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A Magazine interview of Steve from 2008

17 Jul



Since your personal collection of vintage horns approaches a hundred examples, would you mind telling me which one is your favorite?

If only I could have as many wives as I have saxophones! Honestly, they’re all my favorites because each one of them represents something in saxophone history and development. I guess that if I could only keep a couple of them, I would never part with my Conn Model 28 alto, or my Leblanc system horns. The LeBlanc design is really genius in that the horn has all open keys with no dead spots. It’s a real shame it never caught on.


How did you end up in New Orleans?

I was playing a gig and there was a six foot tall red head with a backstage pass that I couldn’t get my eyes off. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t go on for the second set because I wanted to talk to her. I made the band go on without me! One thing led to another, as it so often does in the rock and roll business, and the next thing I knew I had talked her into divorcing her husband and I was moving to New Orleans! I haven’t regretted it for a minute. It’s one of the very few smart things I’ve done in my life! Did you find the New Orleans music scene difficult to break into? When I moved to New Orleans, I knew exactly two people: my wife, Sharon, and Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers. I had known Charles from playing the festival circuit, and he had always told me to look him up when I was in New Orleans. Well, I had time on my hands, and I called Charles a couple of days after moving here. Now you have to understand that the Neville Brothers band is really the heart and soul of New Orleans, and that the four brothers are locally considered to be God’s personal representatives in town. Charles took me around, and introduced me to the “powers that be†and told them that he would personally appreciate it if they would call me when they needed a saxophone player. I got hooked up right away at the very top of the food chain, and didn’t have to slog away on Bourbon Street.


What’s the story on your retirement from playing live gigs?

It’s my health, nothing else. I’ve had two strokes and have to take a boatload of medication as a result. I’d rather they say “I heard Steve a couple of years ago and he was burnin’ “ than “I saw Steve last month and he sorta sounded like some of the edge was offâ€. The strokes left me with some balance issues, some vision issues, and the medication has the unfortunate side effect of making me feel tired all the time. I played my last gig with Edwin McCain at the House of Blues in August 2003, and didn’t feel like I gave the best possible performance. I decided to give it up after that. II miss it terribly, but such is life.


What advice can you give beginning players and students?

Always remember that you’re ultimately going to spend more money on teachers than you will on horns and equipment, so choose your teachers carefully! Not every good player is a great teacher. You should feel comfortable with your teacher’s personality and the course of study they select for you. Don’t hesitate to shop around, just like you would for a horn!


Do you have a favorite player?

You have to remember that I’m a rock and roll guy, so my favorites come from that genre: I love Bobby Keys’ sound; King Curtis’ phrasing; Red Prysock’s aggressiveness; Mike Brecker’s technique, and Maceo Parker’s timing. I once asked Maceo how to develop a sense of timing and phrasing like he has, and he told me that since I always had my hands with me wherever I went, I should practice patterns by clapping my hands. He later sent me a picture of himself clapping his hands, which is on my website, to remind me! I should also mention that I’m a total freak for Greg Piccolo: he carries the torch high for the great honkers of the past. If he’s playing near you, go see him!


What should sax players have in their case that they usually don’t?

When I was on the road, I always took at least two horns with me, because I’m neurotic and never thought it possible that any two given saxophones could possibly be playing their best at one time. Seriously, a good basic repair kit, like the one from MusicMedic is a must. Your horn is going to break from time to time, and you need to be prepared to keep it going until the end of the last set at least!


You’ve got a big presence on the internet. What has it done for the saxophone world?

Up until 1996, I had a retail store in New Orleans, with six guys working for me. We decided to convert to a net based business at that time. You might say I was an “early adopter†of the net. It’s been very good for us, in that it’s enabled us to meet new people and exchange ideas worldwide. You’ve got to be careful on the net, though. there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there. Just try this little experiment: give yourself a stupid internet name, like “saxpicker458â€, and open up a Hotmail account in that name. Now, use that name and email account and join as many online discussion forums as you can find. Voila! You’re now a saxophone expert, and you can pontificate at length about horns you never played and people you don’t know. I’ve met hundreds of these anonymous internet experts, and I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of the ones I’ve met can’t play and are rarely old enough to shave. This is not to say that there isn’t some really good information out there, it’s just that the source should always be very carefully considered. I’m always suspicious of anyone who offers an opinion but won’t use their real name. It’s been my experience that the people who know what they’re talking about always take credit and responsibility for their comments.


What are the most common mistakes you see repair technicians making?

A lot of the stuff I see really makes me angry: I’d say the use of hot glue for pad installation is the #1 offense. It simply doesn’t set up firmly, so the pad moves in the cup. The next thing that bothers me a lot is heating the ends of springs before flaring them. This destroys the temper of the metal, and will always lead to premature failure.


What advice can you give in selecting a repair technician?

Ask pro players who they use. Avoid shops that specialize in school repairs, they tend to hurry through jobs. Don’t put any stock in the fact that a shop is a member of any given repair association: the only requirement for membership is the ability to write a check. You can usually ask around among the professional players in your community and you’ll begin to hear the same name over and over. That’s the shop to use!


Should a player who wants the best results choose a new horn or a vintage horn?

And you’re asking this of a guy who owns a bunch of vintage horns AND designs new horns for a living? I can tell you that I only play and teach on new instruments. Technology has advanced, they’re more in tune and easier to play. I don’t think that playing the saxophone should be any more physical work than is absolutely necessary! That being said, I’ve got to admit that some of the vintage horns do have a certain sound and charm that you just can’t duplicate. However, I think a valid analogy is asking whether you would rather drive a ’57 Chevy to the office every day, or a new Toyota. The Chevy is cool, but it just doesn’t do everything the Toyota does as easily. I think that’s the answer. I see a lot of players buying vintage horns and then being unhappy with the results they get. I believe this is often because the horn they bought was simply worn out. There comes a point when the metal itself will no longer hold adjustment. If you’re dead set on buying a vintage horn, buy the best low mileage example you can find. Never buy a horn that’s been refinished, no matter how pretty it is. The keywork should be tight, and the pearl holders should show no signs of wear. Spend some time playing it before you put your money down. Try a current production state of the art horn at the same time you’re considering a vintage horn, and see what works best for you.


Since you’re now in the mouthpiece business, do you have any advice for players on that subject?

Yes! Try LOTS of different pieces before you buy! Not all mouthpieces will work on all horns. Here’s why: the neck of a saxophone is a cone, but the end is cut off. It’s called a “truncated coneâ€. Now I will admit that I slept through most of high school geometry, but I do know that it’s quite possible to calculate the volume of the “missing†portion of the neck. That missing portions volume should equal the volume of the tone chamber of the mouthpiece. If those numbers get very far apart, there’s no way the horn will play in tune. It’s just not going to happen. I studied mouthpiece design and facing with Santy Runyon. One of the things I learned about was how much difference in tone a mouthpiece can make. My Saxgourmet tenor mouthpiece is designed for players who want to have more volume and projection. I think the needs of the player who’s working live gigs with amplified instruments have been sadly neglected. Most mouthpieces are designed to work for jazzer’s or classical players. On Saturday night, more guys are making a living playing rock and roll than anything else, and they’re having to deal with guitarists armed with Stratocasters run through double Marshall stacks! Most mouthpieces on the market today simply don’t have the upper dynamic potential to deal with that situation, and they also don’t work very well with the softer reeds that you need to get a good rock and roll tone. I solved these problems using a longer facing, as well as making the actual mouthpiece longer and more massive. More mass gives greater projection. You have to play with it a little further up the cork due to the extra length, but I’ll guarantee that it will peel paint at thirty paces!


What’s the story on your reeds?

I’ve got a buddy who is a master reed maker. His name is Manuelo Salazar. I flew down to Manny’s shop in Nogales a few years back and we spent a week trying different canes and different reed designs. We had samples of cane grown in France, Argentina, China, Mexico, Australia, the USA, and other places I can’t remember. If you take tubes of cane and strike them together like a set of claves, you’ll hear different tones from each variety of cane. I found this amazing. We decided on cane grown on a very small plantation in the south of France. Their cane had the smallest, straightest fibers, and they actually aged it by air drying it, which almost nobody actually does these days. Unfortunately for me, their cane was twice as expensive as everyone else’s product! We found that the secret to getting the sound and response we wanted was to alter the slope of the vamp. By adding a small hole in the vamp, we were able to decrease resistance without sacrificing projection. Manny made up some tooling so we could exactly duplicate the cut we liked, and he makes them for me, one at a time. Each reed has its tip hand cut, and Manny hand adjusts each reed. Nobody else does this amount of hand work, and this is why the price is what it is. We’ve had inquiries from a number of retailers, but I simply can’t supply them.


How did the Neck Enhancer come about?

I get more questions about this product than anything else we sell. Believe me, skeptics abound on this one! It works by increasing the mass at the very end of the neck and by giving the wave a smooth path into the horn. If there’s a vertical “cliff†at the point where the mouthpiece joins the neck, you get turbulence, and this causes wave cancellation. The Enhancer eliminates this, and by applying the Venturi Effect, also increases velocity. I’d be fooling around with this sort of thing for a while, and must have gone through 50 prototypes before I found a design that I thought worked as well as it could. Similar products have been tried by Beecher, and I think, Rico, but they never got the taper right and didn’t increase mass by using metal instead of plastic. It makes a huge difference in the low end response, and the only problem we’ve had with it is that there are so many different size mouthpieces out there that fitting them all has been a problem.

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