There are a lot of excellent saxophone products on the market but finding something that is truly unique can be a challenge. In the world of heavy-mass products, it seems that nearly everyone offers their take on the heavy-mass screw. Where there are a variety of shapes, sizes, alloys, and platings to be found, nobody has thought to address the issue of adjustability. That changed earlier this year when a company, aptly named Sax Gadgets, introduced their Vari-Screw system. The Vari-Screw System is a heavy-mass screw that allows the player to adjust the mass by using a series of weighted inserts. The theory behind the system is, by changing the weight of the screw, the player can customize the response, feedback and ultimately the tonal character of the instrument. As each performance situation varies, so can the weight to fit the needs of the player.
Matt Vashlishan, president of Sax Gadgets, was kind enough to send me two full sets of screws for my studio and me to try. We tested on a variety of saxophones including Selmer (Mark VI, Super Action Series I, II and III), Yanagisawa (WO10), Yamaha (62 III, 875 EX and Custom Z), Dakota, and Cannonball.
The Vari-Screw is constructed of brass and a harder alloy used in the ES (extra strength) model. Each screw is knurled for better grip with the center of the screw being hollow to accommodate the various weights. Each weight, which is about the size of a quartz watch battery, is held in place using a rubber "O" ring. A standard set includes the brass screw (7g) and two weights (14g and 18.7 g). One can purchase a full set that consists of the screw (7g) and five weights (9.75g, 14g, 15g, 18.7g, and 22.7g). The weighted inserts are constructed of a mixture of quality metals that allow for various density without changing the footprint of the screw. For those who have modern instruments or vintage instruments that use a silver tenon collar you can opt for a lighter, yet stronger screw (5.5g).
I have to admit I was excited to try out this product. In test heavy mass products I have disovered that what works for one person will not work for another. Having the ability to adjust the weight allows, in theory, the product to universal.
I have always felt that the tenor saxophone was the instrument that allowed me the highest sensitivity when trying products, so I decided to test the Vari-Screw first on my Mark VI tenor. I would like to say that my first experience with the Vari-Screw was an immediate success, but sadly it wasn't. I could describe the experience of thundering indifference. Where I could tell a difference in feedback and response, it wasn't until I incorporated the heaviest 22.7g weight. And, at that weight, the resistance was simply not to my liking.
It was at this point that I remembered that one should never judge a product on the first playtest. To accurately test a product such as this, you must use a variety of instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds as well as test it in a variety of musical situations. It was in this spirit that I next tested the screws on the soprano. It was here that I began to discover a difference between the various weights. With each weight, I experienced a unique color and response. For example, the screw without an insert provided a quick response and ease of play that was most appreciated. However, it was the 14g and 15g inserts that made the soprano sing. With the 14g weight, I found increased tonal center and clarity of articulation, especially in the upper register. The tone was deep and powerful, but with a darker quality. Moving to the 15g weight the sound began to brighten with more upper and mid harmonics. One wouldn’t think a gram would make this big of a change, but it was noticeable.
As much as I appreciated how it worked on soprano, it was the alto saxophone where the Vari-Screw System showed it’s true colors. I fell in love with both the original screw and extra strong screw using in combination with the 14g weight. Unlike my experience with soprano, I found the original screw performed with a brighter more edgy tone where lighter, extra strength screw offered greater response and presence in the mid to low range. What I found most impressive is the effect it had on the upper register and altissimo. I have always liked the harmonics of my Yanagisawa, but with the Vari-Screw the altissimo was near effortless. To borrow a trumpet term, the Vari-Screw allow the notes to "slot" easier. This was especially noticeable on altissimo Ab/G#. This note has always been my nemesis, but the Vari-Screw it met its match. I would purchase this screw simply knowing to had dominion over that confounded note!
It was after a week of playing these screws on alto and soprano that I decided to revisit them on my tenor. One this second playtest, I changed from a metal Florida Otto Link to a series of hard rubber mouthpiece including a Drake Bergonzi EB, 10MFAN Classic and an original Slant Signature. With this change, I was able to find the sensitivity that I was missing during the first playtest. Like soprano and alto, I seemed to gravitate to 14g weight, although I felt the 18.7 weight to offer some added punch in a big band setting. Unlike the alto, I seemed to prefer the original brass screw with my tenor. It brought out the complexity and richness that I enjoyed.
As impressive as these screws were as a player, it was as a teacher that I experienced the most significant impact. As I mentioned, I had a number of my college students test the screws. Before I get into how they performed, I think it is important to note that I do not hold a product, no matter how well designed, above good pedagogy or mastering of the fundamentals.
One student, who plays on a vintage Mark VI commented, “I noticed a difference in ease and playability in the lower register and resonance in the higher register.” Many Yamaha players noticed a marked improvement using the Vari-Screw. One player noted, "The response of my instrument is immediate, and the low end is so much easier to play, wow!" Another said, "I feel like I have more overtones in the mid-range. I could feel it throughout the entire range of the instrument, and my palm keys speak much quicker.” One of the most significant experiences happened when I let a colleague try the screws after a big band gig. After playing the original brass screw with the 14g weight, he simply laughed and said, "This should work. This shouldn't make that much of a change, wow!”
I appreciate the craftsmanship, fit, and ease of the Vari-Screw. Threads are tight and fit with precision. The overall length and full-bodied knurling making adjustment quick and easy and after three weeks of testing, I can report they perform as advertised. Be mindful the degree of which is dependant on a lot of variables including instrument, player, mouthpiece, etc., but make no mistake they work. I do recommend that you try these screws without any other heavy mass products on your instrument. This allows you to really get a sense of how the different weights works. I was left wondering what these screws would be like if it was offered in a variety of platings. Would a silver or gold plated option affect the overall performance? Perhaps we will find out in the months and years to come.
The Vari-Screw System is a new product, and like all new products, it is sure to go through a series of revisions and updates before they reach the final version. The standard set sells for $90, and the full set is $170. This means a full set is more than double a typical screw made by a competitor. So, in comparison to other screws on the market, these are expensive. But if you consider the variety of weights, you are actually getting three screws with the standard set (two weights and screw without a weight) and six screws with the full set (five weights and screw without a weight) for the price of one. I am certain that once you try them, you with be happy with your purchase.