Today, I want to talk about saxophone ligatures. You know the little device that holds your reed onto the mouthpiece.
There are so many different ones to choose from, and apart from the basic cheapo two screw model, each one claims to improve your sound in a whole range of ways…
In this article, I want to show you what’s important for me in a ligature, and why they matter, but not in the ways you may think…
I’ll also tell you about the ligature I’m currently using and why.
Watch the video version of this post below.
Why So Many Ligatures?
So, I’ve got quite a few ligatures that I’ve collected over the years.
Most of them last a lifetime so they just sort of accumulate over time.
The diameter and shape of different mouthpieces varies so sometimes you need to get special sizes to fit. For example, a ligature for a metal tenor sax mouthpiece won’t fit on a hard rubber tenor mouthpiece.
And some mouthpieces just have an odd shape, like the metal Otto Links that have a ridge on top.
Sometimes you may even need to get a ligature for another instrument to fit your mouthpiece. For example, I use a clarinet ligature on a particularly small alto sax mouthpiece, and a tenor ligature on one of my baritone sax mouthpieces.
Should I Get a Fancy Ligature?
If you have been playing saxophone for any length of time, you have probably heard, from someone that you should get a nice ligature to improve your sound, or response, or intonation, or whatever.
Maybe you read this on the internet somewhere, or heard it from a teacher. Perhaps you heard it from a salesperson in a music store, or maybe just from a fellow sax player.
Let’s have a look at just some of the amazing things ligatures can do for your sound according to the companies who make them…
Actual Sales Copy from Leading Brands of Ligatures
- Perfectly centered sound
- A rich, colorful sonority which produces great resonance. Pressure along the fiber of the reed facilitates an unbelievable blowing ease. Incredible ease of articulation
- fuller and rounder sound
- strong projection
- precise sound control
- more defined harmonic partials
- fine tuning sound color
- this ligature generates a range of sympathetic vibrations that enrich the player’s sound
- will be perfect for those who don’t want to work too hard to produce a free and deep sound
- Focused tone, softer, deeper and flexible sound, homogeneous in all registers
- sound waves travel much faster and without loss through the more homogenized metal alloy, resulting in a richer, more natural sound with improved resonance
- Excellent intonation, response, projection and articulation
- Adjustable tone…freedom from the paradigm of dark or bright
- Durably constructed of highly-tempered, impeccably-polished, space-age metal alloy, the Platinum is as beautiful as a piece of fine jewelry
I don’t even know what a lot of that is supposed to mean and let’s be honest that’s pretty much all a bunch of bullshit…
Nobody really believes all of that stuff anyway though right? And they have to write something on the box…
What About Gold vs Silver Plating?
I really have to draw the line when it comes to the different platings…
One ligature company claims that the silver plate makes a brighter tone, while the next company says the gold plated version gives the brighter tone and a third company says something else totally different.
That’s like saying the color of your car is going to make it drive faster.
Can we all just agree please that the color and finish of a ligature has absolutely no impact on your sound whatsoever.
So as long as we are being real….
What difference does a ligature make, and how should I choose one?
Here’s my list of criteria…
- For me, an ideal ligature is well made, and will last a lifetime.
- It will fit on a range of mouthpieces, so I don’t have to buy another one just because the circumference of my new mouthpiece is slightly different,
- It will be easy and fast to get on and off, It won’t budge when I put my mouthpiece on or take it off the neck. Even with a tighter fitting neck cork.
- it has a cap that is easy to get on in the dark without damaging the reed
- It should tighten with 1 screw.
- If it comes in different finishes to complement the look of my instrument then that’s a nice bonus too.
Most importantly though, it should hold the reed onto my mouthpiece really well.
There are some very popular ligatures out there that have some glaring faults that I’d like to point out here as examples of what I don’t like in a ligature.
Check out the Silverstein Works Cryo 4 ligature. It costs between $280 and $330 depending on the options you choose.
At that price it should be really good at holding my reed on the saxophone right?
Well after using it for about a year, it’s stretched out so much that it no longer holds my reed onto the mouthpiece at all. It never did a very good job from the beginning as I had to constantly tighten it. And if I were to take my mouthpiece off the neck, it would slip out of place every time.
Below is the Francois Louis Ultimate ligature. It’s cool, but the thing that really bothers me with this is the plate which holds the reed is a jagged piece of metal, that if it comes into contact with the table of my mouthpiece will leave a nice scratch. This is something that will happen constantly unless you are extremely careful.
My Favorite Ligature
Recently I started using this Duo Ligature by BG They just sent it to me to try.
Now I didn’t notice a difference in my sound of course, but I did notice a very welcome stability with how it holds my reed onto the mouthpiece.
I do a lot of testing of saxophones, mouthpieces and reeds, so I’m constantly putting the mouthpiece on the neck and taking it off.
This ligature provides an excellent grip with very little tightening required. You can tighten this screw with just a very small amount of pressure and it still holds the reed on there well without ever slipping.
It also fits a much wider range of mouthpieces. The alto version also works on clarinet. It also fits that smaller alto mouthpiece I showed you earlier that I previously had to use a clarinet ligature on.
Plus, it also fits my more narrow tenor mouthpieces like this Berg Larsen.
There are 4 different finishes too, the one I have is the Rose gold, which I think looks great.
It is built really well as are all the products from BG and comes with a nice cap that I can slip on and off while on a dark stage without worrying about damaging my reed.
My one complaint is having the website printed on the side of the mouthpiece cap. It’s a little tacky.
Now it’s definitely on the expensive side, but as i expect it to last a lifetime and since it fits a range of mouthpiece sizes for me it’s worth it.
Why Do You Have All the Expensive Stuff Then?
you may be saying to yourself: This guy is always telling me that expensive gear won’t make me a better sax player, yet, he has all the most expensive stuff. Why is that?
I’ve been building my collection of sax gear for decades and I have all the fancy stuff because in addition to being my profession, playing saxophone is my hobby, and it’s fun to play around with all this stuff.
So If you don’t want to spend upwards of $100 on a ligature which let’s face it, is a kind of unreasonable amount of money to spend on something so basic, I recommend you get a Rovner for about $20.
It also does a great job of holding a reed on the mouthpiece as well as all of my other criteria.
Another option that I like and have used for many years is this M|O ligature by Vandoren for about $40.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below…
Interested in more about mouthpieces? Check out “Play Testing 6 Metal Tenor Mouthpieces.”
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11 thoughts on “Why Ligatures Matter? It’s NOT How You Think…”
I’m a newbie to saxophone at age 63, and looking forward to learning this beautiful instrument. I play some guitar, cello and a bit of piano/keyboard. I’m looking forward to your course!
As I read/search about the saxophone, I’ve already come across many varying opinions about when/what to upgrade in terms of mouthpiece/ligature/reed.
The instrument I’m using is a Selmer Bundy II with a stock Bari mouthpiece and a Juno size 2 reed.
Wondering your opinion on upgrading, I.e.:
Yamaha 4c mouthpiece w/Rovner ligature ($50ish), vs say:
Meyers/Selmer mouthpiece w/Vandoren ligature ($170ish)?
Don’t want to spend frivolously, but want to have an effective and enjoyable learning experience as well.
Thanks in advance for your time
As an adult student, you can feel free to get a Meyer 5 (more jazz) or a Selmer C* (classical) mouthpiece. This will avoid having to upgrade down the road from the Yamaha. The Rovner ligature will work well with any of them though.
Hi Jay, I was wondering why having only one screw is so important. You mention that two-screw models are “cheapo” and that it’s important that it tighten with only one screw, but you don’t really say why that is. I’m just curious, as I play on a JodyJazz HR* that came with a Rico H ligature that uses two screws. From what I know, it’s a pretty respectable one. Is it just the convenience and speed of it?
Justin, good question. Not all 2 screw ligatures are “cheapo” but the most basic “cheapest” stock ligatures have 2 screws. The Rico H ligatures is based on the old Harrison ligature design and those are great ligatures that do the job very well. Yes, 1 screw is preferable mainly for convenience. In other words, if a ligature is going to be expensive then it should have a one screw system.
I happened on your YouTube channel, this evening, and it is quite timely: a cab driver, who occasionally drives me home, has recently bought a tenor sax and really wants to learn how to play it (he is in the late 40’s-early 50’s range). He is signed up for an online course (maybe yours?), but can’t afford weekly lessons. If he doesn’t know about your YouTube channel, I will certainly tell him about it.
Regarding ligatures, the sax has slightly different acoustics than the clarinet, but I can summarize the state of scientific knowledge about ligatures in one word: nothing. I know the literature on clarinet reeds and ligatures very well (I study the biology, chemistry, and physics of woodwind reeds) and I know of NO published scientific study on ligatures for clarinet (I don’t know the sax literature as well). Ligatures do have an effect – they, essentially, act the same as low or high-pass filters in audio circuits, subtly modifying the different modes of the vibrating reed. This is a second-order effect, to be sure, since the primary vibration of the reed is controlled by the air column. I am working on a computer model of the reed/mouthpiece/ligature combination in order to study the fluid flow through the mouthpiece and to see how various pressure distributions on the reed due to the ligature affect the sound.
When I play bass clarinet, it freaks out people because I, sometimes, don’t use a ligature, but scotch tape or the thicker bandage tape. It works really well. The string ligature you show is improperly made – the string should be immersed in shellac to make it rigid, but pliable enough for use. The best clarinet ligature I have used a wound thick string ligature that is shellaced to make it stiff. I can send you a link to the sight that makes it.
Donald, Please share the results of your research with us when it’s ready. Thanks for the info. I’ll be happy to see the link for the ligature you mentioned.
Here is a link for the string ligature.
I don’t know if it will work as well on saxes because of the slightly different mouthpiece design, but it is the best clarinet ligature I have used. Fair disclaimer: James Pyne was my doctoral advisor, but I have no connection with his business and I haven’t been in contact with him since 2012.
There are many Rovner ligatures on the market.
Which one do you recommend for the tenor sax?
the basic rovner is great. Find the one that fits your model of mouthpiece.
Jay thank you for doing all your tutorials I’ve been flicking through them and trying to learn and develop my ability. I started playing some 23 years ago but needed dental work which meant it was unbearable to play. Since then lost half my bottom lip with a dog attack. So I’ve picked up my original trevor james horn and now teaching myself again with a bottom lip not as large or supple as it used to be, I have just ordered a rovner ligature, will see if I get on better with that.
For some reason, I swear I saw a later review and demo of ligatures on your shelf. I have never placed much faith in the value of one ligature over another, but I was willing to chance a test. So, based on your demo I choose the Rovner V-2M for my Berg Larsen mouthpiece.
WOW! I admit this change represented cheap vs upgrade, but OMG what a difference. My tone is richer. In fact I had noted a falloff in crispness on my middle D for which I was going to take the horn to my mechanic. Not now. All notes are crisp and equal in tonality.
Further, the periodically squeaky A-Ab-G combos now are much less so. I suspect much of that is my embouchure, but the difference is remarkable. Much more confidence when moving among those notes.
And, while I’m reporting, I’ve been testing reeds. The more I play, the more I see I might need a harder reed. I’m now centered on Légère American Cut 2.75, a step up from the same Légère 2.5 of a couple of months ago. I think I’m off vegetable reeds for good. Though expensive, these are durable and they last. They do not need soaking. And, they play the same at the end of the gig as at the beginning. And I like that surprise-free experience. At the suggestion of my mechanic I tried a Bari elite M (medium). Not impressed, but I think I may need a heavier one. Squeeks a lot. BTW, Bari says their plastic reeds can be shaved with a Reed Geed type tool if you wish. I suppose all can be modified, but they make a point of it.
My conclusion on ligatures: If you are playing an entry-level ligature, it may be worthwhile for you to upgrade to a