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Riley Music Academy Blog: Buying a Saxophone Mouthpiece

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Should I buy a new saxophone mouthpiece?

This is such a common question that I’ve decided to write it all down and redirect all my students here.  This year alone I have had probably 10 students buy mouthpieces and I always give the same advice.  Buying a mouthpiece can be a great way to upgrade your instrument at low cost and help you to produce a better sound.  Its a bit like driving a car though, if you’re learning to drive its not wise to learn in a Ferrari!  You should play in a standard mouthpiece for a while to let it do its job of giving you the best possible chance of sounding ok.  If you go wrong in a Ferrari, you will soon know about it.  Once you can control a standard mouthpiece then look into upgrading and I suggest you follow these next steps:

  1. Know what you want – this is the hard part.  How do you know what you want?  The answer, do some research and listen to lots of players.  If you want a sound like Michael Brecker or Sonny Rollins or Candy Dulfer or Cannonball Adderly then thats a great start and it can help to narrow down the options.  Go online and look through the reams of sales pitches for the different mouthpieces.  Pick a few that sound interesting and write down the names and models.
  2. Go to a shop and try them out – sounds obvious but it’s really important!  Have at least 2 hours spare to sit in a shop and try as many as you can.  Let the sales person do his/her job but don’t let them be pushy or try to rush you.  Give them your list and describe the sound you want.  Try to use terms like dark/bright, punchy, rich, smooth, silky, breathy etc.  Also, tell them your reason for upgrading and the situations you normally play in.  Do you play in a big band?  Small ensemble?  Solo?  With a mic?
  3. Take your horn along and all your accessories so you are just listening to the mouthpiece and all the other variables are the same.
  4. Bring some sheet music along so that when you try out the mouthpieces you can judge it objectively.  Theres nothing worse than turning up at the shop and not knowing what to play!
  5. Narrow down the choice to 3 and start experimenting with tip facings (the numbers on the mouthpiece will indicate how open or closed the tip will be)
  6. Choose your weapon!  Trust your gut feeling.  If one jumps out straight away then good.  If none sound right then try again another day.
  7. Test your old mouthpiece.  Quickly swap back to your old mouthpiece and notice the difference.  It should be quite radical, if not, is it really worth spending all that money?!
  8. Can you hit the whole range of the horn easily?  Its no good if its sounds great at the top but you can’t get the low notes.
  9. Don’t worry if its not perfect.  Find something that is comfortable.  It won’t be 100% perfect but aim for 80-90% (the rest you can work on).
  10. Price does not matter.  A really expensive mouthpiece will not necessarily be the best for you.  Judge by the sound only, not the price tag.
  11. Stick with it.  Once you have selected something you like and the honeymoon period is over, you may start to think that you have grown out of it or somebody suggests you should try something else out.  Do not fall for the hype.  A good mouthpiece (if looked after) should last a long time and if you constantly switch then you won’t be doing yourself any favours.  Every time you get a new mouthpiece you will have to start from scratch – learning to work with it, controlling embouchure etc

If, for some reason, you are not able to get to a music shop then buying online is ok… if you are able to send mouthpieces back.  Some companies offer this service and its worth looking into.  I ended up buying a whole bunch of vintage alto mouthpieces on Ebay, tried them all, picked one I liked then sold them on again.  I just about got my money back.  That tip is a bit risky and not recommended.  Fun though!

Good luck and post a comment if you have any questions, tips or experiences (no sales though!)  All my advice is independent and I do not have any links with manufacturers or sales reps.  If you are a sales rep and you want to offer me some money to promote your equipment then get in touch!

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