Saxophone Myths & Fake News

Saxophone Myths

The internet is a wonderful thing but can be a double-edged sword. Along with all the wonderful information at our fingertips, we also find a lot of misinformation , or myths. How can you tell which is which? Very often you can’t. But if someone is giving advice on how to play the saxophone without offering any sound clips of their own playing, then I consider that raises a bit of a red flag.
Other times people talk about what works for them, i.e. they are giving a very subjective opinion that people present as a universal saxophone truth.

When it comes to information about saxophones and mouthpieces it’s not so easy to tell whether someone actually knows what they are talking about, or whether they are just regurgitating something they read on a forum post without any clue as to the veracity of the source.

Many myths can seem very convincing, for example the idea that a saxophone made from more resonant metal will sound better. This idea is based on what we think we know about acoustics, and how a quality piano, violin or guitar made from superior materials will resonate better. And so they will, because a resonant body is one of the main factors involved in their sound production and amplification. But a little learning is a dangerous thing: a woodwind instrument’s sound is NOT based on a resonating body, it is based on a completely different principle of a vibrating air column within the body. More on this below.

Ligatures make a difference to your sound

This is one of the biggest myths. Of course, it makes a difference – if you don’t have a ligature on your mouthpiece it will not sound the same as when you do have one.

Seriously though, the role of a ligature is purely to hold the reed securely onto the mouthpiece, so the only way that it makes a difference is whether it is doing that properly or not. If the ligature is broken, not working correctly or designed for a different mouthpiece then it will not be working as it should and so it may of course sound different – but only because it isn’t fitting well, not because the ligature per se has a different sound. Sometimes a mouthpiece can have a concave or convex table and in that case certain ligatures may not hold the reed so well and the same applies. However there is no such thing as a ligatures that “sounds better” than another one. Read more (with videos)

Saxophone material or finish makes a difference to the sound

This is one of the biggest myths out there. We know that you can pay a lot of money for violins, guitars, drums etc. made from different (expensive) materials and the sound will be different due to the resonance of those materials. However the acoustics of a saxophone (or other woodwind) is different. It is the vibrating air column inside the instrument that is the crucial factor, the wall or body of the instrument is merely there to contain that air column and does not vibrate or resonate in any significant way. However, the shape and dimensions of the body are crucial.

You could argue that therefore there may a be a slight difference if the property of material itself causes a difference in the internal geometry, for example where the toneholes are extruded from the body, different materials may form differently around the template and therefore create a different turbulence of the air column.

Some manufacturers will claim that different materials “resonate” differently, and we may believe this because it seems common sense that this is the case with those other instruments, however this is mostly just marketing hype.

Busting saxophone myths: Buescher say the finish does not affect the sound
Buescher Finishes from the 1926 Catalogue. Note that they say there is no difference in sound.

Read more (with videos)

Metal Mouthpieces are brighter than hard rubber

To a large extent the same applies to mouthpieces (although density of material can have an effect on sound when the tip is less thick). There could be some subconscious reason people may think metal would be brighter because it looks brighter. Or perhaps this is one of those myths that stems from band directors’ misconceptions. Imagine a band class of beginners, all of whom have the stock hard rubber beginner mouthpiece. One of them buys a metal mouthpiece that happens to be bright because it has a narrow chamber and high baffle and sticks out like a sore thumb. Band director (who knows very little about saxophones) blames the metal.

What makes a mouthpiece bright is very often the baffle or chamber size.

You get what you pay for

This advice, which is the big sister of “get the best saxophone/mouthpiece you can afford,” is often doled out with the implication that the more you pay the better the quality. Well, for a start, quality can be very subjective. Of course there are objectively inferior instruments that are built very badly, but don’t be fooled by thinking there is some magic “best sound quality.”

These assumptions might have been true in days gone by. But these days it’s very easy to pay between $5 and $150 for a ligature without there actually being any difference in “quality” apart from the aesthetics maybe. You can also pay over $1000 for a mouthpiece that doesn’t sound (to you or your audience) any better than a $80 mouthpiece.

So how does a beginner know what to get if they want the best? This is very good question which is very difficult to answer. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was as simple as paying more and getting something better? All I can say is maybe trust a good teacher, and don’t trust anyone trying to sell you something expensive.

The size of your oral cavity makes a difference to the sound

This could be quite a controversial statement but is based on research by Dr. Edward Pillinger who was probably the first academic expert acoustician to use an artificial embouchure for testing. This simulated the windpipe, oral cavity and lips, each of which he could control remotely. He found that minute differences in placement and/or pressure of the lips could make a huge difference to the tone. However the volume and surface of the simulated oral cavity did not. In that case why do so many people think the oral cavity does affect the tone? Perhaps adjusting the volume inside your mouth is causing adjustments to the lips, which in turn are the only factor involved in the tone production.

At the time this was very controversial, but when leading players and acoustic scientists were invited to witness the experiment they had to concede that the findings did back up Dr. Pillinger’s theories.

The effects of design on the tone and response of clarinet mouthpieces

The best saxophone is the Selmer MKVI

At one time it was the “go to” instrument for professionals. Perhaps this was due to its revolutionary ergonomics (which actually existed on previous models) or a very aggressive marketing and sponsorship campaign by Selmer. There’s no denying that MKVIs can sound great, though quality of sound is very subjective and many people prefer other brands.

Why are they so expensive then? Even though today there are many saxophones that many people believe have surpassed the MKVI in sound, intonation and ergonomics, the MKVI was probably the most common instrument in what people think of as a golden era of jazz, from the mid 50s through the 60s. So naturally the great players of that time were playing them. So the MKVI has enticed a new breed of saxophone collectors which in turn hikes the prices.

The best MKVIs were made from WWII cartridge shells

Given that after world war II there would have been a lot of spent (or unspent) cartridge shells lying around in France just begging to be recycled into saxophones, it’s reasonable to understand how this particular myth arose. Even if it was true, there is no reason for those instruments to sound any better (see above). However according to Wikipedia (the source of all reliable knowledge), although the brass was a particular alloy know as cartridge brass, Selmer’s general manager Jerome Selmer has confirmed that Selmer never manufactured MKVIs from recycled shell casings.

The Chinese cannot make a top quality saxophone.

To date there haven’t seemed to be any top level professional quality saxophones coming out of China. Unlike saxophones from Taiwan, Chinese instruments have a reputation for hastily put together “saxophone shaped objects,” a hangover from the older brands such as Parrot and Lark which would bend under your fingers.

These days however, although still very cheap, the build quality has improved to such an extent that if you know what you are looking for there are some good instruments from China. Even well established brands are outsourcing keyword or even entire saxophones. However the fact that there are now some really top quality Chinese flutes (Dhi Zao) suggests that there is no reason why “the Chinese” cannot make top quality saxophones either. This leads me to believe that it’s only a matter of time before saxophones follow suit.

As you progress on the saxophone you should use harder reeds

Beginners do tend to start on very soft reeds. This is probably because for the first few weeks of playing the amount of pressure required to create a stable tone might otherwise cause too much pain beneath the lower lip. However there is no need to think of it like weight lifting and have to “build up” to extremely hard reeds. In fact once you are able to play harder reeds, it can actually be a detriment because although hard reeds can make high notes and the altissimo range easier to produce, it’s often at the expense of low notes and reduced dynamics.

At one stage I was playing #4 Rico reeds and harder, but then realised that with softer reeds I could get a much more versatile sound. However I found it difficult to reach the higher notes and to get a lot of power and loudness needed for some genres. The answer was to work on air support and breath control. In fact paradoxically it seemed that playing softer reeds was more difficult, but with enough work on tone production and breathing it’s actually possible to get a much better range, tone and dynamic range using medium soft reeds.

Some of these opinions may be a bit controversial, please feel free to debate on our international discussion forum, CafeSaxophone.

If you have any myths of your own, feel free to add a comment below.


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9 thoughts on “Saxophone Myths & Fake News”

  1. I am just being to learn the Alto Sax always wanted to play one so after taking early retirement I have started and love it. Came across your page on Google so far I have found it so informative and interesting.

  2. Given that the Selmer Mark VI had the latest innovations and was the ‘go to’ saxophone for the greats of that era is it surmisable that if they were alive today some (if not all) of those greats would rather play the latest innovative saxophones of this era? If the saxophones available today were available as competition to the Mark VI then, then it may never have become the ‘legendary’ horn that it is today.

  3. I like your page and your articles; they are interesting and helpful. I am 73 and just started learning the saxophone; I always wanted to, and I find that it is everything and more that I thought it would be. Yes, I should have started much earlier, but life happened. I play strings, violin, viola, guitar and other instruments, piano, bass, concertina and keyless flutes. I love the sax, my new love. Dan.

  4. If you truly want to customize your sound and playing experience, you need to learn to work on your reeds. Hard reeds have more cane to work with, hence, advanced players frequently purchase heavier reeds. I used Vandoren #5 reeds when I was studying, but I worked them down to about a #3/3.5 strength. I ended up with better quality reeds that lasted longer and were easier to control because I was able to work on them.

  5. I very much disagreev with this. I think it is better to work on your sound and air control that will allow you to get a better sound with softer reeds.

  6. Thanks – there is some really useful information here. I’ve always thought that spending a lot of money on a ligature was was wasteful. I play a Selmer Mark VI and it is a beautiful sound (sometimes!) but I find changing reeds and mouthpieces changes my sound more than playing a different sax. The information about reeds is also really interesting. I’ve finally found a reed I’m usually happy with on my tenor – the D’Addario 4S – as you say, the softness gives me more versatility and ease of playing that I ever had with harder reeds. Thanks very much for this resource.

  7. Thank you for your eye oppener.

    Here is my story. Making music is a very complex task. Many many years ago I was given a German Clarinet and 1 year of class and than a Uniform to play in a youth brass band and 2 concerts a week. You might be able to understand that I lost all interest in music, I mean completely.

    Only a few years back I bought a bunny 1 alto sax wit a more than questionable mouthpiece and started painfully slow to work
    me trough the process to play sax. Progress was slow and motivation was regular to say it in a positiv way.

    Then I saw the Rampone Cazzani due voce and felt in love . . and bought a hand carved bronze model with olive wood finger caps and silver keyword. Even my name is on the bell !!! So. You might say that doesn’t make you a good player.
    You are right and than soooooo wrong. Now I play without failing my instrument (stock mp from Bari – Vandoren 2.5 red box); every day! With the result that I am happy, still a lousy player but . . . . I am happy, my wife is happy and rarely she gives me even a compliment. I will not become a Branford Marsalis but I am on the way, the same way just at the beginning . . .

    I am happy also to read this reviews and critical voices, because I think, the social media, it could be a blessing, but also I guess 99% is plain Blablablabla, just seeking for attention, to sell, to influence…. by the way … click on the like button and subscribe to my channel . . .

    Have a great day and enjoy to make beautiful music!

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