The Search for Nirvana - A Perfect Mouthpiece!

By Tom Alexander with Dave Liebman


  There is no question that a good number of saxophonists suffer from a certain kind of insidious disease which can involve an almost obsessive searching for the "perfect" mouthpiece. Switching around from piece to piece in search of the "Holy Grail" mouthpiece becomes problematic because among other reasons (nuisance, time spent and money possibly) it means every time you try to adjust to a new set-up, your embouchure, throat, diaphragm etc. are also changing. Chances are there is not going to be any super "new magic bullet" in mouthpieces that will blow everything away. The reality is this:

The principles have been laid down for years starting from Otto Link, the physics are there and it is generally hype that some totally "new" piece will make some giant steps tonally. The main thrust of this in the past 20 years or so is that the pieces of certain makers emphasized super high baffle/super squeezed chambers in order to give the player a loud volume and bright color, but unfortunately at the expensive of BODY. Though this may be cool for Rock or Fusion players who could be looking for a specific type of electric guitar-like sound, for jazz players who interact with acoustical instruments, it is a kind of mirage. This implies attempting to get more brightness and volume to compete or compensate with the sometimes overwhelming amplified sound of a rhythm section, at the expense of not getting the full bodied tone the instrument was designed to produce. When you think about what was studied years ago with the respected teachers, weren't they trying to have us play on set-ups that would produce a tone that contained both the lows and highs, control, body, a good blend with other instruments and focus?

The one rule to remember about mouthpieces (or reeds for that matter) is BALANCE. Just as in painting, there is a mix of colors we are after. If your palette has only screaming yellow or orange paint on it, all your canvasses will be rather limited in color. That could be an effect which could be fine for a minute, but is it something you want all the time? What about blue, green, brown, black and white in all their permutations? There is one underlying universal factor in all great music, regardless of idiom. That is tonal variation, which is a major reflection of artistic intent. So it seems that the wider the palette of colors the artist has to work with, the more artistic variation he/she has access to. In other words, the artist will not be boxed in due to a limitation of colors...and as artists, aren't we looking for what will free, rather than restrict us in expression?

A similar phenomenon exists regarding the tools of the artist, in this case the saxophonist. If a player has a set up which by its inherent design favors a certain stratum of color, let's say extremely bright and loud, in essence there is a limitation being imposed on his/her choice of expression. For example, if a Classical cellist, wanting to achieve a bright and loud tone only used an electric cello (by this I don't mean a traditional one which is just mic'd, but with let's say one with a radically thinner body), most likely a brighter, thinner sound would be the result. Now that might be valid for a specific type of new music for example, but would that be the sound you would want to hear in a symphony orchestra day after day?

In mouthpieces the parallel image might be a radically narrow body, super high, super small or oddly shaped baffle and/or squeezed chamber. Without much work, a piece like this might give the player loudness and brightness, Voila! a kind of instant sound just like he was playing an electric guitar. And the saxophone player wanting to feel more power through volume and accompanying edge to hear him/herself better might at first be awed by a mouthpiece like this and feel "WOW, I sound so LOUD and BRIGHT!!". Then, go back and listen to the recorded sound closely. In the end, what have you got? Most likely a thin, brash and possibly out of tune tone, as well as difficulty playing in the lower register and blending with other instruments.

One rule is that generally speaking, it is easier to make a bigger chamber/low-medium baffle piece play brighter than the other way around. You can see it right in the design, large and open vs. small and squeezed. Where is there any room to go? How can the horn be expected to resonate to its fullest breadth when the sound projected through it is narrow and thin? It's kind of like trying to make a bell to resonate to its fullest by striking it with a car antenna instead of a mallet or playing a cymbal with a coat hanger.

This brings up another concept which is that the tone one gets from the instrument should originate from the player, with the equipment acting as the conduit of the artist's expression to the listener. In woodwinds this means first and foremost the study and practice of long tones. That is the laboratory of TONE...where the player needs to spend hour after hour, year after year in defining and refining their own personal sound. I remember being inspired by stories of players I admired who were deep into playing long tones as the key to developing their tone, especially Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.These two geniuses seemed to have spent extraordinary amounts of time in the woodshed working with an almost religious concentration in the work of polishing their tones. In the case of Trane, it wasn't that his tone was just "hip". It went way beyond that, as if the tone itself had a message contained in it. I guess you could say it's kind of like how a jeweler might work on the refining and polishing a precious stone. And when you get right down to it, the tone a player puts out is essentially what the listener will perceive as that artist's IDENTITY, their calling card. And just as every gem stone has its on unique character, it needs to be worked from its unrefined state for that character to take shape and shine. The highly personal tones of these and other legendary players can be almost viewed as "gemstones"...rare, shimmering, luminescent, and unforgettable.

On the other hand, if a stone just doesn't have much character to begin with and/or is not brought to life properly by the right methods and tools, uninteresting results will follow. Or you could say that one's tone is like a photograph...because once people see it, they will most likely either be impressed positively, negatively or not much at all. Naturally we all want to look our best in why shouldn't our tone reflect best we have to give inside as well? This comes from hard work and the right type of set up.

Now what role should the equipment play in tone production? It seems that starting with students to seasoned pros, a basic "middle way" is generally best.This means basically a medium chamber, medium tip opening (or more open for experienced players whose embouchures have been properly developed) and a medium strength reed. Naturally, this is not a fixed rule and some variation either way can be acceptable but this rule has generally been proven over time. The one advantage of the middle way is that you have the relative easier ability to go either brighter OR darker, softer OR louder than you would let's say with a radically chambered/super open/soft reed or closed tip/very hard reed. Another critical advantage is that you have so much more control over the tone, intonation and what you play. With radical set-ups, the chances for problems of intonation, general control, squeaks, cracked notes or other difficulties in the lower register, unfocused or brash tone increase.

The exceptions would be for extremely advanced players who might be using a very wide open mouthpiece/very hard/very soft reed which is only valid because they would have the chops to control a mouthpiece like this and have such a developed embouchure that they can alter and shape the color of the tone at will. In this class, we could say Sonny Rollins on a wide open Berg Larsen (though he played a Link on earlier recordings and he probably never sounded better than on the Live at the Village Vanguard recordings of 1957 when he was it seems using a Link not as wide open), Wayne Shorter a 10* link (maybe a closer one now?), Steve Lacy a 12* and a few others. Once again, the key exception is that these cats had the chops to pull working a piece like this off.

However, it is also interesting to note that in the cases of some of the greatest tones ever made on the instrument we have the "middle way" in effect: Coleman Hawkins (Hawkins Special No. 6), Ben Webster-Tone Master No. 5, Lester Young-Tone Master No. 5, Trane in the period many consider to be his best, tonally speaking (i.e. 50's-early 60's), using a 5* Tone Master Link, Cannonball Adderley, a # 5 Meyer (same for Phil Woods), Joe Henderson-Selmer D or E, and similar set ups from other players with really unique signature tones.

One other thing to note is that great players can start with a relatively large chamber/low-medium baffle piece and get a good amount of harmonic edge from it through use of reeds and embouchure control. Cases in point? The ones that really stick out are Trane and Bird. They both found a way to make their pieces have more edge and projection; in the case of Bird through a very hard reed (#5) and embouchure adjustment and Trane through a 5* Early Super Tone Master, his own special embouchure and probably a hard reed. Both had huge sounds by all accounts, in large part due to their embouchure and use of harder reeds, not radically designed mouthpieces. The key to this was that their tone came from way down incredibly focused and high power air stream literally originating from their guts. It still amazes me how they did it since they didn't have good mics or high baffles in those days. But they knew the secrets of air flow and projection and how to get the most out of the heart and soul of the reed. In this respect, they were almost magicians.

One of the greatest recent examples of this was Joe Henderson during his last years. His tone was just ALL incredibly focused, huge, warm projection crowned by a halo of edge that just wrapped itself around the entire room. All this done on a medium chamber, medium tip opening mouthpiece with medium strength reeds!!! Joe unlocked the secrets of air focus and manipulating the tone to his artistic desire. He may have learned something about this from hearing all those players from the 40's on out. Part of it too may have had to do with learning how to project in big band situations without a mic or almost no amplification. It may have made those players work harder to solve the problem of projection.

And let's look through the Tenor Lineage. After all is said and done, have you ever heard hipper Tenor sounds made, starting from Hawk-Prez-Dex-Newk-Stan, etc. and ending with Trane/Wayne/Joe Henderson/Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano and the later cats, than when they have been on a vintage piece, great French cane (in the case of most of the earlier players and some now), and either a vintage or vintage influenced horn? The same story holds mostly true with Soprano, Alto, and Baritone. This doesn't mean there aren't players after the early greats with happening sounds on some different set-ups, but when you look at the whole general picture, what was the common denominator with so many of those legendary guys, equipment wise? It was Otto Link style pieces, great French cane reeds and Vintage horns. The amazing and hip thing about this is that even though the styles of the music and tones changed radically, they were all done on pretty much the same type of set-ups.

To me that indicates that the masters of vintage manufacturing from reeds to mouthpieces to horns hit on an incredibly versatile and stable formula for the set-up as valid 90 years or so ago as it is today. The only difference for most great players these days is in the mouthpiece. Many prefer a relatively more open tip (7-9 or so) and there are some who may prefer some degree of baffleization. Here we have enough technology to put people on the moon and incredible advances in production have been made. Yet is there anything out there now that sounds significantly better tonally than a Stradivarius in classical music, and vintage products used in jazz such as an Otto Link (as well as Selmer, Meyer, etc.), Steinway piano (same for classical), Gretsch drums or vintage saxophone (same for classical)? Not to say that we shouldn't try to keep going to make advancements because there could be some improvements in response but like with music, the basics were laid down a long time ago and refining them is what it is all about. The tonal goal is: BODY, PRESENCE, POWER, SUBTLETY, WARMTH and COLOR. With these tools the artist has the chance to say something that is personal, individual and will stand the test of time.


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