HOOOOONK! SQUEEEEAK! QUAAAACK! NYEEEEEAAAARGH!
Anyone who has (or has had a kid who has) played saxophone is familiar with these sounds —something between squealing microphone feedback and the utterances of an angry Wookie. It’s likely you’ve spent hundreds on your first horn (or $40+ per month to your rental company), spent money on music stands, books, reeds, and lessons, but what about the mouthpiece? With a bit of guidance and the appropriate equipment, any student should be able to produce a full, consistent sound in their first week of playing, and a good mouthpiece is a huge part of that.
What makes the mouthpiece so important?
Let’s say you’re picking out a car for your 16-year-old niece or nephew, and you’ve got three choices: a Geo Metro (classic!), a Honda Civic, and a Porsche 911. Which one makes the most sense for our young, inexperienced driver? The Porsche is clearly WAY too much to keep on the road (not to mention the gas money), and while the Geo will get you around, getting on the freeway will be a life-or-death experience no matter who’s driving! A beginner’s mouthpiece should be like that 4-cylinder Honda — easy to control, efficient, reliable, and with just enough power to handle their everyday needs.
So what should I expect from a good mouthpiece?
Without getting too technical, the following should be true for a good beginner’s mouthpiece:
1.It should respond quickly and consistently in all registers of the horn.
Nothing is more frustrating for a student than a horn that just “won’t work” on one or more notes (especially low ones). While there is some learning curve, the horn should speak with relative ease with a #2.5 reed — no softer, no matter what the people at the music store say.
2.It should articulate cleanly without chirping.
Whether starting the sound with just air or with the tongue, the mouthpiece should respond without chirping or squeaking. Learning to tongue is difficult, but for many students a poorly made mouthpiece is an enormous and unnecessary obstacle. In my experience, the vast majority of students who have difficulty learning to tongue see significant improvement after a mouthpiece upgrade.
3.It should produce a full sound without excessive effort by the player.
The internal geometry of a mouthpiece is very important — once which is well designed will use air more efficiently than a poorly designed one. The biggest payoff for the student is the ability to produce a full sound with relatively little effort. Proper breathing, posture, and air support are the most important factor, but a bad mouthpiece can sabotage even a beginner who’s doing everything right.
4.Its ligature should hold the reed in position firmly, but not too tightly.
In order to produce a sound, the mouthpiece uses the vibrations of a reed held in place by a device called a ligature. An ill-fitting ligature will cause the reed to move out of alignment while playing, resulting in many of the issues discussed above. Ligatures are perhaps the most over-hyped of woodwind accessories — they range from simple to absurdly complex, and are made in a variety of materials. The best ligature is the one that FITS and HOLDS THE REED IN PLACE. Period.
This sounds great. Is there anything a good mouthpiece can’t do?
Yes, plenty. For example:
1.Make you sound like John Coltrane, Kenny G, Charlie Parker, or anybody else.
The world’s greatest saxophone players don’t sound great because they have the best equipment – they sound great because they’ve practiced and performed for YEARS.
2.Work perfectly on the first note.
Mouthpieces are very different from one another, and transitioning from one to another can make playing feel completely different. Changing from a bad mouthpiece to a good one may actually sound bad for a little while, if you’ve gotten used to compensating for one that doesn’t work so well. Stick with it and ask your teacher for help with the transition.
3.Automatically fix problems out of the box or absolve you from practice.
There’s a syndrome in the music community known as GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. At its core, GAS is the delusion that by the acquisition of musical equipment, one becomes bestowed with a mystical musical ability and is no longer required to work at it. There are thousands of GAS sufferers lurking around internet forums – avoid them as this condition can be contagious.
Legendary tenor player Wayne Shorter was playing a student-level Bundy horn until just before joining Miles Davis’ band in the 1960s. He only gave it up because Miles insisted it looked bad! Repeat after me: “No piece of musical equipment will ever improve my playing as much as an hour of practice.” I still have to recite this mantra once in a while while looking at eBay.
Ok, I get it already, just tell me what to buy!
Now that you’re thoroughly convinced, one caution: mouthpieces can be expensive. With few exceptions, a good beginner’s mouthpiece will cost $100 or more – the ones I’m recommending here are $100 to $200. That said, an investment in a good mouthpiece will pay enormous dividends in terms of progress for the beginning player. The saying “you get what you pay for” should be kept in mind here.
All of these mouthpieces can be found easily online, though I recommend asking your local music store first — they need your support!
Selmer S80 / S90 (~$160 for alto)
Selmer Paris is famous for making the world’s most renowned professional saxophones, and they also make high quality mouthpieces. The S80 and S90 mouthpieces look and play very similarly, and are used by many of the world’s top classical saxophonists. I have a slight preference for the S90, however their performance is very similar.
The S90 line is sized by number (170, 180, 190, etc.). I prefer the 180 and 190 for alto players and the 190 and 200 for tenor players.
The S80 line is sized by letter (B, C, C*, C**, D, E and so on). For alto players I recommend the C* or C**, for tenor players I recommend a C** or D. C* is the most common size for S80 alto and tenor pieces, and they can often be found used for well below the usual new price – eBay can be a great resource here.
I play a S90 190 on alto and a S80 E on tenor for teaching and classical gigs.
Vandoren Optimum (~$119 for alto)
In addition to mouthpieces, Vandoren makes all manner of saxophone and clarinet reeds and ligatures. Vandoren makes three lines of mouthpieces: Optimum, V5 and V16. Most of the V5 and all of the V16 pieces are geared toward jazz players. I strongly prefer the Optimum for beginners – they’re a great and slightly less expensive alternative to Selmer.
For alto players, I have had success with both the AL3 and 4, though I prefer the AL3. The TL4 has worked much better for my tenor students.
Yamaha 4C (~$25 for alto)
It’s with mixed feelings that I include this mouthpiece in my list, so it comes with a disclaimer: this is not a great mouthpiece. It’s really nothing more than mediocre, but it does work for most people. If the cost of a Selmer or Vandoren is an insurmountable obstacle, the Yamaha will do the job, for a while at least. That said, students generally outgrow them rather quickly and end up spending the bread anyway. Your mileage may vary. If you have to buy a cheap mouthpiece, this is the one to buy (though I sincerely hope you wont!).
One more note: make sure to buy Yamaha’s ligature with this mouthpiece, as its external dimensions are slightly different than most mouthpieces, and you want a good fit to keep your reed in place.
Learning any instrument is a tough endeavor, and having equipment that doesn’t do its job can be an infuriating experience. A good mouthpiece can last for years, decades, or an entire playing career. I personally still use a Selmer S90 190 alto mouthpiece I bought from my band director in 1997, and it plays every bit as well now as it did then. There are a ton of mouthpieces on the market, but I recommend a select few of them to my students. Do yourself a favor – start yourself (or your child) off right with a great mouthpiece. Your neighbors and your teacher will thank you.
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