METAL Vs. EBONITE MOUTPIECES
By Michael Leopold Weber
At some stage of your saxophone journey, there comes a time where a new mouthpiece is vital. Whether this is your first upgrade, a new very serious piece or a replacement for one you have left in a pub after a rather raucous gig (that one might apply only to myself…), there are some key fundamentals that you must consider. One of those being, metal or ebonite?
Let’s get some of the basics out of the way. An ebonite, or hard rubber, mouthpiece is vulcanized rubber that is moulded into a mouthpiece shape. Metal mouthpieces are typically made from… metal. Mostly brass but there are examples of bronze, stainless steel, silver plate, gold plate etc. Ebonite pieces will typically be dark and full sounding, with metals having more power and projection.
To really get to grips on whether Ebonite or Metal is the way, I think we need to break down to our saxophone groups, as the way the sound is affected on each horn will be determined by the horn you’re sitting on!
The Soprano is a stunning instrument and can be a lot more versatile then many believe. The timbre of the Soprano is quite nasal and incredibly sweet, and of all the saxophones does have the most innate character. Therefore, the choice of mouthpiece on a Sop will either lean into these characteristics or try and push the Sop in a new direction. Something to bear in mind also is that a Soprano mouthpiece is very small, so there will not be a huge variation in chamber and baffle types. The material in this case, will have the most pivotal effect on the sound you produce.
An ebonite piece on a Sop will go a long way to darken the sound of the horn. The set-up is typically rolled-baffle, medium chamber. You will typically find, on the bottom end especially, there will be a lot more warmth and colour around the intended note. The sound won’t feel so piercing and precise, equating to a much more blended sound. This will mean your sound won’t quite cut through as vigorously, and you will lack projection for your efforts. If you’re also looking for a smoother sound, the harmonic colour you will get from ebonite might not be to your tastes!
Sound like: Dave Leibman, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis
As an Alto player predominately, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that your mouthpiece set-up can have a drastic effect on the type of sound you can produce. The choice of pieces expands from the Soprano, so it is easy for players, especially players not paid to know as much about mouthpieces as I do, to get lost in the weeds. The best thing to do is not get too hung-up on the minutia and focus on what kind of sound you are looking for and how much fun it is to play! The shift in tones between ebonite and metal on an Alto can be quite severe, so it is worth taking some time discovering what sound you are looking to produce.
This is going to be your most common choice of material with the most variation in both brand and style. Typically, an ebonite piece on an Alto will be a roll-over baffle with a medium chamber. This will give you a well-balanced, flexible tone that can be pushed or sat on depending on the style of music or player preference. There are many other variations however! Small chamber pieces are very popular on Alto ebonite pieces to give your sound that little more focus, some pieces have step-baffles which will give you a bright, brilliant sound. You can honestly find an ebonite piece to suit all, whilst keeping that warm, rounded tone synonymous with ebonite pieces.
Sound like: Maceo Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker
With the Tenor Saxophone, you are going to find the most variety in pieces for you to get your teeth into (not literally, there are mouthpiece patches for that). The Tenor is arguably the most popular model of sax, and most flexible. The Tenor can sit comfortably in classical, jazz, pop, funk and blues, and the mouthpiece set-up you decide on can greatly vary which direction you can push your sound. Unlike the Soprano and, arguably, the Alto, the differences tonally between the Metal and Ebonite pieces can be subtler, so the construction of the mouthpiece will play a key role in shaping your sound.
If you’re looking for a smoky, dark voice for your playing, ebonite is the only way to go. The set-up is typically a roll-over baffle with a medium to large chamber. What you get from this is a well-blended, well-rounded, thick sound reminiscent of old 1940’s and 1950’s jazz records. Equally, there are many pieces that give ebonite pieces a more modern edge, giving a player projection and clarity without losing the rounded tone that’s evocative with ebonite pieces. The versatility of ebonite pieces makes it the go to for both lead players. It is worth noting that the profile of ebonite Tenor pieces is wider, so will feel a little alien for multi-instrumentalists.
Sound like: Stan Getz, Bob Reynolds, Joe Henderson
Last but by no means least is the Baritone. The Bari is big, booming and bassy. Any mouthpiece will compliment this quality successfully. Much like the soprano, the core timbre of the Bari won’t be massively affected by a mouthpiece, but certain pieces will lean into different characteristics. So, depending on where you are on your musical journey, or what in which way you want to shape your sound, choosing the right material for your mouthpiece is essential! The set-up of a Bari mouthpiece is pretty much always going to be medium to medium large chamber, as the mouthpiece is so big that you would have to significantly mill the chamber to really notice the difference!
If warm, rounded bass tones are your scene, ebonite is the way to go! The recurring theme, as I am sure you have noticed throughout this blog post, is that ebonite pieces are warm and full. When applied to a Bari this will lean heavily to the bottom end of the instrument. You will find these bass notes will have real presence, and blend beautifully within ensembles. Get a piece with a more aggressive baffle, and a Bari ebonite piece can pack a punch. You will typically find the ebonite Bari pieces will get a bit thinner on the upper register and will not cut through without giving it some real welly, so ebonite is very much suited for ensemble work!
Sound Like: Gerry Mulligan, Sahib Shihab, Hamiet Bluiett