Is eBay the site for the “Holy Grail”?

An article by Andrew Roberts

So how much would you pay for the perfect mouthpiece? In keeping with many valued items, many saxophone and clarinet players begin their search for the “Holy Grail” of performing, the mouthpiece, on the internet site, eBay.

If you have not yet discovered this site, you are in for a shock as you will find just about anything you could ever want to purchase – sometimes for less than you can find anywhere else.

However, one danger is that one can get carried away and end up paying way over the value for an item. Players in the know can pay anything from a few pounds to £500 and upwards for the truly collectable mouthpiece so here is a rough guide to buying a Vintage mouthpiece.

The better mouthpieces for the Saxophone and Clarinet are made of Ebonite, which is hardened rubber. However, the mix of ingredients for this hybrid product has changed over the years, which has resulted in much debate as to which is better, old or new.

One of my long time colleague and friends, Chris King (Principal Clarinet of the Ulster Orchestra) has been fascinated by the Vintage clarinet mouthpieces, which are generally to be found in the US. During the last 37 years that he has been with the Ulster Orchestra, he has acquired a fine collection of these Vintage mouthpieces, on which he has made a wonderful sound. There are many recordings of Chris playing in the UO, most notably his fine recording on Chandos of the Debussy Premiere Rhapsody for Clarinet. I have admired his projection and musicianship for over twenty years, and frequently wondered what is the key to the obsession that can come from trying to find the means to the perfect sound?

The clarinet mouthpieces of the American makers Frank Kaspar, Frank L Kaspar, and Henri Chedeville have been much sought after particularly in the US. Chedeville models date from between 1910-1930 and are increasingly rare, some fetching as much as $2000! The Kaspar models date from 1950 onwards and quite often appear on Ebay. There are some fakes and less good models of both makers so Caveat Emptor! (buyer beware). The better sources for these mouthpieces will offer a money back guarantee which is certainly worth asking for with this level of expenditure. If the mouthpiece has been relayed the value can be quite a bit lower.

Few players may realise the importance of the older Chedeville design. However more recent mouthpiece makers, such as David Hite, in the 1970’s,were aware of the significance of the design and set out to copy the bore (internal dimension) lay ( the curve length and opening between the tip and the reed) and window shape ( the area that the reed sits on) and the baffle, which is the internal section which is immediately below the reed. His mouthpieces were recognised the world over and used by many fine players.

In more recent years Vandoren designed a range of mouthpieces for the American market, the 13 series, which were based on the Chedeville design and consequently play at 440 mhz . Many players in the UK had not realised until that point that the standard Vandoren range were designed to play at 442 mz and were therefore somewhat sharp for the UK pitch. This forced an adaption of the players technique to compensate for the higher pitch by blowing the instrument flatter, which suited players who were used to the Boosey and Hawkes 10 10’ s tendency for sharpness.

So what of the Saxophone? The market has long realised the potential for “Vintage instruments such as the legendary Selmer mark V1 and the less common Grafton or Selmer Cigar Cutter . But do Sax players also chase the perfect mouthpiece.

One of the finest sax players of the current generation (a past students of mine), Si Haram, has told me that he and many of his colleagues have had to pay big money for the renowned Selmer Soloist soprano mouthpiece . These can be bought on Ebay, and from other sources, and are the Holy Grail for that instrument. So may be we should all be looking for a sound from the past.

With such a range of recordings from the likes of Clarinet Classics and Testament (which encompasses performers on the Saxophone as well!) we can certainly learn from the distinctive approach of the many schools of playing from the past. Some of these clearly demonstrate a quite different approach to sound on either instrument, rather like the way that the English language has developed and moved away from the “Queens English” of the BBC in the 40’s and 50’s. It is almost with some regret that the approach of many players is to homogenise the sound of the clarinet and saxophone to what might be described of as a “Euro sound”.

There seems to be a keen interest in certain quarters of the US to preserve the uniqueness of the American sound of the clarinet. One of the finest players of his generation Ralph Maclean, reputedly swapped other fine mouthpieces to obtain the Henri Chedeville he wanted to collect.l In a previous issue there was a review of Brad Behn (my mouthpiece of choice) which described how he had sacrificed a classic Chedeville mouthpiece ( having carefully measured every parameter) to have its secret constitution analysed in order to reproduce a modern equivalent with the same sound from the ebonite used in the original. Having played on a few of these reproduction “Vintage” mouthpieces ( a bit beyond my means at $600!) I can attest to the fact that they have a unique sound. They do however, need quite an adaption of ones technique to extract the best from them as they require less effort and a softer reed to achieve the fabulous focused sound that has the best projection I have experienced.

As a guide to the way to identify the original Frank L Kaspar mouthpieces the photographs here show the distinctive white lines one at the top and two at the bottom of the Kaspar, you can just see the logo which says Ann Arbour Mich. Frank Kaspar’s mouthpiece in the photos has the single whit line at the tip end and three white lines lower down with the logo reading Cicero Ill.

The markings on a genuine “Ched” model will have one line at the tip end and one line at the lower point with the Steel Ebonite printed and H. Chedeville on the front bottom. It is important to realise that the logos are frequently indistinct on mouthpieces of this age. This is partly because another maker, Charles Chedeville’s, mouthpieces, which occasionally turn up purporting to be the rarer Henri Chedeville, can have the vital first part of the logo missing. Charles Chedeville was often the maker of the original Hawkes & Son and other fine mouthpieces, as the material was very highly regarded. The quality of the ebonite was such that they remained dark looking and maintaining their density, with only a small amount of oxidisation on the surface. When the ebonite oxidises too much, the dye fades and the colour changes to a green shade usually accompanied by smell rather like burnt rubber and a very bitter taste!

The advice is simple, try to do some research before you embark on spending a fortune on a “bargain” Vintage mouthpiece. One source of information on such matters can also be found on the interweb at the interesting and slightly confusing site, which is in fact a clarinet bulletin board which attracts all kinds of comment from often very eminent players, and some nutters!

If you are feeling brave enough try to re-lay a mouthpiece (change the shape of the lay of the mouthpiece, usually using plate glass and fine emery paper….and a very steady hand!) Ebay can be a useful source of cheap practice mouthpieces as you are unlikely to make the perfect one first time. You can also find some older mouthpieces which may not play well at present but are made from the mystic older ebonite. These can provide the chance to experience the old style sound for a minimal outlay, you could even ask a reputable mouthpiece maker to try to put a usable or your preferred lay onto your purchase, a service which Brad Behn offers.

So can you find the Holy Grail on Ebay? Well may be the answer is yes, as several famous players in this country and others are happily using their particular “Grail every day, until they find the even rarer and more attractive sounding “Grail” on Ebay for a bargain price…….well maybe we‘ll just put in a bid and see what happens!