By Don Kelly, Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved
Have you ever wondered if replacement necks really make a difference on your sax? There are a number of really reputable individuals (Ponzol Oleg, Goodson, and others) that make high quality necks, and I’ve always wanted to know if these really make a noticeable improvement. They all claim that using their necks will provide significant improvements in sound and intonation, as compared to using your stock neck. I have to say that I was skeptical that they would make a difference, but most offer money-back guarantees, so I decided to give it a try. Plus they’re pricey at roughly $300 to $500 U.S.
After researching the various models, I decide to try one of Peter Ponzol’s tenor necks for my early 60s Selmer Mark VI. Why try an aftermarket neck? I was motivated for a couple of reasons. First, I bought my horn from a very respectable professional sax player and private dealer from the Northeast. He play-tested it prior to sending it to me, and mentioned that he gave me a different neck because the original just didn’t sound that great. So over the years, I’ve played around with the two necks on my two Mark VIs, and always felt there was a little bit of a “stuffy” sound, or maybe a slight resistance. But overall, I have always loved the way my Mark VIs sound, feel, and play.
I contacted Peter Ponzol via his website, www.peterponzol.com, and ordered one of his necks. The first thing Peter does is to have you mail him your current neck so he can approximately match the size. The Ponzol neck arrived on-time and was very carefully packed. Cosmetically, the neck is beautiful. Peter says it’s gold-plated, but it almost has a hint of copper to it. Really looks very well made. When I look at the necks side-by-side, the angle of the Ponzol neck is slightly larger than the stock neck. So while playing, this means that the mouthpiece will be about ¼ inch or so higher (further from the keys) with the Ponzol neck than on the stock neck. It’s so slight that I didn’t notice it while playing; only after I looked at the necks up close. It also seems to me, although I’d need to measure it with a micrometer, that inner diameter of the neck on the mouthpiece side may be slightly larger.
Well, next it was time to try it out. First of all, it fits great on my early 60’s model Selmer Mark VI. Now to see how it sounds. I have two Dave Gaurdala King mouthpieces, and as best I can tell, they are nearly identical. So I put one on my old neck, and one on my new neck, thus allowing me to quickly change necks by just switching over the reed and ligature.
I first notice that the Ponzol neck seems a little less stuffy, and significantly freer-blowing. Being skeptical still, I go back and forth several times, and sure enough, this is the case. I like my setup to be really free-blowing (i.e., small amount of blowing or air pressure to create a sound). I also noticed that the sound seems to be a little more complex, possibly darker.
Finally I notice that the dynamic range and expressiveness of the Ponzol neck seems to be slightly better. By this I mean that I can get a nice ppp sound to a fff sound, and get these extremes with a little less effort. Because of this, I seem to notice that I can do embellishments (expressiveness like growls or subtle sound changes) a little easier or at least more noticeably. Some of these differences may be related to the freer-blowing nature of the Ponzol neck, so I will just need to see if my initial impressions last.
A Couple of Days Later
The saxophone is a particularly challenging instrument to play in tune. It requires continual use of your ears and constant adjustment depending upon a number of factors, such as volume. So it is fairly tough to come up with a realistic “static” test to check intonation. One of the best ways would be to play random notes on a piano, and seeing how well the saxophone notes match. But this doesn’t provide a way to really measure and record the accuracy of the intonation. So I like to tune the horn, and then compare randomly played notes to a tuner and see how far off I am.
Using this method, I did an intonation check over the full range (every half step) of the instrument today. I started with the Ponzol neck, and then tuned the horn. I then randomly played each note, at a medium volume, and wrote down how far off the intonation was for that note. Using the same reed, mouthpiece, and ligature, I did the same exact thing for the stock neck. What I saw was interesting. The variability (measured as standard deviation) was noticeably better on the Ponzol neck versus the stock neck. This means that over the full range of the instrument, the Ponzol neck was a lot tighter, or closer, to being in tune, as compared to my stock neck. Even though I checked a lot of notes over the full range of the horn using both necks, for this to really be statistically significant, the whole test would need to be repeated a number of times. Nonetheless, this was very promising!
Even though the neck fit into the horn relatively tight on the first day, I’ve now taken it and the horn down to my repairman to have him fit it a little bit tighter. It seems I can’t quite “lock it down” as tight as I like to have it for gigs. I’m also having him shave just a little bit of cork off the Ponzol neck so that I can slide my Guardala King mouthpiece on a little further. So I should be picking it up later today just in time to try it out on a gig tonight.
After The Gig
I was able to pick up my adjusted neck just before the gig. It cost me another $30 to have the fit tweaked, but now it absolutely fits perfect on my main axe, and even on my backup horn. The gig was an outdoor poolside performance with my guitar player friend, Ed Motter-Vlahakos. My impression was the same as a day or two ago; the intonation does “feel tighter.” It seemed easier for me to play in tune, and that I was perhaps making fewer adjustments with my embouchure to stay in tune. I asked Ed to let me know what he thought. Twice he commented that he thought my intonation was noticeably better as well, especially in the sections where he and I play in unison.
Since the Ponzol neck give a fuller, freer-blowing sound, I’m now contemplating trying a mouthpiece that’s slightly warmer than my Guardala King. Jeez, seems like there’s always something else to try! My guess is that as I play exclusively on the Ponzol neck over the next few weeks, it will even be easier for me to notice the difference between it and my stock neck. We’ll just have to see!
So should you run out and replace your neck? The answer is “It depends.” If you’re happy with the sound you’re getting, then you may not want to even experiment. But from my experience, especially if you have an older instrument, I think there’s a possibility that you could notice a marked improvement in both sound an intonation. Peter mentioned to me that I may even notice more improvement over time, and after a week, I’m beginning to agree with him.
So have you tried a different neck on your horn? What was your experience? Comment on the post or Email me and let me know!
About the Author. Don Kelly, Ph.D., is a Houston based saxophonist and flautist. He plays a variety of music, including contemporary jazz, R&B, latin, funk, jazz standards, blues, and classic rock. He has played with the Kim Kafka Group, S&G Project, Juan Manuel, Black Friday, The Blue Monks, Sparky Koerner Quartet, Austin Big Band, Devere Pride, On Time Airline, Kemah Bums, The Zentenos, Ed Motter, and numerous others. Don has been greatly influenced and has studied under trumpeter Ken Waters and saxophonists Woody Witt, Mike Palmerari, Jeff Kashiwa, Bob Ackerman, Bob Sheppard, Mark “Kaz” Kazinoff, and Jake Lampe. For information on gigs or lessons, contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the www.equinoxjazz.net website.