Do Saxophone Mouthpieces Make A Difference?

do saxophone mouthpieces make a difference

Everyone who looks for a new saxophone is always obsessed with finding the right instrument, but few people spend as much time on the saxophone mouthpiece. 

Music teachers and professional saxophonists love to talk about its importance, but does a sax mouthpiece make a difference? 

I’ve only ever heard this trope, but I wanted confirmation. I asked my professional saxophone player friends to find out. 

Saxophone mouthpieces make a big difference in playing the woodwind instrument. A good mouthpiece helps with tone quality, sound production, and intonation flexibility. Mouthpieces are made of all sorts of materials, including plastic, hard rubber, metal, and wood. 

Let’s dig into the detail of how and why sax mouthpieces make a difference.  

Do Saxophone Mouthpieces Make A Big Difference?

During my undergraduate school, I took a class on woodwind techniques where we learned how to play flute, clarinet, and saxophone and how to teach young musicians in our future programs. 

Full disclaimer: I took the class twice because I was so bad at playing clarinet the professor had to give me lessons. (Brass is my main instrument family). 

On our first day on the saxophone, we didn’t even play the horn. We spent all our time on the mouthpiece. 

Why?

A bad saxophone will make playing hard, but a bad mouthpiece will make playing impossible. 

I’m not one to simply believe whatever people tell me without asking around, and over my decade+ in the field of music education, I’ve asked many band teachers (one of whom is my wife) and sax players about this belief. 

To a person, every single one has agreed it’s not an over-exaggeration. 

A good mouthpiece makes a huge difference at every level, from beginners to advanced players. 

Why Does A Saxophone Mouthpiece Change/Help The Sound?

The mouthpiece is where the sound begins. 

To have sound, we have to have vibration, and on a saxophone, the sound comes from the reed and mouthpiece. 

The air you blow forces the reed to vibrate against the mouthpiece, and these vibrations then go into the horn to be shaped and changed into the glorious bright sound and notes we love from the sax. 

As the first point of contact and sound creation, the mouthpiece sets the foundation for all the sound that comes later. 

It’s the most critical piece of equipment for the sax, at least concerning tone production. 

Fortunately, the average player will just need to get their hands on a good one. 

Professional players will need to look into getting multiple ones to switch between depending on the genre they’re playing in at the time and whether they want a brighter sound or a darker sound. 

Beginner Vs. Professional Saxophone Mouthpieces

All this being said, what’s the difference? 

Beginner mouthpieces aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re designed for beginners. 

They feature a closed tip to help produce sound more easily, but this comes at the cost of poorer tone quality and less control over the pitch through your embouchure.

A beginner one is also made of cheaper and often more breakable material because (let’s be honest) younger players are more likely to break it. 

If you break a cheap mouthpiece, you won’t be upset because it didn’t cost much. 

Often, these are plastic mouthpieces. 

The goal of the beginner mouthpiece is to make producing sounds as accessible as possible at the lowest price. 

The issue with most people is that they’ll use the beginner mouthpiece they get with their sax and then stay on it forever. 

At a certain point (and much earlier than you’d think), they’ll need to switch to a higher-end mouthpiece. 

Professional mouthpieces come in different materials, tip sizes, and more, but the design is more intentional. 

Selmer is a safe brand, and if you want an easy mouthpiece choice check out this Selmer alto mouthpiece on Amazon. 

This mouthpiece will do you well at pretty much every level except for professionals. 

Speaking of Selmer, it’s one of the best saxophone brands, and if you want to learn more about getting a good horn, check out the article linked above. 

Some people suggest keeping their students and players on the beginner mouthpiece for a while, but the sooner they can move over, the better. 

A good rule of thumb is to switch over once they can easily play a whole octave scale with a consistent tone. 

Switching early will help in the long run, and switching later may introduce added frustration. 

Remember, we’re letting the equipment for your skills, not letting your skills get stopped by the equipment. 

Elements To Choosing A Saxophone Mouthpiece

There are some major differences in this part that affect the sound. Read ahead for a quick rundown on the most important elements to watch out for. 

Concert/Classical Mouthpieces Vs. Jazz Mouthpieces

In concert bands and classical music, saxophones tend to take a supporting role and need to blend in more. 

As a result, they need a more neutral tone fitting the entire group. 

For this reason, you’ll usually use a medium-length facing curve and medium or medium-close tip opening. 

Many great players will opt for a harder reed to help focus their sound to be heard without standing out and ruining the whole ensemble’s tone. 

The standard mouthpiece material here is the ebonite or hard rubber mouthpieces. 

With jazz, you want the bigger sound, flexibility, and fast response. 

They’re often made of ebonite or metal and have a big tip opening. 

They’re also a larger chamber and high baffle mouthpiece to boost the tone.  

All this sounds great, but less experienced players will need to work more to control the sound of this mouthpiece, making it tough for new players. 

Mouthpiece Material

Mouthpiece material makes a big difference in overall tone quality. 

Here’s a quick list of the main types: 

  • Plastic Mouthpieces – Cheaper, thin tone.
  • Ebonite Mouthpiece – Great sound, best overall. 
  • Crystal – Expensive but strong tone.
  • Wood – Deep and rich tone, but not punchy.
  • Metal Mouthpieces – Fat and powerful sound, common in jazz

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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