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. Now, if you are interested in more technical specifications of mouthpieces, such as a breakdown of the components of the mouthpiece, follow the link below to Jules’ blog post, it’s a go to guide for a lot of the jargon that will be in this post (though I shall do my best to explain myself throughout!)
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
Sax.co.uk Favourites: JodyJazz HR, Bari, Theo Wanne Gaia 2
Theo Wanne Gaia 2
If you are really looking to lean into the brighter, sweeter edge of the soprano, metal is the way to go! Metals on Sops will cut through absolutely everything, giving you a clear, projected and clean sound. The actual set-up on the pieces are pretty much the same as their ebonite relatives, with a few models either cutting from the table, or adding a small baffle to give that brilliant, sparkling sound. The sound you will produce will be pin-point precise, so will lack a bit of colour harmonically. You will also find that blending will be an issue due to the projection, so be prepared to take centre stage!
Sound like: Kenny G, John Coltrane, Gerald Albright
Sax.co.uk Favourites: JodyJazz DV, Lawton, Theo Wanne Shiva 2
Theo Wanne Shiva 2
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
Sax.co.uk Favourites: Meyer, Morgan Fry Vintage Bros, Aizen Jazz Master
Morgan Fry Vintage Bros
Aizen Jazz Master
With the metal pieces on an Alto, the timbre will shift more towards the sweeter end of the scale. The set-ups on a metal piece typically involve a more stepped baffle going into a medium chamber. This, coupled with the fact that the profile of a metal piece is typically narrower, means the sound you produce is a lot more projected, focused and modern. This will mean you won’t blend and cleanly, and the tone you produce will feel funkier and bigger, so if you’re looking to sit into a big band unassumingly, this won’t be the way to go. However if you’re aiming for that rock/funk super clean edge to your tone, you will have this and projection in spades!
Sound like: Candy Dulfer, Mindy Abair, David Sanborn
Sax.co.uk Favourites: Yanagisawa Metal, Theo Wanne Fire, JodyJazz Super Jet
Theo Wanne Fire
JodyJazz Super Jet
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
Sax.co.uk Favourites: D’Addario Select Jazz Limited Marbled, 10MFAN ‘The Classic’, Marmaduke ML
D’Addario Select Jazz Limited Marbled
10MFAN ‘The Classic’
You will never find a wider variety of metal mouthpieces then on the tenor saxophone! The set-up typically sits on a roll-over baffle with a medium chamber. This will give the fullness of tone you find in ebonite pieces, but with that little bit more projection and cutting-edge indicative of metal pieces. This again can be expanded further with more extreme step-baffles and cutting from the table of the mouthpiece. You will very rarely find the chamber size to go lower then a medium chamber, as going smaller will give the tenor a nasal edge nobody in their right mind wants, big a beautiful is all we ever want from our tenors, and boy will metal give you this!
Sound like: Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redmond, Chris Potter
Sax.co.uk Favourites: Otto Link Tone Master Modern Vintage, JodyJazz DV NY, Theo Wanne Durga 3
Otto Link Tone Master Modern Vintage
JodyJazz DV NY
Theo Wanne Durga 3
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
Sax.co.uk Favourites: Vandoren V16, Drake Crossover II, JodyJazz Jet
Drake Crossover II
Metal pieces and Baritone saxophones have a very happy relationship. With no other horn is there quite as many pro players on metal and less on Ebonite (making the research into Pro Bari players on ebonite quite tricky…) Metal pieces on a Bari are going to give you plenty of bite, kick, and projection, especially at the top end. If you are a soloist looking to cut through the noise, metal is 100% the way to go. Blending can be a bit of an issue, as when you transition onto a metal piece, the warmer overtones do get lost, and the shape of the sound becomes much more focused. The Bari is a beautiful instrument, and if you are looking to make sure you’re heard, give metal a go!
Sound like: James Carter, Leo Pellegrino, Claire Daly
Sax.co.uk Favourites: Jody Jazz DV, SR Technologies Pro, Theo Wanne Durga 3
Jody Jazz DV
SR Technologies Pro
Theo Wanne Durga 3
So, that is a whistle stop tour of the differences between ebonite and metal mouthpieces across the main saxophone ranges. These differences can affect the tone you can produce massively. The key question you must ask yourself is what sound you are going for. If you want a full, dark, rich tone that blends beautifully, ebonite is the way to go. If you want to project, cut through other parts and have a crisp, clean tone, metal could very well be the way to go! Now, of course there are exceptions to these rules (the Vandoren Jumbo Java ebonite pieces can strip the paint off the walls, whilst the Otto Link Tone Master alto pieces are beautifully dark) so my biggest recommendation is to come and see us here at Sax.co.uk! Both our London and Crowborough stores are packed to the brim with mouthpieces, and staff ready to help with your mouthpiece needs!