Choosing a new saxophone mouthpiece is no easy task. Since there are now so many mouthpieces on the market, it’s more difficult than ever for saxophone players to figure out which one will offer them the sound and comfort they have been looking for.
When you do decide it’s time to look for a new mouthpiece, here are a few suggestions that I think every player should consider before buying.
1. Form a clear “audio picture” of what it is you’d like to sound like
Many of us blow through our horns and settle on the sound that comes naturally. Of course, we work to make improvements, but in the end we let our intuitive physical makeup (ie: embouchure, oral cavity, throat, body shape, etc) determine the general direction of our sound. However, it might be that the sound that we feel best expresses us is different than what comes out automatically. In other words, you don’t want to be a Wayne Shorter trapped in Stan Getz’s body, so to speak. Get clear on what you want your tone to sound like so that when you play, you’ll be intuitively guided towards your ideal sound.
2. Evaluate your setup
Before you consider even looking for a new mouthpiece, evaluate what you are currently playing on. Try out some different reeds and even go to a music store to check out some horns. If neither different reeds nor horns make it significantly easier for you to sound the way you want to sound, then it means that the mouthpiece is the weak link in the chain. Getting to the bottom of this will save you time, money, and narrow down your search. For those of you with private teachers and/or band directors, I would definitely consult with them as well for additional insights.
3. Take your idols’ setups with a grain of salt
There are so many different factors that determine the way we sound on the saxophone. There’s the formation of our embouchure. Then there’s the shape of the inner mouth. And then there’s our overall body structure. Not to mention our overall tonal concept as mentioned in step 1. In other words, just about every single aspect of our physical and mental makeup affects the way we sound. Taking that into consideration, gear plays a smaller role than you might think. In fact, the combination of your idols’ equipment with your particular physical and mental makeup can possibly result in you sounding more different than you would were you choosing gear based on tips 1 and 2 in this article.
All it takes is to give a listen to Charlie Parker on the Jazz at Massey Hall album. There he is, playing on a plastic saxophone, and still sounding like the Bird we all know and love.
Give Dexter Gordon a Selmer Bundy, and trust me, he’ll still sound like Dexter. If you want to sound like one of your idols, learn to match their phrasing and articulation, and you’ll find yourself naturally arriving at their tonal characteristics as well.
4. Take advantage of most retailers’ trial period
As many of you know, it can be quite difficult to decide within the span of a few minutes, or even an hour, whether or not a particular mouthpiece is going to be what’s best for you. There is often an adjustment period where you have to get used to the effect of the new piece on the way you naturally blow through the horn. Taking on a new mouthpiece is a fairly big decision, so it’s important not to rush it and risk ending up with something that’s less than ideal for you.
If none of the music stores near you carry a particular mouthpiece that you’re interested in, look for some of the large online music retailers to find out if they have a mouthpiece trial period. You’ll probably have to give them a credit card number, but the point is that you can take advantage of the ability to try before you buy.
5. Bring a sax-savvy friend when mouthpiece shopping
Having a friend who can tag along and listen to you as you switch between your current mouthpiece to a new mouthpiece can really help you get some insights on what impact the potential piece is having on your sound. While trying out the mouthpieces, I would recommend not telling your friend which mouthpiece you are playing on so there is no bias. Make sure you conduct this blindfold test by playing the same tune or musical phrase on each of the mouthpieces. This way you can be confident that you’re comparing apples to apples.
6. Try out two identical versions of the same mouthpiece
Mouthpiece manufacturing is not an exact science. You may find that two mouthpieces of the same brand and same tip opening play differently and you might prefer one over the other. So make sure to try as many copies of the same piece as possible.
7. Revaluate your setup.
Before making the crucial decision of whether or not to buy, I would recommend going back and forth between your current setup and the new prospective setup to figure out if there is a major difference between the two. Spot checking your notes with a tuner, playing overtones, and playing scales up and down the horn to check for evenness can serve as helpful criteria in making this decision. I would only recommend making a purchase if you feel that the new mouthpiece noticeably improves your sound and feels more comfortable than your current setup. If the difference between the two mouthpieces is minimal, then I would recommend staying with your current setup and continuing to work on those areas you feel you are struggling with.
Many of these suggestions I have learned from my teacher as well as my own experiences mouthpiece hunting. Hopefully these tips will help you as well.
I have also included a link to an article written by Matt Stohrer. He is an incredibly talented saxophone repairman and is knowledgeable about everything related to the saxophone. This article is an in-depth look at mouthpieces as well as tips to consider when purchasing one.