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Woodwind Technique 1.2: Picking a Saxophone Mouthpiece
December, 2002
Dan Higgins

SELECTING an appropriate mouthpiece can be one of the most important steps in achieving success in saxophone performance. As a veteran player of the LA jazz and recording scene for 25 years, I've played and heard all types of sax mouthpieces. After getting involved with intoxicating set-ups that didn't work out well, it's very clear to me what to look for in a mouthpiece and reed combination.
     A common mistake is to select a very responsive, brilliant and edgy mouthpiece. Because of these bright tone qualities, it becomes necessary to select a dull, foggy, dark reed to counteract the mouthpiece's inherent edge. After playing mouthpieces like these on both the alto and tenor saxophones, I don't believe it's the best way to go. I prefer a quality darker mouthpiece which allows a good vibrant reed to fully vibrate and create a full set of overtones. Trying to add lows to a sound that is inherently bright is very taxing on the embouchure and throat. The darker, larger chamber mouthpieces have a natural, open, rich flavor that can be more easily brightened with a quality vibrant reed.
     Alto mouthpieces such as the Meyer (medium chamber) and Beechler (medium chamber) are examples of mouthpieces that allow the reed to add edge and highs to a basic quality fundamental tone. Medium tip openings such as 5-7 allow for the use of a medium strength reed (2.5-3) to work in concert providing a pleasant quality tone. It's no wonder these types of set-ups were used by the likes of jazz greats Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderly.
     Wedge-type mouthpieces add to an already tough task of playing in tune. Usually the low register will suffer with large wedges or small chambers. Let your ear be your guide when you experiment with these high powered mouthpieces. They may feel louder but in actuality may not have a full-sounding tone represented by highs, mids and lows. A good mouthpiece should always be helping the player achieve a more mature quality with a daily reinforcement of good tone.
     Careful discriminating reed selection is very important with these types of quality mouthpieces. I've always been wary of mouthpieces where all the reeds "feel" good. Generally these set-ups are too bright for my taste. On the tenor mouthpieces these same traits should be sought-after. Because of the inherent dark quality of the tenor a slightly brighter mouthpiece can be a successful solution. Metal (brass) can add to this equation and be a good material for tenor and baritone mouthpieces. Again, a nice-size chamber, medium tip opening and a quality vibrant reed is the formula for success.
     Again, be wary of a mouthpiece where the low notes are resistant or non-existent! We've all played those mouthpieces which seem to only be good for screaming high register solos. In all types of saxophone performance it's not acceptable to sacrifice any portion of the range in search of a certain tone. A good set-up should play all the low notes as well as the altissimo. Changing reed types and variations can "lean" a mouthpiece one way or the other. For example, a bright reed on an Otto Link tenor can be valuable in a contemporary setting, while a darker, more blending reed will work well in a big band section. A slightly harder alto reed with some "buzz" makes for an exciting lead alto reed as opposed to a subtle, sweet, sexy alto tone that would require a pure, beautiful-sounding reed. Finding a reed that fits the style can help maneuver the tone towards your goal without sacrificing the overall sound.
     Radical mouthpieces can achieve a unique tone but may come with sacrifices not easily overcome. It's no wonder the steadfast Otto Link tenor mouthpiece has become a favorite to many tenor players, as the chamber allows for the player's personality to emerge. There are many high-quality mouthpieces on the market and it's not possible to cover them all. The successful players find mouthpieces that provide a full tone that plays in all registers with the ability to alter the sound to fit many styles and situations. A good teacher will be able to help guide you in your selection in a market place that is ever growing with new products and concepts. Good luck and good tone!


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