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.
Mouthpieces -- Examples: Sigurd Rascher, 1960 and earlier stock Martin
Ensemble Mouthpieces -- Examples: Selmer C*, Vandoren Java, most stock
Mouthpieces -- Examples: Berg Larsen, Runyon, Selmer S80, various
-- Metal and Crystal (some jazz applications)
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.
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