It’s all in the player…

I’m reprinting the contents of an email here, sent to me by Lewis Pelham, and it really does sum up our (often) futile search for a better mouthpiece – when all along we don’t know what potential is lurking in some of the mouthpieces we already have…


Alan – as you know, we have an old friend aged 79 who has been a pro sax player all his life.  Johnny Marshall has never had any other job, and is a world class player.  A pupil of the Army’s Duke of York Public school from the age of 8 he played clarinet and sax from day one – pictured right.   "Dukies" led straight into the Army where he played tenor in the Army’s No. 1 band.   Subsequently he went on to play with the Basil Kirchin Band through almost any band you care to mention, including six years with Georgie Fame.  He backed Sarah Vaughan on her UK tour and the young Stevie Wonder when he toured the UK at thirteen years old.

I mentioned all that only to substantiate his pedigree – his playing is simply astounding in any style you care to mention.   He has always been frightened to try different mouthpieces, not wishing to enter the "search for the Holy Grail".   Yesterday we invited him to visit us for the day and he was interested in my arsenal of mouthpieces.  I favour my Lawton 8*B over a vintage 8* Colletto.   Probably because of it’s high baffle and tiny chamber, the Colletto is loud, bright and piercing. Difficult to control it is reluctant to subtone below D – whereas, for me, the Lawton is far creamier and will do just about anything.

To illustrate this to the sceptical Johnny Marshall, I played my Buescher Big B tenor with both the Lawton and Colletto in turn. JM agreed that I did indeed sound much better on the Lawton.   Johnny then picked up the tenor (don’t forget he’s now an alto player and has literally not touched a tenor for decades) and repeated the exercise.

The result was utterly astonishing – with the Colletto he could do anything – ultra mellow with glorious subtone, to a screaming filthy sound. He had utter and instantaneous control of not only a strange horn, but an even stranger mouthpiece. He simply adored the Colletto, and said that if he ever played tenor again he would break my arm to own it. He liked the Lawton but claimed that it had nothing like the versatility of the Colletto.   I learned a salient lesson – it is a mistake to make sweeping statements about the perceived and advertised qualities of various mouthpieces – it’s all down to the player.

This morning, I again tried the Colletto – it is still piercing and harsh…  Kind Regards, Lewis.

P.S. –

With regard to his playing of the Colletto, he could easily understand why it was too bright in my hands (mouth!) – but he said that a good mouthpiece will allow you to play the sound in your head.  Sound advice I think, and in the case of the Colletto it would allow a vast canvas of your head sounds.
He said that it (the Colletto) was the best mouthpiece that he had ever played. He also said that one’s personal preference was too often dictated by the piece that played most easily the sound in your head, but this invariably means that it will not allow you to stray too far from this preconception.  I am now persevering with the Colletto ! If he can exploit it’s inherent versatility then, given time, so can I – in any case I would be foolish to disregard what I heard him doing with it…..


There has always been a link here, in the Blogroll,  to a favourite track recorded by Johnny Marshall as part of the North Devon Jazz Quartet – playing  My Funny Valentine

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15 Responses to It’s all in the player…

  1. Lewis Pelham says:

    Taking my own advice I am now revisiting previously discarded mouthpieces from my arsenal.
    I am beginning to understand the hype around the RPC 115B (mine measures o.122″ tip opening); quite a remarkable & extremely flexible piece which plays the sound in your head, whatever that sound may be…..Hmmmm.
    Previously I have made judgements on a half hour’s trial….big mistake, it can take days to explore the nuances.    😳
    I am loathe to say that the RPC is now my weapon of choice because I am so fickle, but it is really a quite remarkable mouthpiece when you become comfortable with it.

  2. alan says:

    Lewis – I have the same problem with the Coufs – I’ve done the ’round robin’ with Lawton/Berg/Runyon etc. – and what do I end up enjoying most on the Orpheo tenor ?  The bloody wedge-baffled Couf’s….

    And looks like the alto sax could go the same way – apart from a REALLY edgy acrylic Saxscape for Dave Sanborn impressions, the alto Couf (with minimal ‘custom’ wedge baffle) blows strong and easy, and is set to become the firm favorite.  Have I really finally found a (relatively cheap) design that seems to match my embouchure, lung/diaphragm capacity and playing moods, after all this time ?  Wierd…  😕

  3. alan says:

    Lewis  – here’s one of your comments from another topic –

    Half the problem with mouthpieces is, I believe, that we are attempting to find the performance that we seek, already packaged. The fact that we fall short of our expectations is not due to the mouthpiece…it is that we do not practice for six hours every day. …”

    If I had to spend time getting past the “instant core sound, and feel” of all the mouthpieces I have at my disposal, to possibly eventually find (after also re-evaluating my embouchure and breath control each time) that elusive expanse of sound and playability – but often, I suspect, not – I’d need to negotiate another century – at least – of lifespan. 🙄

    I have to go with an almost instantaneous reaction to the mouthpieces’ ‘playability and response’ and then, only if that’s favourable, I can explore the depths.  So if it’s anything other than an instantly easy player, it sadly doesn’t get past the first hurdle…  Shame, because I’m sure that there are excellent capabilities within some mouthpieces that get rejected, indeed thay’d probably suit another player perfectly, but then life seems just too short.  But happily, I’m sure our physical playing needs change as we go through life, mine certainly do, so then maybe (just maybe..) the rejects get a second chance.

    OK, that’s my excuse for keeping more than a few, what’s your excuse ?

  4. Lewis Pelham says:

    We are led to believe that the latest Carlos Fandango mouthpiece will allow the player to subtone like Ben Webster & rasp like Gary Wiggins. This is clearly not the case, as Ben Webster’s piece had a chamber like  Wookey Hole & Gary Wiggins plays a high baffle oyster opener….no one mouthpiece can achieve these extremes.
    In the old days, the Link was used for “jazz”, whereas for R&R you needed a Berg.
    Compared with some of the current “boutique” mouthpieces I can get similar results from either a Link or a Berg….they are not as far apart as they once seemed.
    One remembers Lee Allen as a great R&R saxophonist; yet if you listen to his playing now he does nothing that could not come from any decent middle of the road mouthpiece. It is worth remembering that he played the Selmer D which came with his new Mk6!
    There are so many more parameters to consider, such as :-
    Is it EASY to play throughout  the range?
    Perhaps you prefer the feel of hard rubber.
    Does it feel comfortable in your mouth?
    Does it have a solid core sound.
    Is the sound solid throughout the range? and, most importantly, can you control it?

    Personally, I would prefer a piece which can carry out most duties rather than being able to rasp & scream, but with a weak low register; or vice versa.
    Perhaps we are expecting our Family Saloon to handle like a Lamborghini yet be docile enough for the shopping at Tesco.
    Currently I am playing a wedged mouthpiece with a large chamber to give me the widest potential sound palette, &  if I want extremes then I fit an appropriate reed….soft for “buzzy & raspy” or a harder reed for a softer sound. 
    I am the last person qualified to suggest it, but having decided upon what is best for you, then stick with it……it took Dexter Gordon six weeks to acclimatise to a new mouthpiece.   🙄
    Perfection is achieved when the player is not even aware of the mouthpiece, not having to make “special adjustments” for any note.

  5. alan says:

    😕 Lewis – I agree wholeheartedy (now there’s a word I don’t use often…)

    I’ve just been ‘playing in’ the new alto, and (as I unexpectedly now seem not to like the feel of metal, preferring instead the sulpherous taste of old ebonite 😕  ) I’ve been trying a few old favourites.

    Alto adds another facet to the merry-go-round – I find that (it’s probably just me) the tip openings get very ‘picky’ about reeds strengths for uniform response over the entire range.  And it’s not just a case of going up or down a strength, that’s then quite often either a little bit too hard for the bottom end, or just too soft for the low harmonics – plus thin top end.  So, for my life-long preference of Rico Royal 2.5 (on alto), the Couf 9*S, or Berg 95/1 is just a tad too open.  So I’m stuck around the 75/80 thou tip range, for best overall response and a thick core sound.  Sigh…  However, I suspect on some (loud) gigs the adrenalin surge might make it prudent to have one of those more open tipped mouthpieces tucked away in the case, just in case.  😆

    I’ve always had that problem of being ultra reed-strength sensitive on alto, never on tenor, where I can merrily go up or down a strength. Also, on alto, I don’t need that much baffle in the mouthpiece (if at all) to still give me plenty of edge if I push it – another difference from tenor mouthpiece preferences, where I live for baffle, give me more ! 😉   But I’ll tell you now, the sound I’m getting (playing into a mirror) from the (bloody heavy) Orpheo 201BB alto, with the mellower copper-brass #2 neck, and a very lightly baffled, .081″ tip  ‘Custom’ Couf Artist mouthpiece – plus Rico Royal 2.5 reed – is to die for.

    It growls, swears, rasps, screams, barks, subtones,  and then drops back to smooth as velvet as if nothing had happened.   And it fits my fingers perfectly, those ‘dished’ metal touches feel sooooo natural.   So where the hell is the C going to fit in  ?? Between the new alto and tenor they’ve pretty much got it all stitched up  😐  😕   I’m confused…

  6. Lewis Pelham says:

    Alan’s quote :-
    “It growls, swears, rasps, screams, barks, subtones,  and then drops back to smooth as velvet as if nothing had happened.   And it fits my fingers perfectly, those ‘dished’ metal touches feel sooooo natural.”
    You are to be envied my friend.
    Please remember that feeling & do not be tempted away.

  7. alan says:

    Lewis – but that’s with the alto, by comparison (but not putting them down..) the tenor feels a bit ‘lumbering’ and the C feels (sorry C!) on the ‘wimpish’ side…  Or should I say “Whymsical” ?   The alto really flies, but with body, substance, power, and a real solid presence ! At this moment, if someone said “choose just one horn”, I’d be stuck transposing to suit an Eb horn for life.  ( I’d still try and sneak my C-Soprano into the deal, tho’, along with the flute and C-clari 😆  they don’t count )

    Bloody hell, I’ll be writing poetry about it next…   🙄

  8. Lewis Pelham says:

    We all have our favourite size of saxophone, the one on which we feel most comfortable. With me it’s tenor.
    You will know when you are cured of The Mouthpiece Malady when you no longer click on “Tenor Mouthpiece” or “Miscellaneous Mouthpieces” on SOTW.

  9. alan says:

    Lewis – Yes, alto does really fit my hands very well, even the dreaded LH palm keys and the stretch to low Bb is easy-peasy, whereas on tenors (Bb and C) it’s often a compromise or struggle. So maybe alto it is then ?

    I never have frequented the mouthpiece forums, or at least so infrequently that I can’t remember the last time… Just maybe to check out what they say about a possible ebay “steal” !

    Heehee – I’m cured…  🙄

  10. Yeah …. Sorry Alan still waiting for arrival, took forever in customs and is now suppost to be on route to national hub …?  … 😦

  11. Gandalfe says:

    As a hobbyist saxophonist who plays for the pleasure and who does not practice enough, my instructors hear more of a difference in the mouthpieces than I do. Even if I swap out without telling them, they know. Same with reeds brands. So rather than concentrate on the sound, I concentrate on rhythm and sight reading. When I conquer those beasties, I’ll move to the sound.

    I’ve taken messed up horns to repair shops where a “ringer” will play the instrument and tell you nothings wrong with it. Some musicians could play a block of wood and make a world-class sound.

  12. alan says:

    Yes, I’ve often lusted after other players sounds and when (occasionally after a few beers) we’ve swapped horns/mouthpieces – Guinness kills any known germs – we usually both wonder how on earth we ever get a decent sound out of our respective setups… 😦 The grass always seems greener on t’other side !

  13. Lewis Pelham says:

    I remember an occasion at Tucker Towers where you and I swapped horns….we both sounded dreadful.
    The moral must be to stick with your decisions with regard to mouthpieces and reeds….& practice.
    If the perfect set-up existed then we would all use it; there would be only one mouthpiece manufacturer & one type of reed.  😕

  14. Cyril says:

    The case of my c melody (Conn) is brocken. I tryed a case of buesher but it s too short. somebody knows where I could found a case (curve nacke) I cannot found a DEG one here in France, Paris and I realy must try it to be sure that the lenght is ok. Thanks a lot.

  15. Mal-2 says:

    Ask Steve at Aquilasax ( if he has something appropriate. I would bet that he does, as he is fond of Conn C-mels himself.

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