In the musical life of every saxophonist comes a time when a few very important decisions have to be made. Decisions that cannot be put off, nor should if be ignored. These decisions are: “Which mouthpiece should I use?”,” What reed should I play on?” And although it is often ignored but just as important, “What ligature should I use?”
These three objects make up the major portion of our sound and because of that, if things are not going our way these object can cause us some major grief. No only do we find ourselves on the edge of insanity, but we can nearly find ourselves bankrupt! (Well, almost.) Mind you, all of these questions have subjective nuances to their answers but there is some “hard science” to apply to answering these questions.
Let’s start out with…
“What mouthpiece should I use?”
To answer this question we need to ask ourselves a couple of more questions such as:
- “What musical style do I wish to play?”
- Do I want a jazz mouthpiece?
- a classical mouthpiece?
- something for pop music?
- a good “all-rounder”?
Mind you, pre-requisite here is to have an idea of the sound you are looking for! Do you have a favorite artist who has that favorite sound of yours? Do you know what mouthpiece he/she plays? Go for it! Try it!
The basic “mouthpiece science” is this:
Jazz: A mouthpiece with a Medium to Medium-Large chamber, a medium to large opening (5* to 7* in some mouthpiece series).
Classical: A mouthpiece with a Small to Medium chamber, a small to medium opening (4 to 5 in some mouthpiece series).
All-rounder: A mouthpiece with a medium chamber and a medium opening (5, 5* in some mouthpiece series).
There are tons of mouthpieces out there and there are (thank god!) a few “standard solutions”. I would not suggest relying blindly on one of these “standard solutions” i.e. “Meyer or Otto Link for jazz”, “Selmer S-80 for classical”, etc.
They all are good suggestions and your teeth, jaw size, bite, mouth cavity, etc are all unique to YOU, and a “standard solution” may not necessarily be the best solution for you.
You should feel free to experiment, even with some “crazy” options. In my personal experience, I had the opportunity to perform as a soloist for a “classical” work for saxophone and orchestra. I first tried a “standard solution” of a Selmer S-80 Alto saxophone mouthpiece. I really didn’t like playing this mouthpiece and I had a lot of intonation problems with it. I then tried a Hard-rubber Otto Link 5 ( a so-called “jazz” mouthpiece) and it worked GREAT! I really got a “classical” tone out of it and it felt great to play. So, please in any case keep your options open.
“What reed should I play?”
The choice of reed is a sensible and or course, important issue. The physical feel of a reed has an effect on how we also emotionally feel when we’re playing. Everybody nows that feeling when we have a reed that absolutely “sucks”. We can go crazy over it! Well, luckily (or unfortunately) there is a large choice of reed manufacturers out here. To go with a certain strength of reed, say a “3” or “Medium” will serve you well most of the time. This strength varies slightly between the various brands of reed. But this difference can still make a lot of difference when playing.
The most popular brands are: Rico (including Rico Royal), Vandoren (including Vandoren Java and Vandoren V16), La Voz and Hemke. Of course there are more brands that I didn’t list but you know them. While you’re still experimenting with reeds, it only makes sense to buy about 3 reeds at first. Important is, is to inspect the reeds exactly. Some reeds (especially Ricos) are cut unevenly and can impede the response of the reed while playing. Inspect the color of the reed. Sometimes discolorations in the reed can produce another timbre than those that have almost no discoloration. They can sound even better(!), but leave that to your own discretion.
The basic “science” says:
Open or wide mouthpiece opening = softer reed,
close of narrower mouthpiece opening = harder reed.
The same applies here as I mentioned with the mouthpieces above, don’t take this “science” for granted, and experiment.
I personally suggest that you avoid plastic or synthetic reeds. There is a danger to playing these reeds. Although you have a reed that plays “every time”, the fact that the reed doesn’t “breathe” can affect your ability to play overtones and ultimately destroy your embouchure. So please, STAY AWAY FROM THEM!! I personally have had a BAD experience with them.
“What ligature should I use?”
The ligature is the most neglected piece of the saxophone setup. Why? I believe mostly because many have the feeling that is only something that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece and nothing other than that. Nothing could be farther than the truth! The ligature has a LOT to do with the sound! Just imagine, you’re trying to talk and you have a clamp around your throat. Depending how tight it is, where pressure is being applied and such, will affect the way you talk (if you can at all!). So, don’t ignore this important piece of apparatus.
Here we also have a large pallet of manufacturers and models to choose from. Should we play the ligature that came with the mouthpiece (if any!), meaning, a ligature of the same brand of the mouthpiece? For example; Selmer mouthpiece = Selmer ligature? Vandoren mouthpiece = Vandoren ligature? Nope, it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have models with:
Two screws under the mouthpiece
Two screws on top of the mouthpiece
One screw, either above or below
A metal band
A leather band
An open frame with small rubber balls as contact points
The list can go on…
Well, we have to realize that the above scenario (trying to talk with a clamp around your throat) is the best example of what role the ligature has. Don’t run out an buy the “newest, latest”, experiment, ask your teacher(s), ask professionals, talk to your repairman, … research!
Above all, before you go on your search for the ULTIMATE SETUP, set a budget for yourself with exactly HOW MUCH MONEY you want to spend at all. You can surely find something satisfactory regardless of your budget.