It is one of the funniest moments in the beginning band. The newbie reed player slaps a reed on the mouthpiece, tightens the ligature with a “Vulcan Death Grip,” and then fires a stream of air through the poor saxophone like it is a tiny, tense latex balloon.
The resulting screech makes hair stand on end. Within moments, the musician announces to the anticipating director, “I just cracked my reed.”
Most saxophonists agree that the least important aspect of mouthpiece selection is brand. Although the various instrument brands are known for their nuanced tone qualities, it is important for the musician to find a mouthpiece that works best for his or her playing characteristics.
No two instruments, no two musicians, and not two mouthpieces are alike. Inasmuch, the best approach for mouthpiece selection is recognizing what makes a good mouthpiece a good one, and what makes a bad mouthpiece a bad mouthpiece.
With patience, a discerning eye, and a good grasp of his or her needs, the musician is well positioned to find a mouthpiece that will work well given their preferred instrumentation and context for playing.
The characteristics of the facing curving is a vital considerations in mouthpiece selection. If the curve is bad, the mouthpiece is bad. Period.
Since the facing curve represents the plane on which the reed makes contact with the mouthpiece, the facing curve’s precision will have ample impact of sound precision.
A curve that is warped, imprecisely machined, or prematurely worn could produce sound that is squeaky, smoky, or almost mechanical in quality. On the other hand, a well-crafted facing curve allows for deft seating of the reed, allowing the reed to vibrate freely.
Similarly, the mouthpiece’s “table,” the area of the mouthpiece where the reed is locked in place by the ligature, must be smooth and level. A misshapen table will create unnecessary reed movement.
Saxophonists choosing a mouthpiece should consider baffle shape. The baffle, often described as the area just below the tip rail of the mouthpiece, tends to greatly impact the tone color of the entire instrument.
Certain baffle shapes produce a bright tone color in the instrument while other shapes create a darker tone. Baffle shape also contributes to the buzz of the instrument.
Clearly, an alto or soprano saxophonist prefers a bright, rapid buzz, while those using the lower and mellower tenor and baritone models prefer something quite different.
Chamber and Sidewall
Chamber size and sidewall shape carry substantial power in shaping the tone color and quality of an instrument, and therefore should be carefully considered when a musician is selecting a mouthpiece.
Generally, the greater the mouthpiece chamber’s volume, the darker the tone of the instrument. Further, the chamber’s shape is an important consideration. While some chamber shapes allow for great dynamic variance, other shapes downplay dynamic flexibility in favor of a greater chromatic range.
Sidewall shapes are generally classified as straight, concave, or convex. Obviously, slight variances in sidewall shape may have significant influence on airflow through the length of the instrument.
Often, the top mouthpiece manufacturers market their particular offerings based on the unique playing experience afforded by sidewall shape.
Tip Opening is generally determined by the rail designs and the fit and strength of the ligature.
Often just hundreds of an inch in width, the tip opening, like other mouthpiece characteristics, conveys tremendous effects on tone color of the saxophone.
A relatively narrow opening, when coupled with a stiff reed, tends to produce a significantly darker sound than a softer reed coupled with a wider opening. Embouchure strength also plays into the musician’s preferred tip opening width.
A stronger embouchure prepared for more resistance can handle a narrower tip opening than the embouchure of novice saxophonists.
Beak and Bite Plate
While often overlooked in the selection process, the beak and bite plate of the mouthpiece should be fitted to the bite and embouchure characteristics of the saxophonist. Saxophonists with overbites, for example, are well served by bite plates crafted with minimal contouring.
On the other hand, musicians with underbites may feel inclined to select a mouthpiece with a substantially thick beak that can withstand the torque of teeth pressing down near the edge of the mouthpiece.
It is not advisable to select a mouthpiece without considering the type of reed that will be coupled with the mouthpiece. For saxophones, reeds are grouped by construction material, hardness, and size.
The best option in red construction is always the natural cane reed. Used for thousands of years on woodwind instruments of all shapes and playing characteristics, the cane reed produces gorgeous tone quality with affording the musician greet dynamic and chromatic range.
Synthetic materials are used in less expensive reeds. While an attractive alternative for the novice, the synthetic reed should not be paired with a high-end mouthpiece.
As for reed hardness, the harder the better. Hard reeds, those numbered as 4 or 5 on a 1 through 5 scale, create the best tone quality and color. That said, new musicians should always choose a softer reed and advance to harder ones as proficiency deepens.
When it comes to reed size, there is an obvious correlation with overall mouthpiece size. A larger mouthpiece and larger reed will typically aid the saxophone and its operator in creating mellower and darker sounds.
Conversely, smaller reeds and mouthpieces foster the creation of brighter sounds. Reeds should never be altered to fit a particular mouthpiece.
It can be rather complicated at times. Woodwind mouthpieces and reeds are far more complex than their neighbors in the brass family.
Inasmuch slight variances in mouthpiece sizes, shapes, and craftsmanship may foster incredible differences in sound production and sustainability. Add the characteristics of a particular reed, and the influence of the mouthpiece is amplified exponentially.
The best advice is always patience. Saxophonists of all proficiencies need to fully consider their playing ability, playing context, and desired sound characteristics as they hunt for the next, great mouthpiece.
Ah, and don’t forget, bring the saxophone along. Do not pair a mouthpiece to an instrument without knowing if they are compatible.