It’s a new year and, among other things, you may be considering how you can freshen up your clarinet or saxophone setup.
This guide will provide you with some good ideas on how best to upgrade your instrument, whether you’re a classical or jazz player, on a budget or not.
Know your factory setup
It’s always good to know what your factory setup is with your clarinet or sax.
Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to find out, especially compared to string instruments!
Most brands use a logo or decoration to identify an instrument. Some may even stamp the model number or a serial number as well. This makes it pretty easy to find out what it is.
Sometimes more expensive clarinets and saxophones will be sold without a mouthpiece and one will have to be bought separately.
Again, most mouthpiece manufacturers will print or emboss a logo and the size/tip opening onto their pieces so you can quickly find the right one.
Reeds are often a similar story, with logos printed on the base of the reed. But I would imagine you know your reeds as you need to keep buying them!
Upgrading your mouthpiece
Upgrading your mouthpiece can make a major change to your sound and encourage a different embouchure. The shape and material of a mouthpiece affect the instrument’s sound, and certain characteristics are favoured by different types of musicians.
When searching for mouthpieces, you’ll usually find numbers and letters at the end of the product names. These denote the tip size/opening, which is the gap between the edge of the mouthpiece and the reed at the tip of the mouthpiece.
Rather confusingly, manufacturers all use different ways of numbering their mouthpiece sizes! This is an issue that also affects reed hardness, as we will discuss later in this guide.
Fortunately, mouthpiece makers tend to have comparison charts or will at least supply the exact measurements so you can compare yourself.
Another important thing to consider is the material of your mouthpiece. Most mouthpieces are made of some form of hard rubber or ebonite, and some are crafted from metal.
Most beginner or more affordable pieces will be made of hard rubber, the Yamaha 4C for clarinets or 4C for alto sax are great examples of this. These are usually milled or moulded with machines; more expensive pieces will often be made by hand.
Investing in a mouthpiece is one way to achieve consistent sound and will definitely be an upgrade if you have a factory mouthpiece that came with your instrument.
The JodyJazz Jet is based on vintage mouthpieces and is a popular piece amongst jazz musicians due to its brighter, more open sound with a broader focus.
The most expensive mouthpieces have been made with a high level of care and attention to detail, and makers will have invested a lot of time in developing the materials.
The Chedeville Umbra clarinet mouthpiece is a perfect example of a carefully developed and hand-crafted piece. Its rubber is based on pre-World War II rubber that had to be re-engineered with advanced technology to replicate a vintage sound that was once lost to history.
Theo Wanne’s Durga 5 has had a lot of love and thought put into its design and manufacturing. It’s a metal mouthpiece that’s plated in 24k gold which gives it a unique and unmistakably premium tone. The interior shape and size have been carefully designed to produce a massive sound which can be both loud and mellow. Such versatility is ideal for contemporary styles of music, such as rock.
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Reeds are the thing you’ll need to replace most frequently while playing sax or clarinet. However, you may have just stuck with the brands of reeds that your instrument came with or what your teacher recommended.
There are so many options to choose from and it can sometimes be tricky to figure out what might suit you best.
The first thing to consider across all reeds, regardless of what you choose, is strength. This is how flexible the reed is when you’re blowing air into it.
Harder reeds require more blowing effort for it to make a sound, but you will find they often offer a more focused sound. Softer reeds are the opposite; they’re easier to make vibrate but produce a slightly softer sound.
Neither of these ends of the scale is better than the other. It’s up to you to figure out which reed suits you the best!
Your choice can also be affected by the tip opening of your mouthpiece.
Larger openings may be easier to use with softer reeds as the reed needs to travel further. The opposite is true for narrower openings and harder reeds as they need to travel less.
If you like your current choice of reeds, try experimenting with some other reed strengths to see how they affect the way the reed plays and feels.
If you decide to buy a new mouthpiece then it’s always a good idea to test different reeds and gauge how they feel.
Like with mouthpieces, the scales which brands use to measure their reeds’ strengths don’t all match up. Fortunately for us again, they often publish charts which let you compare with other brands.
Reeds for different genres
Reeds are often designed with certain types of musicians in mind.
The Vandoren Traditional for both clarinet and saxophone are great reeds if you’re on a budget but want reeds that will serve you well even if you play both jazz and classical. You’ll also find excellent consistency across the reeds and won’t need to waste time adjusting them.
Some reeds are suited to particular genres.
The D’Addario Reserve series, for example, is considered to be great for classical sax and clarinet players. D’Addario Select Jazz Reeds, on the other hand, are considered to be great saxophone reeds for jazz.
At the top are reeds that are used by professionals. These produce the highest quality sounds and offer the best consistency across reeds. The Vandoren 56 Rue Lepic are a great example of exceptional reeds for the most discerning players.
You might also want to consider synthetic reeds, such as the Legere American Cut Synthetic Reed, which are a more recent innovation in the world of reeds and are becoming quite popular. This is because synthetics last much longer than cane reeds and offer similar levels of sound and performance.
Synthetic reeds are often a bit pricier than normal reeds but they’re much more durable and can be cleaned with water. In fact, a single synthetic reed can usually last as long as a whole box of cane reeds!
If you want to find out more about synthetic reeds then check out this handy blog post!
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The ligature is another major part of your instrument that you’ll want to consider upgrading. This is the part which fastens the reed to your mouthpiece.
These can have a surprisingly big effect on the sound.
The flexibility of the ligature affects how much the reed can vibrate by controlling the number and size of contact points, thus affecting the tone.
Plus, the material can alter the timbre of the instrument slightly too.
So, what sorts of ligatures are available?
Fabric ligatures are often chosen for their soft sound and flexible material, and they’re a great choice for beginners.
The Rovner MKIII is an affordable fabric ligature for both clarinet and saxophone, whilst the Rovner Dark is a good choice for classical players who want to capture the sound of historic string ligatures.
Some fabric ligatures are made with bits of metal too. For example, the BG Super Revelation has a 24k gold plate that contacts the reed directly, making it easier to articulate with the reed and boost your projection. The tonal colour is also given an edge that you might associate with metal ligatures as well.
Metal ligatures are often used for their bright, clear sound, traits that are favoured by soloists.
The Rico by D’Addario H-Ligature is a good example of this. It’s gold-plated, offers fantastic warmth, and is perfect for solo jazz performers.
Top-range ligatures often have a high level of attention and detail put into their design and manufacture.
The Silverstein Original, for example, is a handmade ligature which boasts a unique-looking design that uses threads of specially designed cords and metal contact points to hold your reed in place.
It even has an innovative fine tuner mechanism, so you can customise precisely how you want your reed to respond by changing the contact points between the reed and your mouthpiece.
Some mouthpieces have ligatures built into the design, like the previously-mentioned Theo Wanne Durga 5. This allows a synergy between the mouthpiece and ligature which vastly improves the sound.
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Other helpful accessories
You may want to get some mouthpiece cushions for your mouthpiece. These help make your instrument more comfortable to play by absorbing some of the vibrations and protecting the mouthpiece against any damage from your teeth.
Hopefully this guide has given you a general overview of ways you can get a better sound out of your saxophone or clarinet.
Mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures can work together and individually to help you achieve the sound you’re looking for, and I would recommend upgrading these before buying a whole new instrument as the impact of these alone is massive.
I should mention that good practice and technique will always guarantee a better sound. Upgrading parts like the mouthpiece, reed, or ligature won’t magically make you better but they can certainly help you get better!