Guitar Heroes exhibit at the MOMA

I realize that I've been geeking out pretty hard lately with all of the articles about sax gear. I don't want to alienate my readers who aren't sax nerds, so here's something for the guitarists...

The MOMA is presenting an exhibit right now called Guitar Heroes- legendary craftsmen from Italy to New York. The MOMA's website for the exhibit features pictures of the amazing guitars on exhibit, as well as video interviews and performances by some of the master guitarists who play these incredible guitars.

Guitar Heroes MOMA exhibit website


Cruise Ship Drummer- Todd Bishop's Jazz blog

My buddy Todd Bishop, who is my go to drummer for sessions here at Casa Valdez Studios, has been beefing up his Cruise Ship Drummer blog. When he first started writing the blog Todd was working on a river boat (very small cruise ship) here in the Northwest. His blog mostly featured his fine photography and a few tales about his often boring and sometimes bizarre career as a cruise ship drummer. Recently Todd has taken his blog in a new direction and has been posting a lot of interesting stuff, including drum transcriptions, interviews, analyses, and other Jazz articles (which happen to be outside the realm of drums and cruise ships).

Cruise Ship Drummer blog

Sax technique question from Alex Canales

"Hello, David, my name is Alex Canales, a saxophonist currently working on the Royal Caribbean cruise line. I've been thoroughly enjoying your blog for years, thank you for putting in the time and effort!

Anyway, one thing I am interested in seeing addressed technique wise (forgive me if I happened to miss it) are the palm keys on saxophone. It's always been a bit of a problem for me throughout the years, and it's been hindering my playing. If I press them too hard and too fast, it causes more pressure in my lower lip. If I try to brace the saxophone better with my thumbs, they end up hurting after a while. If I try pressing them with minimal force and effort (like I do with my other fingers), then I sometimes don't depress them fast enough, or fail to open them all the way so the notes don't speak/go out of tune.

Would you be able to come up with some exercises and general guidelines for this tricky area? Maybe Matt Otto would have some useful input as well.


tape some flat head thumb tacks facing point up on the palm keys... that should retrain you quickly. Just kidding. It seems like the question may contain the answer? Just practice playing a light and as gently as possible until you create permanent (habitual) change... might take a few years.. chances are, if you play the palm keys too hard, you're playing the whole horn to hard.

Thank you! As I do this, do you recommend bracing the horn with the right hand at all? I play alto to the side of my right leg using a BG strap if that makes any difference. Alex"

 I would recommend playing the horn straight in front of your body while standing- aligned with the spine as much as possible (this is how my Alexander teacher taught me), elbows slightly out - so that the wrists are straight, no support from the hands at all if possible, balance the horn by resting it on your waist... just my 2 cents... what does Dave think? He plays alto, I don't own one :(

DCV: That sounds about right Matt. When I'm playing while sitting I always play holding the horn between my legs, which seems to keep my spine straighter.

E-sax review

Do you ever wish you could practice your saxophone at 3am without bothering your neighbors? Shiji Hamanaga at Best Brass has a solution for you. It's called the E-sax. Shiji says that the e-Sax Shiji is not a mute but a sound transformer, because it changes the sound of the instrument weakens or alters the sound of the instrument.....and a sound transformer has 'infinite possibilities'.

 Hamanaga started his career as an engineer for Yamaha. While at Yamaha Shiji, a brass player himself,  designed the Silent Brass 'electronic sound silencer'. The Silent Brass system is a mute with a small microphone inside it that allows the player to listen to the sound produced through headphones. The unit comes with tone control and reverb, so it sounds like you're playing in a larger space.

After leaving Yamaha Shiji invented a similar electronic mute system for trombone, trumpet and French horn, which he called e-Brass. In 2007 Shiji released e-Sax, which presented more problems than the e-Brass system because a saxophone's sound doesn't just come from the bell. The saxophone sound is of course not totally silenced, just reduced by 25 decibels. When I was at NAMM this year I got to see the e-Sax up close and it looked like something out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These e-Sax units retail for $599 ($399 at WWBW or $299 on eBay). My buddy Tom Pereira recently bought one for his tenor saxophone recently, so I asked him to write a review for this blog. Here's what Tom had to say about e-Sax:
  I wanted to share some of my experiences with the E-sax Mute. I’ve had it now for about two and half weeks.  I bought it second hand but it was in excellent condition.  I paid about half of what they normally go for and I feel that it was as much as I’d want to pay for one.  First off the fit and finish is pretty good.  It is a bit flimsy but it does the job.  The latches and neck strap hooks are sturdy enough.  The hook holes are like an old King; three holes in a row. The latches are your standard latches you’d see on any aftermarket case. The adjustment required to fit a horn (as horns vary) are intuitive, easy to figure and sturdy.  After getting it set up its easy enough to get your horn in and ready to go. 
  Once you’ve got it set up and your horn in the first thing you notice is how heavy it is.  I would say that it nearly doubles the weight I’m used to from my SBA. Not a trivial issue. I have been using a very padded neck strap and a neoprene strap as well (yes, two) and it helps, but not much. I’m thinking of switching to a harness for more support but I always felt like those things made horn players look like they work at Sam’s Club. Anyway, once you’ve got it strapped on you put your hands into the holes. The hand holes are made from a neoprene material and seem like they would hold up over time. I don’t know if they are replaceable if they tear. Once you’ve got your fingers on the keys you notice how odd it feels. There is plenty of room in the case but it’s just awkward. Nothing fatal but you simply notice it all the time which, in my limited experience, tends to make you think about having a mute on your horn instead of thinking about playing. It’s like playing with a five pound weight attached to the bell and a towel stuffed into it. 
 Then there is the playing. It does mute the sound pretty well. I’d guess about 60 to 70%. I also have tried the sax mute made by Lebayle and this is certainly more muted than that by at least 30% (the Lebayle certainly has it’s limitations beyond lack of muting but they list for $35 vs. $600). That said I have found it difficult to play the bell key notes. When playing b or b flat the case vibrates quite a bit and I have to over compensate when blowing to get the notes out at all.  
 Using the headphones is okay but the microphone is really terrible.  The sound from the headphones of my horn is really thin and not consistent through the registers.  It often distorts in the low end and makes the high end sound very thin.  I do like that you can put an auxiliary sound source (IPod) in and that sounds pretty good.  Playing music minus one with this setup can be overall decent, though the saxophone sound is more pronounced than I would prefer and there seems to be no way to adjust for that other than turning up the IPod volume, which is horrible for you hearing long term.  The manufacturers claim that you can use it for recording but I would not recommend that at all. 
 Ultimately I would say that if you need to mute your horn to practice this is as good as it gets.  It does mute the sound significantly and is a pretty good product overall.  The major downsides are; the weight (I can’t practice for more than an hour or so without getting back pain and I normally can practice for more than four hours without a break), the awkwardness of having a shell over your horn and hands, and the headphone sound. 
 If you can deal with the weight, awkwardness of having your horn covered and the poor sound quality I’d say that this is a good purchase, just look for one used." -Tom Pereira
When I was at NAMM I saw that the company also has a 'sound transformer' for the guitar, but it wasn't on the company's website yet. It was two rubber pieces that covered the tone hole and deadened the sound coming off the top of the guitar, along with the same mic/headphone unit that is on the e-Sax, which by the way includes a built in metronome.

e-Sax at Best Brass' website


Aaron Drake interview- part II

DCV: How did you first get the idea to make a ceramic mouthpieces?

AD: Well, this basically came from a curiosity about how material density affects sound. I grew up in a “science” household, and my father and one of my brothers both hold PhDs in the field. This has been a great advantage in figuring out the material and its attributes. Here is a little of the history- Growing up, my folks had a part time pottery and ceramics business. So, I was real interested in sculpture and working with clay from a young age. I made some interesting ceramic flutes that would take a sax mouthpiece when I was around 10 years old…lol. Well, this basically planted a seed in me that I went back to later.

 When I was in grad school I was very interested in the melding of Jazz with different ethnic folk music traditions. So, I got into all different types of ethnic flutes. About 2 years before I got the idea to try and make ceramic mouthpieces I was making all different types of ethnic flutes out of stoneware. I made Transverse, Quena, Double and Triple fipple type flutes. The sound and projection of these flutes was really amazing. I gave a lot of them to friends and a lot of people recorded with them. The density of the ceramic was so unique and vibrant. Then came the mouthpiece idea.

DCV: Can you explain how ceramic mouthpieces are made?

AD: This is a very involved process with a lot of different steps. But, thinking about it, the fundamentals of the process are not that much different from how Otto link metal pieces are made.

DCV: What is ceramic like to work with compared to resin or metal? How does it sound compare to those other materials?

AD: Ceramic is a pain to work with….lol. Lots of dust is created and you have to use diamond tools etc. When it comes to describing the sound difference from other more “traditional” materials, I would say it comes down to the surface density. The glazed ceramic has a higher surface density than any other material, so the air column moves very easily and fast. I think it is more a sensation that the player feels rather than a recognizable sound difference. Ceramic is basically between HR and Metal in its properties.

DCV: It seems to me that your pieces are incredibly consistent. Bravo by the way. How much time do you usually spend finishing each mouthpiece?

AD: Each piece has several hours of handwork in it. The finishing and balancing is time consuming. I am really in to preserving the tradition of mouthpiece making. I think I am one of the few out there that does not rely on CNC.

DCV: A lot of mouthpiece makers talk about how their curves are 'proprietary' or revolutionary. It seems to me, after measuring a lot of mouthpieces, that everyone uses mostly pretty standard curves. Can you describe the curves you use and how you came up with them?

AD: Yeah, I can understand why other makers are guarded about the information; it takes years of persistence and dedication to get it right. My conclusions about the facings have been arrived at primarily through my skills as a player. I have developed a very good understanding of the elements of the curve that contribute to how a piece feels. The key has always been to create a curve that has the right balance of resistance and freeness. Many players say they want a free blowing mouthpiece, and what they usually mean is that they want is a free blowing feel with enough resistance to enable expression and nuance in their tone. Yeah, I realize that this is a subjective topic, but I attribute the success of my mouthpieces to my playing and to a lot of experience working with players one on one.

DCV:Do you prefer longer or shorter curves?

AD: I think my facing curves would be considered medium, possibly leaning towards the long side.  I have found that the majority of players prefer this, and the range of overall responsiveness is greater.   
As always, it is about achieving balance.

DCV: You've recently started to make mouthpieces out of a material that you call Drake Vintage Resin. Can you tell me what this stuff is exactly?

AD: This is where I am lucky to have scientists in the family. My brother and father helped to engineer this material and to achieve the density properties. What really sets our material apart is the incorporation of ceramic particles. We are also incorporating brass and silver in a new material we introduced at the winter NAMM show.

DCV: What is the difference in density between the material with added ceramic and the material with added brass?

AD: The material with the added brass (or silver) is 12-14% more dense.

DCV: I’m guessing that the old vintage hard rubber was denser than the hard rubber most MP makers are using, is that correct? 

AD: Yes, I think you are right about that. 

DCV: It looks to me like your new Signature Studio tenor piece is based on a Berg with its bullet chamber. Is that correct?

AD: Well, not exactly. My original inspiration was a Guardala Brecker I. I wanted to see how the material would affect the sound with this type of design. It has a longer step baffle with a rounded transition and a large chamber. The Contemporary II is a bit more “Berg-like”. It has a slight reverse taper to the chamber.

DCV: Can you please describe the differences between your "Son of Slant" model and your NY Jazz model?

AD: I have the “Son of Slant” now in medium and large chamber models. The SOS has a traditional HR tenor outer dimension while the NY has the outer dimension of a HR alto for starters. The main difference internally is in the height and grade of the floor slope. I have been experimenting with this a lot and have noticed very slight changes will have amazing effects on the air column. I shape the baffle contour by hand to balance it with the floor dimensions. I am really pleased with how these pieces play.


Interview with Aaron Drake- part I

DCV: I see from your bio that you attended Eastman. Who did you study with there? 

AD: I was at Eastman from 1986–1993 (took a year off between my undergrad and grad work to go on tour). I Studied with Ramon Ricker (saxophone, clarinet, and flute), Rayburn Wright (arranging) and Bill Dobbins (history, improvisation, and pedagogy).
DCV: What kind of mouthpieces did you play before you started making them yourself? 

AD: Well, like most saxophonists who are “searching” for their sound… many. When I got to college I was primarily an alto player, and had a Meyer 5M made in the 70’s.  When I got into studying classical saxophone I use a Selmer C* and D. Around my junior year of college I switch to tenor and had a Florida link 7*.  From here the list goes on and on, but here are a few that I dug:  Dukoff Stubby 7, Selmer short shank D (when I was transcribing a lot of Joe Henderson), when I started working professionally more I got a Guardala Traditional Model (one the original “handmade” ones), but eventually went gravitated back to vintage pieces. Slant Links etc...

DCV: I think it's important to know what kind of ideal sound concept a MP maker has because a guy who's way into Kenny Garrett is going to make something radically different from a guy who really digs Lee Konitz. By the sound of your demo audio clips on your site you obviously have a very good saxophone sound. Personally I can't see how a MP maker or refacer for that matter can ever hope to do really good work if they aren't able to get a great sound out of the saxophone themselves. How would they even if apiece even played well?   What are some sound ideal saxophone sounds to your ear and are you thinking of these when designing your different MP models?

AD: Thank you!  This is a really great and important question.  My whole passion for making mouthpieces is really about a deep love for music and the sound of the saxophone.  In my studies of the saxophone I did many transcriptions of the great players.  Basically all the greats have influenced my sound concept in one-way or another.  Starting with Coleman Hawkins, Webster, Lester Young, Bird, Cannonball, Getz, Rollins, Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy (not necessarily in that order), and the list goes on. Then the modern cats like, Mike Brecker, Jan Garberek, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Bob Berg, Kenny Garret, Bob Sheppard, Rick Margitza, Chris Potter…there are so many guys that I dig, it’s hard to list them all.


DCV: How long have you been making MPs?

AD: I started making mouthpieces in 1990.  The first ones I made where sort of experiments.  A few years later I got really obsessed with figuring it out.  I guess I had made about 500 or so (out of ceramic) before I even thought about trying to sell them.

DCV: So you started by refacing MPs and keeping notes of MP specs. Did you just keep track of the pieces you liked or did you record all of them?  
AD: Yeah, lol.  I have binders full of facings.  Crazy, but I think each mpc taught me something.  I eventually found some favorites that stuck with me.

DCV: Do you still do refacings for people, or did you stop when you began to make your own MPs?

AD: Yeah, from time to time.  Now I usually refer guys to my brother Eric Drake, he has a shop in Berkely Calilfornia called Saxology and he is a master craftsman.  His website is www.Saxcraft.com

Drake Mouthpieces website

Gig Anedotes- crazy gig stories

Every working musicians has a couple of crazy gig stories. I know I have a few tales of insane gigs myself. There is a website devoted to these crazy gig stories called Gig Anecdotes and if your professional gigging life has become a bit dull, or if you have a gig yarn to add to the collection, then check out this site.

Gig Anecdotes web site