you think might work, work with a dealer who is willing to let you TRY one or two for a while. And be willing to pay a little extra for that kind of service if you have to. For instance, I know you can order on a trial basis from Jody Jazz. I believe Woodwind and Brasswind does the same thing. And even better if you can work with a local dealer to try a couple at the shop. If they will work with you and let you take one on a trial for a few days so you can hear it in context, and live with it a while to see if it's what you really want, a dealer like that is worth spending a few extra bucks with. They're investing some of their resources to help you get what you need. Repay them with your business.

Your goal is to get happy with your sound. And if you can do that all at once, that's awesome. But what you'll probably find is that just like physical intimacy is wonderful in an otherwise good relationship, relationships don't last because of that. They last because of love, respect and commitment. So don't be too "wowed" by the sound of that mouthpiece on the "first date." Figure out what you want your musical sound to be like, and if you think you've found that "perfect mate" of a mouthpiece along the way, try it.

But ease into it. Think about what you're giving up to make a switch. And, at the end of the day, there often is a better piece out there. Just look and test and try the right way. It will save you lots of money in the end.

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