This past week, I traveled to New York to visit with mouthpiece legend Phil Barone.
Phil has made mouthpieces for literally all of the people I respect in the business, with the exception of Coltrane, who was in Saxophone heaven before Phil could work with him
A partial list of Phil’s past clients
- Sonny Rollins
- Michael Brecker
- Ernie Watts
- Steve Grossman
- Charles Lloyd
- Pharoah Sanders
- Charles Neville
- Stanley Turrentine
- Jimmy Heath
- Lou Marini (Blues Brothers)
- Ravi Coltrane
- Bob Sheppard
The list goes on and on, but I encourage you to visit Phil’s website, and check out an interview he posted there. Phil Barone Pro Saxophones and Mouthpieces. Phil is one of those rare artists that come along once in a generation, and should be in someone’s hall of fame. After this trip, he’s certainly in mine.
Phil was a gracious and generous host, and there is no better friend to have than Phil. We drive around sight seeing in his upstate New York digs, stopping now and then to experience the wonderful spring he’s having. It was in the 70′s or 60′s every day, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly.
While there, we worked on putting together a mouthpiece for me, and the result was magic.
I learned about Phil’s process in detail, and had to let go of some of my misconceptions in order to get the full affect of Phil’s knowledge. He should write a book, as he has probably forgotten more about mouthpieces than his rivals will ever learn.
First, Phil showed me around his shop and his warehouse. I got to see an example of what a blank is (it’s a mouthpiece in rough form, allows him to finish them with minimal work instead of starting with a solid piece of brass). In Phil’s case, he has blanks based on his three most popular models, the Jazz, New York, and Hollywood.
Most of the modern mouthpiece makers start with a CNC machine, and every mouthpiece is identical to the last one. There are some advantages and disadvantages to working like Phil does, but he works both ways. His new Super New York model, recently released, is a CNC machined copy of his legendary New York model, with some modifications. Now you can get an exact copy, and no matter how many you order, they’ll all play exactly the same.
I learned from Phil that sometimes the mistakes offer the greatest innovations, and hand making mouthpieces from blanks is the only way to come up with new ideas and unique sounds. You have to start with something.
On playing and sound
Most tenor players today sound so similar a blindfold test would be an exercise in futility. Most tenor players are followers, and it shows. Alto players are as well. When’s the last time you heard an alto that didn’t sound like Sanborn, or a tenor that didn’t sound like Joe Lovano?
Let’s go back to the reason for my trip to see Phil. He was trying to get a sense of what I wanted to sound like, and I already had many of his models on tenor, so he asked what I liked and didn’t like about each model. I had trouble describing in English what those critiques were, as all of the mouthpieces are great, but they offer different sounds, none anything like what I wanted in one piece.
I want to sound like no one I know, so it’s really hard to articulate it. If I said, “Early Brecker’ he’d know what to do, but I said instead, “A cross between early Brecker, Coltrane, Wilton Felder and Ronnie Laws. Oh, and Lenny Pickett and Stanley Turrentine”
To get that sound, I would overflow a Super New York, and then it still wasn’t loud enough, and it didn’t cut enough. But the lows were there and it did have a sparkle to the sound that I liked. If I used a high baffle piece like his Fusion model, I lost the low frequencies, which I didn’t want. If I played a Hollywood, I got the volume I wanted, but I lost the high frequencies that the Fusion provided. On and on. So I had three mouthpieces that I wanted to combine into one somehow. I asked Phil if he could do that, and he said it was possible, but it was going to be hard, and he’d have to hear me play in person. Hence the trip to see Phil.
I once heard Wynton Marsalis explain this a little about Coltrane. Everybody wants to sound like Coltrane, but they don’t do what he did to sound like that, they just try to copy him out of context. So the story ended something like this: “How do you think Coltrane got his sound? Do you think he had tapes of himself from the future? No, he listened to the greats of his time, and the time before him, the whole history of the sax, on alto, tenor and soprano.”
With me, I had an idea what I wanted to sound like, but all of the production pieces were either geared toward fusion or jazz playing, and none offered the all in one experience i wanted. I want to be able to scream, or play soft and mellow, all in the same gig, on the same piece.
Making the mouthpiece
Phil got out his personal mouthpiece collection. Then he had me start by playing my three favorite pieces.
After listening to me a while on each, and finally listening to me play alto, he had some questions for me, all of which boiled down to, “Why do you play like that? Do you know you don’t have to work so hard?”
My answer was, “That’s the only way I know to even approach the sound I want.” Of course he was right. But I hadn’t tried any of his mouthpieces yet, so on we went with A/B’ing mouthpieces and worked through his collection. I played some interesting pieces, including several variations of the Traditional/Contemporary model, which I could have played all day, but they also had the same problem with other rock pieces I’ve played; the low notes were thin.
I also played an original hand finished Guardala MB I model (probably worth $1500), which to me, after playing Phil’s mouthpieces, sounded like a duck call. At the end of the first day, one of the Traditional/Contemporary models was in first place.
Sometime during the second day I played an original Hollywood model, serial number 012. After playing it about ten seconds, I shouted “THAT”S THE SH@T!!!!!” And the play testing of production mouthpieces was over. If I could have talked Phil out of that Hollywood, I would have gone home without him creating anything. Alas, he wasn’t giving it up.
The Hollywood is the holy grail
If you ever have a chance to play one of the first generation Hollywoods, do not hesitate to buy it, no matter the cost. It is ridiculous. It plays bright, dark, punchy, mellow, never thin or too bright, but all the edge and brilliance you need when you push it. And the sub tones come out like butter. No matter what I did, it responded, and the response was lightening fast. It may be the finest mouthpiece ever made, and I can say that – but Phil’s a humble guy and never would tout himself in that way.
I am anxiously awaiting Phil to put that Hollywood through a CNC machine and sell exact replicas. It is so versatile and flexible, it challenges the Otto Link as the most versatile mouthpiece ever made, and it even exceeds it. Email him and start a Facebook campaign, whatever it takes. It’s that good.
My custom piece
He took a stock Otto Link mouthpiece, tip opening 7*, and opened up the facing to .120 (or about a 10) and enlarged the chamber. Then he had me play it. The sound was a lot brighter with just the chamber opened, or the opposite of what I would have predicted. But with that large of an opening and that large of a chamber, it was nearly unplayable. Phil wanted me to be able to play with less effort, so he added a small baffle using epoxy. I tried it, and immediately fell in love. It wasn’t a first generation Hollywood, but it was exactly the sound I’ve strived for, without having to over blow to get it. Treble all the way up, bass all the way up, midrange flat. All done, time to go home.
I’m playing this mouthpiece for a couple of weeks to see if Phil needs to lower or raise the baffle to tweak the tone. Once I’ve gotten used to playing it, I’ll be able to tell him how to adjust it. I predict I’ll ask him to lower the baffle just a smidge, but I’m trying it with different reed strengths for now and experimenting with different playing styles before I send it back.
One thing is for certain. Nobody sounds like I do now.
The last stage of the custom work is to finish the piece, sand it down, customize the barrel to Phil’s design, and have it plated. Working on this piece removes all the plating, so I’m blowing bare brass for now as you can see in the pictures below.
I will post pictures of the finished product, probably in a couple of months. I don’t want to give it up so easily. I’ll probably record some clips and add them to this post later, so check back here periodically.
FOr more information on Phil Barone mouthpieces, see the mouthpiece museum.
No visit with Phil should go without mentioning his saxophone line. This is Phil’s main gig these days. He sells high quality professional level Taiwan made saxophones, at student horn prices. If you haven’t heard, all major saxophone makers have shops in Taiwan now, including Selmer. The quality coming out of Taiwan is second to one these days. They’ve been making saxophones since the end of World War II, and they’re two generations into the artisan building phase like that of France in the 20′s and 30′s.
Some of the leading brands coming out of Taiwan include Cannonball and P Maulriat, which sell for over $3000 depending on the model you buy. Some of the models go for over $4ooo.
Virtually all of the major innovations in saxophones come form Taiwan. Phil’s horns are no exception.
He sells two models in each of alto and tenor: the Classic and the Vintage. The Classic model is as you would expect. A traditional bore, traditional Mark VI sound, and modern keyword similar to the Selmer Series II and III. A hard combination to beat. He sells various kinds of sopranos (straight, curved, and “saxello” which is a straight body and a curved bell), and his baritones are all the Classic model.
The Vintage model is a much heavier horn, with full ribbed construction, double key arms on the keys that commonly get bent, and reinforcements in the bell to body brace, and around the area where you carry the horn in the right hand when in arching band or just seeing your horn on a stand. The bore and bell are enormous, and this model comes with italian waterproof pads. The left hand table keys are also higher and closer to the body than on the Classic, which is why I prefer this model. It blows big, but somewhat diffused and spread, like an old Conn.
I have a Vintage tenor in the vintage bare brass finish, an alto Vintage model in copper plate, and a Classic tenor model in vintage dark gold lacquer finish. They are all excellent horns, and they sell for student level prices. It’s the best value for a saxophone in the world, in my opinion. And I payed retail for all of these horns. Phil, contrary to some rumors, does not offer endorsement deals, nor does he pay people to shill for him. I have a business relationship with him (website work), full disclosure.
Here are some random pictures of my various Barone saxophones.
I don’t now how to thank Phil, other than my payment, for giving me the sound I’ve dreamed of, and rearranging his schedule to fit mine.
Give Phil a call, he always answers his phone, he’ll give you personalized service, and you’ll be dealing with a true giant of the business.