Big Tip Lust

A while back it seemed online that one could not avoid reading descriptions of vintage mouthpieces for sale with gushing exclamations of their virility based on the …. large tip sizes.  What a popular refrain, ‘everyone likes their mouthpieces BIG’ or ‘bigger the better’.  It’s been a long running joke between myself and other mouthpiece interested friends.  In husky tones of an old pervert we muse about the hotly desired “BIG TIP”.

Well it’s funny really.  The joke itself is funny, but the really funny part is that it actually became the fad it did and swayed a whole section of the population of saxophone players looking for the right equipment as well.  That is actually a troubling part.

There are of course a great number of pro players, well known and otherwise who play larger tip sized mouthpieces to get the sound they want, with varying results.  That is of course what works for some people, so I am not trying to speak AGAINST it.  The practical way to look at this is of course, use what works for you, period.

One of the funny aspects of the rise of this fad, though, is that some people, who spend a lot of money on mouthpieces, who got caught up in this chase, would also at the same time be asking how they could get a sound like Coltrane, or Dexter Gordon, or those old cats etc.  I think it became en vogue to buy the ‘rarest’ or most expensive vintage mouthpiece, thinking that would get you the ‘best’ sound, regardless of what the sound you really wanted was.  Unfortunately, the rarest most expensive mouthpieces get you the rarest most expensive mouthpieces, and that may or may not have anything to do with the sound they help create.  Their price is mainly determined by a set of collectors and the demand that they create.

For people who are asking how they can get a ‘vintage’ sound like Coltrane, like Dexter Gordon, like Parker or later hard boppers like Joe Henderson, or many of the other old time players, large tips are more often the antithesis of that sound.  Very many of the jazz saxophone names of the 1940’s and 50’s made their sounds on smaller tip sizes.  it was not until the 1960’s that most of the mouthpiece makers even offered larger sizes with any frequency, and even then they were not ubiquitous.

Coltrane was well known for playing Otto Links with a tip size of usually 5* and apparently no more than 6.  This is specifically how that focused clear sound is delivered.  There is an opinion out there that larger tips allow for ‘more air’ to be put through the horn, creating a ‘bigger sound’.  of course that may be true, I have also experience it, since I have been through many many mouthpiece configurations.  However, I am not convinced that putting more air through the horn is essentially the most important thing if what you are focusing on is tone.

In my view, the most important thing regarding tone and articulation on the saxophone, is control of the air and the reed.  A larger tip may allow more air to pass, but it also reduces control of that air, and essentially reduces a kind of resistance.  That resistance is what one can use to avoid running out of air for example and allowing for more comfortable longer lines to be played. Some people will add resistance back by using harder reeds, but that top has side effects.

Again, it is a choice, not a wrong or right one, just a personal preference and it often relates to personal physical realities as well.  However, there are also physical realities of the saxophone, such as smaller tip mouthpieces physically have the baffle and tip rail closer to the reed, creating more natural brightness without the need of a higher baffle.  This closer proximity also creates a more reliable altissimo note as well.  As we move towards larger tip sizes the baffle and tip rail are further from the reed and brightness is definitely lost, so generally, larger tips will require an additional level of baffle height to reach a similar brightness.  The larger baffle on its own creates a change in what we call ‘venting’ at the tip, which determines the thickness of notes, and especially the higher notes on the horn.  Higher baffles create more bright, and less venting, so can lead to a kind of thick feeling on some notes.

Generally the quest towards larger and larger tip sizes can (not in all cases) become a sort of trap in which one really wants better venting and thickness so goes for a larger tip, then loses brightness so then wants a larger baffle, then loses venting so wants a larger tip.. then again and again until thoroughly confused.

Some of the same comfort can be found on smaller tip sizes of the piece is vented properly, faced accurately and combined with the right reed.  However, like everything else in this combination of variables we call the saxophone, there are compromises.  The smaller tip will have better air control, but a slightly more balanced sound, meaning sacrifice some ‘large feeling of sound’ in favor of clarity and control and brightness.  Larger tips will have that perceived large feeling, but sacrifice control clarity and bright.  Of course each person has their preference and people can get used to almost anything and make it work if they want to.

I have just received so many messages, inquiries, with people asking me how I can help them sound like whatever famous name from 1957, how can they get that sound?  Can I make them a piece that will help them sound like that person?  I always ask them what size they play, and I have too often got the response something like “I feel most comfortable on a 0.118 tip size or something like that.  “I like to play a 9* Otto Link but I want to sound like XXXX player” … and that player often played a 5*.  Sometimes people watch my videos and ask me how I get my sound.  I am not the world greatest saxophone player, not the greatest technician on the instrument, but I focus on TONE and communicating musically what *I* want to communicate.  I was never interested in being a technician really.  I play usually 0.090 – 0.100 in tip sizes, and currently 0.097 and not an extremely hard reed either. That is how I do it.