The Most Important Part of Your Setup

One thing that’s pretty constant among sax players whether it’s meeting face to face or connecting with each other online is that we like to talk about our setups.  For any beginners reading this, a setup is usually the collective term for what you are playing (i.e. mouthpiece, reed, horn, possibly the ligature, or maybe even extra “tone enhancers” although that’s a subject for another day).  There are tons of variables among the items in a setup and there are ardent supporters and detractors for almost every one of the possible variants…whether it’s vintage vs. modern, Western-made vs. Eastern-made, low baffle vs. high baffle, Van Doren vs. Rico or what have you.  In this post I want to talk out what I think is the most important part of your setup and why I think that.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and it is good to be able to write about it, organize my thoughts, and get it off my mind.

For many people the single most important part of any setup is your choice of mouthpiece.  I used to be in this camp as well until I realized that I basically end up sounding the same (like me) on whatever mouthpiece I spend any amount of time on.  Oh for sure there’s an initial period with a new mouthpiece where I can convince myself that there is more complexity or darkness or brightness or whatever but the more time I play with any mouthpiece the more I basically just sound like me.  This was really brought home recently when I saw a YouTube video of myself from MANY years ago with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  At the time I was playing an Otto Link Tone Edge 6* (don’t remember what reed I used back then) I had picked up specifically for that tour and I it occurred to me that I sounded just like me (that’s good I think).  If you compare this recording with recordings of me playing a Guardala Brecker Model (original handmade one) or an Otto Link STM 8* or a Strathon 8* with the baffle jammed all the way up (among several other long term setups over the years) or even my current setup, a Phil Barone Super New York 7* I think it’s always obvious that it’s just me for better or worse.  Because of this I just look for mouthpieces that make it easiest to sound the way I want.  In fact, I think the mouthpiece might be the third most important part but you’ll have to guess at what is second.  🙂

So what’s the point?  What really is the most important part of your setup?  It’s the part that’s between your ears…what we often refer to as your “concept”.  Before any sound comes out of your horn, your brain has made tons of decisions regarding everything from embouchure shape, to breath support, to air stream, to tonguing, to note choice and to me that’s what makes me sound like me or you sound like you.  That’s why it’s never as simple as what mouthpiece or horn you choose if you want to sound like someone famous.  What’s important is how much you’ve wrapped your brain around what they do and how well you’ve been able to internalize their concept and incorporate it into your own.  In many ways, you are probably better served sticking with what you have and listening and playing along with people you want to emulate rather than constantly searching for mouthpieces.  Once you have your concept then it’s fine and even fun and invigorating to go on a search for the mouthpiece, reeds, etc. that makes it the easiest to get the sound you already have fully ingrained in your head.  Of course don’t forget to work on that second most important thing…

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