The Mouthpiece Man: Geoff Lawton in Conversation

John Robert Brown

During the mid-1990s I visited Geoff Lawton at his home. Here's what I wrote about him, in CASS Magazine.

The friendly, quiet, but still wonderfully enthusiastic mouthpiece guru lives in a leafy road in Macclesfield, in a house which has his mouthpiece workshops ingeniously (and almost invisibly) built in.

Three things impressed me about that day in Macclesfield. The first was the thing I've already mentioned, Geoff s keen enthusiasm. After four decades of spending every day thinking about saxophonists' mouthpiece problems he could be forgiven for finding the subject threadbare. There was no evidence of this. Geoff still seems happy to talk about mouthpieces all day.

The second impressive characteristic was the tidiness and order in which Geoff works. I served an engineering apprenticeship before I was a professional musician. I have seen - and worked in - several machine shops and tool rooms. Geoff Lawton's workshop is a model of cleanliness and logic.

Thirdly, and most impressive, is Geoff s generosity with his knowledge and discoveries. At no time did he balk at telling me about his methods or materials. There are no secrets, just skill, patience, enthusiasm and generosity.

JRB: To go back to fundamentals; who first decided on the optimum size for a saxophone reed?

GL: I believe it was largely to do with trial and error. I've every admiration for people who were around in the 'thirties and before, because some of them were brilliant. They didn't have computers, but they had horse sense. You can go a long way with a bit of horse sense. It's unfortunate that not many people seem to have it today.

JRB: It's been educated out of them?

GL: I'm sure that, very largely, it was due to trial and error.

JRB: So it's not the outcome of calculations?

GL: No. It's the same with mouthpieces. A lot of it is trial and error. There are certain things that you can do, and certain things that you can't, do. For instance, you can't make a great big long lay. As you make the lay longer it means you've got to put more into your mouth. Otherwise you can't get a seal. The air blows out from the side. If you make a very short lay, you're in trouble again. You can't get the amplitude of movement on the reed. Consequently the high notes are OK, but you can't get the bottom notes. You lose the control. So what you've got to do is produce a mouthpiece that will play the entire range of the saxophone. Today everyone prefers to be able to play another couple of octaves above. You have to try and build that into it.

JRB: So a modern mouthpiece is different from a 'thirties mouthpiece?

GL: Not necessarily. Brilliant players like Sigurd Rascher have been playing two or three octaves above top F for years. But there's no doubt that a high baffle helps you to play high harmonics. It excites the upper partials of the note. It helps, but it's not essential; you can still play harmonics on an ebonite mouthpiece with a big bore, if you've got that sort of embouchure. I make the complete range in three chambers in ebonite, but I've never advertised it much. I'm pretty busy making metal mouthpieces. JRB Which material is most satisfactory to work?

GL: Metal. If you prefer ebonite, here's no point in forcing yourself on to a metal mouthpiece. Ebonite does give a different sound, a more woody sound. Even if you go to a high baffle, you still get a more woody sound. And it's very comfortable in your mouth; you've not got this problem of a cold mouthpiece. Although it's quite rigid, it feels quite rigid in your mouth. I've just had a card from John Williams, who plays with the Count Basie band. He's used one of my mouthpieces for over twenty years. He started off on metal because that was the only one I made. He loved it. When I started making ebonite, he changed. Now he occasionally plays metal, but by and large he plays ebonite.

JRB: You must have met the greatest players.

GL: Yes. When I first started making mouthpieces, it was the heyday of visiting American bands, to a man, I don't think I've ever been put off by any approach I've made to any musicians I just said, 'I'm Geoff Lawton, I make saxophone mouthpieces.' They would say, 'Oh, great - we know about you. Come and have a talk.' I remember meeting Gerry Mulligan when he first came over with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. I was with him in the band room. He played the mouthpiece and said, 'It's a wonderful mouthpiece, but it isn't me. It's not the sound that people expect to hear when Gerry Mulligan plays the baritone, although I would love to play it. It's so easy to play, and it's so big and resonant.' He was only in his early twenties all those years ago, and was extremely nice. Roy Reynolds played with Stan Kenton. He's still playing today, in Canada. I met Harry Carney. He was absolutely wonderful. The Ellington band were here for a week and I went with him to several of the concerts, including one in Leeds. It was the ultimate Duke Ellington band – Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Paul Gonsalves, and Carney. I really got on wonderfully with Harry Carney. He was terrific. He introduced me to everyone in the band, and I was with them more or less all the week that they were here. He played my mouthpiece most of the week. While I was with him, musicians in the band were coming up and saying, 'Hey, you sound really good tonight, Harry. What have you got, some new reeds?' But again he said. 'It's the best mouthpiece I've ever played. Except it's not me.'

JRB: Both Mulligan and Carney had characteristic sounds.

GL: They both played on 1930s mouthpieces, with cavernous chambers. Anyone else playing on one sounds as though the saxophone is blocked up.

JRB: Somebody once told me that Carney used a wooden mouthpiece.

GL: No. Ebonite. Made by the Woodwind firm. Roy Reynolds played on my mouthpiece. He's English; a wonderful player. He went to America and played with Kenton. He introduced me to the Kenton band, and they all played Lawton mouthpieces. I was at a particular concert and Stan Kenton knew I was there. He told the audience that he'd led bands for forty-odd years, and he'd never known a time when two saxophonists played the same mouthpiece. Bob Cooper would come on the stage with a shoebox full of mouthpieces, and every time they had a two bar rest he was changing mouthpieces. He was missing cues because he was changing a mouthpiece. Kenton said, 'I'll bring them all out. I think they sound the best they've ever sounded. I'll feature them and see what you think.' He was really chuffed about it. Funnily enough when Basie was over here for the last time, Frank Foster (who has played on my mouthpieces for twenty-odd years) said: 'I don't do this very often, as it's not the type of music you expect from the Count Basie band. But we've got Geoff Lawton in the audience tonight, without whom I wouldn't be playing today.' Then he said, 'I'm going to play a number for him.' He played Milestones, with the rhythm section. It was great. I met Wayne Shorter a few years ago. Twenty or thirty years ago you could go to these concerts and they'd let you in without any trouble. Now they all have this ridiculous security, and you can't get near them. I think he was in Manchester somewhere. It was, 'Oh no, you can't come in.' It just so happened that one of his people heard the name Lawton, and he said, 'You're not Mr. Lawton, are you? I've been trying to find you for years. Every time we go to a different country Wayne has us going round the different shops seeing if we can find Lawton mouthpieces.' So I was in.

JRB: About your beginnings: You started making mouthpieces for the players you were playing with?

GL: There were two other players. They asked, so I made them. They seemed to be rather more than highly delighted. I thought maybe there's something in this. Then Les Lovelady, who played baritone with the BBC band, liked the mouthpieces I made him. He introduced me to the Bob Sharples band, and I got two or three in that band. Then I met the guy who played baritone in John Dankworth's band. At that time the 'Johnny' Dankworth band was very big. Very quickly I sold quite a few to London session musicians. At that time there was very little in the way of metal mouthpieces. I concentrated on the baritone for that reason. I said to John Dankworth, 'Would you like one?' He said, 'I'm an ebonite person.' I said: 'Take it, you never know.' The next thing he wrote to me to say that he was playing on it, and it was absolutely superb. For thirty-five years he's been paying on that mouthpiece of mine, and he loves it. So that's how I started. Then I met Harry Carney. He was friendly with someone in Manny's in New York. He went in and mentioned my mouthpieces, and that got me going with Manny. I've sold thousands of mouthpieces through Manny in New York. I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I even do the plating, because I could never be happy with someone else doing it. They either knock the mouthpiece, or the plating comes off, or they don't put enough plating on. When you're talking about gold, you're talking about money relative to something you're trying to sell for around $150. That's after the shops have taken their profit and the Government have taken their thing. Gold has been $850 an ounce! It's not that expensive now, but it always teeters around $500-$600. You can't put too much on ... Underneath the gold it's silver plated, which is also expensive. The base metal isn't brass, like most people use. I just use the best materials available. I use nickel silver, which is one of the most noble alloys you can get, 50% dearer than brass. There are so many possibilities with a mouthpiece relative to the lay, the width of the rails, the shape of the interior, the height of the baffle, the size of the throat, the thinness of the tip, the angle of the bite, the width of the mouthpiece, the material it's made of. Then there are all the different openings. I make from four star up to fifteen star for America. If you compute all that you find it's completely endless. If you're going to copy something, which one should you copy? You might be copying the wrong thing. For many years George Coleman played one of mine. I'm a big fan of Ernie Watts, and he uses one of mine on alto. Pepper Adams played on one of mine for about four years before he died. Charlie Fowlkes played on mine; he was a great baritone player. The sound that he used to get was unbelievable. You could almost see the sound coming out of the end of the baritone. Christiane Wickens plays mine. Ron Holloway, who was with Dizzy Gillespie for four years, must have fifty or more of my mouthpiece. He wouldn't sell you one for anything. He plays with Gil Scott-Heron. His forte is the ability to play harmonics. The best player of harmonics I've ever heard. I'm expecting him on the doorstep any day now. He must have been here fifteen or twenty times; he's mouthpiece mad! When he first got a Lawton mouthpiece he got a flight out here right away, from America. I get people who are jibbing at coming forty miles. He comes three thousand miles. Sonny Rollins played my mouthpiece for many years. He's had terrible problems with his teeth. He's got a rubber mouthpiece at the moment and he's playing on that.

JRB: And your rivals?

GL: I think they are extremely expensive. People have been brainwashed into the idea that you get what you pay for. If you go to a shop and buy the most expensive thing in the shop, it's going to be the best thing. In a lot of cases that's true. If you want a good car you buy a BMW or a Rolls Royce. You pay a lot of money and you know right away that car is going to be a good car. So that mouthpiece is £350 and this one, which is a Lawton, is £150. But this Lawton is better. Some young people can't think that that could possibly be true. They think that there's something in that mouthpiece that must be better, otherwise how could he sell it for £350? However, until recently mine was the dearest on the market. Considerably dearer than a Link. Links are made in a different way. Not machined from the solid, they are made in two halves, silver-soldered together. There's a minimum of hand work that can be done by less skilled people. Guardala are made from a piece of brass, machined. I don't use brass, I prefer to use something that's a more noble material. I have a complete range of mouthpieces made from surgical stainless steel. I defy any of the people who make mouthpieces to make one from stainless steel.

JRB: It's horrible to work.

GL: Unless you were an absolute fanatic, and you'd done twenty years in a tool room, you wouldn't know how to start with stainless steel. Brass is like a boy's material. The big advantage, if you like stainless steel, is that it will last for ever. It will never need replating. It will never wear. You could drop it on the floor and you'd be very unlucky if it dents. Larsen made some. They went through a period that was laughable. The reed used to overhang the mouthpiece by a thirty-second of an inch on either side! But they overcame these problems. Much better made now. Good luck to them. It really has amused me that people will pay as much for a mouthpiece as they will for a saxophone. You can buy a soprano saxophone, beautifully made, for £600. You can pay £650 for a baritone mouthpiece. There's no comparison with the relative amount of work. There isn't £600 worth of work in a baritone mouthpiece. I couldn't charge people for the time spent on mouthpieces - talking about them, worrying about them, trying different ideas. I'm never satisfied. I'm still trying new ideas. I can show you a box of mouthpieces where I've tried every mortal thing that it's possible to do. I've had round bores, square bores, diamond bores, ribbed bores, curve walls, concave walls, areas near the tip lowered, high baffles, V baffles, reflector baffles. Long lays, short lays, flat lays, curved lays.

JRB: Movable baffles?

GL: The problem with movable baffles is that no matter how you make anything that you stick into a mouthpiece, you can never get away from a certain amount of air noise. No matter how well you make it there's always an edge. When you blow the air through, it hits that edge and creates air noise. You can only get a mouthpiece that has no air noise if you have a perfectly aerodynamic shape. You have a few people in the world who think about saxophone mouthpieces. Eventually - if you are like Arnold Brilhart, who's been making mouthpieces all his life, and a damned good saxophone player - you've tried everything. I make saxophone mouthpieces in nickel silver, brass, some in pure bronze - basically high tin and copper.

JRB: Bell metal?

GL: I also make a tenor mouthpiece in bell metal. Pure bell metal. It's extremely hard, but if you dropped it on a hard surface it would break, crack like a pot. It's similar to bronze, but contains more tin. Proper bell metal has 20% tin, 80% copper. Very similar to what Zildjian make their cymbals out of. But it's all a matter for the individual player.

Geoff Lawton died in 2003.
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