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17 Jul

Steve Goodson: Saxophone Designer, Visionary, and Guru

By T. R. Johnson

The saxophone has always been the province of the boldest innovators. When Antoine Joseph “Adolphe†Sax first developed the horn in the 1840s, his competitors tried to ruin him any number of times – twice, they made attempts on his life. But Sax knew he was onto something big, and he didn’t back down. Something of his spirit must have lingered around the saxophone, for, among its masters, are also those who have initiated the most daring new directions in music: Bird, Ornette, Trane, Ayler, to name only the ones everybody knows. But the names of those who inhabit the elite, esoteric world that Sax himself lived in – that of instrument design – are known only to a few. One such name that all serious saxophone enthusiasts know is Steve Goodson.


Goodson is based in New Orleans, and Adolphe Sax must be smiling proudly over the fact that, even after Katrina, Goodson is still there. When the storm came, Goodson wouldn’t even consider leaving his magnificent old house full of vintage horns. Instead, he carried everything up to the attic, loaded his shotgun, and perched himself in an upstairs window. For nine days after the storm, he stayed there, watching thugs swim up and down his street in water six feet deep with make-shift rafts full of looted TVs and stereos. They didn’t dare mess with his stuff. He finally left when the National Guard assured him there was no one in the city and no risk to his beloved horns. And then, almost immediately after the soldiers forced him out, Goodson turned right around and sneaked back into the city and got back to work.


A true son of Adolphe Sax. I recently spent a balmy January afternoon in the courtyard behind Goodson’s house, the great black anaconda-like limbs of a Live-Oak swaying overhead and, above them, the fronds of three towering Royal Palms waving in the sunny blue sky. In between phone-calls from FEMA officials and amidst the endless banging and sawing of construction workers, he told me about how he had come to create “the greatest saxophone of all time,†the LA Sax Steve Goodson Model.


The story really begins in Leeds, Alabama, where Steve was raised. His father was a politician and his grandmother a virtuosic pianist. By the time he was fourteen, Steve was taking saxophones apart and putting them back together, inspired by his school’s band director, DeWitt Self, who instilled him the notion that working at the saxophone and working on the saxophone — tinkering, repairing, improving — were inseparable passions. Soon thereafter, he was on the road with a rock’n’roll act called The Reflections that had a huge regional hit with “Talk Don’t Bother Me (a quarter of million copies sold). Through the sixties and seventies, Steve found himself on tour and in the studio constantly, a sideman to any number of superstars, including nearly all of the Motown heavies. “But you’re only as good,†Steve says, “as you’re gonna play at tomorrow night’s gig,†waving off the whole issue of what he’s done as a player. “I’m saving all those stories for the nursing home,†he laughs. What he really wants to talk about is his work in instrument design.


By the late-1970s, like many musicians of his generation, Goodson was tired of traveling and staying up all night, and he found that his constant tinkering with horns had earned him a considerable reputation among first-class saxophonists as the supreme Mister Fix-It. Steve says, “I noticed that the real pro’s were just not being well served – almost everybody in the saxophone repair business was oriented toward little kids and the directors of high school bands – that’s why the pro’s were always calling me.†In other words, there was considerable room in the saxophone repair business at the very top, so that’s where Goodson decided to set up shop. This is not to say that Steve should be misperceived as super-elitist and totally disconnected from the average Joe: after all, today, his instructional DVD on sax repair is the largest selling instructional DVD about saxophones in the world.


All his life, Goodson had been collecting vintage horns, drawn to the way a particular innovation made a certain horn distinct from others, the way old experiments in design suggested new possibilities to his discriminating ear. His love of vintage and exotic horns led him to publish his famous Guide to Vintage Saxophone Values, which is the standard reference on the subject. And, as his collection of old horns grew, so too did his knowledge of sax technology. He kept careful track of what he saw and what he liked, and quickly began to collect copies of dissertations on woodwind acoustics and of patents of the features he thought most exciting. Today, his library boasts copies of literally thousand upon thousands of patents on saxophone innovations, and, in the process, he has befriended the extraordinary cast of characters associated with them, from Santy Runyon – Runyon being the father of the modern mouthpiece, as well as a teacher to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, and Chu Berry, among other giants, and the man whom Al Capone chose to run the musical end of his club business – to James Carter, Carter being arguably the most technically dazzling player and among most copious collectors of rare saxophones in the world today. The more he talked with these kinds of people about his experiments, the more encouraged Steve felt to go farther.


By the early 1990s, he was well on his way to imagining his masterpiece. Through the 1980s, he explored new ways to design the neck of the saxophone. He bought every dissertation he could find by academics who were doing acoustical research, as well as the classics of saxophone science by Arthur Benade, Ernest Ferron, and Jap Kool, but he soon discovered how little we really know about how the neck of the horn works. In many respects, the neck is the soul of the horn, and Steve found that by changing the taper and the diameter of this uppermost brass cone, startling improvements in the horn’s sound became possible. By coarsely threading the first inch of the neck’s interior, he mysteriously gave the lower tones much better response. And by threading the pips in a similar way, the annoying whisper in the higher end disappeared. Around the same time, he got interested in resonators, and found that by making them by hand, custom-fitted for each horn with the help of a component system for precision measurement, he could get a given horn to sound better and better. He fretted, though, about the long-standing bug-bear that has always been associated with the saxophone: despite his improvements in the neck and the resonators, the simple fact of the matter was that the saxophone, as an instrument, is inherently out of tune. And only a genius – Johnny Hodges, for example – can play in a way that finesses this fact.


With no formal training in these areas, Steve started to explore the question of tone-hole placement and soon discovered that, with even the finest horns, the placement of the tone-hole was far more haphazard than he would have expected. And another thing: the depth of the chimney around the tone-hole was often inconsistent, even downright wavy, which hurt the horn’s response and intonation. “So, I figured out ways,†Steve says, “to change the tone-hole’s effective diameter and effective center.â€


From here, it was a relatively short step to designing some additional keys to help with the movement between octaves. With these sorts of innovations, and thanks to Steve Goodson, you don’t have to be Johnny Hodges to play in tune. But all of this was preliminary. Steve’s boldest innovation came in the early 1990s when he began to explore the mysteries of metallurgy and the still stranger world of cryogenics – that is, the process of deep, deep freezing. The saxophone is, of course, made of brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, but since the 1970s the mixture in saxophones has used a higher and higher proportion of zinc, which makes the saxophone harder and more durable, but has also given it a “brighter†sound. This became the fashion among saxophone makers, and this is what they made available to the saxophone buying public. Saxophones today sound a lot brighter than they did a generation ago. Steve was bothered by this: “If you want to sound like Ben Webster – and who doesn’t? – it sure helps to play a horn that has the same proportion of zinc to copper that his horn did.†In short, the more copper, the darker the sound, just as the more zinc, the brighter. Steve made a horn entirely out of copper, and dark indeed it certainly did sound, but it was too fragile, so he brought back some zinc for strength.


Steve didn’t end his explorations in metallurgy there. Brass, he learned, is structured at the molecular level as a sort of lattice, braids braided to braids ad infinitum, and when you bend the brass to create the sort of cones that come together in a saxophone, you disrupt the molecular lattice, corrupt it, and create dead spots where the sound gets trapped and lost. However, when a horn is frozen – that is, carefully secured in a compartment that has liquid nitrogen flowing around it e [get more specific], the molecular lattice renews itself. And the dead patches in the horn disappear. When a new horn is frozen this way for a few weeks, the metal “matures†as if the horn had been played constantly for ten years – and it vibrates more uniformly and its tones ring more freely.


Soon after pioneering the method of treating saxophones with cryogenics, Steve was approached by the owners of the Unison brand and told him they wanted him to create the greatest saxophone ever built. Steve dove into the project, applying all the knowledge he had accumulated since he was fourteen. Soon after he unveiled the horn, however, the group sponsoring him ran into distribution problems, and the project was shelved. But a new sponsor appeared: Doctor Jim Gavigan, who owned a line of saxophones he called LA Sax. He told Steve that he could have unlimited support for research and development – “if you want fifty necks, tell us, and we’ll send you fifty necks, and then, after you’ve experimented on them, if you need fifty more, just tell us – you’ll have fifty more.†Steve was thrilled. This was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. Goodson’s experimentation moved into high gear. “I fiddled with the way the bell is attached to the bow of the horn, and, sure enough, that took care of the difficulties so many players encounter with the low notes – low C, B, and Bb.â€


He went farther still: “I figured that, because there are twelve semi-tones in an octave, there should be twelve octave vents on the sax, but that’s mechanically impossible, so I built a sax that had six octave vents.†He laughs about that prototype now: “It would only stay in adjustment for about fifteen minutes at a time, so I scrapped it.†But this additional key work opened an interesting door, as Steve created a second octave key, next to the traditional one, so that jumping into the altissimo range is not something that takes hours upon hours of practice to achieve. Steve says “When Adolphe Sax was professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, he taught his students that the saxophone had a four octave range. The altissimo key on the Steve Goodson Model now makes this possible for everyone – not just the lifers.â€


And he added a Speaker Key between the A and B tone hole, to help clear up the problems in intonation and response. And then Goodson tackled the number one dilemma on most saxophones, the sticky g-sharp pad. He designed and built what he calls a “helper spring†to make the g-sharp pad pop back open. Numerous other innovations followed. He started using kangaroo leather on the pads, rather than kid or sheepskin, as this sort of leather from down-under is at once the most durable leather there is and also the softest — the softness insures the best possible seal over the tone hole, and the durability means that the horn has to be repadded far less often. And he started using the same brass on the resonators as he uses in the cones of the horn itself, so there’s no inconsistency, nothing to change the sound coming through horn. And more: instead of using pressed felt for the pads, he uses woven felt, because woven felt won’t shrink, compress, or change shape; and, on the backs of the pads, where most saxophones have something like cardboard, Steve uses chipboard, which is much closer to plywood and therefore won’t lose its shape and change the way the pad closes over the hole. Perhaps most important, Steve insisted on a much higher proportion of copper in the new horns, to give them a much richer, more complex sound, in contrast to the glaring brightness of other modern horns.


Steve has just unveiled the alto and tenor versons of this ideal horn, and he has finished designing a saxello soprano, which he maintains is the greatest soprano that has ever exited; its acoustically much better than any soprano you can buy anywhere, and the tipped bell lets you play to your audience, not into the floor. And he has designed sopranino that is the first such horn that is consistenly in tune. Finally, he’s in the process of designing a “Super Premium Saxophone,†which will be the first in a new line of horns from LA Sax known to be known as the Saxgourmet Series and that he describes as being “exactly like the great horns of the 50s, only they sound better – they sound like those horns would have sounded like if they had had access to modern research in acoustics.â€


All of Steve’s horns come with the innovations that are associated with his name – the special necks, the mouthpieces that are designed to play loudly enough that no sax player need feel reluctant to share the stage with rock guitarists whose Stratocasters are blasting through a Marshall stack, the reeds that are made one at a time with a knife from cane that’s grown in the Var region of France (and that normally retail at a price of five dollars each – far and away the most expensive in the world), the special thumb-rest that eases strain on the thumb by extending outward much farther than the traditional thumbhook to support the entire thumb, key oils that leave no deposit, and, of course, “Mojo’s No Stick Pad Powder†that keeps pads from sticking without gumming up the tone hole and that Steve named after a favorite groupie from the 1970s and that, as he puts, “smells just like hippie girls.’ For more information about the long line of products Goodson has available – neck enhancers, etc. – visit his website at

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