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What the Pros Play – Saxophonist Ernie Watts

Woodwind & Brasswind Contributing Writer – Greg Vail

Yes, he wanted a trombone back in junior high, but thankfully his band teacher handed him a saxophone! Ernie Watts was given a bari sax for band because he was a big kid. “The band director thought I was big enough to carry the bari for marching band,” Watts says. It was only 6 months before an alto sax became available and young Watts took off, running with the sax.


It has been a musical love affair that started in 1958, some 53 years ago. Watts has played everything. His list of woodwinds he once used in the studios include: alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones, flute, piccolo, alto and bass flutes, clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, recorders and WX7 wind drivers. 1968-1990 he was the session guy in LA, playing on movie dates and records, while developing his own music and performing constantly.


When asked about his current sax set-up, Watts admits he is very focused on the tenor saxophone. His newest CD, Oasis, features the tenor, and he has been traveling with just a tenor saxophone for years.


Keilwerth Keilwerth has been his saxophone of choice for almost 20 years. Watts says he spent an entire day at the plant when he picked out his alto, soprano and tenor saxophones. He has also played Selmer Mark VI’s and Yamaha Customs, before landing with Keilwerth saxophones. His current tenor is a SX90R, black nickel plated with gold lacquered keys that he has played 19 years now, chosen that day at the factory.


I asked him what he liked about the Keilwerth, and he said one thing was the construction. Watts says, “It is consistent and stays in adjustment. Other horns I had played would vibrate out of adjustment on the road."


I was sure that there was more to the decision so I asked about the sound. Ernie said, "I don't think all of the sound comes from there; the saxophone sound starts in the body, but I always have liked the darker sound of my Keilwerth compared to other horns I have played.  If I have to, I can sound like myself on another horn, but I am most comfortable with my own tenor." He later focused on the mouthpiece set-up as another important part of the gear for shaping a saxophone players sound.


It was the late 60’s and Watts was introduced to a mouthpiece set-up by Don Menza, then making his own mouthpieces, that had a very open tip with a soft reed. Watts liked the combination. One night in the early 70’s Ben Harrod, owner of Otto Link, came to hear Ernie play at the Baked Potato in LA, and met him.  Watts asked him to make experimental mouthpieces with very wide tip openings for him to try. Ben Harrod thought he was crazy, but agreed to make a 150, 160 and 170 tip opening for Watts.


Watts loved the 160 tip and had Ben create 3 more of the 160 tip, what would be a #13 tip opening! Ernie played the pick of the lot up until a few years ago, retiring that first mouthpiece due to wear and tear. He is now using the second #13 Link from that batch and said it is a little brighter but still plays great.


When Arnold Brilhart invented a machine to create one of the first synthetic reeds in the 60’s, Watts found the Fibercane reeds to respond really well for him and felt they really opened up the altissimo range; a very important part of his playing. In the early 80’s Brilhart sold the business to Selmer, who made the sax reeds until the Brilhart machine broke. Ernie ran out and bought every Fibercane reed he could find. He still plays reeds from that purchase today and says some of them last him 6-8 years! He did say Legere is his new reed of choice if he ever has to buy a synthetic reed. Ernie plays cane reeds on his alto and soprano, which are Rico Jazz Select #2.5.


His ligature is by Oleg. Watts likes the fit on the mouthpiece and the reeds respond really well with it. He also uses Vandoren bite plate cushions on his mouthpiece; 2 thin, clear at a time.


His saxophone neck is a newer addition to his set-up. Watts always keeps his doors open, and when asked to, often tries new stuff. The rule is, “If something sounds immediately better, I get it.”  About 5 years ago, a German designer by the name of Tino Schucht asked Watts to try his new sax necks. Ernie had played the standard Keilwerth with a little Oleg tweaking but found the TN1, unfinished brass, to sound better, respond even on the altissimo and bring the pitch in with the rest of the horn around the middle E and D.


Ernie Watts is the classic example of, “If it works for you – PLAY IT!” Check out his latest recording, Oasis and hear a very strange and unique set-up that has an amazing sound. The lesson here is to experiment, and go with what sounds good to you.

For more on Ernie Watts, please visit his website at

Woodwind & Brasswind is proud to offer high-quality musical saxophone straps and accessories for all musicians. All items are backed by The Woodwind & Brasswind's 60-day satisfaction guarantee, assuring that you'll love your purchase.

Los Angeles based freelance saxophonist Greg Vail is among the most versatile woodwind players on the west coast. His work in jazz, pop and contemporary gospel music spans over 30-years. Greg maintains an active digital presence at

While Woodwind & Brasswind compensates writers for their editorial reviews, the views expressed by the writers in those reviews are their own.

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