Saxophones Part 3 – Mouthpieces and Vintage Instruments

Mouthpiece Selection

I’m going to veer off from my normal postings with this entry.  No other woodwind instrument has the ability to change its sound as much as the saxophone.  Something never before mentioned in any orchestration text is the wide array of mouthpiece choices available to saxophonists.  Most professional saxophonists will have several different mouthpieces available to them.  These range from a jazz mouthpiece (often made of metal) to a “legit” mouthpiece (always of hard rubber).  Overlooked by many saxophonists is the traditional “round chambered” mouthpiece.  This is the style of mouthpiece that Adolph Sax designed for the instrument, and the one that gives the saxophone a warm and sweet sound.

Just as a composer writing for percussion is able to choose which mallets are appropriate for the instrument, so too, I feel that the bandestrator should have the choice of saxophone mouthpiece.  The following chart will give three mouthpiece choices and the approximate desired sound.  Note that mouthpiece choices for Piccolo, Sopranino, Bass, and Contrabass may be limited.

Jazz mouthpiece Loud, brash, aggressive
Standard mouthpiece Medium, reedy
Round-chamber mouthpiece Soft, sweet, lyrical

Asking a saxophonist to change their mouthpiece in the middle of a work is theoretically possible, but will elicit the grumbles of performers.  It will involve changing reeds and ligatures and there is the remote possibility of something going wrong in the transfer.  However, if you are writing with the sound of a round-chamber mouthpiece in mind, and at some point you require the sound of a jazz mouthpiece, then the performer is obliged to change the mouthpiece no questions asked.

For the first time in over a century, saxophonists now have the ability to use exact copies of Adolphe Sax mouthpieces.

Modern vs. Vintage Instruments

Vintage saxophones, those made prior to the 1940s, are of a very different design than modern instruments.  Original saxophones had a pure parabolic shape to their bore.  That is, their bore did not expand in a pure cone.  Modern instruments abandoned this more difficult shape in favor of a pure cone.  The other difference is that modern instruments have considerably better ergonomics in the keywork design particularly in the design of the pinky keys.  Many performers and composers prefer the sound of these older instruments over modern ones.  Vintage instruments are more desirable for classical solo work.

Vintage Altos and Tenors are easy to find and are usually very good instruments, especially those made by Conn and Buescher.  C Tenors and C Sopranos (except for those made by the AquilaSax company) and F Altos are always of vintage make.  Vintage Baritones and Basses may not have full modern keywork, namely keywork up to a high F.  These instruments usually only go to high E-flat.  No vintage Baritone descends to a low A.  Vintage Sopranos and Sopraninos are sometimes of questionable intonation, but many are exquisite instruments.

Use of vintage versus modern instruments is probably outside of the realm of what a bandestrator can command.

Saxophones – Introduction




With the saxophone, we enter a realm of knowns and unknowns.  We all know the sound of the saxophone, or at least we think we do.

           “The only sounds that can give any idea of the saxophone’s delicious half-tints and its suggestions of fading twilight are the diminuendo and piano of the cantors in the Russian Imperial Chapel, those wonderful singers who must make the good Lord envious of Tsar Nicholas.”

             This was Hector Berlioz’s first impression upon hearing the sound of Adolph Sax playing his new invention.  Are we listening to a different instrument today than Berlioz heard?

The simple answer to that question is yes.  The saxophone of the 19th century is not quite the same that we see today.  Berlioz formulated his opinions based upon hearing a Bass Saxophone in C, and indeed, the saxophone was first conceived as a low voiced instrument.  I had the great privilege of hearing a recording of a 19th century Bass Saxophone in C (though not made by Sax himself, but an exact copy), and I can now attest that Berlioz heard a very different sound, and it is indeed priestly.  Does this sound still exist?  Can we resurrect it from the dead?  What is the role of the saxophone in that band anyway?

The original sound of Sax.

We’ve lived with this instrument for over 150 years, and I still attest that bandestrators don’t know what they are doing with it.  It has never been accepted into the orchestra, which means that every orchestration text every written slights this instrument, and some even malign it.  I both love and play the instrument, but have a very different feel for the instrument than most.  I hope some of my insights prove valuable.



B-flat Piccolo Saxophone (Soprillo)

E-flat Sopranino Saxophone

C Soprano Saxophone

B-flat Soprano Saxophone

G Mezzo-Soprano Saxophone

F Alto Saxophone

E-flat Alto Saxophone

C Tenor Saxophone

B-flat Tenor Saxophone

E-flat Baritone Saxophone

B-flat Bass Saxophone

E-flat Contrabass Saxophone

B-flat Subcontrabass Saxophone