Which saxophone mouthpiece tip opening should I choose?
This is a question I have gotten a lot over the years, but now that people are ordering my BURNIN’ alto sax mouthpiece its coming up even more.
So in this video, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about saxophone mouthpiece tip openings to help you choose the right one for yourself.
Tip Opening Measurements
The tip opening measures the distance between the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece here.
There are three different systems of measurement commonly used.
This BURNIN’ mouthpiece right here has a tip opening that measures .072, 1000ths of an inch. That can also be called 1.82 millimeters
We can use the common system of labeling mouthpieces and call it a 5.
While Inches and millimeters remain consistent, a mouthpiece labeled a 5 tip opening can vary in actual measurement from one brand to another. For example, a 5 tip opening on a Vandoren mouthpiece will be ever so slightly larger and a Meyer 5 mouthpiece will be ever so slightly smaller.
Our 6 tip opening measures .078 1000ths, and the 7 tip opening measures .082 1000ths of an inch. So you see there is only about 2 tenths of a millimeter difference between the 5 and the 7 or basically a couple of hairs.
The tip opening is only one out of many factors that contribute to how a mouthpiece plays and responds. You can check out this post called “3 Key Traits of Your Mouthpiece” which will go into those other factors.
But with all other things being equal, here are a few general points to keep in mind about tip openings.
Smaller vs. Larger Tip Openings
Smaller tip openings are easier to play than larger ones. This is why we start beginners on small tip openings like 3 and 4.
The tip opening is the actual distance that the vibrating reed needs to travel back and forth in order to create your saxophone sound.
The smaller the distance, the less energy needed to get that sound going.
Smaller tip openings also make it easier to control the sound in terms of timbre and intonation. This is why classical musicians also prefer to play smaller tip openings. They are looking to get a very pure and controlled sound.
The main drawback to a small tip opening mouthpiece is that it can’t take the same volume of air as a larger tip opening can.
So while this isn’t so much of an issue in classical styles of music or for casual saxophone players, those saxophonists who are putting a lot of air through the horn might feel restricted if the tip opening is too small.
This is why players who find themselves in very loud situations like lead alto in a big band, or rock and other contemporary styles will often want a larger tip opening.
Matching Reed Strength to Your Mouthpiece Tip Opening
The strength of the reed is a measurement of its flexibility at the tip. The part that is bending back and forth against the mouthpiece.
A softer reed is more flexible and will therefore require less energy to start it vibrating. While a harder reed requires more energy or air to start vibrating.
This is why as you play more open mouthpieces your reeds will need to be softer and as you play more closed mouthpieces you will want harder reeds.
One thing that trips a lot of people up when they upgrade to their first jazz mouthpiece is that the tip opening is bigger but they use the same reeds as they had on their small tip classical beginner mouthpiece.
So the result is usually, wow this thing is really hard to play.
Please make sure you get some new reeds with any new mouthpiece purchase. If you’re going up in tip opening, you should go down in reed strength. If you are sticking with the same tip opening, you may still need to change your reed strength since as I said earlier there are other factors affecting how different mouthpiece designs respond.
Do not make the mistake of expecting the reed that works on your current mouthpiece to work the same way on a different one.
Are larger mouthpiece tip openings better?
Another big misconception is that larger tip openings are for advanced players and smaller tip openings are for beginners.
There are plenty of professional saxophone players who play on a smaller tip opening. Everyone is different physically and has their own unique way of playing the saxophone, so what matters most is to choose a setup that makes you comfortable.
It is generally best to start on smaller tip openings and then work your way up, but how far up you go depends on you.
Larger tip openings are more difficult to play because they require more air and are not as easy to control in terms of timbre and intonation.
So there is a trade off, and I would say that anyone who is not putting in a couple hours of play time a day consistently should probably stick to the lower tip openings.
You should only move to a larger tip opening if you feel restricted in terms of how much air you can put through the mouthpiece.
Which tip opening should I choose?
If you are getting your first jazz mouthpiece and upgrading from the Yamaha 4C or other stock mouthpiece that you are currently playing, I suggest you start with a 5.
There’s already a bunch of things you need to get used to when moving to a jazz mouthpiece so don’t make it more difficult for yourself.
Many people will get a good 5 tip opening jazz mouthpiece and play that for the rest of their lives. If you have already been playing on a 5 tip opening jazz mouthpiece for a while, and feel like you have more sound in you that is not coming out, that is a good time to go to a 6.
I don’t recommend people make huge leaps in tip opening size when changing mouthpieces. It’s the sort of thing that should be done gradually.
if you’ve been playing a 6 for a while and feel like you might benefit from a slightly larger tip opening, then go ahead and try a 7.
There may also be times in your life that you will want to go down in tip opening.
Lots of players find as they get older they can’t put the same volume of air through the horn, and therefore feel more comfortable on a smaller tip opening.
Sometimes people take a long break from playing for a variety of reasons. If you haven’t been playing for a while it’s good idea to ease yourself back in with a smaller tip opening.
Playing Examples of Each BetterSax Burnin’ mouthpiece tip opening
I’m now going to play an etude for you on each of the available tip openings for the BetterSax BURNIN’ alto mouthpiece. I want to show you that the sound doesn’t really change much from one tip opening to the next, it’s more about comfort level.
I’m not using the same reed on these so any sound difference you may hear will likely have more to do with the variations between reeds than with the mouthpiece itself.
This etude comes from a great collection written by my friend Steve Kortyka who is also one of the instructors in the BetterSax Studio which is an exciting new program where students are learning about jazz improvisation and getting direct feedback on their own playing from myself and Steve.
You can also use the code BETTERSAX to take $5 off anything in Steve’s store.
For this example (around 07:57) I found a nice number 3 reed that I first tried on the 6 tip opening but it was a little too resistant but on the 5 it was perfect.
Now I’m going to move over to the 6 tip opening (around 08:23) and play the same thing. I had to find a slightly softer number 3 reed to get a good match.
Finally, here is the same etude on the 7 tip opening (around 08:48) and I’m using a 2.5 reed.
I hope you found this video helpful, especially if you are looking to get a new mouthpiece but aren’t sure which tip opening to choose.
What’s interesting to me is that in those 3 examples I prefer my sound on the 5 tip opening, even though I normally play a 7. In this case though, it’s more about getting the best reed match for your mouthpiece and you.
I could happily play on any of these three tip openings. As you can hear they are extremely consistent.
One thing that you may find when exploring different tip openings from the same family of mouthpieces is that sometimes they respond very differently. That’s because getting consistency out of the various tip openings is a real challenge and requires some very skilled design work and a lot of testing. Jody Espina and the team over at Jody Jazz have done an outstanding job with my mouthpieces and we are all very proud of how consistently they play.
The BetterSax Burnin’ mouthpiece is now available to purchase.