A No-Holds-Barred Conversation Between Greg Banaszak and Phil Barone

Greg Banaszak and Phil Barone
(L-R) Greg Banaszak and Phil Barone

The following is an interview conducted by one of the world’s most renown classical saxophonists who also happens to be a brilliant jazz recording artist as well, Greg Banaszak. Here we have him keeping it truly real with saxophone mouthpiece and saxophone manufacturer, Phil Barone, who is practically a “household name” among saxophonists worldwide. 

Greg Banaszak:  So Phil, what got you interested in making mouthpieces? 

Phil Barone:  I wasn’t happy with what was being made or so I thought, but in retrospect I think a lot of it was that the music was changing, it was getting louder and the reeds were getting worse so I set out to make mouthpieces that were louder than what was available but that would also work well with the reeds that were currently on the market which just weren’t very vibrant.  This was in the eighties when the reeds all seemed to go to hell in a hand basket.  There were loud mouthpieces available but they didn’t have what I thought was a great sound quality like a good Otto Link.  But I started by modifying available mouthpieces.

Greg:  So before you designed and made your own mouthpieces you did custom work; is that right?  You did some custom work for me back in the day.  I still play that mouthpiece.

Phil:  Yes, but before I did custom work I studied with two guys, Herk Faranda and Richard Grando who taught me refacing and Herk taught me how to modify chambers.  Then after that I worked on my own mouthpieces and for friends for a couple of years before doing it professionally.

But today since anyone can buy tools to work on mouthpieces, for whatever reason people are buying the tools and hanging out a shingle advertising mouthpiece work before they learn the trade really well or learning how to play. Something I discourage.

Greg:  Who else is there out there that you respect?

Phil:  As mouthpiece makers I respect Francois Louie and Freddie Greggory and Fred Lamberson; first rate stuff.  Everyone else is either copying older mouthpieces like Dave Guardala, Otto Link or just buying blanks and tweaking them a little and I don’t call that being a mouthpiece maker; that’s BS.

Yes, anyone can buy a mouthpiece from a company that makes blanks, have them put your name and logo on them and bingo, you’re in the mouthpiece business but that doesn’t make you a mouthpiece maker.  There must be ten of the exact same mouthpieces on the market at the same time all bearing a different name and logo.  I make my mouthpieces from scratch like a great stew.  But I guess not many people know the difference either these days.  I’m old school, I like things done the old-fashioned way because the quality is better but it takes longer and people don’t like to wait, especially in the US.

For mouthpiece re-facers, I like this new kid, Jim Jensen, in fact I like him a lot.  He marches to the tune of a different drummer and he’s not afraid to try different things nor does he try to impress anyone by hanging out on saxophone forums; he’s his own man and he actually plays the sax which is something I can’t say about most of the other guys trying to do re-facing and you have to play to do this kind of work.

Greg:  In your opinion, what do you consider some of the historically important mouthpieces and why?

Phil:  On tenor Otto Link of course and for alto the Meyer Brothers.  They were the standard and they both had round chambers which I think it crucial.  Most of my mouthpieces are modeled after them but I designed them to be a little easier to play and louder.   Even Adolph sax said that the inside of the mouthpiece should be round.

Greg:  Who played on them?

Phil:  Every great tenor player played on a Link, all of them, every single one and Sonny Rollins may have achieved the greatest saxophone sound ever one his 10 star when he played on “Live at the Village Vanguard” and I don’t think it’s a secret that his sound took a turn for the worse went he went switched but he told me that he felt that he needed the extra volume that the Berg gave him.  And of course Cannonball and Phil woods used Meyers.  You can’t beat that.

Greg:  You have worked for simply the best of the best such as legends Sonny Rollins,  Jackie McLean, and Mike Brecker.   Can you share some of your experiences with readers, having worked on their mouthpieces for a so long?

Phil:  They were all great guys, very nice, respectful and real gentlemen and they were always willing to pay me.  I think that’s what separated them from many of the other guys, the second tier players.  They also knew what they wanted but they also both knew that their equipment only got them so far and none of them were equipment junkies.  These were guys that played what they were given and played on it until they made it work.  They didn’t continually buy mouthpiece after mouthpiece expecting a different result.

That’s what a lot of people do and Trane started that craze but what people don’t consider is that Trane hit a wall with his playing after he practiced for hours and hours every day so then he turned to his gear, not before.  These days folks are putting the gear before the practicing and that’s just silly.  It’s even funny and it’s why we have so many mouthpiece companies.

Greg:  What did you do for Sonny?

Phil:  I made him a copy of his Berg Larson as a backup and I made special biteplates for both of his Bergs.  I had to make them with imprints of his teeth in them so that his teeth would fit perfectly into the biteplate.  I did that for a number of years.  I also made biteplates for Ernie Watts.

Greg:  And Mike?

Phil:  Mike was a difficult case because while people didn’t know this, Mike had ruptured his throat many years earlier.  One night while he was playing he blew so hard that the front of his throat blew out like Dizzy’s cheeks did.  He had several surgeries which helped and he tied a scarf around it but he had pain when he played and it caused him to look for a very easy blowing mouthpiece which is how he ended up playing the Guardala. 

He really wanted a mouthpiece like an Otto Link but that played very easily and he ended up playing a mouthpiece I make called a Hollywood part time and he played it on and off until he passed on.  He recorded on it on a Kevin Mahogany CD entitled “My Romance” if you want to hear him on it.

Greg:  So who your most memorable customer?

Phil:  I’d have to say Jackie McLean because I knew him for so long and he followed me through so many years of my life.  I also met my wife at one of his shows at the Village Vanguard.  We became good friends because we understood each other; neither one of us liked bullshit or people that were full of shit and there’s so many of them in this business.  We were both very honest with each other so we always knew where we stood and I think he liked that about me.  I certainly liked that about him.  I have to admit though, ultimately I think being so direct hurt my business.  I’m not a businessman nor do I know how to schmooze.  I’m a craftsman.  And Jackie always insisted on paying me, Sonny too.

Greg:  What did you do for Jackie?

Phil:  Well, back in 1988 I customized his Berg Larson’s and made him some custom-made Meyers’ and later in the nineties I made him the metal mouthpiece that he used on “Nature Boy”, his last album.  I faced his Bergs because the facings were too long and I lowered the existing baffles then I added some more baffle but they were stepped away from the original baffle.  Doing it this way keeps the high notes fat and in tune but it didn’t work so well for Jackie since Jackie played so sharp to begin with.  He did something called cutting your lip where he would play long tones until his lip bled which made his embouchure very tight.  Some guys think this is correct but I don’t.

Greg:   So do you have any feelings on how the sax should be played?

Phil:  As a mouthpiece maker and someone who studied with Joe Allard, I feel just the opposite of how Jackie did.  I don’t feel that the embouchure should be viewed as a muscle to be worked out and strengthened but should always be kept as relaxed and loose as possible because the more pressure you put on the reed and mouthpiece the more you limit the reeds ability to vibrate and you also close the tip opening off which also limits the reeds ability to vibrate.  More vibration, more sound.  You should only be using the same muscles that you use to chew your food, your jaw muscles and you should just put enough pressure on your reed through your bottom lip with your teeth to FEEL the reed, no more, no less.  You have much more control over these muscles.  This is how Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Lennie Pickett, Brecker and some of the other greats played.

Also, you should put enough of the mouthpiece in your mouth to pass the break in the facing.  That’s where the facing curve starts to break away from the side-rails.  On tenor, that’s one inch and on alto it’s three-quarters of an inch.  This way you can’t close off the tip opening.  You’ll get much more sound this way and if you look at photos of Coltrane, Ernie Watts, Sonny Rollins or Mike Brecker they’re really far in on the mouthpiece.  That’s how to play the mouthpiece for ultimate response and sound.  It sounds pretty rough when you first start to do it but it gets better in no time.

Greg: How do you feel about tip openings and how they affect the sound?

If two mouthpieces have the same chamber, the more open one will be a little darker.  More open mouthpieces are darker and more closed mouthpieces are brighter provided the chambers and baffles are the same but not by a lot unless one is a five and one is a ten.  However, if a mouthpiece is more open, it will be harder to play and control which is why I am an advocate for chambers and finding the right one.  Chambers are infinitely more important that facings. 

Greg:  What facings do you recommend our readers look for?

Phil:   Use the tip openings that work for everyone and that’s medium tip openings like 7, 7*,8 or .100-.110 on tenor and 5,6,7 or .072-.080 on alto.  That’s what everyone uses and that’s what works and if it doesn’t work then play it until you make it work.  When you start to go outside of that range, like more open than .080 on alto for example, the sound starts to get too spread and it starts to sound like a tenor and I don’t like that myself; it’s distasteful.  You can focus it in by adding some baffle but why do that when you don’t have to because that will also make it brighter and it will become harder to control.  You have a range from low Bb on up as far as you are capable of going and that’s why medium openings work best but everyone is so obsessed with volume that it’s ruined the sound quality of the saxophone the last thirty years.  Call me old fashioned but I’ll take Trane or Cannonball any day over any of the modern sounds and the older sounds actually fill the room much more than a high baffle mouthpiece can.  The player may hear the high baffle mouthpiece better but they don’t project.

Greg:  And how do you feel about the new mouthpiece refacing craze?

Phil: It’s not new, it’s just a resurgence.   This happens every so often then when people realize that it’s a waste of time they knock it off and it dies out.  I think it’s just a different version of that old story “The Emperors Clothes” where the emperor has this tailor that makes him these invisible cloths and he parades himself through the town wearing them and nobody knows that he’s not wearing them except the tailor who’s long gone with the loot then while he’s walking through town bare ass he realizes he nothing on.

Greg:  What do you mean by that?  It sounds pretty condescending. 

Well, it’s not meant to be.  There used to be a guy who went up to Hartt College where Jackie Mclean taught and he’d work on the student’s mouthpieces and he would take the kid’s mouthpieces and swipe them on his pants a few times then hand it back to him and say “here, try it now”.  And the kid would experience a difference in the way the mouthpiece played.  I’m not saying that this is the same case, just that it’s a similar situation because even if you reface a mouthpiece the person playing it is going to sound the same because they’re still going to gravitate toward reeds that feel the same and reeds are what largely contribute to a players sound.  No, what they’re calling “perfecting” a mouthpiece doesn’t do much at all but modifying the chamber can be very beneficial.

Greg:  What are some qualities in today’s’ mouthpieces that saxophone players should be leery of, or simply avoid.

Phil:  I understand that everyone has different needs and that the need for volume has changed since when I was young but if you’re a younger player I think you should try and develop your sound on a mouthpiece that requires you to work a little bit-something with a larger chamber-something that allows you to push against it.  A lot of the new high baffle mouthpieces today are just too free-blowing and because they’re so free-blowing they sound like kazoos and a young player can’t learn to use his or her diaphragm on a mouthpiece like that and if you don’t learn to use your diaphragm you’ll never get a real deep, full, personal and unique sound. However, the people that make them are clever and they know that an inexperienced student is going to be taken in by a very free-blowing and loud mouthpiece and that they’ll probably buy it just on those merits.  They don’t care if you play it a week later.  Those are the mouthpieces you should stay away from because you’ll never develop a mature sound on them because the mouthpiece is doing all of the work instead of the player.

I’m sorry to say that there’s not too much out there that I’d endorse.  However, what if I’m wrong and in fact it’s just my perception that skewed?  Maybe a thin, shrill sound is in fact “good” and it’s just my interpretation that needs to change.  After all, who am I to dictate to the world how the saxophone should ultimately sound?  I just think it’s possible to get a full range of sounds and not always sound thin and bright all the time as long as you know how to.  What bothers me is that when I hear any of the older great players I can pick them out right away but since the high baffle mouthpieces became popular, I cannot.  I can’t tell one player from another anymore because they all sound somewhat the same and they all sound the same because the mouthpieces are too easy to play.

Greg:  I know you are very respectful of mouthpiece artisan Fred Lamberson. What stands out in your mind about him? 

Phil:  First of all Fred can play and pretty well from my understanding and that’s important.  Most of these mouthpiece “techs” don’t play the sax or they don’t play well; it’s ridiculous.   How can you make a mouthpiece if you don’t play? Also, the thing that stands out in my mind about Fred is that he actually makes his mouthpieces from scratch like me.  He really studied the engineering and applied it to a little three axis mill that he converted from a manual machine to a computer run machine.  That’s a feat within itself.  He’s an amazing guy.

Greg:  What are some of your new products and projects you have been recently working on?  I know your new line of saxophones has been doing quite well.

Phil:  I have a new mouthpiece out called the Super New York.  It’s a lot like an old Otto Link, my hero, only it’s a louder and more free-blowing mouthpiece with fat high notes and the sound quality doesn’t suffer at all.  And of course there’s my line of saxophones that’s still new to me.

Greg:  What’s different about them?

Phil:  Nothing really, I believe they’ve very similar to two other big brands coming from Taiwan except the price; mine are much less money.  I can do that by selling them directly to the sax players and cutting out the stores which gives the players and the students a forty to fifty percent lower price.  In addition to that I give my customers a much better case, a better neck and one of my mouthpieces which adds up to almost a thousand dollars right there and I’m happy doing it.

Greg:  So do you have a student model too?

Phil:  No, I sell the professional model to the students at the student price and in fact it’s become a problem for me because people see my prices and compare them to my competitors and they just assume that my sax isn’t very good because it’s so inexpensive.  And let me tell you, these saxophones are as good as any of them out there.  I remember when nobody took the Japanese seriously either.  Now look at them.

Greg:  What made you want to pursue manufacturing saxophones from the great work you do for so for many of us via our mouthpieces?

Phil:  I felt that I could supply a sax that was just as good as many of the saxophones available in the stores but for much less money if I sold them directly to the musicians myself and it works.  I just cut the stores out.

Greg:  What do you think made you such an icon in your business? 

Phil:  Well, what drove me to make the best mouthpieces I could was an unreasonable expectation.  I was like some of the customers I have now who think a mouthpiece can do the things that only practicing can or in some cases, raw talent.  But in the end, perseverance managed to actually transcend reality and the mouthpieces actually manifested themselves, or maybe I just got lucky.

Phil studied saxophone and clarinet at SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Purchase. After leaving college he studied embouchure with Joe Allard, improvisation for over ten years with piano great Sal Mosca and with bass player Sonny Dallas. He has been making mouthpieces for over thirty years and has made mouthpieces for Ernie Watts, Sonny Rollins, Jackie Mclean, Rene Mclean, Steve Grossman, Ronnie Cuber, Bill Gaskill, Mike Murley, Lou Marini, Nick Brignola, Lou Delgado, George Young and many others.

You can learn more about Phil and his line of saxophone mouthpieces and saxophones at www.PhilBarone.com.