I don’t think woodwind players ever get tired of discussing this subject, because the search for the perfect reed is so elusive. I don’t like synthetic reeds. I just don’t think you can get the same sound from a synthetic. They seem too artificial and buzzy to me–no warmth. There is something in the organic quality of a cane reed that is at the heart of a good saxophone sound, but that same organic quality is what makes finding and maintaining reeds so frustrating. Two of the best articles I have read on reeds are from Tom Alexander and Tim Price. Check out the respective links. Also, The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal has an excellent chapter on caring for and balancing reeds. Every serious saxophone player should have this book.
The best reed for me can vary from year to year and seems to have more to do with who has the best batch of cane this season rather than a specific brand. At the moment, reeds from Rigotti are working very well for me. These include Regal Queen, Francois Louis and Roberto’s Woodwind private label reeds, which are also by Rigotti. You can’t get them at your local music store, but they are readily available on line, and Roberto’s Woodwind in New York City sells them. Of the “name brands”, I have had the best luck with Vandoren, particularly the relatively new ZZ cut. I use mainly number 3’s on both alto and tenor.
When it comes to mouthpieces, my favorite at the moment is a Theo Wanne Amma. It’s like the best Link you ever played with just a little more brightness. I love the sound and volume control I can get with this piece. It took some getting used to. All of Theo’s pieces have relatively thin rails, and that makes them a little less tolerant of uneven reed moisture. I first got my Amma in the middle of winter when humidity was very low, and I had my share of squeaks and hard blowing after some minutes of playing. A Rico Reed Case w/Reed Vitalizer that Tim Price gave me solved all my problems.
I am also a big fan of Fred Lamberson. Fred is a true artist and makes every piece totally by hand using high quality hard rubber blanks, wood and a white material like Delrin. Unfortunately, Fred has stopped making mouthpieces, so if you have one, hang on to it. I have several different Lamberson tenor pieces, but my favorite is my newest piece, a white 7DD. This has a fairly long baffle that opens up into a big chamber. It gives you the ability to really cut through when you need it, but it is still very controllable at lower volumes. It’s fairly bright, but not thin. You can get a nice, fat subtone with it as well.
For alto I play a Lamberson FMaj7 that I bought from Tim Price. It was actually a prototype that Fred sent to Tim to try. I love this piece. It just matches the Mark VI perfectly. It has no baffle and gives me a nice dark sound when I lay back, but it still has plenty of oomph when I push it. I can cut through a big band on lead alto with no problem. One of the things that make all of Fred’s mouthpieces stand out is the precision of his facings.
Saxophone players never get tired of talking about their horns. I have two tenors: a Mark VI and a Borgani Jubilee model.
My main tenor is a Mark VI. The serial number puts the year of manufacture at 1974, very near the changeover to the Mark VII. This horn is in great shape with 99% original laquer. I had it overhauled, and it feels like a new horn. It has a sound that is more centered than the Borgani, as one would expect from a Mark VI. Don’t believe the myth that the only good Mark VI is one with a five-digit serial number. There are some great horns among the later VI’s.
The Borgani is a great sounding horn. My friend and teacher Tim Price turned me on to this horn. Borganis are not well known in the US. They are hand made in Italy, where the Borgani workshop turns out only about 300 per year. It has a spread American sound reminiscent of a Conn 10M, but with very comfortable contemporary keywork. If you are looking for an alternative to the Selmer sound (and its many clones), you should check the Borgani out. My only complaint about this horn is that it was pretty maintenance intensive for the first 5 years or so. I had it in the shop on the average of twice a year. It now seems fairly well debugged, and maintenance seems normal now.
My alto is a Mark VI. This horn came to me almost by accident. It belonged to a work colleague of mine who had played it as a student in Sweden then put it in the closet for 30 years. It needed some work and smelled kind of funky, but after a complete rebuild by Steve Malarsky, it plays great–good intonation and solid from top to bottom.