The sound of the saxophone is made through the mouthpiece and the reed. Therefore a suitable mouthpiece/reed combination is of extreme importance to a saxophonist, even more so than the saxophone itself. The mouthpiece is the bridge between the player and the saxophone, through which the saxophone is transformed into an extension of the body. Therefore this is a topic that must be examined carefully by all serious saxophonists.
Basic Concepts About Tone:
Mouthpieces of different sizes and shapes will produce different sounds, therefore before actually trying choose a mouthpiece, the saxophone student should at least have an idea what type of sound he wishes to emulate. But how should one develop this idea? The best way is to listen to recordings of many different saxophone masters, then choose the type of tone that is most appealing to the student’s ears, then aim to emulate that. In simple terms, the saxophone sound can be divided in to two main categories: bright (like Michael Brecker) and dark (like Ben Webster).
The Starting Point Of Reed Selection:
The mouthpiece choice must be matched with the proper reed strength. However, whether to choose a mouthpiece first or to choose the reed first is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. As a rule of thumb, it is recommended that beginning students start with a reed strength of 2 or 2.5, and then make adjustments after gaining more experience on the instrument. It is better to start with softer reeds so the student can avoid over-biting with the jaw to compensate a reed that is too stiff. With a softer reed, it forces the student to relax the biting muscles, and try to control and feel the reed’s vibration with the embouchure and the lips instead. If the reed is too stiff, and the student over-bites with the jaw due to a weak embouchure, he will not only hurt the inside of his mouth, but also never be able to achieve proper tone control.
Basic Parameters In Mouthpiece Design:
The three basic parameters in mouthpiece design are chamber size, tip opening and facing curve length. These parameters are illustrated in the picture of my Dukoff D7 below:
Effects Of Mouthpiece Parameters On Tone:
- In general the bigger the tip opening is the more difficult it is to control, because the reed will need to vibrate with a larger amplitude in order to close the air intake. If the student finds it difficult to produce a sound but find it very easy to blow air through the mouthpiece, then he should try a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening or softer reeds. On the other hand, if the tip opening is too small, then the student may find it very easy to squeak.
- A longer facing curve will make the tone darker, and the low register easier to control. A shorter facing curve will make the tone brighter, and the high register easier to control.
- A larger chamber size will make the tone darker, but require a larger air flow. A smaller chamber size will make the tone brighter, and require a smaller air flow.
Since everybody is built differently physically, different people may produce different tones even if playing on the same mouthpiece. Therefore before buying a mouthpiece the student must try them physically and make comparisons not only between mouthpieces of different models, but also same model but with different sizes. The student may be limited in choices by what is available at the local music store, but trying and comparing physically is the only way to make a proper decision. As the student’s skills evolve and his embouchure develops, he may also find it necessary to change to a different mouthpiece.