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.
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
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 www.ErnieWatts.com.