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The Best Way to Hold a Reed On
What do saxophone ligatures do?
A ligature clamps the reed to the mouthpiece. Think of this a bit like when you hold a ruler on the edge of a table and flick the bit sticking over so it goes “boing”. You need to hold the part of the ruler firmly, or the end sticking over does not vibrate well. The same principle applies to the way a reed vibrates on a mouthpiece. Think of the ligature as the pressure that holds the butt of the reed against the table of the mouthpiece, so the blade (= the boingy bit of the ruler) can vibrate nicely.
Saxophone ligatures have developed a long way since the days when clarinetists would just wind a piece of cord or leather thong around the reed to secure it to the mouthpiece (but some people still swear by this method). But the function is the same. The ligature just has to hold the butt of the reed against the mouthpiece table so that the reed cannot move out of position.
Ligature, Reed & Mouthpiece
If mouthpiece table is flat:
Provided the reed is not distorted, any good fitting ligature will work, and there should be no significant difference in sound between one ligature and another. If the reed swells due to moisture, you should adjust the reed with a blade or reed tool.
If mouthpiece table is concave:
Some mouthpiece tables are concave by design. One theory is that because of the resulting slight gap between reed and table the reed will swell into the concavity and close the gap, however it’s probably best to just make sure you flatten the reed in this case. If the curve of the concavity is from front to back, the tightness and position of the ligature can be critical. If the concavity is from side to side, the way the ligature applies pressure can be critical: if it applies pressure to the centre of the reed, it will push the reed down into the concavity and so create a good seal, but if it applies pressure at the edges, then it could cause the gap to remain which means the reed does not seal well and can cause squeaks or deadening of the sound. Both of these situations explain why many people think that a ligature affects the sound.
Note that if the reed swells into the concavity, or if the reed is flat and has formed itself to the concavity, then this reed is unlikely to perform well when tried on a different mouthpiece. For this, and other reasons, I believe a flat table is preferable to a concave table.
These days some very sophisticated ligatures are being made by manufacturers with all kinds of claims that various enhancements can improve your sound. How much of that is true and how much is marketing hype to get you to part with your hard-earned cash is open to debate, more on that later.
Most ligatures are tightened by one or two screws, either laterally (from the side) to tighten a band around the mouthpiece and reed, or from the top directly down onto the reed (as with the Otto Link type). Do not overtighten the screws, they should be tight enough to just stop the reed from slipping or to take up any slight warpage in the reed or table of the mouthpiece. Of course, there should never be any warpage of the mouthpiece table, and you should always prepare your reeds by sanding or scraping to make them flat, but sometimes a previously even reed can warp very slightly while playing, and if a ligature is tight enough it will apply pressure to flatten a slightly warped reed against the table. If the surface of the reed is not held against the table then the sound can be slightly muffled or harder to produce. You will probably notice this most often when trying to play quiet low notes.
Does a ligature affect the sound of the saxophone?
Some people consider that the type of ligature affects the sound, however this topic has been hotly debated. I’ve never noticed this as long as the ligature is a good fit for the mouthpiece and is holding the reed firmly, and neither the reed or mouthpiece table are uneven. It is very important that the ligature is not too distorted or badly fitting or the tone will definitely suffer. For this reason the more flexible textile based ligatures may sound better, but only if compared to adamaged or poorly fitting metal one, as they do not get damaged by dropping them, sitting on them or most other kinds of abuse you can find for them. But the bog standard 2-screw type will sound as good as anything provided it is the right size and is in good working order.
How Different Ligatures affect less than perfect reeds:
Audio Examples: Compare Ligatures (2-Screw vs Fabric)
Ligature A is a Rovner
Ligature B is a 2 Screw
Ligature C is a cabletie (£4.99 for a packet of 100)
In the examples above, you can see that if the reed has a flat surface, then even a badly fitting ligature should hold it well. But if the reed is swollen, some ligatures may work better than others. This scenario is compounded if the mouthpiece table is not flat.
So what does all this show? Should I use a Rovner, 2 Screw or some other metal ligature?
As you can see in the examples above, it is very much up to the shape and type of ligature whether the reed is held properly against the table, allowing the tip to vibrate properly. If the reed (or mouthpiece) is distorted some ligatures will be bad, some may be OK, giving the impression that ligatures have an effect on the sound generally, whereas this is only likely to be true in some cases where the mouthpiece (or reed) is out of whack.
In the first example, as the reed and mouthpiece work fine with very little pressure on the reed, and not much difference at which point the pressure is applied, then a different ligature will make no difference to the way the reed vibrates.
I have found that if the table is flat and reed is true, then just about any ligature in good condition will get the optimum sound. Unfortunately if there is a problem with the shape of the mouthpiece table or distorted reed, and you are getting different sounds from different ligatures, then only by trying them out will you really know which is best.
To sort out your less than perfect reed, see the page and video working on reeds
All About Saxophone Ligatures Video
It’s hotly debated whether ligatures actually have any effect on the sound of the saxophone, so in this video we look at the truth and the myths. From the comments, it seems the jury is still out.
The feelgood factor, snake oil, voodoo, placebo, auto suggestion, emperor’s new clothes or just a good ligature?
All of these have been applied to describe some of the more outlandish new fangled aspects of the gear we buy, whether it’s a Cannonball saxophone with semi precious stones on the neck to “resonate” or just an expensive ligature turbocharger kit “Now, you can upgrade your existing ligature to our MassLoaded Technology™ with the revolutionary TurboCharger Kit.” (seriously – that is in the marketing BS blurb).
(For those who are not saxophonists, a ligature is a simple metal or leather band that clamps the reed to the mouthpiece).
But so many saxophone player suffer from G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome), and the manufacturers know about this only too well.
One of the most hotly debated topics on the saxophone internet forums, Sax On The Web and CafeSaxophone is whether a different ligature can improve your sound. I’ve always been a firm believer that provided that neither reed nor mouthpiece are warped or damaged in any way, then the ligature either holds the reed properly and it works, or it doesn’t hold it properly and it doesn’t work.
In other words, a ligature doesn’t have its own sound in the same way a saxophone or a mouthpiece can. It either does its job or it doesn’t.
But so many people report that a new saxophone ligature improves their sound. These people are not stupid and I believe that this can be explained in two ways.
When there is a warp issue
If the reed or mouthpiece are not true, e.g. the reed is warped or the mouthpiece table is not level, then different ligatures will have a different effect as the equipment is not working properly – a reed only vibrates when it is held firmly against the mouthpiece, just like when you hold a ruler over the edge of a table and make it “boing”. If it’s not held firmly it won’t boing very well.
So imagine if the mouthpiece table has a bump in it, along comes a certain ligature which just happens to compensate for that bump perfectly due to the place it adds pressure to the reed. Bingo! It suddenly sounds better.
But provided the table of the mouthpiece is flat and the reed is vibrating with the perfect “boing”, no amount of slightly different way to hold it there will make any difference.
The Feelgood Factor
This is when you pay $96 for a beautiful gold plated ligature with patented mass loaded resonating turbo charged anti-slip synthetic acoustic cushion.
Of course it sounds better, or you are the fool for buying it. Again, I do not wish to stand on my holier than thou high horse over this, because I don’t mind admitting I’m one of those who would do the same. I love a satin gold beautifully engraved saxophone, or a mouthpiece that looks like a work of art. I test play such things and find it so difficult to stand objectively to the side and just listen without drooling over the bling.
Auto suggestion and the placebo effect are well documented, no need to feel stupid – it happens to us all.
But one episode sticks in my mind. At a trade fair, I was walking around trying things out and I stopped at the Francois Louis stand. Their ligature was supposed to sound better than other ones. I asked to try one and they allowed me to, so I started playing and soon a large audience gathered. I then swapped back to my own ligature (a simple no-name 2-scew type that cost $3). Someone in the audience pointed out that it sounded the same, at which point the sales rep snatched politely asked me to move on.
9 thoughts on “Saxophone Ligatures”
Excellent advice I agree with what you say I am 72 and just starting to learn the Alto sax I don’t have any music back ground and have had about nine lessons and my teacher has told me don’t worry about changing my classic mouthpiece or ligature it’s about getting getting embouchure and breathing correct. Having worked in high quality production of both mechanical and electrical equipment some for NASA I totally agree with what you say about the ligatures. With a percentage of the reeds from a batch not giving good tone as we all know and a change of ligature will not compensate for a reed which has been machined to the dimensions and is flat on the bed of mouthpiece, when my notes are terrible maybe after four hours practice a day say for a week, changing the read corrects my tone. Nice forum
I wouldn’t generalise, for some people and some setups, ligatures make no difference, for others it can make a big difference. Plus mouthpieces aren’t all the same shape. I bet the greats experimented with everything they could get their wealthy hands on.
I agree, it’s wrong to generalise – I think this is one of the main points I try to make with this article.
Nigel Pearston’s comment, here, is WONDERFUL & inspiring! ?
This was a very helpful article! I’m always looking to improve my playing, and my go-to guides are normally on this website. Despite such, I feel that there is a discrepancy in your claim that ligatures don’t make any difference in sound. I’ve been playing alto for almost four years now, and for about two years, I’ve been only playing on Theo Wanne ligatures. The Theo Wanne ligatures have been around for a while, and many believe they are some of the greatest ligatures around. One of they’re most defining features is that they have interchangeable pressure plates. With the plates, you can take any mouthpiece and change the sound and the overall tone of the instrument by simply removing the screw and replacing the plate. The plates come in a handful of different metals, such as silver, gold, brass, stainless steel, vintified, titanium, and copper. Of course, each plate does something different, like the silver giving the mouthpiece a rich classical tone, while the brass and gold giving the mouthpiece a bright and expressive tone. Not to sound like a sell out, but the plates make a astonishing difference in sound, coming from personal experience, and from listening to pros on YouTube and on the Theo Wanne website. Again, this was a very helpful article that has taught me somethings I didn’t know, but I just wanted to throw this out there for anyone reading because not many have heard of Theo Wanne, and because I wanted to share my own personal experience…
Thank You for reading my rant!
Stay Jazzy 🙂
I have a very perplexing situation. My tenor played well 2 days ago but then it started squealing and it was very difficult to get air through the mouthpiece; it wasn’t effortless like it was. I changed the reed, wiped the neck, checked my embouchure and nothing helped. I checked the octave sealing on the neck, it sealed. I brought it to a friends and we tried a different ligature (mine a Rover). This seemed to work. This situation has occurred a few times in the past. I decided, good or bad, to buy two new mouthpieces (Otto Link Vintage and Van Doren Java T55) to try, one provides a ligature, so I’ll see if this works.
I was wrong! It was my Royal reeds, for whatever reason I think most were bad.
When we see photos of the greats ;Getz , Zoot, Dexter G Paul Desmond ,Art Pepper we notice they are using just a stock ligature, usually a brass two screw.
Would they have sounded even better with one of the new fangled , space age models ?
I find where you place the ligature on the mouthpiece (forward or back) can make a difference in reed vibration and that can affect your sound. Cheers Travis.