The Mighty Mouthpiece

OK, so straight off, this article is to give you a little help in selecting the right mouthpiece for you with some basic but important info on how and why to choose between the different types and what to look for. The Holy Grail of any musical instrument is tone or put simply, the sound that you produce. Presumably you will have an idea as to how you want your instrument to sound so with this in mind I shall not be recommending any particular brand or type. Why? Simply because I don’t personally know you or the type of instrument you play or the tone that you want to achieve (more on this later). What works for me will almost definitely not be right for you. What I will (hope to) do is to give you some basic info to help you on your journey through the somewhat overwhelming selection and hopefully help you to choose the right mouthpiece for you. So let’s dive in…….

What is a mouthpiece

and why is it so important?

If you play any type of musical instrument that is powered by your mouth then the mouthpiece is the first point of contact with your instrument, which, in my opinion, makes it the most important part to get right. In the case of the saxophone (and clarinet) the mouthpiece actually goes into your mouth which means that as well as being a major architect in the quality of your tone it also needs to feel comfortable. However your mouth will adapt in very little time to most types of mouthpiece (especially if you are getting the exact tone you desire!). Admittedly there are a few factors that go towards the “perfect” sound i.e. the brass alloys that the sax is made from, the neck, the bell, the bore, but in my opinion all of these can be rendered irrelevant if the wrong mouthpiece is selected.

This is another reason that, going back to my first paragraph, I’m not going to recommend any particular brand or type. You may listen to your favorite saxophone (or clarinet) player, do some research, find out which mouthpiece said player uses, rush out and spend a small fortune to buy the exact same make…….and sound nothing at all like him/her!

Mouthpiece selection truly is a very personal journey!

A brief understanding of layout

There has been many books written about mouthpiece selection with all the technical data (and I do recommend reading them…knowledge helps produce better decisions) but I’m simply going to give some basic information here to help you on your journey.

As you can see from the above diagram (it’s a good job I can play music as I’m rubbish at art!) there are many factors that go into mouthpiece construction and each will effect the tone and response in a different way :

  • size – fat, slim, duckbill
  • material – metal, hard rubber, plastic
  • Technical specs – baffle, tip opening, chamber, facing curve

Also let’s not forget the ligature and the type and strength of reed.

So where to begin? Let’s say you are (or aim to be) a classical player or a satin jazz player looking for a dark, rich, full, centered tone. Not a great deal of edge and a nice rich response, especially in the lower register, then you may want to try a mouthpiece with a larger chamber, longer facing length and a closer tip opening. But beware, there are some trade-offs…. you may find that you have to up your reed strength by a half step or so, which may result in a little too much resistance when blowing. Then of course you get a phone call asking if you can stand in for a one off gig with a blues or rock style band. All of a sudden you are going to be competing with screaming guitars and drummers that are beating the living daylights out of a drum kit ! “Argh” you think, “my beautifully honed jazz tone will never compete with that!” And of course you are correct. For this brighter, cutting, louder tone you need to consider a mouthpiece with a smaller chamber, a shorter facing length and a wider tip opening. This will give you volume, projection, brightness and easier access to the altissimo register. But once again there is a trade-off. Playing in tune will be harder – the sax will play slightly sharp meaning you will have to pull the mouthpiece out on the neck which will cause the intonation (the sax being in tune with itself) to be slightly uneven through the octaves. You may also find that the lower register will not respond correctly. So we search for the middle ground which, if you are a beginner, is a safe place to be.

The million dollar question..

How can you choose what is right for you? As you can probably gather by now there is not a “one size fits all” solution. The best advice I can offer is simple…TRY THEM OUT. Go to your local music store (with your instrument) and try a bunch out for yourself until you get a feel & sound somewhere close to what you have in your mind. I agree that if you are a beginner this may seem very daunting, but a good music shop should make you feel comfortable. If you feel intimidated or come across a high pressure salesperson then simply walk away and look for another store. Trust me it will be worth your while. When I first started playing I laboured away on a really cheap rubbish mouthpiece for a couple of years. After getting knowhere near to something resembling a “nice” sound (and at the insistance of my poor suffering wife) I decided to invest in a decent quality mouthpiece and the improvent in tone and sound quality were almost instant. As such my confidence on the sax got a massive boost.

As a final piece of advice do not be tempted to hit Amazon. Simply put – would you buy a car without giving it a test drive? Probably not. The tone/sound of your instrument is THE most important aspect of playing so why risk it!

Below I’ve listed a few different/popular brands. As I said these are NOT recommendations other than to say they have been around a long time and are used by many players so you know you are getting a quuality product.

  • Otto Link
  • Meyer
  • Berg Larsen
  • Bari
  • Selmer

Happy blowin’

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