Can a saxophone ligature affect my sound?

Advancing saxophone players often wonder whether a ligature can really influence their sound. They may ask: can this small metal, fabric or leather piece really change the color, projection or sound of my horn? The short answer is – yes, it absolutely can!

In the past, people assumed the role of the ligature was to maintain pressure against the mouthpiece and to hold the reed in place. Today, we understand that both the mouthpiece and the ligature vibrate slightly and therefore play an important role in the creation, projection and color of the sound. As a result, musicians are paying more attention to their ligatures to refine their tone and make their playing more efficient.

Most beginner saxophone mouthpieces come with a standard metal ligature that isn’t very durable and doesn’t always fit the mouthpiece well. And for a beginner player who hasn’t yet developed their sound, maybe hasn’t committed to the saxophone yet, or is prone to damaging their equipment, a basic ligature may be fine. But keep in mind that purchasing a better ligature is always an option. 

When should I step up to a better ligature?

A sax player can step up to a better ligature at any time, but it may make most sense to wait until you’ve chosen and become comfortable with your instrument and mouthpiece. This way, you’ll have the ability to determine the difference the ligature change makes. High-quality ligatures can get a bit expensive, so be sure you’re committed to the instrument and want to invest further in your playing.

What could improve or change with a new ligature?

Tone

The first thing you might notice is a change in your tone. There are some ligatures that create a darker sound, and others that are much brighter, so it helps to know what you want your tone to be and choose ligatures that will help you achieve that.

Response

A new ligature won’t necessarily make everything better – for example, the response could get better or worse. Why is that? Some ligatures are designed to make the saxophone respond easily, while others are designed to create a darker tone. So, if you’re looking for a darker tone, you may need to sacrifice in response.

Articulation

You might observe that your articulation becomes crisper and your speed jumps. This is probably something that intermediate to advanced players would notice, which goes back to the possibility of waiting until you’re more comfortable with your craft to invest in a top ligature.

Altissimo

Everyone find that playing altissimo is more difficult than playing the middle range of the saxophone. The right ligature may help you with those challenging notes.

What ligature material should I choose?

There are many factors about a ligature to take into account when talking about how it could affect the color of the sound and projection. Elements like the material (leather, metal or synthetic fabric) and its density, the plating, the point of pressure on reed and more all could factor in. Contact points (where the ligature contacts the reed) will also affect the response and tone.

Leather Ligatures

A leather sax ligature will dampen the sound, so the tone is not as bright. As mentioned above, the ease of response may suffer if you’re looking for a darker tone.

Synthetic Fabric Ligatures

Many fabric ligatures have metal on the base plate, which increases the brightness and the projection of the sound. If it has a rubber base, the warm sound is strengthened. Fabric ligatures are recommended for small rooms or when looking for a more intimate sound and are perfect for ensemble works. 

Leather and fabric ligatures will fit more mouthpieces because they are better able to fit the shape of any mouthpiece with a similar size. Fabric ligatures have become popular in recent years for that reason, plus they tend to be less expensive than metal ligatures.

Metal Ligatures

Metal ligatures will give you a brighter tone and faster response. They are the preference of most players when performing in big rooms, as a soloist or during other times when you need more volume. Fitting metal ligatures can be somewhat more complicated than fabric or leather due to shape differences.

How many ligatures do I need?

A beginner saxophonist may be just fine with the standard metal ligature that likely came with the horn. However, any intermediate to professional saxophone player must have multiple ligatures, since they will need different ones depending on the playing situation (small concert hall vs. big auditorium; soloing vs. ensemble; jazz vs. classical).

Try different ligature models to see which ones produce the sounds, tones and color you desire. Keep in mind your various playing situations so you’re prepared with the best ligature for that circumstance. At the very least, carefully select one metal and one leather/synthetic ligature.

How can I tell if the ligature is making a difference in my sound?

Upgrading or changing your ligature should make a difference in your sound, but it might be subtle. Here are a few things you could do to test whether a different ligature changes your sound:

- Record yourself playing a piece you know well with your original ligature, then record yourself playing with a different ligature – then compare.

- Compare and contrast your old and new ligature for smoothness in transition between registers, consistent volume and sound quality in the lower, middle and upper ranges.

- Play a piece with pianissimo and fortissimo passages and listen for the subtle differences when playing on the old and new ligatures.

- Test how easily you can play staccato on your new ligature.

- Play with someone else (preferably someone who knows your style, tone, etc.) listening so that person can help you determine what differences they hear.

The sheer number of sax ligatures can be overwhelming. Take the time to determine what sound you are going for, what style of music and the playing situations to help you narrow your selection. Still don’t know where to start? Here are some great recommendations to get you going: 

Silverstein Works Cryo4 Gold Ligature

Vandoren Optimum Series Ligature

BG Duo Series Ligature

Rovner Versa Ligature

For more information, read this article about choosing the right ligature for your woodwind instrument and you can always contact our music specialists at 800.348.5003. They’re standing by to help you purchase the perfect ligature for you.