I recently decided I wanted to invest in some new hardware for a couple of my saxophones. There are a couple ligatures and mouthpieces that need to be improved upon if not replaced. On top of that, I’ve recently been experimenting with different tenor reeds. While many saxophonists would find this sort of thing exciting, I don’t.
I’m not a gearhead. Never have been, and likely never will be. I occasionally like to know what certain saxophonists use only out of intellectual curiosity, but it ends there. I care about my own setup of course, but to a certain extent. All of my saxophones and related hardware are of course professional grade, but I’ve never been one to be on the constant search for the “perfect” mouthpiece, neck, etc. Everything I have was selected after much testing and comparing (e.g., my alto saxophone was the best of 13 I play-tested; mouthpieces, etc. were also similarly chosen). Changes have been made along the way, however I tend to largely work with what I have. And even though I have all Selmer saxophones, that is because those are what I was happiest with when shopping around. The Selmer v. Yamaha (Selmer v. Yamaha v. Yanagisawa v. Keilwerth) debate interests me as much as the Apple v. PC v. Linux debate, which is to say not at all.
For many of my peers and colleagues (past and present), such an investment is just the beginning. I can’t tell you how many other saxophonists I know who have spent years searching for the next perfect mouthpiece, reed, ligature, neck, and even horn. Really? Really. I can understand it to an extent. Instrument technology is continually improving, often allowing for more options and flexibility. However, unlike advancements in computer technology, new models don’t necessarily negate their predecessors. I’m sure that if one took all the time spent thumbing through catalogues and/or vendor websites and spent it practicing tone fundamentals, a relatively similar amount of progress may occur.
Before anyone tells me that I think gear is completely irrelevant, allow me to say that I do think it matters, but only to a degree. I believe that once a certain threshold is met, user error is more to blame than mechanical error. Tone and projection can be affected a myriad of ways by a new/different mouthpiece, and that, coupled with personal taste, means that not everyone will play the same thing. When it comes right down to it, you sound like you. If you’re happy with your sound, great. If not, perhaps its time to look in the mirror as opposed to your instrument case. A few anecdotes that have stuck with me:
• In 2003 I saw James Carter milling around the vendor area at World Saxophone Congress XIII. JC is arguably the best technician of the instrument alive today, and he attended the conference (an almost exclusively classical event) simply to test horns, mouthpieces, etc. Being a big fan, I loitered around the vendor area just to hear him do his thing, free and up close. And no matter what he played, he sounded unmistakably like James Carter. I saw walk by one table and presented with a neck screw by one vendor who claimed it would really free up his sound. (!?!) Carter gave him an ARE YOU HIGH? look, tested a horn with and without the magical screw, and claimed nothing changed.
• In 2006 I saw the Dave Liebman Group at Ann Arbor’s (unfortunately extinct) The Firefly. They played two sets, and during the first set I noticed Lieb was playing on a new Yamaha tenor (either an EX or Z model) which was brought by a regional Yamaha representative to court the guru. For the second set, he switched back to his standard Keilwerth (his partner) tenor and still sounded like Lieb. (I attended the show with my friend Drew Whiting, and we both noticed a slight timbral difference at the very bottom of the horn’s range, but we’re both saxophonists and were visually cued to listen in for a difference.) Although Liebman’s tone has changed over the last four decades, I would hardly attribute it to one or two of the hundreds, if not thousands, of iterations his setup has undergone through the years.)
• Throughout my undergraduate study, I had a classmate who was obsessed with mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures. Every few months his setup would change slightly. (Occasionally he would say something to the effect of, “James Carter plays on _____ mouthpiece. I’m going to get it.”) All that time and money invested in continuing to basically sound like himself, squeaks and all. JC was nowhere to be found. I’m sure one cause for the long-term occasional chirping was that his muscles and mind were unable to focus on his sound via one specific setup.
That being said, my temporary search for new gear continues. Regardless of how annoying it may be (though it of course is always fun to get a new toy of some sort), I can rest assured that purchasing the next ligature or mouthpiece will mark the end of this search, not the beginning of another.
(Pictured above: My toys.)