Saxophone - Lesson 3

  1. Mouthpiece
  2. Reed
  3. Selecting a mouthpiece and reed
  4. Mouthpiece Assembly
  5. Embouchure
  6. Embouchure Pressure
  7. Position of the bottom lip
  8. Practice
  9. Memories for Tomorrow
  10. Practice Material

    Practice Studio

Lesson : Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | ??

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SAX 3.1 - Mouthpiece

Mouthpieces come in a great variety of designs.

The two main variables are :

  • the curvature of the opening towards the tip, called the facing, and

  • the size and shape of the inside chamber.


These influence the tone quality, tone colour, volume and pitch control.
Different models and sizes of mouthpieces cater for a wide range of tastes.

The range of facings for Selmer mouthpieces are indicated by a letter, B - C - D - E - F and G. B indicates a small tip opening, G a very large one.

Yamaha mouthpieces range from 3C to 7C.

Other mouthpiece brands are classified as S (small), M (medium) and L (large), or use numbers (e.g.3 to 10). The addition of an asterisk (C*, or 5*) indicates a brighter sound.

Mouthpieces are either made of hard rubber or of metal.
A hard rubber mouthpiece is normally provided with any new saxophone purchased. I recommend the use of a hard rubber mouthpiece for the first few years of saxophone practice. If you really prefer the brighter sound quality of a metal mouthpiece I suggest you purchase one at a later stage.

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SAX 3.2 - Reed

Reeds come in range of varying degrees of stiffness. This is generally indicated by a number from 1 to 5.
A No.1 reed is soft , a No.5 reed is hard.
Others are classified as soft (S), medium soft (MS), medium (M), medium hard (MH) and hard (H).

Comparable reed strengths (as measured by Vandoren) for seven popular brands are :


In general a mouthpiece with a wide open facing (large tip opening) requires a relatively soft reed.
A mouthpiece with a small tip opening requires a relatively stiff reed.

For a comprehensive discussion on reed and mouthpiece see The art of Saxophone playing (p.17 - 29) by Larry Teal.

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SAX 3.3 - Selecting mouthpiece and reed

The initial choice of mouthpiece and reed for a beginning student is very important.

The muscles around the mouth and lips of a beginning player are very weak.
These muscles must be developed gradually over a period of time, without over straining the muscles.

Many players (to compensate for a lack of voicing skills) start using a large facing mouthpiece or a stiff reed too soon. This usually leads to biting on the mouthpiece and wrecks the embouchure.
It will prevent you from developing a professional tone. Follow my advice in these lessons or seek help from a good teacher to rectify the problem.

To ensure the development of a good embouchure use :

  • a standard mouthpiece, Selmer C*, Yamaha 4C, Rico 3B or comparable, and

  • a soft reed, such as Rico No.1 (!!).

Practise at first no longer than 5 or 10 minutes, but practise every day !

If your bottom lip becomes sore, stop immediately, for from that point onwards you start practising how not to play the saxophone. Gradually you will be able to manage longer practices.

If you have played the saxophone for a while you are obviously able to practise much longer. But I still recommend you use a soft reed for a while (Rico No.1 or 1 and a half) .
This ensures the development of a relaxed embouchure.
Most sax players have an embouchure that is too firm (Ray Smith) and many bite on the mouthpiece.

After about 8 - 12 months, depending on your progress, step up to a Rico No.11/2 reed. After about 18 months start using a Yamaha 5-6 C, or Rico 5B, or comparable mouthpiece. (The Selmer C* is good for a lifetime, but you can step up to a D or E.)

The bottom line regarding mouthpieces and reeds is simple.
If you cannot produce a good tone on a standard mouthpiece with
medium or medium soft reed you do not play the saxophone correctly.

I use the soft reed approach for all my students with great success. Many play in school or community bands and attract attention because of their excellent tone. They usually are asked about the mouthpiece and reed they use. Their answers totally baffle their fellow sax players (to my students great amusement).
Too many players (and unfortunately even some teachers) still measure their progress by the size of the mouthpiece and stiffness of the reed they use.

There is nothing wrong with using a stiff (No.3-4) reed with an appropriately small mouthpiece if that helps you to produce the tone you want. But such (personal) choice should be made when the embouchure is well developed.

Good instrument makers like Selmer and Yamaha also produce thoroughly researched quality mouthpieces, that match the quality and character of their instruments.
If you wish to use a designer mouthpiece wait for at least 3 - 4 years, until your embouchure is well developed and your tonal concepts have matured sufficiently.

Like most saxophone students I went through a phase that I was very concerned about what mouthpiece I should use. But if you practise on your tone (see Lesson 5 and Lesson 6 ) this will only be a passing phase.
I probably spent $2000.- on mouthpieces during that time, both hard rubber and metal. They are now stored in a box in the basement and I never even look at them. A good tone ultimately comes from within. I now always use a Selmer mouthpiece on my Selmer saxophones, and a Yamaha mouthpiece on a Yamaha alto sax and they are all perfectly fine for me.

I personally prefer the LaVoz reeds. I use an MS LaVoz reed on my Selmer D* or E* alto mouthpiece, and an M LaVoz reed on my Selmer D* baritone mouthpiece. I get a big sound with these.
The much bigger mouthpiece for the baritone sax needs, I find, a somewhat stiffer reed.
(When playing a lot I switch to an M LaVoz reed for the alto and an MH for the bari.)

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SAX 3.4 - Mouthpiece Assembly

Before assembing the saxophone

  1. Put some cork grease on the cork at the end of the saxophone neck and rub it all around it onto the cork. The cork should always be elastick and not dry and crumbly.

  2. Wet the reed in your mouth or in a glass of water, then place its vibrating end on the flat table of the mouth piece and press it down on it with your thumb for half a minute or so.
    This prevents the reed from wrinkling (forming small corrugations) while absorbing the moisture. A brand new reed will generally not do this at first, but it happens once it has been used a few times.

Then assemble the mouthpiece and reed as follows.

  1. Position the reed on the mouthpiece so that the reed edges are parallel with and at equal distance to the side edges of the table.

  2. Press the tip of the reed on the mouthpiece with your thumb. Adjust the reed position so that about 0.5 mm of the tip rail extends beyond the tip of the reed.

  3. Then fit the ligature over mouthpiece and reed, and ensure that the ligature does not extend across the cut of the reed.


After assembly suck on the mouthpiece while pressing the circular rear opening of the mouthpiece firmly against the palm of your hand.
When removing your mouth from the mouthpiece an audible plop indicates that the reed is properly seated, forming an airtight seal against the mouthpiece window.

I recommend you use a Rovner ligature.
It makes assembly of the mouthpiece and reed a breeze.
It also produces (according to most players including myself) better resonance and a warmer tone than the traditional metal ligatures.
It is easy to adjust the ligature pressure during performance and does not cut into the reed.

Rovner ligatures are widely available in USA and Australia. Make sure to specify the type of mouthpiece you want it for (e.g. "alto sax - hard rubber", or "tenor sax - metal"). Here is the address of the manufacturer.

Rovner Products - P.O.Box 15006, Baltimore, Maryland 21208, USA

Tuning the Saxophone
When you have assembled the mouthpiece push it over the cork of the saxophone neck. You can tune the saxophone by shifting the mouthpiece up or down over the cork end. Most sax manufacturers cut the end of the cork near or just past the approximate position to where the mouthpiece should sit when in tune.
Test the tuning again after playing for a few minutes when the sax has warmed up. Also be aware that on occasions when you play outside in the sun the instrument may warm up and can go out of tune significantly.

When playing by yourself use an electronic tuning device to tune your instrument. When playing in a group tune up against the lead player.

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SAX 3.5 - Embouchure

The principle role of a good embouchure is to form an air tight seal around the mouth piece.

The embouchure pressure is solely produced by the muscles of face and lips.
The pressure is applied radially so that the lips form an airtight seal around the mouthpiece. It acts rather like an elastic band.

Upper and lower jaws are at all times relaxed and are never used to apply pressure.

  1. Place the upper teeth on top of the mouthpiece, so that the head rests on the mouthpiece.

  2. Pull the lower lip slightly over the bottom teeth.

  3. Then tighten the mouth around the mouthpiece as if pronouncing the syllable "wu" ("u" as in "dull").

  4. Now blow on the saxophone, combining "wu" for the embouchure with the "Hooooo" for air support (see Lesson 4).

    Keep the cheeks firm. (Blowing out your cheeks distorts the embouchure.)


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SAX 3.6 - Embouchure Pressure

At first apply very little "wu" pressure on the mouthpiece so that air flows through the saxophone without the reed vibrating.


Slowly increase the "wu" pressure until the reed starts to vibrate and a tone is produced.

The best tone quality is produced with an embouchure pressure slightly firmer than the minimum pressure required to start the reed vibration.

Do the above experiment several times at the start of each practice, to get a feel for the right embouchure pressure.

sax0305.gif On a scale from 0% to 100%, where 0% is no pressure and 100% represents the strongest pressure the embouchure can produce (without using the jaw !), the correct embouchure pressure for the saxophone is about 70 - 75%.

This is considerably less than the pressure required for the clarinet embouchure.
The correct pressure for the clarinet embouchure is about 95 - 98%.
This is an important point to remember when switching from one instrument to the other.

A player must develop a uniform embouchure pressure over the entire range of the instrument, from the low Bb to the high F(#).


Most players tend to have their embouchure too relaxed for the low notes (Bb' in the diagram), and too firm for the high notes (F' in the diagram).

Therefore, to aim for the ideal constant embouchure pressure (which is probably never quite achieved) :

The use of too much embouchure pressure for the higher notes is compensation for a lack of voicing skills. As you develop these skills (see Lesson 5 and Lesson 6 ) the pitch and quality of the higher notes will be more and more controlled through shape manipulation within the mouth and throat. As a result the embouchure pressure will gradually reduce to a normal level.

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SAX 3.7 - Position of the Bottom lip

The position of the lower lip on the reed is also important.

For optimum tone quality : place the lower lip at the point where the curvature of the mouthpiece facing starts (where reed and mouthpiece start to touch).


If the lip is too close to the tip of the reed the sound will be muffled.

If the lip is too far forward over the reed the sound will be flared and out of control.

In its proper position the bottom lip contributes, through minute adjustments, to optimising tone quality and pitch.

I recommend you stick a rubber patch on top of the mouth piece to rest your upper teeth on. This prevents the teeth from sliding and makes it easier to stay on the right spot on the mouthpiece. It also improves the embouchure (which need no longer be involved to prevent the sliding).
Rubber patches are available in most music stores. I always cut a piece from a car tyre patch and stick it on with Super Glue. It lasts forever.

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SAX 3.8 - Practice

Commence each session with some practice for the correct embouchure pressure.

Start with blowing on the unattached mouthpiece alone.
Eugene Rousseau recommends embouchure pressures that produce the following concert pitches (keyboard notes) on the unattached mouthpiece.

Audio 3.1

(If anything your embouchure pressure may be slightly less, producing a lower pitch than indicated above. But definitely not higher than shown.)

Next attach the mouthpiece to the saxophone and play a G major scale in the following manner.


Finally continue to play major scales in slurred twos, threes, fours and octaves as in previous lessons. Add the major scales of E, G and A to your repertoire. (Use side key C for the G scale.)

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SAX 3.9 - Memories for Tomorrow

Memories for Tomorrow is a Jazz ballad in D minor (sax key).
Take the same approach as for previous songs : sing in your mind, listen to the sound produced, and feel the vibrations in your body.
Keep your throat as open as you can by simulating the action of yawning.
Think about your embouchure.

Continue to play Lost in Space and Lonesome Bossa.

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SAX 3.10 - Practice Material

File Name



Memories for Tomorrow - Lead sheet


Play-a-Long - Alto, Baritone


Play-a-Long - Tenor, Soprano

Quiz 3

Test your Knowledge

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Copyright © 2002 Michael Furstner (Jazclass). All rights reserved.