How to Choose A Saxophone Mouthpiece?

Kevin Cato

Creating your ideal tone is one of the most gratifying feelings you can achieve on the saxophone. While the most important factor in tone generation is the saxophonist, often the type of mouthpiece can hinder or accelerate the tone development process. You may be surprised to learn that your mouthpiece has a greater effect on your tone than the body of the instrument!

Not all mouthpieces are created equally. If you are currently playing on the stock mouthpiece that came with your instrument there’s no need to panic. If you are a beginner, this is a great place to start, but you may find yourself out growing this mouthpiece sooner than later.

In this blog post we are going to explore the different elements of the mouthpiece, how they effect your sound and some best practices for purchasing a mouthpiece.
It is often challenging for beginners and advanced saxophonists alike to select their ideal mouthpiece. Ultimately, the ideal mouthpiece is subjective to the saxophonists preferences. Let’s dive into the finer details of some popular mouthpieces so that you can make an informed decision.

Mouthpiece Components

The baffle is the inside top area of the mouthpiece and, aside from the musician, is the single most important element in saxophone tone production. This is the first area your column of air will pass through in order to produce a sound on your instrument. The baffle comes in different shapes and sizes. The variations in design determine the tone quality, tone production and playing sensation. Here’s a quick look into the different kinds of baffles.

    1. The High Step Baffle
This baffle is closer to the reed and allows the saxophonist to produce a focused, bright, powerful  sound with relative ease. The reason for this is that the high step baffle creates a wedge that extends from the tip opening all the way to the chamber. As a result, this leads to increased air speed and heightened responsiveness. If you love playing smooth jazz, big band jazz, funk, blues and rock this type of baffle may serve your needs best. Michael Brecker and Gerald Albright are great examples of saxophonists that  utilize high baffle mouthpieces.

    2. The Rollover Baffle
The rollover baffle creates a responsive and powerful medium-bright tone. The baffle starts high closer to the tip opening and then rolls-over into a lower baffle as it enters the chamber. This baffle gives the player more versatility in sound than the high baffle. The rollover baffle is a good choice if you desire to play r&b, west coast jazz, pop.

    3. The medium step baffle
The medium step baffle is the “jack of all trades” as it pertains to baffle designs. If you intend to explore multiple genres of music this may be ideal for you as it produces a balanced sound. The mouthpiece can range from medium darkness to medium brightness. The tone of Chad Lefkowitz-Brown is a good example of this type of baffle; powerful and earthy.

    4. The low circular baffle
This baffle is primarily geared towards classical music. The design often leads to a little bit of resistance, but produces a dark, warm and rounded tone. Godwin Louis is a great example of a musician that uses this baffle for jazz.

Keep in mind that all the aforementioned baffles are just the basic classifications. There are countless hybrids and it is possible to find mouthpieces that are unique in colour and character.

Tip Opening

The tip opening refers to the width of the mouthpiece opening. Do not confuse the tip opening with the baffle. The baffle is the area on top of the mouthpiece and the tip opening is the gap through which you blow. It is also referred to as the “size” of the mouthpiece and is signified by a number or letter on the mouthpiece. It is recommended that beginner saxophonists use a size 4 opening to begin their saxophone venture. The larger the tip opening, the darker, broader and more varied the tone. It also becomes more challenging to produce a note as more air is required to produce a pitch.

Mouthpiece Material
The mouthpiece of the saxophone comes in different materials. The most popular material is ebonite also known as hard rubber, but mouthpieces can made from plastic, metal and even wood. Starting with hard rubber is the best option for beginners as it is the easiest to control and maintain. Plastic mouthpieces tend to have a darker tone because the material absorbs more sound waves. Wood also lends itself to a darker tone and requires regular oiling to protect the material. Metal is the most resonant and produces the loudest sound with ease. Remember, the shape of the baffle can make any of these materials sound brighter or darker!

Chamber Size
Chamber size plays a significant role in determining the timbre of your mouthpiece. The general rules for the chamber are as follows:
1. The larger the chamber, the darker the timbre. A large chamber allows for more air to pass through the mouthpiece and creates a low pass filter effect. This means, notes in the low and medium range of the saxophone become more resonant at the expense of the high register.
2. The smaller the chamber, the brighter the timbre. A small chamber allows for a more focused, air stream, which, in turn,  creates a high pass filter effect. This means, notes in the high register will sound brighter and sweeter at the expense of the resonance of the mid and lower registers.

The chamber can serve as a medium for balancing the effects of the baffle. So do not neglect this element!

The facing of the mouthpiece refers to the distance of the curve from the break-point, the area where the mouthpiece and reed meet, to the tip opening. Generally speaking, there are 3 types of facings:
1. Short facings are responsive, emphasize the top register and has the least amount of resistance while playing.
2. Medium facing: The best of both worlds. It is the most balanced design and the majority of mouthpieces use this facing.
3. Long facings are less responsive, more resistant, have high back pressure and a richer sound.

Best Practices for Buying a saxophone mouthpiece

    • Always buy after trying: Ask the local sellers or check online sellers who allow you to try the mouthpiece before making the final purchase.
    • Try at home: If you try mouthpieces in an unknown environment, there is a high chance that you would not understand the difference. You must always try out playing the mouthpiece at home or studio where there won’t be other noises to influence your decision.
    • Opt for a trial period: Choosing a saxophone mouthpiece is a crucial decision for your music. Therefore, you must opt to buy from someone who gives you a trial period of 5 to 7 days. Spending some time with the mouthpieces before making the final decision.
    • Final selection: Try multiple mouthpieces and record them to compare the different mouthpieces. Make the final purchase decision at your own discretion.

The Bottom Line

Your tone is your identity and the mouthpiece is the gateway to discovering your sound. There is a great deal of depth in mouthpiece design, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Have fun with the process! Mouthpiece shopping never gets old and the majority of saxophonists have multiple mouthpieces so don’t feel pressured to select the perfect mouthpiece the first time. Every saxophonists grows with practice and as a result, our needs change with time.
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