If you've been playing sax or clarinet for any length of time, you've probably tried different ligatures for your saxophone.
Some of us have spent years pursuing the holy grail of "the perfect saxophone setup." And it is understandable. There are so many things that affect the sound of you and your saxophone. The sax, the mouthpiece, the reeds... and yes, even the ligature affect your sound.
So, exactly what is the point of having the right ligature?
Pretty much anybody can understand that the basic purpose for the ligature. It holds the reed against the face of the mouthpiece so that the reed vibrates properly when you play.
What is not so obvious is how (or how much) the ligature can affect the sound, for better or for worse. And the reasons for this are more complex than you might first imagine.
Your saxophone sound is created by the vibration of the reed causing resonance in the air column that you create in your saxophone when you blow. Let's take a look at some very bad artwork I did in Microsoft Paint to give a rough rendering of the function of the ligature.
As you know, the table on the mouthpiece is flat where the base of the reed sits on the mouthpiece. At the other end, it has a curve away from the reed.
When you squeeze it slightly and blow, the thin end of the reed vibrates against the moutpiece, causing a resonating air column. But the reed doesn't stay there by elfin' magic. It has to be held in place. That's were the ligature comes in. So far, so good. And so basic. We all get this.
So now, exactly HOW the reed is held against the mouthpiece is the part where things start to get interesting. And THIS is the reason the different ligatures really do make a difference in the sound.
I am a bit of a collector and I've been a real "experimenter" over the years, looking for the perfect mouthpiece and ligature combination. I've got (between tenor, alto, soprano, clarinet, hard rubber and metal moutpieces) a collection of about 30 ligatures in different configurations. They do play differently and they do sound different.
My experience with these critters and my reading and studying this over the years leads me to understand that their intention with the ligature is to come up with various ways of contacting the base of the reed, with varying tensions and firmness in various places.
Let me show you some of the different locations on the reed that my ligatures attempt to contact the reed.
Some of their intention is to try to find the perfect way to hold the reed in place. And to be honest, I have to think sometimes, they simply want to be unique. You can't rule out the possibility of coming up with a marketing gimmick. At least, reading through the literature, that is my conclusion for some of them.
If you think about it, clamping the reed in a different location is bound to make at least a little difference in the sound.
Quite simply, you're changing the physics in the setup by clamping the reed in different spots. If you pluck a guitar string in the middle it sounds different than if you pluck it near the end. And if you touch the string the middle and pluck it lightly at the end you can get it to resonate at a different harmonic. Reeds and mouthpieces are the same way. Clamping that reed differently will cause it to vibrate slightly differently. I will give you different subtle changes to the sound and the feel of how it plays.
Let me throw some more bad Microsoft Paint artwork in here for you to see what I mean.
Of course these are very rough renderings of what the shape of the reed would be if you shot it with a high speed camera while you were playing it. My point is that it is easy to see how the reed could vibrate slightly differently, depending on the amount of pressure on the reed and where and how many pressure points they apply to it.
But how much difference does all of this really make in the sound? Well, let me start out by making this simple statement:
I have a number of ligatures in my collection. Most of them now collect dust.
One of the things I didn’t know about me until I had been playing forever is that I could get too fixated on finding the perfect ligature. And so, I wasted a lot of time and money, missing the importance of embouchure, scales and arpeggios, listening skills and the like. Most of those ligatures now sit unused in a closet. They only "come out of the closet" for the occasional photo op or if there is some reason I have to go to a mouthpiece that needs a different size ligature than the one I am using. But I've pretty much settled on a couple different setups I use now on my tenor (my "Gatling gun" of choice). I tend to have one mouthpiece I use for live gigs and another I tend to favor for the studio.
But there are some things worth thinking about when you shop for a ligature, if you feel you need to do so. And it might actually be the case that you DO need to upgrade your ligature. So if you need one, or if you think you do, let me share some thoughts with you.
Here is a list of important factors to consider when shopping for a ligature.
I have seen all kinds of crazy ligatures and ligature setups out there.
They all promise to be the one - the one that gives the perfect sound, perfect response, perfect articulation and perfect intonation.
But can a ligature really do all that? REALLY? Or, perhaps to ask another way, can a bad ligature make you play out of tune? What is a BAD ligature really like?
Let's take a look at some things to think about.
1 - The ligature you choose does indeed (sometimes) make a difference in the sound. The difference might be subtle but it is real.
I have to tell you that in my experience, the ligature does often affect the sound and the playability of the rest of your setup. It's not always noticeable. But sometimes it is a notable difference.
Now I know not everyone agrees with this. I've seen some people talk about the differences in youtube videos and other blog posts. Some people with large followings on the web will tell you that the only difference you'll notice is that some are better at handling less-than-perfect reeds. Others will tell you that they make no difference at all. NONE. I beg to differ. As I said, I can tell you that some of them are quite a bit different and cause you to notice. As I said, the one that came with one of my favorite mouthpieces works so badly with my setup that I can't play 5 notes without it disappointing me so badly I have to switch to something else. It just sounds bad.
I'm also going to say that in my life experience, with so many things, I find that if one person says there is no difference, and another person says there definitely is a difference, then I want to pick the brain of the person who insists there is a difference to see why they say so.
The reason I say that is that it makes me realize there might be a difference for me. And if there is a difference for me, I want to know. Just because somebody doesn't notice a difference for them, it is NOT conclusive proof there is no difference for anybody... just sayin'....
I don't know you and I can't say for sure for you. But if you already have a dozen or so ligatures, odds are that you can find something that works for you in the collection you already own and you can save some money by the time you get through the article.
Then again, you might be blown away by the difference a different ligature can make. As I said, I have the one ligature that for me is extraordinarily bad. And it came with one of those two mouthpieces I use almost religiously on my tenor. But every time I plunk it on there to see if I like it, I don't. At all.
So I go back to my regular use ligature. In my setup, the ligature I use with my Drake hard rubber mouthpiece is a D'Addario H ligature. I love it and the way it plays and feels for me. This is one I can highly recommend.
There are some pretty crazy looking ligatures out there.
I don't know that I would recommend any of these, necessarily. But like all things modern, the limits of design seem to be pretty far out there. Let me show you some pics. Personally, I'm not sure I could be a fan of any of these, for reasons I will cover as I go. I do have a few recommendations, if you need to explore the possibilities and I will get to those, too.
Also, for what it's worth, in the interest of disclosure, I will tell you that if you happen to click on any of the links in here, and after taking a look, you decide to purchase one of the ligatures I talk about and that I feel I can honestly recommend, there are affiliate links. It helps a little. It isn't much. But every bit helps to offset the cost of running a web site. So if you want to do it that way, it's appreciated.
Anyway, take a look at the ligatures below. It's kind of like the musical version of Ripley's Aquarium. There are all kinds of ligatures in the sea.
As you can see, there is almost no end to the variation of the materials, shapes (and sometimes gimmicks) that can be found in the configuration of a sax ligature.
2 - The differences in sound might or might not be noticeable between ligatures unless you're doing a "side by side" comparison.
I have a number of ligatures in my collection. Part of the reason is that I have had different sizes of mouthpieces over the years. And so, when I got one of a different size that I had before, I would need to get a different size of ligature to go with it.
Rovner ligatures have long been a favorite of mine. They come in different varieties and flavors. And when I talk about sound differences, it is easy for me to detect a difference in sound and response between the different types of Rovners. I can pick up differences between the ones with one band, the ones with two bands, the ones with pressure plates. They all sound a little different.
In fact, you can sometimes notice at least as much of a difference with the ones that have the different thicknesses of pressure plates.
Keep in mind, though, that the difference you hear from behind the horn might not be the difference you hear in front of the horn. But what you hear affects how you play. And sometimes that makes a difference, too.
3 - Even if you don't hear a difference, you might feel a difference in the way it plays. That matters too.
This is a significant difference that I noticed particularly with the Rovners I've used that have the little spring cages that take the different pressure plates. What I found with those (and in this case, it was with a metal mouthpiece) is that the different pressure plates seemed to dampen more or less of some of the harmonics of the sound. It felt like the horn was playing with more "back pressure."
And if you think about it this way, it might make sense that this could be the case. If the plate affects the way the reed vibrates, it might affect the way the reed can connect with the resonance in the total system of you and the horn. It did for me.
Ok. So now I've talked a little about how you might find differences between the way the various ligatures affect your sound in a side-by-side comparison. But now that I've done that, let me throw a different thought out there.
4 - If the differences between the ligatures are slight enough that you can't tell unless you're doing a "side-by-side" comparison, you probably shouldn't spend a lot of time deciding on (or money acquiring) a new ligature for those differences alone.
I've chased after many subtle differences in my sound that I could acquire by the purchase of a different mouthpiece or different reeds. But neglected the more important matters of practicing scales and phrasing, of doing long tone exercises to get to know the gear I already had enough to get it to do what I want it to do.
So many of these guys who sound so unique - Jeff Kashiwa, Euge Groove, Kirk Whalum - have gone through changes in things like mouthpieces over the years. But they still sound like them. Did they waste money on the gear they purchased? I certainly don't think so. But I'm willing to bet that if they changed up for something else, it was because they noticed a difference that was significant enough for them to risk having to go through the courtship period with that new equipment to get to know it.
If you think that just switching gear is your answer to everything, you're missing an important part of the picture.
Do you know any audiophiles who spend multi-bucks buying stereo systems that look like this?
I know a guy who had a couple of his audiophile friends come over to his house one day because he had gone to the local audiophile equipment store and picked up 4 different pairs of speaker wires so they could sample their music through these different sets of speaker wires to hear which set he thought was worth shelling out good money to buy.
It didn't make sense to me for technical reasons. But I can't simply knock it as a stupid idea.
You see, just because I am convinced I couldn't hear the difference between them, it doesn't mean that I can prove to them that they can't hear the difference. And as it turns out, the last time I listened to a 20-20,000 tone generator, I got to 9.000 and had to look to see if my Bose headphones were broken, only to have my wife ask if that sound was hurting my ears when the generator was approaching 14,000 Hz.
Now I can tell you that the fact of that for me, I've gotten to the point where I don't want to be so distracted by chasing after the perfect sound that I've forgotten that it's about the music.
If you can't tell the difference in how one ligature plays compared to others except in a direct, side-by-side comparison, then perhaps it is important to consider some other factors rather than the sound you get.
Consider factors such as:
- Does it stay on securely? When you reposition the mouthpiece, does the ligature hold firmly in place, and hold the reed firmly on the face of the mouthpiece without needing to realign the reed?
- Does it come with a cap that fits well and doesn't want to fall off easily?
- Does the cap have a bottom that allows you to stand the mouthpiece cap on its end without falling over?
- Is that important to you? If you don't like the cap, can you substitute it with one you already have?
- Is the ligature solid and durable enough that it won't stretch out over time?
- If it has a backing plate or a pressure plate or a place to hold pressure plates, does it easily fit symmetrically on your mouthpiece? Or does it tend to always want to shift to one side?
- If it does shift when tightened, does that affect the sound or the feel? (And are you OC enough that even if it doesn't affect the sound or feel, it will forever annoy you that it is crooked?
- Is the ligature easy to slip on over the reed and position so you can tighten it without the assistance of a squid, or even just an octopus? Can you (if it is your style) put the ligature on over the mouthpiece and then slide the reed into position?
- Does the color match the rest of your setup? And if not, does that bother you?
5 - Don't miss the "performance forest" because of the "ligature tree."
It is the human condition that we pick up on some things and miss others. You can be in a dull, badly lit room and notice the difference between the reds and blues in a photograph, but miss how yellow all the reds and blues really are. The reds and blues you see in the same photo in the sunlight are much different than what you see in that moment. Your eyes pick up on subtle differences when put side by side. But to pick up on them with time in between is a different thing.
Sometimes sound is like that. When I was mixing a CD that I did a number of years back, I was constantly checking the mix compared to other CDs I knew and liked. I was also frequently checking the mix by listening to it between home, car, headphones and speakers. What would sound great in one setting would glare at me in a different sound context.
You need to keep the same thing in mind when you're shopping for a horn, a mouthpiece or a ligature or reed. Compare it to what you're using now. But be sure to compare it in different contexts.
And don't be so obsessed with the little boost in sound from the new accessory that you miss the music - all of what affects your sound that isn't gear.
What do I mean by that? How about how well practiced you are? How well you know the song you are playing, and how well do you communicate the feel to the people listening to you? Do you practice long tones sometimes to find how to best work with the setup you have to get the most out of your current equipment?
Sometimes, like the gym, we want to find a magic supplement that eliminates the need for exercise. Sometimes, we want the best gear but don't want to consider how much work is involved in making us sound good with any gear.
If you do think a new ligature might be in order, then you might want to consider some of the following points...
You want a ligature that will hold the reed firmly enough in place that when you move the mouthpiece for tuning, the ligature doesn't allow the reed to shift.
You want a ligature that you don't have to fiddle with a whole bunch to get the reed into proper location. That means if you like to put the ligature on first and then slide the reed into position, you can do that easily. If you like to put the reed on first and drop the ligature over top, that it is the size and shape that allows you to do that without the reed moving out of position all the time. So don't ignore how easy it is to live with while you're doing that.
If you're trying them for sound improvement, consider the different types as far as how they contact the reed - for instance, Rovner makes one that is one large band and also one that is two small bands, among many others, and they might sound different or play different for you.
As I said previously, I use the D'Addario H ligature which contacts the reed in an X pattern and it works wonderfully for me.
My opinion is that any of the following would serve you well. You need to try them and see what works for you.
The Andoer artificial leather ligature is very much like some of the Rovers but is cost-effective enough (about $12.00) that you could order a couple on a lark and try them. Almost a no-brainer.
Rovner ligatures are high quality. This one is one of my choices for some setups with the different "tone plates" that you can insert and which affect the tone and response. My experience is it affects response more than sound and gives some back-pressure, depending on the plate used.
These two Rovners are worth a try. They do play differently due to the way they hold the reed in different spots. The differences are subtle but if you notice the difference, there is a difference.
The one on the left holds the entire face of the reed. The one on the right holds it in two positions and not in the middle of the face.
The takeaway, in a nutshell
- Your ligature does affect your sound; some more than others. And if not the sound, sometimes the feel (resonance, back pressure, etc.).
- The differences may or may not be significant enough for you to notice unless you're comparing them side by side.
- You need to work - but especially, you need to work on the right stuff. Keep a practice journal and be serious about keeping track of not only what you practiced but what you learned about what you need to practice.
- If the differences aren't noticeable unless you're comparing them side by side, you might want to save the money.
- It's too easy to get wrapped up in chasing the "one thing" that will get you the sound you want, when so much of your sound is about other things than your setup (like how you use it...)