RS Berkeley Head Honcho Talks Bird, Brecker, Buying a Horn, and More
From time to time, I like to feature a company that’s doing something particularly interesting for us saxfolk. In this interview with RS Berkeley founder Les Silver, we take an in-depth look at not only the company’s history and latest products, but also into the subject of working with, and carrying on the legacies of some of the greatest saxophone legends ever to live. On top of that, we discuss what to look for when buying a new horn, plus lots more, so with no further ado, let’s dive in!
Doron Orenstein: How did you get started in the business of musical instrument manufacturing?
Les Silver: The idea for manufacturing my own musical instruments came into fruition through my many years in the music business. I have had the unique opportunity to work with some of the world’s most respected and accomplished musicians, both as a founding member of Applied Microphone Technology and as a fellow musician. A saxophone player by trade, my passion for music also drove me to conduct private saxophone lessons. Throughout my time teaching, I noticed the quality of instruments my students were using were inadequate, causing them to become frustrated. Upon further investigation, I noticed a series of deficiencies among the many brands that seemed to revolve around craftsmanship. One of the biggest issues I encountered involved the lack of quality brass used throughout each instrument. The metals used were thin and easy to bend, providing the instrument with little or no resistance to withstand rough care, while causing uncharacteristic tonal anomalies. On many of the cheaper student horns, I noticed that many of the manufactures tend to be focused on high production levels, thus leaving a void in the craftsmanship of their saxophones. Once craftsmanship is compromised, quality control begins to suffer, causing horns to become inconsistent throughout the registers. Surprisingly, I also found that some horns failed to provide its player with an ergonomic design, allowing imperfections within the tone holes, keywork and hand positioning. With any saxophone, regular maintenance is required to adjust a number of parts. Once you begin talking about the integrity of craftsmanship, problems that arise are often irreversible and often have no solutions. With practical thinking in mind, I found that many people would pay a few extra dollars to invest in a product that could last a lifetime with proper upkeep and regular maintenance. While cost is certainly a concern for many people, especially these days, I think it’s fair to say that sometimes choosing the cheapest product results in spending more for service and parts.
In bridging back to the question at hand, I was determined to produce a saxophone that would capture top quality construction, great intonation and affordability. That’s exactly what we did and that’s how RS Berkeley began. The response we received from our student saxophones was incredible. We began receiving phone calls from stores about other instruments, so we expanded with the flute and clarinet, as those are also instruments I play. While my expertise was limited to winds at the time, I called upon some colleagues, whose expertise dealt with brass instruments, hence giving RS Berkeley a new line of instruments to offer. The success of our brass line required RS Berkeley to expand yet again, only this time with a focus in stringed instruments. I called upon a well respected Luthier, Al Pantalone, who to this day, runs our string department. Al and I sat down to create a line of quality and affordable strings that would remain competitive with some of the top lines in the world. The first line of stringed instruments we created, which we called Erwin Otto, remains one of our top selling lines today. As months passed by, we continued to receive calls for instruments that other companies didn’t produce. One at a time, we created instruments that would go on to make RS Berkeley one of the most innovative instrument manufacturers, allowing us to provide a full line of woodwind, brass and string instruments.
DO: A great deal of saxophonists swear by vintage horns as being superior to new horns. Do you believe that when these vintage horns were being built there was a process for manufacturing instruments that was indeed superior to what’s possible today?
LS: I think the answer to this question again relies heavily upon the craftsmanship of saxophones, but believe there is a place and a need for both. While I’m certainly an avid collector of vintage horns myself, I think there are many pros and cons for both vintage era horns and those made today. I feel that saxophone makers from the past had an oldfashioned approach to making horns of their day. It’s evident to me in the alloy of the metal they used and what seems to be the amount of pride that went into building a robust saxophone from the bottom up. By looking at something as simple as the engraving, you can see the intricate detail that went into each horn, as if each maker took a sense of ownership in the creation of each instrument. I think overall, there was a different mentality back in the day, where things were built to last.
On the plus side for modern day technology, today’s manufacturers have been afforded an opportunity to utilize precision guided machinery and computers. While there are many fine saxophone makers who represent the essence of Adolphe Sax’s original creation, there are only a few that have been able to consistently enhance the instrument by way of craftsmanship, intonation and playability. The invaluable knowledge that we have gained throughout the years has allowed today’s engineers to customize nearly every aspect of the saxophone to change the feel and tone, making today’s saxophones more personal. At RS Berkeley, we have been working for years on a professional line of saxophones called Virtuoso, which combines the best of what vintage saxophones best represent with modern technology, giving us the best of both worlds.
DO: I understand that your Virtuoso series of saxophones was inspired by Michael Brecker and Tim Ries. Can you tell us a bit about how the process of codesigning a saxophone with a professional saxophonist?
LS: I can say wholeheartedly, working with Michael on the Virtuoso project is one of the greatest moments in my professional career. The story behind Virtuoso really began when I approached Michael about my desire to create a line of professional saxophones for RS Berkeley. Michael and I had been friends for some time and in my opinion, he was one of the most well respected and influential tenor saxophonists. The bottom line was, I trusted Michael and I knew his experience and knowledge would provide an invaluable resource in the creation of the saxophone, while making it an instrument that was truly inspired by a Virtuoso.
I remember talking about the pros and cons of vintage horns with Michael and modeling a prototype with the best characteristics of those horns. Little did I know at the time, Michael and Tim would play the prototypes together at Michael’s house, while formulating suggestions to enhance the quality of the saxophones. Impressed with the progress made on the Virtuoso, Michael’s untimely death came before we had an opportunity to speak again. While I knew it would be difficult to replace the insight received by Michael, Tim stepped in to help see the product through. Over the past several years, Tim has become a confidant and a true friend. His expertise and insight has helped take the Virtuoso into new dimensions. He has worked tirelessly to represent our line of saxophones and I know Michael would have been proud of him. I know I am.
Today, Virtuoso saxophones personify innovation, imagination, affordability and top quality construction. Unmatched in their ability to replicate vintage saxophones in feel and flexibility, the Virtuoso offers today’s saxophonist optimal clarity, intonation, dependability, durability, comfort and power. Virtuoso’s full bodied sound has an authority that cuts in a saxophone section while having the ability to express the most intimate ballad with ease.
From top to bottom, Virtuoso altos and tenors tout a substantial instrument made with heavy gauge brass. Available in seven finishes (matte, lacquer, silver plated, black nickel, gold plated, dark lacquer and unlacquered) each maintains its own unique characteristics and consistent sound. Each Virtuoso comes standard with high quality leather pads, metal resonators, ergonomically contoured balance key action, elegant detailed engraving, professional mouthpiece and custom case. Each model is comprised with a high F# key, although models without a high F# key are available upon special request.
The Virtuoso saxophone continues with an expanding endorser base that already boasts some of the top names in Jazz and contemporary music.
DO: You’ve been creating mouthpieces based on those of famous saxophone giants such as Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, and now Charlie Parker. Are you making exact replicas, or are you making adjustments to them so that they’ll meet the needs of a wider variety of players?
LS: In what has become a huge sensation within the saxophone community and music industry in general, Legend Series Mouthpieces came into fruition through a very special collaboration between RS Berkeley, Drake Mouthpieces and Beverly Getz, daughter of musical legend, Stan Getz.
While the Legend Series Mouthpieces are exact replica of each legend’s original vintage mouthpiece, (right down to the teeth marks), the dynamics of the mouthpiece have been improved throughout. Each mouthpiece is designed to include different tip openings with today’s players in mind.
American originals like Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Johnny Griffin, the Legend Series Mouthpieces are handmade in the USA by Drake and combine state of the art technology with hand finishing tradition to create a precision reproduction of each legend’s original mouthpiece.
DO: I understand that you were recently given access to Charlie Parker’s saxophone and mouthpiece, both in Bird’s original instrument case. What was that experience like?
LS: As you can probably imagine, the experience was extraordinary. The story really begins with our initial conversation, in which Bird’s daughter Kim and I talked about the venture between RS Berkeley, Drake and Beverly Getz, while sharing stories about the influence her father had on my education and career. After a few conversations, Kim had expressed interest in the project and told me she had Bird’s white mouthpiece in her possession. She offered to host a face-to-face meeting with our team to discuss the project in greater detail and I accepted without hesitation.
With an amazing sense of accomplishment and excitement, I contacted my friend Tim Ries to discuss the magnitude of the situation. After all, Charlie Parker was an icon, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist. With Tim’s tireless dedication towards RS Berkeley, I felt it would be valuable to have him accompany us to the meeting. On the other hand, I knew Tim wouldn’t want to miss out on pursuing anything related to Bird.
A gracious host, Kim welcomed Aaron Drake of Drake Mouthpieces, Todd Feldman of RS Berkeley, RS Berkeley Endorser, Tim Ries and myself into her home on a snowy February day. As we sat and talked in Kim’s living room, she politely excused herself for a few minutes and came back stating, “I have something I want to show you.” With a red saxophone case in her hands, she carefully placed it on a coffee table that Bird had once owned. As my heart pounded, we opened the case and discovered Bird’s Super 20 King Alto Saxophone and white mouthpiece. As exhilarating as this was for me as a Charlie Parker fan, we examined every aspect of the case and its contents. We were intrigued to find a number of used reeds played by Bird himself, as well as two neck straps. Although one neck strap was damaged at some point, we were able to see where Bird repaired the strap, tying knots in key areas, providing himself with consistent and accurate horn placement. Considering Parker passed in the fifties, his saxophone and accessories were in meticulous condition. In what ended up becoming a historical event for us, we spent a good part of the day watching, listening and seeing personal Parker family treasures, including videos of Bird playing, a recording he made at the age of sixteen, personal interviews and family photos. One of the most exciting items we observed was an original portrait Bird painted himself. The painting, a portrait of Bird’s late daughter, Pree, was his interpretation of what he envisioned her to look like when she was older. As our five hour meeting came to end, we expressed our sincere appreciation to Kim for sharing her family’s history with us and for providing us with Bird’s white mouthpiece,
A few days after our meeting, I was talking about the project and our day at Kim Parker’s home with my friend Sonny Rollins. Sonny really put things into perspective for me, when he said, “sounds like a killer project…Les, you sound like an archeologist.”
DO: Besides the sound quality of the instrument, what are a few of the other most important things a saxophonist should look for when purchasing a horn?
LS: The decision to purchase a saxophone or any other musical instrument for that matter is a financial investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. A good saxophone can last well beyond your years with proper care and maintenance. Of course everyone has a way for conducting research and a preference for buying items, whether it’s in person at a store or online.
The first thing a saxophonist should ask themselves is, what type of saxophone am I interested in purchasing? There are many types of saxophones and finishes and they all have their own distinctive attributes and sound. Depending on a person’s budget and the use for which they will use the saxophone both play a role in determining whether you should buy new or used.
There are many brands to choose from and the experience can be nothing short of overwhelming. Before making a purchase, conduct research on the company by visiting their websites or by conducting web searches for reviews or testimonials. A good indication for quality can usually be determined by looking at the list of musicians that are endorsing each company’s instruments. Professional musicians can provide great insight, as they are often particular about the instrument(s) they use. Don’t shy away from some of the unknown brands as well, pending you research the product. You can often save a great deal of money without sacrificing quality and durability. Personally, I would also call the manufacturer for detailed information about the instrument you’re looking for.
From a structural standpoint, following a few guidelines can be very helpful.
- Simply hold the saxophone in your hands to determine whether it’s ergonomically designed and has a comfortable feel.
- If you know someone who plays the saxophone, bring them along with you to test play the instruments you’re looking at. They’ll be able to check for sound quality, clarity and intonation.
- Press on all the keys and examine each working part to check for any mechanical flaws and for durability. You can often tell when cheap materials are used.
- Look for a saxophone that offers heavy gauge brass offering top quality construction. I’m not referring to the weight when I say heavy gauge, but look to see if the instrument can bend or dent easily.
- Before playing the saxophone, look over it thoroughly for green deposits, odors, or a change in the coloring of the lacquer. If you’re buying a new horn…make sure it’s a new horn. Make sure you check the pads, resonators and any other maintenance related parts.
- Review the tone holes for consistency.
- Bring a tuner with you to double check the intonation.
DO: I see that you’ve got some incredible endorsers such as Don Braden, Chris Potter, George Garzone, and Andy Snitzer among more up-and-coming players. What does it take to become an endorser for RS Berkeley?
LS: We have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of accomplished and well respected endorsers. We consider them part of the family at RS Berkeley and hopefully we’re perceived by the company we keep. In Don, Chris, George and Andy, you are only looking at the tip of the iceberg. Our family of endorsers include a who’s who in contemporary music and include Tim Ries, Joe Lovano, Pedro Eustache, Darryl Dixon, David Watson, Sherman Irby, Alex Foster and Dave Schroeder to name a few. To truly gauge the depth of our endorser base, I encourage you to visit the endorser section of our website at rsberkeley.com.
RS Berkeley has a very selective process in attracting and endorsing musicians. Our team of endorsers is evenly balanced with some of the most well respected veterans and rising stars. Many of our endorsers have played together before and many of them are referred to us by other endorsers.
While growing our business through each musician and in turn, supporting our endorsers in every way possible, we all have an opportunity to be seen and heard globally. The combination of our instrument ingenuity mixed with the creative talents of our endorsers will bring one word to mind…EXCELLENCE!
DO: What’s next on the horizon for RS Berkeley?
LS: Our design teams have been working tirelessly to create new and innovative instruments and accessories. In the very near future we’ll be unveiling a number of new legends for Legend Series Mouthpieces, including Benny Carter, Frank Foster and Woody Herman to name a few. We are currently working on adding new finishes to the Virtuoso Saxophone line and we’re on the verge of unveiling a new adjustable clarinet barrel for all of you doublers out there. We certainly have a secret or two up our sleeves for later this year and you never know who will start endorsing our products next, so stay tuned.
April 7, 2011 @ 6:38 am
Great interview! Can I suggest a follow-up interview with Aaron Drake? I’m playing his NY mouthpiece on alto and tenor and love them!
April 7, 2011 @ 8:48 pm
Heya Jeff, Aaron sounds like he could be an interesting interview, adding him to my list of prospects. Thanks!
April 7, 2011 @ 5:01 pm
Really interesting interview, but I’m no so sure about:
“A good indication for quality can usually be determined by looking at the list of musicians that are endorsing each company’s instruments.”
There’s endorsing an instrument, and then there’s actually adopting it for day-to-day use. How many of the top endorsers of the new brands are actually playing those horns daily, month after month?
How long do the endorsers play a horn before deciding to endorse it? (days, weeks, or months?)
There’s a lot you can tell about a horn just by playing it for a few hours, and the opinions of top players are certainly very valuable, but I would think that that things like quality of workmanship and materials, ease and stability of adjustment, etc. can’t be properly evaluated unless the horn is used day-in and day-out for a considerable amount of time.
Note that I’m not specifically criticizing RS Berkeley in any way, but am just wary (from personal experience) of putting too much stock in endorsements unless the endorsers are regular long-time users of the horn in question.
April 7, 2011 @ 8:52 pm
I hear you. I can’t really speak for RS Berkeley’s endorsers, but at the very least, the fact that Michael Brecker and Tim Ries took part in designing the instruments says quite a lot.
In the end, there’s virtually no way to know for sure what an endorser is playing day in and day out, but I figure that if a musician puts their name and reputation behind a brand, they must have a pretty decent amount of faith in the product.
Thanks for the insight!
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March 26, 2021 @ 9:52 pm
Have owned and enjoyed my RS Berkeley alto for some 5 years. Purchased used. Cant identify it. Most of the black finish has worn away. It now looks like it is chrome plated. Discovered by filing a little off a tone hole that it is made of copper. The tone hole at least. It feels heavy. I cant indent the bell when pressing hard. The only identification is the words “Berkeley wind instruments” No model number anywhere. Some very faint engraving on the bell, barely evident. I would love to know what model it is. Perhaps it was one of Mr Berkley’s prototypes.