|Cannonball Adderly (who played on 2s!)|
Matching Reed Strength to Tone
Reeds can have a huge effect on tone, and even once you have settled on a brand and style you like you'll still need to make sure you have the perfect match for in size. The general rule is the bigger the reed the darker the tone and the softer the reed the brighter the tone. This is fairly common knowledge, but I'll explore some of the finer details.
The harder end of the reed strength spectrum attracts many players, and has its own virtues. As you go to harder strength reeds the resistance increases and the tone darkens. When you get to reed strengths towards the very hard end of your comfort spectrum, which is determined by your setup and physical make up, you will notice a very raspy quality, a decrease in volume and an increasingly muted quality to the tone. You know when a reed is absolutely too hard because it will be difficult to control the tone in the context of normal playing (practicing or in bands, etc.).
My preference is the softer end of the reed strength spectrum. As you go to softer strength the tone brightens and resistance decreases. At the very soft end of your comfort spectrum you will have to depend on air support and focus in order to stabilize the pitch and the tone. Sound becomes very susceptible to inflection. While harder reeds require very developed embouchure driven chops, softer reeds require well developed air support driven chops. You know when a reed is absolutely too soft because it fails to provide proper resistance to your air column. The sound thins and becomes overly bright.
The spectrum of reed strength is often misunderstood. Some players and teachers espouse increasing in reed strength as if it was a ladder and the goal was to climb as high as possible. This is entirely wrong, and I'll give supporting evidence in just a bit. An entirely different, but equally wrong, misconception is that once matured all players will be playing on the same reed strength, around a 3 or 3.5. Dealing with the latter first, we all have different physical make ups, different levels of resistance built into our saxophone and mouthpieces (and even different cuts reeds!), and different approaches to playing. One player might get their best sound at 2.5 strength reed and another player will get it at 5 strength, and those two players could sound very alike. What feels like a harder reed to one player can feel like a softer reed to another. We are individuals in terms of our person and our equipment, so one size will never fit all best.
As far as the feeling that we need to be always climbing the reed strength ladder, this is been proven false by so many great players over the years. Cannonball Adderly played on strength 2. Charlie Parker started on harder reeds and then switched to softer reeds mid career. Michael Brecker played on softer reeds as well. This is really just an extension of the fact that the same strength reed will feel different to different players, and that each player has their own preference in terms of tone.
It is definitely worth the money and the time to experiment with reed strength. Try a strength softer and strength harder then what you currently play, and give it a chance. You could end up with a better match for the tone you want and your comfort level.
Matching Mouthpiece Placement to Tone
This following section is only for players who have a decent sense of pitch and who naturally tend towards playing in tune. If you have regular problems with intonation, this section is not for you! Mouthpiece placement on the neck is a more subtle customization of tone. There is a span of few millimeters (maybe 2 or 3) on the neck cork in which your saxophone and mouthpiece combination will sound "in tune". Obviously too high or too low will simply result in a sharp or flat sound. With the mouthpiece towards the lower end of the "in tune" spot on the neck (pulled out a millimeter or two from the higher end), your chops close up a bit naturally to compensate and bring the pitch to its center. With your mouthpiece towards the upper end of the "in tune" spot (pushed in a millimeter or two from the lower end of the span), your chops open a bit in compensation. With these reactions comes a resultant change in tone. At the lower end of the window the sound is given a slight edge or pop, and at the higher end of the window the sound is a less edgy and more grainy. I personally find that too much grain or too much edge will just sound like distortion, and I use these sounds more as a guide to make sure I really have my mouthpiece positioned exactly where I want for my ideal sound.
I actually just had a student yesterday who was saying something was wrong with his tone. It sounded spitty to him. I told him to pull out his mouthpiece just a hair (like a millimeter). He did so and his tone was immediately and audibly (most important) improved. A real life application like this takes careful listening and simple digestion of the principle outlined above. Happy playing.