Saxophone Mouthpiece and Reed Setup Tutorial | Beginner/Refresher Course Lesson 1

Welcome to the BetterSax Beginner Saxophone Course. The lessons in this course are entirely free, please enjoy and share.

Nowadays, you can get information about almost anything for free on the internet, but it is often jumbled up and scattered around. I created this beginner course to help anyone starting out on the saxophone to get going on the right foot establishing good habits from day one.

Watch the video version of this lesson below or read the text that follows. When you’re done feel free to move on to Lesson 2.

YouTube video

Start Here for a Beginner

This is the first and most important step today and every time you get your saxophone out. Before we even take the instrument out of the case, we first get our mouthpiece and reed setup.

We always want to take our time with this step since it requires some very careful alignment. As a beginner, you’re going to want to go quite slowly at first.

These are saxophone mouthpieces, they come in different sizes colors and can be made with a variety of materials the most common being plastic, hard rubber and metal.

saxophone mouthpieces plastic hard rubber and metal

These are saxophone reeds. A reed works together with the mouthpiece to create the sound by vibrating when you blow air into the instrument. Reeds are traditionally made out of cane, but there also exists synthetic reeds made from other materials.

saxophone reeds natural cane and synthetic

If you are a total beginner, I recommend starting with a number 2 strength reed. For young kids you can even start with a 1.5. 

This device is called a ligature. Its job is to hold the reed in place on the mouthpiece.

saxophone ligature

Keep in mind that there are saxophone mouthpieces and reeds made specifically for each size saxophone. With an alto saxophone I’m going to use an alto sax mouthpiece and an alto sax reed.

There are also different sized ligatures made to fit different mouthpieces. So if you are looking to buy any of these things, you may need to verify that you are getting the right size for your instrument.

My Beginner Sax Gear Recomendations

Visit this page to see my recommendations for saxophone gear to get started with in case you are missing anything. Keep in mind that the saxophone you have probably has all of these things with it already though.

Preparing the Reed

Let’s start by preparing the reed. Reeds are very delicate and will break easily, so you want to avoid touching the tip of your reed. We always want the tip of our reeds to be free of chips or splits. So when handling the reed, I always hold it by the back end.

Cane reeds need to be wet in order to work properly. You can just put it in your mouth for 15-20 seconds or soak it in a glass of water.

Make sure you wet both ends of the reed though.

Attaching the Reed to the Mouthpiece

We need to place the flat side of the reed against the flat side of the mouthpiece, line it all up properly and then secure it all in place with the ligature.

The procedure for doing this may be a bit awkward at first.

Here’s how I do it.

First, Make sure you have plenty of light so that you can see what you are doing.

I hold my mouthpiece and ligature in my left hand (i’m right handed). Notice where I’m holding the ligature.  The screw or screws of my ligature are loosened.

I then take my wet reed and use it to moisten the flat part of the mouthpiece like this.

attaching reed to saxophone mouthpiece

This moisture will act as a sort of glue that will help make a better air tight seal between the reed and the mouthpiece.

Now I slide my reed back end first between the ligature and the mouthpiece while simultaneously pulling the ligature down in place. In this procedure I never touch the tip of the reed.

The ligature screws need to be quite loose to allow space for the reed and room for adjustment.

Fine Tuning

Once I’ve got the reed and ligature loosely in place, it’s time for the fine tuning adjustments. 

I want to get the reed lined up perfectly with the tip and rails of the mouthpiece.

Take your time with this, if the reed is even a little bit crooked your sound will suffer and it will be more difficult to play.

I’m looking at the tip and the side rails as my visual guide. There will usually be a bit of the mouthpiece showing on either side so I want this to be even and symmetrical.

I like to get the tip of the reed to line up exactly with the tip of the mouthpiece. 

When I have everything lined up perfectly, I tighten the screw or screws of my ligature.

They don’t need to be overly tightened but they do need to be tight enough to hold the reed in place while I put the mouthpiece on the neck, make adjustments and take it off the neck.

Suction Test

When I’m done, I always do a suction test. This is not necessary at all but it helps me know if my reed is sealing well with my mouthpiece. 

I put the open end of the mouthpiece against the fleshy part of my palm and then suck the air out. A good pop is very satisfying.

If I don’t get good suction, I know that there is a problem somewhere. It could be poor alignment of the reed, damage to to the reed, or maybe a problem with my ligature.

Now I put the mouthpiece on the neck. You want a tight fit but not so tight that it is hard to move the mouthpiece back and forth on the cork. If your instrument is new you can put some cork grease on there for the first week or so and rub it in. 

In the next lesson we are going to learn how to blow into the mouthpiece and make a sound with a good saxophone embouchure.

Be sure to download the PDF guide and fingering chart that goes along with this course.

Comment below with your thoughts.

When you’re ready move on to Lesson 2.

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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james mcclory says:

thank you jay for starting me on my saxophone journey(second time around ) i have watch all your videos and i am sure i will buy all your courses in future i love your teaching style i took sax lessons 30 odd years ago and what ive seen so far i will learn more quickly with your teaching than i did back in the day so happy days

Jay Metcalf says:

Great to hear this from you James. Glad you’re back to playing the sax.

joey blue says:

Thank you. Your style and video was very helpful. Just getting started and I love the way your simplifying each step. I’m going to learn to play the saxophone and I have no ear for music and a brain injury on top of it so watching a visual is very helpful for me and your exclamation is very clear and your demonstrations are great. I get it.

Jay Metcalf says:

Very glad to hear it.

Saxophone Fingerings and First Notes | Beginner/Refresher Course Lesson 4 – Better Sax says:

[…] far we’ve learned how to set up our reed and mouthpiece properly in Lesson 1, How to form a good saxophone embouchure and get our first sounds in lesson 2, and how to setup the […]

Saxophone Setup, Ideal Body and Hand Position | Beginner/Refresher Course Lesson 3 – Better Sax says:

[…] far we’ve learned how to set up our reed and mouthpiece in lesson 1 and get a sound with a good saxophone embouchure in lesson […]

Denson Muffley says:

Hi Jay, I love the mouthpiece that came with the Alto. I wanted another copy as a backup, so I ordered the new classic from sweetwater.
It does not play the same as the one that came with the horn. Quite different, did you change something or do I have bad copy. I own
several jodyjazz mouthpieces and your Burnin #7. Help!

Marcy Lyzun says:

Hello Denson, the Classic mouthpiece is similar to the mouthpiece that currently comes with the BetterSax alto, but it is upgraded with hand finishing. Not sure when you purchased your alto, but at one point the alto did come with a different mouthpiece, so I’m not sure which mouthpiece you’re comparing to. You can try with different reeds and see if that improves it for you. If for any reason it doesn’t work out, you can also contact Sweetwater and they will be able to help you.

If you have any other questions, please let me know.

-Marcy (BetterSax Operations Manager)



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