How to Choose a Saxophone Mouthpiece
Choosing the right mouthpiece for you can be a daunting task. You’ve got an almost infinite amount of choices, and from among them you are expected to find exactly what works for you without being able to try them all and many times without the most basic knowledge as to what actually makes a mouthpiece a good mouthpiece.
The main problem is not only is each mouthpiece a little different- each horn is a little different and each player is very different. The combinations are endless, and what works for one person might not work for another- and conversely, what one person thinks is the worst sounding mouthpiece they’ve ever played might the a very good mouthpiece for their friend.
Therefore, what is best is not knowing what brands to try, but knowing what actually makes any mouthpiece a good or bad mouthpiece, and what makes each mouthpiece sound how it does.
I aim to help make this process easier for you by describing the why of mouthpieces. Armed with this information and a little bit of background work on your end, you can look at a mouthpiece whose brand and model has been hidden from you and without even playing it have a pretty good guess at to what it will feel like for you. You will know what parts of the mouthpiece are important, how the mouthpiece works, and how to start to learn what you like. Also, hopefully, you will be freed from the idea that you need to play what Trane played to sound like Trane.
Before going any further, I encourage you to check out this mouthpiece glossary, which will define many of the terms we will be talking about here.
Ok. Now clap your hands. No, seriously, clap you hands. Look at your hands as you clap them slowly and evenly. Each clap (assuming you clap well) is a single burst of sound- pressure is built up between your hands and shoots out in a high-pressure wave that travels outward, and when it hits your ear drum you hear the clap. Look at your hands again. How often are they actually touching? The answer is not often. Most of the time they are in transit.
This is very similar to the motion and action of the reed on your mouthpiece. Most of the time it is in transit, opening or closing. Only a small part of the time is it sealed against the mouthpiece. This opening and closing creates pressure waves which travel through the instrument. Depending on how fast the reed is vibrating, you hear different pitches- the reed is the tone generator for the saxophone. But most of the time the reed is open. Which means most of the time, you are part of the saxophone bore- your oral cavity, throat, and lungs. This is why you can change the tonality of the instrument through not only embouchure changes but also changes inside your mouth and throat. And since each of us are slightly different physiologically, we each are in effect a different instrument even through we might play the same saxophone with the same mouthpiece. This is why no two saxophone players sound exactly the same. And this is why playing the same mouthpiece and horn as your idol or your neighbor doesn’t get you the same sound.
So now you are free- free of the idea that you can acquire the sound you want through gear. What you must do is find the right horn and mouthpiece for YOU. Get your horn in good playing condition (not as common a condition as you’d hope), and then practice.
So how do you find the right mouthpiece for you? The answer is to understand the parts of the mouthpiece and what they do, pay attention to these parts when you try out a mouthpiece, and build up a mental catalogue of what you personally like.
Some parts of the mouthpiece are subject to taste. One part in particular is not. The facing curve and table.
The facing curve is the curve of the mouthpiece where the reed lies. The table is the flat part where the back of the reed is held to the mouthpiece by the ligature. The reed, as it opens and closes, bends along this curve until it is completely sealed, and then opens again, and then seals again. This curve must be extremely precise, correct, and even. When it is precise, correct, and even, the reed may vibrate freely. Unfortunately this is very rare! Most mouthpieces that weren’t made extremely well at the factory (rare) or refaced very well by an expert refacer (rare) have a facing curve that is incorrect and uneven. This adds resistance, stuffyness, and sometimes squeaks. If the facing curve is uneven or incorrect towards the back near the table, the low end will particularly suffer. If it is uneven or incorrect closer to the tip, the higher end will particularly suffer. In extreme cases- though the measurements here are so tiny even the difference between a very good and a very bad facing will still not be visible to the naked eye- the mouthpiece will not play at all.
Mouthpiece facings are measured using a flat surface (usually a glass plate) with markings etched in it. This is held flat against the table, and feeler gauges of different thicknesses are slid down the facing until they won’t go any farther. In this way, the distance of the varying thicknesses can be plotted on a curve- the facing curve. More feeler guages = more precision. What particular gauges to use, how many, and what thicknesses are up to the individual doing the facing.
This might be hard to believe, but the difference between a good facing curve and a bad one is much less than a hundredth of an inch of material. In many cases, any more than a hundredth of an inch off from ideal and it won’t even play.
So the facing is the starting point. If it is not good, nothing else matters. A mouthpiece must have a good facing to play well, and unfortunately this is rarer than it should be between poor original craftsmanship, a reface not done well, or damage. Many mouthpieces have mediocre facing curves and are much more resistant than they need to be. Add that to the fact that most people play on horns with leaks or mechanical problems and perhaps 1% of saxophone players are playing the saxophone as it was meant to be played and as it CAN play.
Here is a video that shows a mouthpiece “blank”- in this case, a blank for a vintage Buescher soprano mouthpiece. This is what the mouthpiece looks like before finishing, including facing.
So that’s the facing. It must be correct and well-done, or the mouthpiece won’t play right regardless of any other considerations. A good facing is a mouthpiece that plays freely and easily, one that you don’t have to fight, one that allows you to concentrate on playing well.
Next up is the stuff that can vary a bit more, and affects the quality of the sound. Assuming a good facing, this is the stuff you pay attention to. Each and every time you try a mouthpiece- and you should try every one you can, whether its at stores or your teacher’s piece or your friend or whatever- play it, pay attention to what you feel and what you hear, and then inspect the internal shapes of the mouthpiece. Over time, you will build a mental catalogue of what correlation these shapes have to what you feel and hear. Eventually, you will be able to look at a mouthpiece and give a pretty accurate prediction of what it will play like for you. You will be able to judge a mouthpiece on what it actually IS, vs. what name is on it.
The baffle is the part of the mouthpiece behind the tip rail and opposite the vibrating reed. There are several different shapes, but the major rule is that the closer to the reed the baffle is, the brighter the sound. This is called a “high” baffle, or a “large” baffle. A baffle that is far from the reed is called a “low” or “small” baffle, which will usually sound darker. For more about baffles, read here. If you would like to experiment on your own, you can use dental wax to temporarily build up a baffle in your mouthpiece. For something more permanent, you can use epoxy or putty (try to find something food-safe). Here is a video of someone making a removable baffle for a baritone mouthpiece.
The sidewalls are the internal walls of the mouthpiece under the side rails leading into the chamber. The greater or lesser volume here has a similar effect as the chamber, and they can be straight, concave, or convex, and they can have additional shaping that directs the airflow in specific ways (like the slight squeeze on a MeYeR Bros. NY, as seen in the video here: MeYeR Bros. New York Mouthpiece Overview
The floor and the transition from window to the floor come in many different shapes and sizes. The floor can be close to the table or farther away, and the transition can be anything from a razor-sharp edge (vintage Dukoff “Stubby”) to a large wall (Selmer S80 mouthpieces). You can see the Dukoff “Stubby” in this video here about vintage Dukoff mouthpieces.
The chamber is the internal volume and shape of the mouthpiece. In general, the larger the chamber, the darker the sound. The smaller chamber, the brighter the sound. There are many shapes of chamber, and many ways how the floor or sidewalls can transition into it. For more about the chamber, read here.
The rails can have different shapes even within the bounds of having a good facing. The rails can be thick and wide (Selmer S80) or razor thin (Guardala handmade), and they can be straight-edged or chamfered as seen in this video here about vintage Berg Larsen mouthpieces.
The tip opening
The tip opening is the measurement of the distance from the tip of the reed (at rest) to the tip rail, usually measured in hundredth of an inch and sometimes given a letter or number representation by the maker. Click here to see a handy-dandy mouthpiece tip opening comparison chart to see how many popular makes compare. Note: they call that a “Facing chart” but really its just a tip opening chart. The tip opening has a lot to do with what you are more comfortable with personally as far as your embouchure strength goes, but one thing it does affect acoustically is the brightness of the sound. The larger a tip opening, the more it favors the higher partials, thus the brighter the sound. A stiffer reed on a more close tip opening will give you a darker sound than a softer reed on a larger tip opening on the same model mouthpiece.
These are just the quick and dirty descriptions of main parts of the mouthpiece- as you playtest and pay attention, you will notice other characteristics that influence what you feel and hear- like the shape of the beak, where you put your ligature, whether or not you use a mouthpiece patch- the list goes on and on, and writing a fully informative account would take a book and a semester-long class to go with it.
Hopefully what I have done here is arm you with the knowledge you need to teach yourself what mouthpiece is right for you.
I’ve just scratched the surface here, and there is a wealth of information available if you search online and talk to other saxophonists. Because we are all different, we all have our own particular tastes and goals and physiology and horns and reeds and ligatures and styles we play, so the only person that can tell you what mouthpiece is right for you is you.
A starting point for learning more about mouthpieces, feel free to leave more links in comments if you have them: