Do you really need an expensive horn?

First off, before I get into the topic I’d like to make it clear that you cannot buy a good saxophone for a couple of hundred dollars, euros, pesos, or whatever currency you’re using. Quality has it’s price.

In the last few years, it seems like “everybody and their brother” is making their own saxophone brand. Sure, it’s been nice to have more choice in buying a new instrument and the trend has encouraged manufacturers to get creative with materials, “bells and whistles”, and more.

One ridiculous side of this, in my opinion, is the red, blue, green, purple, white, and yellow colored instruments being made. What’s the purpose of that? Just to stand out? Just to get more girls (really, only kids want to play a colored instrument) to play the saxophone? In my experience, many girls and women play the saxophone without needing all the rainbow colors.

Interesting side has been the experimentation with materials. Copper and metal alloys, along with wood and some synthetic materials.

Unfortunately, just as human nature is, there are those who are just trying to make a “quick buck” and are selling low-quality instruments, priced between $200-$400 USD / EUR, in order to promote their store, make some extra cash on the side, or maybe try to corner the market on low-cost instruments.

Well, those companies may make some cash, but we all lose at the end of it. I’ve experienced this myself years ago with a new private student of mine. She wanted to learn to play the sax and still needed an instrument. I offered to go with her and her parents in order to pick out an instrument for her. Within a couple of days after our talk, she calls me to tell me that her father found a saxophone online for 250 Euros. I just shook my head.

Why did they do that? Sure, the lure of being able to purchase an otherwise expensive instrument at a fraction of the cost of a student instrument was very persuasive. It was also being sold by a well-established, well-known music warehouse. “How could they go wrong?”, were probably their thoughts. I feared the worse.

She came to our first lesson with her newfound love of a saxophone. Right at the beginning there were (naturally) intonation problems. And that wasn’t just that she was a beginner. The instrument wasn’t made well. Other the next few weeks, more problems arose, and she had it sent away for repairs at least twice. After 6 months, she gave up playing saxophone. It just wasn’t any fun “trying” to play an instrument that wasn’t functioning well. I took a kind of “I told you so” stance about her father not consulting with me about buying a saxophone. If it was about the money, a used instrument would have done a better job than a cheap saxophone. They could have rented a sax for 6 months before deciding to buy it or give it back. And now, with their full purchased “piece of sh*t” saxophone, they can’t even sell it. Who’d want it?

Well, enough ranting.

On the other side of the spectrum, does your horn (alto, soprano or tenor sax) have to cost 6000 USD? I understand the price if you play baritone sax as a main instrument, or if you just happened to find a cheap bass sax :-). Does your sax have to have a gold- or silver-plated body? Do you really need diamond studs and super nauseating elaborate engraving?

How much should your sax cost? As much as you can afford. Why? Because, at least 85% of the sound of your instrument, is YOU! Your oral cavity, your body structure, your lung volume, the shape of your jaw, etc. dictates your sound.

Your  mouthpiece and your sax take up the last 15% (or less) in varying degrees.

The main feature you should be looking for in a new sax is; comfort, response, intonation, sturdiness, and craftsmanship. You may notice, I did not mention “brand name”. In truth, they are “40 companies and 10 factories”. And that is so not since yesterday. A lot of the new brands are made by the same factories in Asia (Singapore is a favorite). Even some established brands invest in these companies as well.

For the most part, buying a saxophone is very much like buying a car. It may have a big price tag, but loses value as soon as you walk out that shop door. It continues to lose monetary value over the years. It only becomes valuable in your own heart, just like that old Cadillac you have in your garage right now. ūüėČ

The only exceptions are, if you’re someone really famous or you may have a “classic vintage” horn in your hand (like a Selmer Mark VI), that actually increases in value due to its scarcity and popularity. That could happen to any of today’s horns, but who knows for sure?

So, when buying a new horn, be lead by common sense, your wallet, and your heart.


Do you really need an expensive mouthpiece?

Do you really need an expensive mouthpiece?

closeupMouthpiecePlastic, Ebonite, various woods, metal alloys, synthetics…

These are the materials our mouthpieces are made from. Formed into different shapes, inside and out, with different densities and philosophies, etc. all to give us more choice and a better sound. Or so we may believe.

The mouthpiece is a very integral part of our equipment. It is only part of the “voice” of our instrument, part of the voice of our own personal sound. So, naturally we want to take extra special care when it comes to choosing this part of our equipment. We have a lot to choose from!

We check out the mouthpieces from some of our favorite players to see if we get a similar sound. We check out mouthpieces from our favorite contemporaries to see what that mouthpiece does for us as it does for them. We check out a new mouthpiece because it’s the latest and the greatest. They all have their price as well. Ranging between USD 100 to several hundred USD!

I’d like to say straight off the bat that I’m not a big fan off spending hundreds of dollars, euros (of whatever currency you’re using) on a mouthpiece. I believe that at least 80% of your sound is YOU! Your jaw shape, your mouth cavity, your larynx, your embouchure, etc., is what produces at 80% of your saxophone ( or clarinet) tone. The rest is dependent on the mouthpiece, whether wood, ebonite, metal and how it is designed.

Over the years, I’ve tried and tested several mouthpieces. Expensive and inexpensive as well. I’ve gotten good results from many at both ranges of the financial scale.

Let’s just be clear.

Playing on an expensive mouthpiece will not FIX your sound! The wide range of professional mouthpieces are just that. For Professionals! They are for those instrumentalists who have matured their sound, their intonation, their projection, etc. and are not looking to “fix” anything, but are looking to ease the response of their mouthpiece to their requirements.

If your intonation is ¬†not good. If your tone is bad. If you can only project 2 feet in front of you,… getting a new expensive mouthpiece won’t “fix” these problems. Practice will fix these problems!

If you have all these areas covered, and then you happen to get the most satisfaction from a mouthpiece that costs USD 700, then so be it! If a mouthpiece that costs only USD 100 will do, so be it!

Personal choices!

Let’s talk about reeds soon!

NEW!: 250 Jazz Patterns: Bass Clef Edition!

NEW!: 250 Jazz Patterns: Bass Clef Edition!


250 Jazz Patterns Bass Clef Edition!


The internationally popular jazz improvisational aid will now available in the long awaited Bass Clef Edition!

We are now going through the final finishing stages and will be making the ebook/book available by the 4th of July, 2014!

In this edition a new chapter will be added;¬†‚ÄúThe Melodic Minor Scale‚ÄĚ. This chapter will also be soon available for the Treble Clef Edition, not only in a new updated version, but also for those who have already purchased the book, will be getting this new chapter for a¬†special low price!

Be sure to inform you Bass-Clef Reading friends! Not only is the Bass Clef Edition a little less expensive as the Treble Clef Edition (due to lack of transcribed solos), but I will be offering a special introductory price for the Bass Clef Edition, but it won’t last for long!

So when it’s available be sure to order right away!


Neck Straps and Your Health

Neck Straps and Your Health

Recently I started using a harness that rests on my shoulders rather than using a neck strap.

Many people may think that it’s about trying something new. That was part of it at the beginning. But now, it has become kind of necessary for me.

A couple of months back I was experiencing excrusiating pain on the left side of my neck and my left arm. I thought at first that maybe it was a sport injury that I just wasn’t aware of. (I’m a pretty active guy). But the pain eventually kept me from sleeping well and made it impossible to teach or play a gig.

A visit to the doctor proved to be more than I thought. I had the beginnings of a slipped disc between the third and fourth, and fourth and fifth vertebrae. Right around where I my neck strap rest. Part of the damage was due to deterioration. (I’m older than some think)

Anyway, some spinal fluid was missing in a couple of places and pressure was on the nerves actually to both of my arms, but I only had pain on the left side.

Thank God, these days, slipped discs are not immediately operated on anymore, and my doctors gave me the assurance that this can be all taken care of with physical therapy. They also agreed with me that after I was healed, I should build up more strength in my neck with gentle physical exercise.

I recalled having a similar problem with my lower back more than an year ago. Also resolved with physical therapy and muscle training. I have not had any problems with my back ever since. But nonetheless, I had to commit myself to a life of regular physical exercise if I didn’t want to experience this all again.

I also knew now that after healing, I have to really use a harness instead of a neck strap from now on. I even have to avoid carrying my sax in a gig bag resting on one shoulder (the left for me). I now carry my sax like a back pack, giving equally distributed weight to both shoulders.

I feel that this is an important issue not only for those who have been carrying a sax on your neck for many years (in my case 40+), but it something to think about for beginners as well.

Most neck straps that are provided with a newly bought saxophone are honestly a piece of crap! Investing money in a good, comfortable harness will definitely give more years of playing pleasure!

I use “The SaxHolder” from Jazzlab.

“Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation”

“Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation”

Those are the words of the immortal jazz trumpeter Clark Terry on learning jazz improvisation.

Imitate your favorite players. Copying their licks, transcribing their solos. Emulating their sound.

Assimilate their articulations, phrasing and ornamentation and let it become a part of your style.

Innovate what you have learned by making it personal. Change the licks. Experiment with them. Make something new out of them.

These are necessary techniques and study in order to learn to improvise in any genre.

As I studied with saxophonist Steve Grossman many years ago, he told me that he concentrated mainly on copying John Coltrane in his younger years. He had definitely learned to take what he learned to another level. After a while, he commenced to do the same intensive study of Sonny Rollins in order bring yet another totally different element into his playing.

A few years back, I did an interview with saxophonist Greg Osby. He concentrated on transcribing piano solos! He went on to say that he altered every lick little by little until it bore practically no resemblance to the original.

These are the ways many artists learn, transform and innovate their craft.

Jazz Patterns

The use of patterns book has not been without some criticism. I’ve encountered student who didn’t want to learn patterns out of fear that they would limit their creativity or even make them sound like everybody else. Many jazz instructors and artists also share this opinion.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! But there are some prerequisites for using patterns.

I’ve witness over the past years that many students of jazz, whether solo (learning independently) or¬†in college, have embarked on studying jazz or “jazz and pop music”, tend to look for the shortcut to learning jazz.

What shortcuts?

Many just buy The Real Book and try to learn the tunes (although many tunes in the book have incorrect chord changes and melodies), and they buy patterns books and just practice the licks, but leave the MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT out. Many of these students DON’T EVEN LISTEN TO JAZZ!

How could that be? Why are they studying to get their degree in Jazz and don’t even LISTEN to the music? How do they expect that to work?

Answer: It can’t!

In order to imitate, you have to listen to someone! In order to assimilate, you have to have listened to someone. In order to innovate, the first two steps have to have been accomplished!

Jazz Patterns are merely a tool to train the technique and ears of the player. In all honesty, most of what we first learn to play/improvise is learned by rote. It is handiwork. Once the material is assimilated and harmonically and stylistically understood, can we begin to innovate, and avoid what many fear as “sounding like everybody else”.

As a comparison, just because you know the alphabet doesn’t guarantee that you can become a poet or writer. Learning the alphabet and learning to read is just the beginning.
Just because you’ve learned all the notes on your instrument won’t guarantee that you’ll become a proficient player. Learning the noted is just the beginning.

With jazz improvisation, listening and having an affinity to the music is just the beginning of being in a position to start learning how to improvise. Patterns are merely, sentences, phrases, and idioms just like learning a language.

But learning the phrase alone won’t get you to your goal. You have to purposely use them in a context. Just as one cannot really learn to speak Spanish just by studying out of a book. You have to purposefully go out and try out your skills with other human beings in order to learn better, be corrected, add nuances and build confidence.

Improv Etudes

With my improvisation students, I use what I call “Improv Etudes“. Improv Etudes are a type of study using the jazz patterns in a context that is realistically closer to an actual improvising situation. Learning a lick in a vacuum (i.e., practicing just the lick) may get it under your fingers, but you mostly likely won’t get to use that lick in the heat of the situation as you would hope. Practicing the lick in context, a framework of ¬†some chord changes in a tune, will help you hear and understand the lick better, and therefore learn it quicker!

Do you have to learn tons of licks to be a proficient improviser? No. Again, patterns are an aid, but shouldn’t be a crutch. The more you understand melody and hear, and have a burning drive to experiment with your knowledge, you’ll be able to create more.

Be sure to check out my book “250 Jazz Patterns” here at the shop page on this site. There you will also find other books and products.

Happy Sheddin’!