How to Stop Obsessing Over New Saxophone Gear

Saxophone Gear is ExpensiveI recently saw a video with the great saxman Bob Reynolds, who’s best known for playing in John Mayer’s band, but also quite an established solo artist in his own right. At any rate, in a video (for his mailing list and online students only) he talks about how the best mouthpiece you’ll ever find is the mouthpiece you already have.

No Getting Away from You

I found this really interesting, as it really rang true in my own experience. A few months back, I set up a “Reed Reviews” section on the site, and to kick it off I decided to review seven models of reeds and record myself playing on each to allow folks to hear the difference between the various reeds. While the difference between the reeds was not unnoticeable, it was also not extreme. I found that I pretty much sound like me regardless of which reed I’m playing on.

Sure, some reads sound brighter, or fuzzier, or fatter than others, but it’s my opinion that nobody’s going to hear me play on one reed and then no longer recognize my sound once I change to another reed. And the same goes for saxophones and even mouthpieces.

Now, when switching between mouthpieces made of different material there can be some pretty pronounced differences. For example, if you normally play a hard rubber mouthpiece and then switch to a metal mouthpiece, the difference in tonal color can be pretty pronounced. But I would venture to guess that you’ll still sound more or less like YOU.

To see this principle in action, check out the video below which features Charlie Parker playing on a plastic alto sax. I’ll admit, his sound isn’t as rich as it is on his regular alto, but he still sounds unmistakably like the Bird we all know and adore.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR2TBLTAn5U

The Real Reason We Shop for New Stuff

So if we sound pretty much like ourselves no matter what we play on, then why the weeks, months, and years upon years of searching for new reeds, ligatures, mouthpieces, and saxophones?

Of course, it’s the way that the new product feels that makes it either a winner or a loser for us.

No matter whether or not the audience is going to notice the difference between you on a Meyer and you on a Theo Wanne, one of those mouthpieces is going to make you feel like you’re playing better than when you play the other. At the end of the day, the best choice for you is going to be the piece of equipment that makes it the most easy and natural for you to sound your best.

Truth is, you could make yourself sound great on any mouthpiece, but when it comes to those mouthpieces that are not ideally suited for you, you are going to have to do things like contort your embouchure and oral cavity to attain the best sound that you are capable of. What we’re looking for is something that we just blow into and voila – effortless awesomeness!

The right equipment will make you feel like Cannonball poppin’ over the changes or Eugene Rousseau floating atop an orchestra, or really, anything you’re trying to sound like.

So by all means, take the time to find the right equipment and find what makes it as effortless as possible to play your best. Then forget about the gear shopping and focus on your own musicianship.

Wanna Save Some Cash?

There is certainly a time and place for gear shopping – especially when you find your playing stuck in a bit of a rut despite your hard work in the practice room. However, before you go out and start blowing through your (or your parents’) hard-earned cash, I suggest you try the following:

1. Remember that there’s a lot more that goes into achieving the sound you’re looking for than your actual tone quality.

For example, if you’re trying to sound like Joe Henderson, are you using Joe Henderson’s style of articulation and phrasing? If not, you may actually matching his tone quality, but still sounding nothing like him since the way you play everything is completely different. Well, same goes if you’re trying to sound like the your ideal self on the horn.

As suggested by Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. interviewees Jon Irabagon as well as Dr. David Demsey (interview not yet published at the time of writing), find a recording of a phrase as played by your favorite player, and practice playing it back over and over  using the same articulation, dynamics, and time feel. Record yourself playing that phrase, and compare it to the recording of your saxophone hero. You’ll be surprised at how you can actually sound when you really put your full intention behind sounding like a completely different player.

2. Check for physical tension.

Great musicianship, or really, greatness in any field requires that we work effortlessly to achieve our ideal. So while you play, scan your body for tension or unnatural contortion in your neck, back, shoulders, arms, hands, and really anywhere else. Once your body starts feeling fairly relaxed and in its natural state, you should start sounding and feeling noticeably better.

But if after taking a few weeks to really focus on making playing as natural and intuitive as possible you’re still not sounding the way you’d like to, or even sounding worse, it might be that the equipment that you’re using is forcing you to twist yourself into all kinds of weird shapes in order to sound good. And if the only way for you to sound good is to go all stiff and uncomfortable, then perhaps you need to switch to some gear that will make you sound better once you free yourself up and do away with the unnatural approach.

3. Make sure that your horn isn’t in need of repair.

Leaky pads and maladjusted keys could easily put a damper on your ability to get around the horn. In fact, improperly adjusted key height could affect your pitch or even make your horn sound stuffy.

Conclusion

Shopping for better reeds, ligatures, mouthpieces, and saxophones can be a ton of fun, and can even take your playing to a noticeably higher level. Indeed, the right gear can point you in the direction of intuitive and effortless musicianship. But my advice is not to jump into a shopping spree thinking that there’s a piece of gear out there that’s going to be a magic pill, taking you from amateur to pro, or pro to living legend.

We all know which way to Carnegie Hall – and it’s not a new mouthpiece.

So how about you guys – do you obsess over gear or are you pretty OK with what you already have?

Photo by AMagill