General Mouthpiece Information
The mouthpiece, ligature and reed are the three most important items in playing the saxophone. They dictate what sound comes out of the instrument, so it is paramount that we make sure they are of the best quality and suit the individual.
The tip opening number (or lay) refers to how big the gap is between the end of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. Basically this affects how much air it is possible to push through the sax as well as how much the reed itself moves when blown. Hence the bigger the lay, the more powerful projection a player can get from a horn and the more potential for dynamics. Conversely, a wider lay requires more physical effort to play and is trickier for a player to control. Also watch out for the fact that different companies use different numbering conventions to describe tip openings, so direct comparisons are not always straight forward. It is usual to start with a small size No.4 and then move up as you progress.
Best ways to improve your tone
One of the best ways to improve the tone and playability of your sax is to upgrade the mouthpiece, ligature and reed set-up. There is a huge choice of mouthpieces to suit every kind of level and playing style. Even before considering a new mouthpiece, it is recommended that you replace the standard metal ligature that comes with your instrument, and it would be wise to invest in some better quality reeds (there are many different brands).
Here are a few basic guidelines: as a general rule, ebonite mouthpieces are the choice of many players who wish to deliver a warmer or clear and lighter tone whereas metal mouthpieces tend to be louder with more edge and punch to the sound, and are the choice of many who play jazz, blues and rock. Metal mouthpieces tend to be more popular with the tenor saxophone as they can project the sound further.
The Facing/Tip Opening
This extends from the table and controls the gap between mouthpiece and reed (known as the tip opening). A long facing can be more difficult to control and along with a wide tip opening requires good embouchure strength if played with a hard reed. It is difficult to play softly with a mouthpiece like this. With a short facing there is usually a narrow tip opening (the gap between reed and mouthpiece is small). This does make it easier to blow for beginners using a soft reed, but the clarity of sound in the extreme registers of the sax suffers and can sound out of tune. Facings usually come in 3 sizes - short, medium and long.
This is the portion at the top of the mouthpiece that slopes downwards into the mouth. A high baffle (thick) gives an edge or a buzz to the sound. A low baffle (thin) does not project as much but produces a slightly darker sound, and can be harder to blow.
This is where the reed sits and should be as smooth and flat as possible. The reed must sit very securely on the table. A clean contact between reed and mouthpiece improves tone production and allows the reed to function correctly.
Choosing a Mouthpiece
Its no exaggeration to say that the choice of mouthpiece for your sax is as important, if not more so, than the actual sax itself. If you think of the air stream that goes to make up a note, it goes from player, to mouthpiece/reed combination to the saxophone itself and this pretty much sums up the order of importance in creating your overall sound. Firstly the player themselves, followed by the mouthpiece chamber - where their breath becomes the focused column of air which becomes the note - then on to the body of the horn which will pitch and project the sound outward.
There are a lot of variables in overall sound and responsiveness - both of these may be different in either high or lower register on any particular sax. Also, the ability of a player to play the piece in tune - which shouldn’t really be a problem with most modern mouthpieces on modern horns but with very wide mouthpieces can be a bit tricky for inexperienced players. Vintage horns can be some what temperamental when it comes to mouthpiece compatibility. Other elements that may, or may not be, an issue would include ease of harmonics, reed friendliness, the ability to cut through amplification on stage, physical comfort to play, as well as effort needed to get the piece to really ‘spring into life’ (normally referred to as resistance).
A quick word concerning materials - virtually all mouthpieces are made from either ebonite (vulcanized rubber) or metal (usually brass, bronze or stainless steel). Generally metal pieces tend to be louder, brighter and have more ‘oomph’ than ebonites but there’s a bit of a myth here. Its easy to conclude, wrongly, that metal is simply louder than ebonite - but in fact there’s something slightly different going on. The type of designs which project well are easier to make from metal (so Jody Espina once claimed, in a workshop he ran for us). Two identical pieces, one made of metal and the other of ebonite, should sound close to identical. We’ve subsequently managed to test this and it seems pretty much true - there seemed to be fractionally more edge to the metal version but vastly less than anticipated.
Having said all that, to some extent the whole field of ‘which mouthpiece’ is as simple or as complex as you, the player, want to make it. And - in a lot of cases - there are default choices which should work well for more or less any player on any sax.
The whole field of which mouthpiece to use is a bit of a minefield. It's very much a matter of personal choice, plus what works well with specific reeds or saxes. Really in an ideal situation there's no substitute for a bit of hands-on (mouth on?) testing.
However, having said that, there are a few ebonite mouthpieces we recommend as good standbys, in that they work well for most players and almost any horn.
On alto, the Meyer is very much regarded as ‘the’ definitive, versatile choice. These are very much the perfect ‘blank canvas’ capable of supporting everything from the controlled, dark delivery required by classical players through giving enough cut to hold their own in an electric funk band.
On tenor the Otto Link, both metal and ebonite, fulfills a similar role - a responsive and flexible option which keeps a players options open.
There seems to be far less of a consensus on soprano or baritone. For the former a variety of Meyers, Vandoren, Links and Jody Jazz HR all seem to work well (metal mouthpieces seem less popular on soprano, though are certainly not out of the question). On the baritone, again the field is rather ore open - though here metal pieces seem significantly more popular - Beg Larsen, Lawton and Yanagisawa all being strong contenders.
Which Mouthpiece for Classical
This is made simpler by the fact there are relatively few choices which are regarded as appropriate for classical playing - big chamber, narrow tip and, ideally, a horseshoe shaped throat; a rich dark tone, lacking in any form of edginess. The default choices are either a narrow tipped Selmer (S80 or S90) or one of the Vandoren range (either the optimum - which is their design made especially for classical playing - or one of the lower numbered V5s). Other contenders would be the Yamaha ebonite custom or a Rousseau Classic, both of which are capable of supporting a classical style with ease.
One thing we’ve come across a lot is players who are wanting to play classical pieces but keep their options open with a ‘piece that can deliver the bigger, more flexible tone needed for jazz - the vast majority of players who come to us with this agenda settle on one mouthpiece: the Meyer 5. Especially on alto - these are hard to beat for easy response and versatility.
At the opposite end of the scale from classical there’s the requirements of rock (and the noisier end of jazz) players, or anyone who works with an electric band. We’d be talking about a big sound, lots of projection and edge and (in some cases) good for working harmonics. There are a lot of choices up for grabs here - the vast majority being metal (though there are a few ebonites out there with plenty of noise making potential - Vandoren Jumbo Java and Theo Wanne’s Datta being excellent examples). A bit of explanation here - making a big sound which works well loud is about rather more than just blowing harder - any sound coming out of a sax is made from a “stack” of harmonics: lower ones given richness and depth to a tone, high ones giving it bite (and, from that, the ability to cut through drums, rowdy big bands etc). As with everything else to do with the sax, there’s always a bit of compromise involved in balancing these two basic elements: a tone which is all edge will be audible over the loudest big band but might well be a bit thin; conversely a fat, mellow tone will vanish without trace when put up against a loud big band or electric outfit.