8 Tips for Smart Spending on New Sax Gear

Photo by Terry Madeley

I know I’m not the only guy out there who loves to futz around the music store, trying the latest gear, wanting to play a different horn or a different mouthpiece, looking for that edge – that mystical “something” in the sound that just gives me that little “extra boost” toward sound nirvana.

But if you’re anything like me, you know how easy it is to slide into a rabbit hole searching for that perfect gizmo that leads to the “holy grail” of the ultimate saxophone setup. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to fall into a trap here, similar to the kind of traps that unwary exercise enthusiasts fall into in their pursuit of the perfect pill that will make everything right.

Don’t get me wrong. In the gym, supplements help. They can make a big difference. But in the end, you’ll never get to the desired result without some sweat. No pill can do all the work for you.

It’s the same with your setup on your sax. Like the gym and the pills, there are wide differences between mouthpieces, reeds and even ligatures that really can make differences in your sound. And some of these differences can be significant. And finding the right setup is important because these real differences can boost your confidence and, therefore, improve the way you play.

If you do your homework and you test new gear the right way, it can definitely get you further in the direction of the ultimate sound. But I have boxes of proof at home – several small boxes filled with mouthpieces, reeds and ligatures – that are a testament to the fact that if finding the exact right mouthpiece, reed or ligature was the whole answer, I could have likely quit looking before filling the first box. Good gear makes a difference. But before you go shopping (again, because you still didn’t find “perfect” the last time) you need to think about a few things.

If you think new gear might help, here are some things to consider.

I’ve written articles elsewhere about things to think about when shopping for new gear. If you’re curious, I’ve shared my thoughts on one of my sites about things to keep in mind when looking for a new mouthpiece or a new ligature. But my thoughts don’t have as much to do with the shape of the baffle in the mouthpiece or the style of ligature so much as they have to do with all the other stuff you need to think about when you’re shopping for new gear.

And quite honestly, a lot of these thoughts have to do with giving you a healthy caution about shopping at all. Here are some things to think about before you run to the music store again when you should perhaps be putting in an extra hour in the shed, trying to get that sound out of what you already have.

Here is a list of things you should keep in mind when you’re considering a search for a new mouthpiece or a different ligature or brand of reed.

1 – Those different mouthpieces and ligatures definitely do (sometimes) make a difference in the sound of the horn.

This is one of those things where opinions differ. Now, I don’t know many who would dispute that the different shape of the opening in the mouthpiece (size of chamber, height of baffle, etc.) make a difference in the sound. That seems pretty much a given.

But I know there are some people out there who swear by that different ligature. And yet, there are others who have videos out there saying that they don’t make any difference in the sound of the horn. My experience is that the differences might be subtle, but they are real. And sometimes, that little bit makes a difference.

Just a word of wisdom here. If one person says there is no difference, and someone else says there is, then give the idea a chance that there might actually be a difference. Red and green might look the same to someone who is color blind. But that doesn’t mean red and green are the same color.

I’ve written quite a lengthy article on ligatures on my site, explaining how different ligatures attempt to hold the reed in different spots. And those differences are important enough that, for some people, it is noticeable. You might notice, too.

2 – Even if you don’t hear a difference, you might feel a difference. And that is sometimes just as important as a difference you hear.

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

I play a Cannonball tenor. I used to have a Buffet Super Dynaction and when I would go to different music stores trying different horns, I kept coming back to the same question: is it really worth it to me to shell out several thousands of dollars for this other horn? When it came to the Cannonball, I played 5 notes on the thing and for me, it was true love. For me, it was different enough that I wanted to shell out for one.

But here’s the thing. When I go to a music store and try a P. Mauriat, I’m often enticed to think about a trade. And the difference for me is not sound so much as feel.

Every time I try a Mauriat, there is this magic thing that happens (with my mouthpiece setup, anyway) with a feel I get. Specifically, I get some back-pressure with the Mauriat. Not everyone likes that. And my Cannonball is free-blowing like putting air through a fire hose. For me, that back-pressure is inspiring, in a way. But it might not appeal to you. You might not even notice it. But it is noticeable enough for me that it made me feel differently about how I played. (There are other reasons I’ve not made a trade yet. But that is for another article.)

The point is that for me, it isn’t a sound difference that I love about the Mauriat. But it’s a feel difference. And it is very real. And if that kind of difference inspires you, it will make you play differently. A subtle but real difference can affect your confidence and how you feel about your playing. And THAT makes you play differently.

3 – The differences might be subtle enough that you’re only going to hear the difference in a side-by-side comparison.

These subtle differences you might discern between mouthpieces or finishes on a horn or the like sometimes make a real net difference in how you play based on how it feels or sounds to you. And the sum of these differences might be worth a switch in what gear you use.

But then again, if you can’t hear or feel the differences without that “side-by-side comparison,” you should ask yourself if it is worth the switch.

Maybe these things are different for me now, as I approach 60 years of age. But years ago, I remember friends going to the stereo shop to listen to a song played on different sets of speakers to try to figure out which ones gave the sound they liked. I thought that was a worthwhile exercise back then.

Now, though, in my later years, I’ve come to realize that if I go to Best Buy and compare two different televisions and need to get up close and personal to the screen to be able to detect the difference in the picture, then it’s not likely worth twice the money (to me) for that subtle difference in the picture that I’ll never miss once I’m watching the black-and-white version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” at home with the grandkids.

But the difference might be important to you. And if you notice the difference, then you have to decide if that difference counts. If people listening don’t hear it, but you do, then how you hear yourself will affect how you feel about your sound. And that will affect how you play. And that might be worth the bucks. But you have to decide.

4 – While you might only detect the difference in a side-by-side comparison, you need to do the side-by-side comparison anyway.

The room you’re testing in will color your sound. And sometimes, the only way you’ll be able to detect the difference between your mouthpiece and that one you think is the magic bullet is to compare them side-by-side in the same room.

The room you’re in affects the sound so much that you might actually not even recognize your mouthpiece in that little room in the music store. It might be a practice room that is so dead you hate the way you sound no matter what you’re playing on. Or, it might be really bright or “reverby.” But unless you compare what you’re hearing to what you are already comfortable with, you might mistake a room difference for a mouthpiece or ligature (or horn) difference.

Play into the center of the room. Play facing a wall. Do it with the new setup and with your current setup for reference. Find the best and worst spots in that room, the best and worst volumes to play in that room. Do it with the new setup and your current setup.

And if you’re dealing with a quality dealer, they might let you take it on a trial basis. If they do, jump on the chance. Take it with you to a setting you’re familiar with. And stick with that dealer. They’re invested in making you happy. That’s worth some money right there. VALUE that relationship.

5 – Don’t neglect all the stuff that isn’t sound-related but is still important.

Does the mouthpiece only come in rainbow colors? Do those colors make you happy or annoy you? Does that ligature hold the reed perfectly but only until you try to move the mouthpiece to adjust for tuning? Does the cap that comes with that ligature have a flat bottom so you can stand it on the table top somewhere, or does it fall over? Is the mouthpiece so expensive you have to mortgage your aquarium to buy one? Is it cheap enough you could by two so you have a spare? Is it hand-finished to the point where it is pretty much “one of a kind?” Is the twin you’re buying for a spare a true twin or an “only close” relative, so that if you switch, it could throw you off in the middle of a gig?

Does that mouthpiece need a patch on top? Did you stock up on those? Did you try that mouthpiece with a fresh reed, or with one you’ve played forever on your old mouthpiece? And if you don’t think that could make a difference, do you realize that, in a way, your reed and mouthpiece get to “know each other” over time?

Is the mouthpiece quirky in any way? I will give you an example of what I’m referring to here. I play on an older version of a Jody Jazz mouthpiece. And although I’ve used others on and off, this one is a piece I’ve gone back to. But I have to watch it. For some reason, a tiny area of my inner lip will often get caught between the mouthpiece and the reed if I don’t get it on there just right. I hate when it happens, but I’ve learned how to set my reed up on this sucker to avoid it. As it turns out, the mouthpiece is slightly narrower on the outside further up the reed, and so I’ve learned that warped reeds which might be forgiving on other mouthpieces will actually give me this trouble on this one.

But I otherwise love the piece. So I stick with the piece and fix or pitch reeds when they won’t get along with my lip any more. The point is, lots of gear has quirks of one kind or another. But the idea is to get to know them and decide if the sound is worth the “bite.”

And it depends partly on quirks you might have. You see, if you’re the guy with only one leg, then you’re the guy who will really always only pay attention to the left shoe. Or the right. But see if anything jumps out at you as you’re trying stuff out. Quirks don’t have to be the end of the game. But they might be a game changer. You decide if it is what you want and what works for you. For you.

I can’t think of a lot of other examples of this, offhand. But test with a tuner. Play the notes and then look at the tuner. See if it goes sharp or flat easily with overblowing or in different ranges. Stuff like that. Does it let you move easily from high to low and still hit the notes in the lower register with ease? (Some mouthpieces will require more change in palate than others going between ranges. How is this mouthpiece, or reed, or ligature?) You get the idea.

6 – Never forget all that affects the sound that isn’t from your setup, but from how you play on that or any other setup.

There is something I don’t often hear brought up when talking about gear, but it is important to think about. Because if this is an issue for you and you don’t know it, you might end up with more than three small boxes of mouthpieces like I did before you realize why you wasted so much money.

Here, then, is the question: the important question you need to ask yourself is: “do I like my style?” That might seem like a funny question to think about when you’re evaluating your sound. But you might want to give some serious consideration to the real issue that you might be dealing with. Perhaps you don’t like what you sound like, no matter the gear, but it doesn’t have to do with tone so much as style.

I know that over the years, I’ve had to do a good hard re-think on my playing to realize that there are so many aspects to my sound that didn’t have as much to do with tone as they did with how sloppy my fingerings were, or how much I scooped (ad infinitum, ad nauseum). I had to take an honest evaluation of how often I played the same accents in my playing, or the same runs. Part of the problem I had was I was tired of hearing me. I had to change how I played and when I did, my gear started to “sound better.”

Maybe you’ve been here before. You find this amazing mouthpiece and it really gives you more of exactly that kind of difference in your sound you think you’ve been looking for. But after you’re playing that new piece for a while, you’re comparing it to what you were using before. You’re just not sure now. You go to the closet and pull out “the box.” You swap between the new piece you thought was the solution to your sound problem and the one you left behind in order to commit to the new one. And now here you are, once again, torn between two lovers.

And then, what’s even worse: you hear Jeff Kashiwa, or Euge Groove, or God help us all, Kirk Whalum, and wham! You hate the way you sound again, even with that new mouthpiece.

Maybe it’s not the sound, brother. Maybe it’s the way you play. Salt and sugar cover a multitude of sins in a bad kitchen. But every once in a while, when you eat at Ruth’s Chris or Hell’s Kitchen in NYC, then if you know anything about cooking at all, you know if your own cooking is not up to par.

Ditch the salt and sugar as the cure-all to everything. Learn to cook.

It’s the same with your playing. Do the hard work of listening to your style and seeing what in there is good and what you want to make different.

And when you’re evaluating the mouthpiece or the ligature, focus on the sound difference for what it is: it is only a part of the whole package.

7 – Don’t underestimate the reality that, in the end, your palate and the shape of your oral cavity affects your sound. And it will mark any gear you use with the marks of your unique “soundprint.”

My “go-to” guy to use as an example for saxophone sound is Kirk Whalum. There are a lot of amazing players out there. For me, Kirk Whalum is an outstanding saxophonist, and for me, most notably for his sound. He has this distinctive sound that I’ve often tried to emulate but have never been able to duplicate. Now, I’ve chased after his setup. I’ve tried to duplicate his hardware to get that sound. But it ain’t never ever happened for me.

What’s curious to me is that I’m aware he has changed his setup over the years. But he always still sounds like “Kirk.”

You see, like it or not, part of what shapes your sound is those unchangeable features built into your face and into your head, like the shape of your palate, your teeth, the size of your oral cavity and how your jaw moves. And if you don’t realize that at first, you need to accept it as a reality. (If you don’t believe that, then think for a minute about how you effectively get the low notes and hit the altissimo more easily as you shape your oral cavity by how you shape your tongue. If changing the location of your tongue affects these things, then just realize it affects other components of the sound, too. Like it or not, to some extent, so does the rest of your mouth.)

The bottom line is, for better or for worse, to some extent, you are uniquely engineered to sound at least a wee little bit “unique” on that horn or any other. So you better learn to love that part of the sound that is you. Because your oral cavity is the only one you will ever get to use when you play.

And now for one last point.

8 – You don’t have to be married to your gear.

Perhaps a change is good and necessary. But like any good long-term relationship, you have to get past the first several dates and maybe even a fight or two to get to that place where you really get to know a person.

I say this because it is easy to hear something you like in that back room at the music store where you’re testing something out, but you don’t realize in the moment why you liked what you heard. Sometimes, you have to live with that new mouthpiece or ligature for a while to understand what quirks come with that new sound that wowed you.

I tried a piece last time I was in New York city at one of the many shops that does some excellent work in our saxophone universe. I purchased it, on a whim, on the prompting of my wife, who figured I should get myself a new toy. But it wasn’t until I got that sucker home that I discovered how to make it work for me. I didn’t think I liked the sound of it at first. But both my wife and the guy in the shop heard some of that “Kirk Whalum” grail I was after…

The funny thing is, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s a great piece for me for studio, but not so great for playing live. For some reason, this particular mouthpiece is very touchy for intonation. I find that if I’m playing it loud, it has a tendency to go flat. And I didn’t know it until I heard it on playback in a recording of a live gig. (Talk about embarrassing.) And so I realize that I love the sound of it, but I need to be in the right setting to really hear what I’m putting out so I don’t embarrass myself. Otherwise, I won’t use it live.

The point is that every mouthpiece is going to be a combination of qualities you like and things you maybe don’t like that come with it. But you might not find those things you don’t like until you’ve taken it through the loud and the soft, the high and the low, the altissimo, the studio and the stage.

And every piece is going to have consequences that go with the gains you bought it for. So learn that mouthpiece or that reed or that ligature.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about spending hours to catalog the quirks. You don’t have to make getting to know your hardware a new project or anything. But be aware that every piece has tradeoffs that come with the qualities you like. Give it time for you to be comfortable with that setup. Learn what that setup will do to you in different situations. And once you’ve found the good and the bad, commit to make to most of the quirks. Decide that the things you love, you love so much that you know the juice is worth the squeeze.

The bottom line…

Get a rough idea of what you’re looking for. Go look for it. And if you try gear that you think should get you there, live with it for a while. Get used to it. And in the end, realize that the perfect setup isn’t a substitute for the woodshed. It should be seen as an easier way to get the wood chopped better.

A sharper axe always helps. But you still have to learn to swing it.

Jamie has a website called www.TameTheSax.com where he is developing resources specifically aimed at enabling the beginning or retuning player to be able to get back into the game of playing saxophone.

He also is working on a new site called www.WorshipWinds.com (and is looking to collaborate with other like-minded musicians) to develop resources for incorporating wind instruments into the mainstream of Christian praise and worship music.

For anyone interested, he has a CD available on iTunes, Amazon Music or on CD baby.