Mini-Clinic for Saxophones: Choosing Mouthpieces, Reeds, and Ligatures.
Michael Brockman (UW School of Music)
When choosing a mouthpiece, there are many issues to consider. Buying a mouthpiece without playing it first is precarious. Letting a private teacher help you choose a mouthpiece is a really good idea, because he/she can judge what kind of needs you have and help determine if a mouthpiece has been properly manufactured and finished to play well. Each mouthpiece will play differently depending the brand, model, and style, and (very important) whether it has been properly finished at the factory to be symmetrical.
Aside from proper finishing, the biggest difference in mouthpieces is the design and shape used on the inside. A traditional sax mouthpiece is supposed to be as conical as possible on the inside--that is, it should be shaped so the inside dimensions of the mouthpiece change gradually from the round opening at the small end of the neck to the tiny aperture at the tip of the reed. The more evenly and gradually that transition from the tip opening to the neck is formed, the better in-tune the saxophone should play.
A raised baffle (like a shelf that begins near the mouthpiece tip and projects straight out before dropping down into the cylindrical part of the mouthpiece) creates a very bright tone quality. This is used in many jazz mouthpieces. Jazz mouthpieces with this baffle can have a very good sound, but they tend to be difficult to keep in tune.
There are some jazz mouthpieces that use other, more subtle methods to get a brighter sound, and I recommend going with those. For this reason, for jazz tenor playing I like the Otto Link mouthpieces size 8 (both hard rubber and metal are good, though each has a different character). I also recommend the Yanagisawa metal mouthpiece (size 7 is medium). Both of these brands play very well in tune, and can deliver a great sound if you learn to play them with a full tone. For jazz alto playing, the Meyer 7-Medium hard rubber is considered an industry standard (and with good reason), but there are many others that are excellent (the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece is also good, as is Yanagisawa). Some of the really bright mouthpieces that are made for jazz sound good when you first play them, but are ultimately too thin sounding when you put a lot of volume through them.
Classical mouthpieces should have a character that makes the saxophone sound more "wooden" in tone quality than the standard sound used in jazz. For this reason, most classical mouthpieces have a very conical shape inside, and they have what is referred to as a large "chamber" (the area about an inch from the front tip, where the inside of the mouthpiece stops its conical shape and becomes a cylinder). The industry standard for classical saxophone is the Selmer C-star mouthpiece (in the S-80 model), but there are many other excellent brands and styles to choose from, depending on the tone you want to achieve.
There are great players using all sorts of other mouthpieces, and sound great on them...so sometimes you just have to try a lot of different brands to find the one you like. I have played dozens of brands, and I think I own 30 tenor mouthpieces and 30 alto mouthpieces. However, unless you want to spend a lot of money, it is safest to buy one of the "industry standards" mentioned above, and then continue comparing other mouthpieces to that in the interest of discovering something that suits you better.
Each brand of reed will have a slightly different sound, due to the shape of the "heart" in the reed (if you hold a reed up to the light, you will see a dark area in the main playing portion of the reed. It begins around 1/4 inch back from the tip). Some reeds manufacturers use a very narrow heart, some use a wider one, and some have a heart that is more pointed at the end, while others are more rounded. So, your ultimate choice of reeds depends mostly on which brand sounds the best to your ear with the mouthpiece you are playing. I play on several different mouthpieces, and thus, there are several brands of reeds that I use on a regular basis. For jazz, depending on which mouthpiece I am playing, I often use VanDoren Java, or Rico Royal. Several really good players in Seattle are using LaVoz, but they are playing on mouthpieces that have a very dark sound to begin with. For classical playing, I like the darkness of the VanDoren classical reed.
The most important job of the ligature is to make the reed seals against the flat table of the mouthpiece, so you don't get squeaks from air leakage. After that, the choice of ligature is all based on sound. Personally, I stay away from ligatures with lots of gadgetry--I go for a simple brass ligature (like the Selmer standard ligature) with two regular screws to tighten it. I often see people playing on very expensive ligatures that have all sorts of moving parts, and I often find that those ligatures don't sound any different from a plain brass one. I notice that there is a difference in sound between tin and brass, and so the metal used to make a ligature is certainly a factor. Silver/Gold ligatures sometimes have a warmer tone, but they can be very expensive. Some people prefer the sound of a rubber ligature, so you should try those as well. The bottom line: so long as they do a good job of making the reed seal, you can try ANY ligature (even a rubber band) and judge for yourself whether you like the sound.