How should you choose a saxophone mouthpiece?
I get asked about how to choose a saxophone mouthpiece all the time. Which is fair because it’s a big decision…and a complicated one.
My Sax School members ask me about mouthpieces all the time. There are so many options! It’s especially confusing if you’re upgrading from a beginner mouthpiece.
So I called up Theo Wanne (master guru mouthpiece manufacturer) and asked him about it. Actually to be honest, he is widely regarded as the best mouthpiece expert on the planet these days. So, he’s a good guy to ask.
What we covered
In this discussion Theo shares a truck load of information that blew me away. This is all important stuff that we, as saxophone players, need to understand in order to choose a saxophone mouthpiece that’s right for us. Our conversation covered:
- The history of mouthpiece facings – and why this is important to you as a player especially if you want to upgrade your sax mouthpiece.
- Why cheaper mouthpieces can make playing saxophone harder.
- How to choose a sax mouthpiece that will unlock your potential.
- Baffles, chambers and why you need to know about them.
- and loads more!
Why your saxophone mouthpiece matters
I asked Theo, if I was upgrading for the first time from a beginner mouthpiece to my next more advanced mouthpiece, how do I choose a saxophone mouthpiece that’s right for me?
THEO: Well, I’d like to start off by talking about the importance of the saxophone mouthpiece. Because this is what got me into manufacturing in the very first place. And in the saxophone world, the mouthpiece is often taken for granted. People focus on the saxophone, but the truth is that the mouthpiece is really what creates our sound.
Its purpose is to create the type of sound we get. So for example, a rock and roll player or a smooth jazz player, or a classical player or jazz player, would use an incredibly different design of mouthpiece. But they might all play the same Selmer Mark VI, or they might play the same Yamaha. They might play the exact same brand and style of saxophone, but there’s no chance that they would play the same mouthpiece.
NIGEL: That’s really interesting. So what you’re saying is that the mouthpiece is what gives them that different quality of sound they need, to play in that different kind of style.
THEO: That’s right. Yeah. And so I started out, as, you know, as a mouthpiece refacer…
Oh, by the way, I should just tell you if you’ve don’t know – who Theo Wanne is. He’s amazing saxophone mouthpiece maker. In fact, he made this very mouthpiece. This is a Theo Wanne Slant Sig and I use his mouthpiece is actually on my alto as well. They’re brilliant. So he’s a guy that really knows his stuff.
THEO: So I got to see this very much firsthand, when I would have customers come and sit down next to me. And they would say, ‘well, I like this mouthpiece, but can you change it? Can you do this? Can you do that?’ And then I would just see people light up. As I would work on their mouthpiece, and I would dial it into where it helped them access something inside themselves, that they were struggling getting to.
If you’re fighting the mouthpiece, it doesn’t matter how great your saxophone is. You’re going to hang it up and call it a day and find another sport! And so I would have students come in, or intermediate players, or pros, and they would all have the same response when they found I was able to dial in a mouthpiece to be exactly what they were looking for.
That’s why I make mouthpieces now. That’s why I continued refacing mouthpieces because I got addicted to that response from people.
NIGEL: Yeah. And I think also as a player, not struggling with your mouthpiece is a big thing. But also, if your mouthpiece gives you that sound that you’ve got in your mind, then all of a sudden it inspires you to play in a different way. And also, if you’re a beginner or an intermediate player inspires you to play more.
Saxophone Mouthpiece Choices
You know, it’s really confusing when you’re trying to choose a saxophone mouthpiece. There are so many different options. So the biggest question when I go to the mouthpiece shop is whether to choose a hard rubber mouthpiece or a metal mouthpiece. But then there’s things like the tip openings, and baffles. There’s all these other ways that mouthpieces are measured. So if someone was going into a store and they’ve got a huge selection, how should they start to choose a saxophone mouthpiece?
THEO: Right. So the correct answer is to play on the mouthpiece that makes you feel free.
NIGEL: I love that one. ‘Choose a saxophone mouthpiece that makes you feel free.’ How simple is that? And what a great way to approach how to choose a saxophone mouthpiece. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who plays which mouthpiece or which mouthpiece has got the best marketing, it’s about which mouthpiece works for you.
THEO: …and that same is true for a reed as well. So I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of players personally, to help them choose the right gear. And I can tell you that there is no right answer. So …Joshua Redmond …he’s playing a seven star with a number five reed. I couldn’t even get a sound! …So I don’t always suggest students try to copy their hero’s gear necessarily. Because some of these guys who practice and play all day long, they have abdomens that probably would make a bodybuilder proud, from breath support!
Focusing on getting the type of sound so you feel the magic when you’re playing – that’s the goal. That’s, what’s going to get people to practice more.
NIGEL: Yeah. And it’s going to bring the passion of playing to you as well. So although there are loads of different options when you go to choose a saxophone mouthpiece, you should start by trying lots of different things to see what suits you.
THEO: That’s right. And don’t be afraid to play something a little softer or smaller or you know, just because you heard that if you’re a good player, you should have a harder reed or you should have a bigger tip opening mouthpiece.I am not a believer in the ‘shoulds’ anymore!
NIGEL: It’s good to hear you say that because I completely agree. And actually, as I’ve gotten older – I’ve been a pro player for a long time – my equipment has got smaller actually. Certainly my reed has got softer and things like that. Because I think it’s more about the tone rather than just going for that big thing. Do you think that’s one of the mistakes that people make when they first start choosing mouthpieces?
THEO: Yes, I do. Or a reed that’s too hard. Because then they’re struggling, and then you’re just going to get frustrated. So being able to feel free is the whole point. …I can’t tell you the number of feedback I get, and they’re all about people feeling free.
I mean, I had one guy write me and he said he got one of our mouthpieces and then he was upstairs practicing and his wife didn’t know he got a new mouthpiece. Then all of a sudden he hears from down below. It’s like, ‘Honey, what are you doing? Something’s different. You’re more creative than I’ve ever heard you before! What’s going on?’
And he wrote me and he said, ‘you know, it was just like… a creative centre in me opened up, and I just didn’t want to stop practicing.’
And for students and parents, you want to get your kids there. You want to get… so instead of practicing 10 minutes a day, you practice for two hours a day just because you’re having so much fun.
Features of the mouthpiece
NIGEL: So what’s a baffle? What’s a tip opening? How is it relevant to you as a person who is choosing a saxophone mouthpiece?
THEO: So the facing, and how flat the table is in the facing curve of the mouthpiece have a lot to do with how well a mouthpiece is going to respond. And this is why oftentimes, a low-cost mouthpiece… or some of the mass-produced popular mouthpieces that are out there… the manufacturing processes are just too loose to actually work properly.
Because the reed has got to vibrate very fast along a curve. And anywhere that curve is out, or that table’s not flat, is going to make that reed work harder. Which means you, as the person putting air in, is going to have to work unnecessarily hard. And while I’m a believer that sometimes having some resistance is a good thing, that’s not the place to get the resistance.
Hey, that’s a really good point. So Theo is talking about the table of the mouthpiece, which is the flat part that the reed connects onto. And what he’s saying, is that the flat part here on a better quality mouthpiece is more accurately manufactured so that the reed can make a really good seal against it and it can vibrate freely. Otherwise, if there are issues with the table here, and it’s not made properly, the reed is going to struggle to vibrate and it’s going to make it much harder for you to play. It’s a really, really good point. That’s one of the big benefits of upgrading your mouthpiece.
THEO: If you’re getting the resistance from the facing curve and the table then you’re locked in. You have to push just to get the sound to produce. Whereas if you’re getting the resistance from the tip opening, you can back off. You can get pianissimo, and you can articulate still very cleanly. So having a saxophone whose pads are sealed well, is more important than having a saxophone that’s the world’s best saxophone but that’s leaking all over the place.
NIGEL: Right. Everyone knows that. That’s right. And it’s the same with mouthpieces, right?
THEO: But the problem is, you can get a student model saxophone that has good sealing pads, or take it to the repair tech. But getting a mouthpiece, that’s kind of a student model mouthpiece,… has a lot to do with the manufacturing. So that’s why I haven’t come out with very low price mouthpiece yet. But I plan on it. My technology is finally getting to the place where I’ll be able to do that.
So when you finally see a Theo Wanne mouthpiece that’s at a low price, you’ll know, okay, the facing curve is going to be nuts on!
NIGEL: Yeah. That’s really interesting Theo, that makes sense. You know, that’s a reason why they are priced the way they are. Presumably there’s a lot of work and technology that goes into getting that (facing) just right. So that really does allow the reed to seal and make everything work well.
THEO: That’s right. And hand facing is not necessarily better. Hand facing kind of got a good reputation because in the beginning, for machined facing and machine baffles and machine mouthpieces – technology was not there to actually do them accurately.
So then you’d have to go in by hand and fix it. Snd I’m a master at hand facing. So when I say this, I say this with respect for all aspects. But, if you can get a machine to accurately produce to 1/10th of 1,000 inch, all aspects of a facing or a baffle, you’re going to get repeatability and accuracy that a hand facer actually can’t do.
With handwork, you’re going to get a variation from piece to piece to piece that’s not actually a good thing. Because you’re shooting for a bar – a quality level. And the more close you can get to that quality level consistently, the better.
So if you’ve got variations within a product, you’re only getting a small percentage that is close to that bar. And the rest are going to be less – so not as good. So that’s why I’ve invested just an insane amount of money in technology, just an absolutely insane amount. And that’s why. I’m very capable of producing mouthpieces by hand at a very high level. And we still hand-check and do a small amount of hand facing to fix any particular issues because we want perfection. But we’re starting at such a high level of consistency, to begin with, quite frankly, it’s quite easy.
The Tip Opening
Nigel: There’s some good stuff there about facings. And it’s crazy to think that this was always done by hand. Now, mostly they’re done by really advanced machines. And that’s why the accuracy is so important that Theo is talking about.
But what about tip opening? I asked Theo about tip openings too. Why does the tip opening matter when you are choosing a saxophone mouthpiece?
THEO: So, … the gap between the reed and the facing of the mouthpiece, is the tip opening. And I wish all of us mouthpiece manufacturers could sit in a room together and all decide ‘okay, this number, or this letter, means this actual measurement of size, this many thousands of an inch, or this many millimeters.’ … Because it’s not consistent. So if you see a 5 in one mouthpiece, it does not mean the same thing in another mouthpiece.
NIGEL: Oh, that’s pretty confusing because if you’re pretty inexperienced at this you’ll think ‘I play a 5 in this brand, so why can’t I just get a 5 over there?’
THEO: So a lot of mouthpiece manufacturers, like myself included, on our websites, we’ll have a tip opening chart. So if you’re used to playing one mouthpiece at 5, you can look and see what the equivalent will be in another brand and check that. So, most students start with a fairly small tip opening, because it takes less breath support. And there’s nothing to be embarrassed about with that. Some pros I know play a fairly small tip opening.
NIGEL: And you can always balance the tip opening with the reed strength.
THEO: And in the beginning, in the 1940s, 1950s, – kind of in the heyday as jazz was really booming – there weren’t big tip openings. A Number 5 would be thought of like a number 10 is today.
NIGEL: Oh, that’s interesting. So like older guys, like Lester Young, and guys like that. They all played on small mouthpieces?
THEO: Yes…. like 4 or 5. So number 6 might be considered like a number 10 is today. So, but what they did then is, is they had a very different theory. What they did is they used a long lay or a long facing curve. That means that the back of the reed, where the reed is thicker, has to vibrate. And it’s much harder to move a thick piece of cane right, than the thin section.
So how they got the resistance they needed was actually by having a long facing curve. But truth be told that’s not as efficient as the way we’re doing it today, which is pretty much the medium facing curve. Almost everybody uses a medium-facing curve. Now, when people say they have a short-facing curve, it’s really like a short version of a medium. And when they say a long, it’s a long version of a medium, but we’re all kind of in the medium.
And that’s a good thing really. Because some of the old Brilhart mouthpieces.. that [people like] Charlie Parker played on – those are actually really great-sounding mouthpieces, but they never caught on simply because of the facing curve. They used a very short facing and so people would play them and go, well, the upper register sounds good, but when I get to the lower register, all of a sudden it’s choking off. And that had to do.. with the facing curve length.
And that same thing is true with the larger tip opening sizes of Selmers. So you’ll see a lot of Selmer soloist mouthpieces that were like C Stars, but not very many of the Gs and Hs. And the reason is that when Selmer got to the big tip opening sizes, they used a short facing. Whereas on the smaller tip opening sizes, they used a medium – and for the same reason – they choked off. So as a mouthpiece refacer, I would take those Selmers or, Brilharts and put a medium facing, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got this great playing mouthpiece.
NIGEL: Interesting. So if you bought one of these older style mouthpiece on eBay, you might get an unexpected result, I suppose.
So what about internally? Because there are loads of things happening inside. If I was going to choose a saxophone mouthpiece and I didn’t know a lot about it, what should I be looking for? What should I be wary of?
THEO: So the two main sections inside the mouthpiece that we talk about most are the baffle and the chamber. So to recap, with the facing curve, most facings being made today are around the medium range. So you don’t have to worry about the facing length too much. You could kind of ignore that. But you want to be sure you’ve got a quality mouthpiece that has a good even facing curve and a flat table. So quality, as far as facing is concerned, is much more important than any nomenclature you might see.
nNow with the baffle and the chamber, though, the nomenclature you see is very, very important.
NIGEL: Stay with us here, this is really important stuff when you come to choose a saxophone mouthpiece. We’re talking about the baffle, which is the internal shape, right inside the mouthpiece. It makes a massive difference to your sound. Check this out.
THEO: …You’ve got a high baffle, a rollover baffle, and a flat baffle. And then there’s also a concave baffle, but concave is so rare and it’s mixed in, so it’s probably best just to ignore that for right now and focus on a step baffle, high baffle mouthpiece.
That’s going to be like your Dukoff Super Power chamber – where you see that step there. Or like in a Dave Guardala Super King or even Brecker model – you’ll see a step baffle. And the reason we call it a step is, because it looks like a step on a staircase. It just goes and then drops down.
So the flat baffle is the darkest one. From the very tip rail, you’ve basically got a straight line going down into the chamber. A step is much higher.
A rollover is like a flat baffle but has got a round right at the tip. And that round acts like a very short step baffle. And it’s not a step, but it acts to get some more overtones in the sound.
So here’s the way to think about this. So imagine I was a kid, and I’m outside with the hose. When I’ve just got it in my hand, it’s like a flat baffle. The water’s just coming out in this big stream and it’s not going very far. Which is good to get a lot of water onto a little place.
But as soon as I saw my brother by, I want to spray him. So what do you do? You stick your finger over the end of the hose, right? And as you’re sticking your finger over the end of the hose, you’re basically making the space that the water can come through smaller.
So you’ve got the same volume of water going through a smaller aperture. So that water must travel at a faster velocity, to get the same volume through. And what that faster velocity does, is it means it travels with more momentum and it goes further. This translates as a bright sound.
And a dark sound would be the low baffle, a lot of air going not very far – but in a big fat flow.
And then the rollover would be right in between the two. You’re getting some sparkle and spray in the sound, which is the overtones. But the sound is still darker.
NIGEL: That’s a great way to think about it. And so someone would choose a mouthpiece with one of those big baffles in, if they were looking for that super bright sound. Maybe in a pop setting or if they want lots of projection. As opposed to the other end of the spectrum where you’re going to get warmer, rounder the sound. And actually, if you took it all the way, I suppose a classical mouthpiece would be very open.
THEO: So the way classical mouthpieces do it, is they have a very small tip opening with a very low baffle. So they get the projection or the clarity they want in the sound, through having a small tip opening, but the darkness through a low baffle. If you go to a bigger tip opening with a low baffle, you’re going to get more of the ‘foofy’ Ben Webster, Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen type of sound.
Choosing a saxophone mouthpiece
So smooth jazz, and pop, and rock and roll generally use a high baffle. Straight ahead jazz musicians usually use a roll over baffle. And then the ballad players, or classical players, would usually play a flat baffle.
NIGEL: Brilliant. So as a starting point, if you’re going into choose a saxophone mouthpiece, then that’s awesome. Someone going to choose a saxophone mouthpiece could use those three criteria as a starting point.
But like you said earlier, it really comes down to experimenting, trying a few different mouthpieces to see what suits you. And also maybe backing it off and not going for the crazy big mouthpiece or the crazy big baffle.
And like you said earlier, You know, a lot of great players use a more moderate setup, but they develop the sound by using that mouthpiece as a starting point and then putting in the work to nurture the sort of sound they’re going for.
How much information was in that? That was fantastic. I’m so glad that we could have that chat with Theo and I hope that’s been useful to you. Theo knows loads about mouthpieces, and it’s great to hear that information directly from him. So that’s been useful to you.
Let me know in a comment below, I’d love to know if you’re using a Theo Wanne mouthpiece. Have these sorts of things helped you in choosing a mouthpiece yourself?
Don’t forget you can find out more about how to get a great sound on saxophone inside Sax School. Get a 14 day free trial here.
Find out more about Theo here: www.theowanne.com
Also check out my conversation about Rubber Mouthpieces vs Metal Mouthpieces for saxophone with Theo.