The Anatomy of the Saxophone Mouthpiece
Why do we have so many saxophone mouthpiece options?
Surely by now, there must be one mouthpiece that is truly the best and everyone should just play that one right?
Well no, it doesn’t work that way. So I’m going to explain why so many mouthpiece designs exist, why new ones are still being created, and how the different elements function to create each individual sound.
Let’s start with the baffle. Now don’t be baffled, the word “baffle” also means a device to deflect or regulate flow – in this case, air.
This is the part of the mouthpiece anatomy that has the biggest impact on the sound. This because it’s the first thing the air stream hits.
You’ve got 3 main types of baffles: the flat baffle, the rollover baffle and the step baffle.
The first mouthpiece you ever played, probably had a flat baffle. This is what we find in beginner stock mouthpieces and classical style mouthpieces.
This type of baffle is not deflecting the air and just letting it flow straight through. This results in a round sound with little to no edge to it.
Some popular examples of flat baffle mouthpieces include the Yamaha 4C, Selmer C*, or Soloists and Yanagisawa hard rubber pieces.
In the beginning, pretty much all mouthpieces were flat baffle design, and that suited the styles of music being played on the saxophone at the time very well. But with the evolution music, there was also an evolution of the saxophone sound.
The rollover baffle came about with the development of jazz. This is what was typically in the mouthpieces of the great jazz players from the 40’s to today.
This design creates a slight bump which deflects the air a bit creating an edgier, more powerful sound.
It is a very meticulous process to create a good roll-over baffle as very minute changes can have a major impact on how the air flows.
There is a whole world of possibilities from low to high roll-over baffles. But in general, the more of a bump there is here, the more edge and power the mouthpiece will have. However there are limitations as to what can be accomplished making it an intricate balancing act.
Some classic examples of roll-over baffle mouthpieces include the Otto Link Super Tone Master and the New York Meyer.
Finally we have the step baffle which is a more significant deflection of the air flow.
Per its name a step-baffle looks kind of like a step. It is flat and then drops off. Think of it like a wedge at the beginning of the mouthpiece that speeds up the air flow creating even more power and edge than the roll-over baffle does.
This style of baffle developed as music got amplified and saxophonists found themselves playing in much louder acoustic situations. The benefit of step baffle mouthpieces is that they allow you to cut through the mix of an electrified band more easily. But the drawback is that they are not well suited for a warm sound or playing at lower dynamic levels.
Some classic examples of step baffle mouthpieces include the Dukoff Super power chamber and Guardala Studio. Modern examples currently in production include the Jody Jazz Super Jet and the Theo Wanne Durga.
The new BetterSax Burnin’ mouthpiece has a rollover baffle that provides a nice amount of edge and projection so that it can easily be used in more contemporary playing situations like rock and funk, but also give you access to that classic 1960s jazz sound. These days saxophone players often find themselves having to go back and forth between those two types of sounds usually in the same gig, so having one mouthpiece that can easily handle everything we need it to is ideal.
Now to the mouthpiece chamber.
This is the part of the mouthpiece in between, where the baffle ends and where the neck of the saxophone starts. It’s after the window of the mouthpiece closes. In the beginning mouthpieces had large chambers which produce a fat, more spread sound. Over time mouthpiece designs began using more medium and small chambers to help focus the sound.
It’s not as important as the baffle, since the air stream has already been heavily influenced by the time it gets there.
In general, smaller chamber can result in a brighter sound. But when combined with a flat baffle you will get a round, dark sound with focus. For example, the very popular classical mouthpiece the Selmer C*.
A larger chamber can result in a spread, dark and less powerful sound. But when combined with a steep roll over baffle or step baffle, you can end up balancing out the brightness those baffle designs create.
So it’s very important to keep in mind that baffle and chamber design matter on their own, but it’s really how they work in combination with one another that creates the overall sound.
The larger chamber design of the BetterSax Burnin’ mouthpiece, balances out the relatively steep roll over baffle which allows the player access to a warm sound and control when played at lower volumes. For me, the ideal mouthpiece is going to allow me to easily play at all volume levels with a broad palette of tonal colors across the full range of the instrument.
The tip opening is the characteristic you are likely most familiar with. Most people know what tip opening they play even if they don’t know what kind of baffle or chamber they have.
Overall, the larger the tip opening, the more air you can put through the mouthpiece. This can result in a bigger sound, but they can be harder to control and play in tune.
Smaller tip openings don’t require as much air to play. They are often easier to blow and play in tune, with the drawback of having a lower ceiling on the projection.
Beginners and those who are looking for a very pure sound like classical players will want to stick to the smaller tip openings like 3s and 4s
As your embouchure strength develops, those who want to play more contemporary popular music styles like jazz, rock, funk and pop music will want to play medium tip openings like 5s 6s and 7s.
It can be tricky to choose the perfect tip opening, so check out this post here to learn more about the saxophone mouthpiece.