Saxophone - Start Here

Saxophone - Start Here

This article provides basic knowledge for all saxophone players, and can be a helpful starting point for assignments and projects in other subjects.

Saxophone History

The saxophone was invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840 and the design used for the saxophone instrument family was patented in 1846. Mr. Sax combined his experience with flute and bass clarinet to create a unique instrument with the projection of a brass instrument and the agility of a woodwind. The saxophone family includes a total of ten instruments. The four most common saxophones are soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments. The alto saxophone is the most popular saxophone for beginning band students. All saxophones use a single reed mouthpiece matched to a conical body. As the size of the instrument increases, so does the size of the mouthpiece.

Mouthpiece, Ligature and Cap

To create sound on a saxophone you need a mouthpiece, ligature and cap. The mouthpiece is assembled using a ligature and a reed. The flat side of the reed goes on the flat side of the mouthpiece and the ligature slides over the top to hold it in place. The mouthpiece twists onto the neck of the instrument which is covered with a cork. Cork grease helps provide a secure fit.

The condition of the mouthpiece is very important. Saxophone mouthpieces are breakable and can easily chip if dropped on a hard surface. A chipped mouthpiece will often cause reeds to squeak. The shape of the chamber, the inside of the mouthpiece, also contributes to the sound of the instrument.

The ligature is a clamp which holds the reed to the flat side of the mouthpiece. There are several styles of ligatures with the primary difference being the location of the adjusting screws. A regular ligature has its adjusting screws on the bottom. An inverted ligature has its adjusting screws on the top.

Band directors often specify specific models of mouthpieces, ligatures and reeds to ensure all students start with the same equipment and can make the same sounds.

A mouthpiece cap protects the reed from damage when the instrument is not being played. Importantly, the mouthpiece cap also protects the player from injury in case the mouthpiece hits his face when not playing. A mouthpiece with a reed attached is both fragile and sharp. If the player has the instrument hooked up and ready to play, an accidental twist of the head can cause injury. It is a good idea to keep the mouthpiece cap on when not actually playing the instrument.

Neck strap

Alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones are supported with a neck strap to allow the player to use both hands to play the instrument. The hook or clip on the neck strap must fit the mounting ring on the instrument and be durable enough to last.

Adjusting the neck strap to hold the instrument in proper playing condition is often overlooked by beginners. The neck strap can help keep the mouthpiece in contact with the upper teeth which will improve the sound of the instrument.

A narrow neck strap can dig into the player’s shoulder and get uncomfortable quickly. A padded neck strap is more comfortable and will often help young players practice longer. Players of the heavier tenor and baritone saxes often appreciate the added support of a large harness strap which distributes the weight of the instrument across the shoulders.

Mouthpiece Cushions

The key to a good sound for the beginning saxophonist is consistent mouthpiece placement. The reed vibrates when the instrument is played and the player feels the vibration on their front teeth. A mouthpiece cushion adheres to the top of the mouthpiece and provides a comfortable spot for the player to anchor their teeth to hold the mouthpiece in place. 

Mouthpiece cushions can help young players practice regularly by making it more comfortable to play the instrument.

Cork Grease

The mouthpiece slides onto the cork on the neck of the saxophone. The cork is glued to the neck and shaped to the right size to fit the mouthpiece. Cork is naturally dry. Cork grease is used on the neck cork of saxophones to facilitate assembly and avoid tearing the neck cork. A new neck cork will require grease regularly, but the cork will eventually soak in enough grease to be consistent. 

Reeds

Saxophone reeds can be made from natural cane or synthetic materials and are made to fit specific instruments. As the instrument gets bigger, so does the required reed. Alto saxophone reeds will not work on tenor saxes or baritone saxes. 

The shape and strength of the reed makes a difference in the way if sounds and feels to the player. The number of a reed designates its strength or stiffness. A 2 is not as stiff as a 3.

In addition to the strength of the reed, the ‘cut’, the pattern or shape resulting from the cutting process, affects the feel of the reed to the player. Experienced players often try different brands, cuts, and sizes of reeds to find the combination that fits their playing style, the one that feels right.

The most common strengths for saxophone reeds are 2.5 and 3.

Band directors often specify specific models of mouthpieces, ligatures and reeds to ensure all students start with the same equipment and can make the same sounds.

Reed Guard

Reeds are expensive and fragile. Most beginners break reeds while they learn to master the mouthpiece assembly/disassembly process. As they gain experience, their reeds will last longer.

The best way to extend the life of your reeds includes two steps.

  1. Get a reed guard that holds 4 reeds to keep in your case.
  2. Only keep four reeds in your case. Leave the rest of the box at home.

Player Tip: Use a pencil to number your reeds on the flat side. Rotate your reeds to use a different number each day. Over time, you will start to recognize the difference in your reeds.

Swab

A dry saxophone is a happy saxophone. Playing the instrument introduces moisture which is completely normal and expected. When you are done playing, you need to dry the inside of the instrument with a swab. The swab is a piece of cotton or silk attached to a long string with a weight on one end. Get a swab to dry the inside of the instrument.