The Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is an important part of any sax -- you don't get that good of a sound from your axe if you don't have one, even if your horn is a gold-plate SML alto. There are dozens of websites around that discuss the finer points of the hundreds of different mouthpiece that you can buy, but there really are only four categories of mouthpiece: classical, small ensemble, jazz and

NOTE: this is a general classification guide ONLY. Don't send me e-mails about your favorite moutpiece, etc., unless it's in regard to the Vintage Saxophone Shootout or you need me to add or update a link.

NOTE: beginners should NOT look at the below classifications and say: "I wanna play killer jazz. Pete says that a Berg Larsen is good for jazz. I'll go out and get one." I strongly suggest that beginners get a GOOD-QUALITY hard rubber, small-ensemble-style mouthpiece. The best suggestions would be a Selmer C* or a Vandoren Java. Yamaha 52's come with high-quality 'pieces that play like a Vandoren. Once the beginner gets a bit more experience, he can then use the below chart to help him on his way. I only needed to get new mouthpieces after I started seriously playing classical music and joined a couple of jazz ensembles.

a. Classical Mouthpieces -- Examples: Sigurd Rascher, 1960 and earlier stock Martin mouthpieces
These mouthpieces are generally made of hard rubber and have an overall "stocky" shape.  These mouthpieces tend to make your playing a little flat, especially if you're not used to them.  The greatest advantage of these mouthpieces is that you can play every note on your horn at every volume without too much struggle.  The biggest disadvantage is you can't play that loud: the mouthpiece promotes blending.  The warm sound outweighs the disadvantages.  These mouthpieces best match heavier (e.g. Super 80) or older (e.g. Buescher New Aristocrat) horns.  There used to be classical mouthpieces made out of wood that produced a slightly "reedy" tone that's moderately pleasant (I've got one), but they tend to absorb a lot of moisture and warp.

b.  Small Ensemble Mouthpieces -- Examples: Selmer C*, Vandoren Java, most stock
These mouthpieces are made out of hard rubber or plastic (hint: hard rubber is better) and can best be described as "medium": the mouthpiece's chamber is not as "fat" as a classical model, nor is it as "skinny" as a jazz model.   These mouthpieces are either oblate-sphereoid (football) shaped (like the Selmer) or tapered (like the Vandoren).  Selmer has done lots of experimentation with this model of mouthpiece and has tried a variety of different shaped mouthpiece chambers (square, etc.).  These mouthpieces allow you to play louder than a classical model, but not quite as cutting as a jazz model.  The main disavantage is that it's more difficult to use than a classical 'piece for pounding out the lower notes (you get a more "explosive" sound) and the altissimo starts getting a little squeaky and out of tune.  These mouthpieces match just about every horn, but specifically from the 1940's on.  (Hey, Paul, I do like the Selmers :)

c.  Jazz Mouthpieces -- Examples: Berg Larsen, Runyon, Selmer S80, various others
These mouthpieces can be made out of just about anything: rubber, plastic, crystal and/or metal (see below), hard rubber is my preference.  These mouthpieces are best described as straight: they look like the body of a Boeing 747.  Another main characteristic is the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece: it can range up to several millimeters and may be considerably more than a small-ensemble or classical mouthpiece.  You can play extremely loud on these models with a minimal amount of air, but the sacrifice is in control: lower notes, particularly bell keys, are very difficult to produce and dynamic control is basically nonexistant: you can go from loud to louder.  But, it's hard to beat a low A from a Yamaha baritone played at fortissimo (I did this behind our bass trombone player once.   He was impressed).  These mouthpieces match moderately heavy horns.  On Yamaha 23-type horns with thin metal, you'll get a very tinny sound.

d.  Rock -- Metal and Crystal (some jazz applications)
You'll almost never need these mouthpieces for anything other than a rock or marching band (Sal Andolina, the former soprano saxophonist of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet aside -- he uses one for more volume).  You have very little control and little or no dynamic contrast.  Some people swear by metal mouthpieces and just about every mouthpiece manufacturer makes them, but I don't like them and do not recommend them to any player. I do understand, however that some metal mouthpieces are famous in the jazz and rock world (the Otto-Link immediately springs to mind). It is true that these mouthpieces sometimes do add an extra something to your sound, and I accept the fact and concede that the best mouthpiece in some cases is a metal one, but get a good one that's a respected model: Selmer C*, Otto-Link, Berg Larsen, Runyon, etc.

In a completely general sense, hard rubber mouthpieces offer the best quality and are the least affected by humidity and heat, wooden mouthpieces have a very warm sound and lend a kind of overall "reediness" to your tone, but are badly affected by humidity and a bit by temperature. Plastic moutpieces are generally the lowest quality 'pieces a manufacturer produces and are aimed smack at the $25 and under bin. Plastic mouthpieces also tend to have a thinner sound. Metal mouthpieces are badly affected by temperature and they fill up with water easily. Crystal mouthpieces have a bit more "bright" sound than hard rubber, but are affected by humidity to a good extent (they tend to fill up with water a bit).

There are also mouthpieces that are made with a combination of materials (hard rubber mouthpieces with metal tables, etc.) and there are hybrid mouthpieces (e.g. jazz mouthpieces made out of wood, etc.). Try to stay away from mouthpieces with adjustable baffles. I've not yet seen one that either lasts long or works well.

Finally, I want to print out a bit of an e-mail discussion I had with Paul Lindemeyer, author of the excellent book, "Celebrating the Saxophone" (I heartily recommend it.  It's a history of the horn from a player's perspective, but has some good pics and decent general history).  He and I have a disagreement about classifying the various mouthpieces, as above, but he has a couple of points:

Mr. L: I really think you're putting one over on people when you describe the Rascher mouthpiece as classical and the Selmer C* as something else. Whatever you may think of the sound of one vs. the sound of the other, you're really not doing anybody any favors by trying to pretend that the setup so many legit players are using is somehow less than legit.

Now I'm a jazz player myself (albeit a traditionalist), and when I listen to concert sax playing, I personally prefer the sound of the large chamber concert sax to the square chamber school. But I do recognize that each style has beauty and merit and should be respected on its own terms.

Pete: About the mouthpieces, I've played both the vintage Selmer C* -- the long, hard rubber mouthpiece with the knobby end -- and the newer model -- the "football" shaped one. Both hard rubber, of course. I've also played a few "fat chamber" mouthpieces that I consider classical, like the Sigurd Raschers and vintage Martins. The latter have a different sound, look and feel than the C* and others that I consider to be "small ensemble" mouthpieces.

The biggest difference is that the Rascher-types look more like the original design that Adolphe Sax penned ... and "look more like" is the key phrase, as all the documetation that I've ever read points to the fact that Sax never really specified exact sizes and dimensions for mouthpieces -- all that he's given us are pictures. The Rascher and vintage Martin mouthpieces are closest to these pictures. Considering that jazz and big band weren't around when Sax designed his horn and that the first works for the saxophone were classical, I've categorized these "fat" mouthpieces as "Classical."

This is not to say that you can't use the C* (or similar) for classical. It's just that, as a player and teacher, I feel that the Rascher-style mouthpieces are better for classical music, because they give better control, especially for dynamics.

Hey, someone wrote me recently on which is the best mouthpiece to get. I said that you can either look at it one of two ways: get one mouthpiece that you can do everything with, such as the Selmer C*, or get one for each style of music: classical, ensemble and jazz.

I don't want to disaffect people who've been playing for a long time and that swear by their mouthpiece.

Granted, some players like Sal Andolina get a decent sound out of a mouthpiece they shouldn't (he uses a metal mouthpiece for everything, even classical -- although I think it's a Selmer), but everyone else won't, and the point I try to make is that new players should try to use specific mouthpieces for specific music styles until they are mature enough players to decide otherwise.


Further mouthpiece resources:

Info and Sales (Rico, Hemke, Grand Concert Select, Mitchell Lurie and LaVoz reeds.  MP and lig. too!) (They sell the Sigurd Rascher mouthpieces)

Just Sales (Selmer, Bundy,Brilhart and goldentone mouthpieces) (Babbitt, Guy Hawkins, Otto Link, Meyer, Wolfe Tayne and NY mouthpieces) (Peter Ponzol reeds, mouthpieces, necks and etc.) (Rather an ugly website for a company with that much money) (Bari, Dkota, Buddy DeFranco, The Hawk, R.C. and Esprit mouthpieces)
Caravan Mouthpieces P.O. Box 734 Fulton, N.Y. 13069 PH. 315 695-2206

General Info (Vintage stuff, too!) (Phone number listing of several mouthpiece manufacturers) (Gary Sugal Mouthpieces.  Info, history & sales) (Small section on vintage mouthpieces with pictures) (Performers and their mouthpieces)


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