Sax embouchure

If you've never played a saxophone - or a similar instrument, such as a clarinet - you'll find it tricky to start with. Working the reed of a saxophone requires developed lip muscles to properly compress the reed. You'll need to be able to surround the reed and mouthpiece with a ring of muscle. Just like the other muscles in your body, you'll need to develop your lip muscles before they'll be up for the work. Your sax is going to sound 'interesting' for the first few weeks as your lip muscles get used to it. I call it 'air time' The more you practice (ie the more time you spend putting air through your horn), the sooner the neighbours will stop banging on the wall...And this muscle development is best obtained through regular (daily if possible) short spells of practice, rather than an hour's frantic session immediately before a lesson! Apart from anything else, your lips won't make it through an hour!

Embouchure (French) essentially means what you do with your mouth and there is more than one "correct" saxophone embouchure. The photos shown here are from a book by Ben Davis (published by Henri Selmer) which is now sadly out of print. They show the three types of commonly used embouchure:
Pic. 1 shows a saxophone embouchure in which the lower lip does not cover over the lower teeth
Pic 2 shows the bottom lip forming a cushion between the lower teeth and the reed
Pic 3 shows the top lip also forming a cushion between the top teeth and the top of the mouthpiece

Below are some extracts from the Ben Davis' book, which must have been quite controvertial at the time as the 'no-lip over teeth' saxophone embouchure (shown in pic.1) was quite revolutionary.

"There are three types of embouchure, two of which, in my opinion, are wrong. I will explain what they are and why I think they are wrong as we go along. First, the right embouchure, which I call, for the sake of differentiation, the "new" embouchure. Open the mouth in the shape of a small o; keep the lips close to, but not drawn in over the teeth. Then insert the mouthpiece. Rest the lower lip against the lower teeth; then lower the reed onto the rim of the lip, so that the inside of the lip forms a cushion between the teeth and the lip. Do not draw the lip in over the teeth. It must just rest against them so that only the thinnest part of the fleshy inside lip is pushed over the teeth when the mouthpiece is in playing position. The rest of the lower lip will then form a sort of support for that part of the reed which is immediately outside the mouth. Next, lower the upper teeth on to the mouthpiece with the lightest of pressure. The upper lip must not come between the teeth and the mouthpiece in any way. Finally close the lips round the sides of the mouthpiece so that no air can escape from the sides of the mouth. Don't, however, exert so much pressure that the corners of the mouth are tensed. Neither pout the lips. You have now the "new" saxophone embouchure. It is illustrated, slightly exaggerated in order to make it clearer, in pic 1.

Now for the other two embouchures, an understanding of which will help you to appreciate the more subtle points of the correct way. The 'old' saxophone embouchure differs from that described here in that the lower lip is drawn in over the lower teeth, making a thick and heavy pad of flesh for the reed to rest on. This is extremely tiring for the lip, and the embouchure soon weakens, with consequent lack of control over the reed and resultant poorness of tone and harsh low notes. The 'old' sax embouchure is shown in pic 2.

The third method is that known as the 'clarinet' embouchure, which consists of drawing both the upper and lower lips over the teeth (pic 3). This is considered wrong for the saxophone because the tonal quality of the clarinet is dependent on blowing a limited amount of breath into it in a certain manner - the reason it has a different shaped tone chamber and a closer lay. etc, etc..."

Most players would consider that none of these is wrong - they merely each suit different saxophone players and styles. Whatever style a player uses when starting out, it is possible to change embouchure, although as with anything it will take some time to get used to. Although these pictures are a good guide, it's obviously far more beneficial to be physically present with the student.

Personally, I suggest you experiment with all three methods and adopt the one you think works the best for you, both for comfort and sound.

 

Sax reeds

Herein lies another sax-player's bain!

Saxophone reeds are usually made from natural cane, thick at the bottom, thinning gradually to the slightly curved top. It fits against the instrument's mouthpiece and is secured by a fixing called a ligature. Saxophone reeds (or the reed of any woodwind instrument) compress the air column from the player's mouth and force it through the mouthpiece and into the instrument in a regulated flow.

 

The reed also makes the air column vibrate, which helps produce the instrument's sound. Reeds vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and even within box batches.... As with the system of numbering mouthpiece openings, the world of reed numbering is equally non-standard! Generally though they are numbered one to five, with number one being the softest. A crucial aspect of learning to play sax is working up your lip muscles to properly control a reed. Softer reeds require less lip muscle, a worthwhile consideration when starting out. Beginners should start on a strength 1½ reed while they get used to the blowing and forming of their embouchure. As their muscles develop, then move on to a strength 2 or 2½.

 

The strength numbers merely indicate how 'thick' or rigid a reed is and as you've probably guessed the lower numbers denote thinner, more flexible reeds which vibrate more freely and are therefore easier to play. It's important to keep in mind that the ultimate hardness of the reeds you choose is not indicative of your level of playing ability. Once you get your instrument to behave, you'll be able to select a hardness level of reeds based on the sound you want to create. If you select a reed that's too soft for your horn, it will sound raspy and generally unpleasant. Harder reeds require more lung power to play. Metal mouthpieces tend to require slightly softer reeds than their ebonite equivalent, but as with anything, much of this is ultimately down to the type of sound you're happy with and the comfort of blowing.

 

I use the Rico Jazz Select range, but that's just my preference. I've shown comparison charts for reed strengths by Rico (California) and Vandoren (France) when compared by manufacturer.

How a reed is made
Would you believe it takes four years to make a reed!

Cane is grown from rhizomes (rootlike subterranean stems, commonly horizontal in position, that produce roots below and send up shoots) and reaches its final size and diameter in the first year. It is carefully harvested at the end of the second year by hand using shears which avoid bursting the cane's fibres. The harvest is carried out while the moon is descending when the sap is utterly still. The cane is then stripped, cut into six-feet-long sticks and put out in the sun to gain its golden colour before being taken to a ventilated warehouse to dry for another two years.

The first stage in manufacture involves cutting the cane into smaller lengths and then into standard 'reed size' quarters. The bark of the tip is then removed and the table sanded completely flat. After cutting the reed into a conical shape the final reed tip is shaped & bevelled to within tolerances of 1/100 mm. Being an organic product, every reed has its own character as no two pieces of cane can be identical.

So next time you buy a reed, take a moment to consider the time involved in making it and getting it to you!

A relatively recent development in reed 'technology' has been the use of plastic in the reed manufacturing process. This is in the form of either plastic-coated cane reeds, or reeds made entirely from plastic. These are more expensive to buy in the first instance but are far more durable, consistent, more resistant to climatic changes and resist 'curling' when first moistened. These make them ideal for outside use such as marching bands or 'doublers' who need to change instruments quickly. The comparisons between the plastic 'Fibracell' reed and cane reed strengths are show here:

Filed vs Unfiled reeds
Many people ask about the difference between filed and unfiled reeds.
Here's a brief explanation:

An option to fine-tune the sound, the filed reed is often preferred by players who use traditional, moderately resistant, dark-sounding mouthpieces – the file helps such mouthpieces blow more freely.

For those who play relatively easy-blowing, moderate-to-bright mouthpieces (especially jazz or pop sax mouthpieces with a high baffle), an unfiled reed is usually preferred.

The French File (or “file”) is the area behind the vamp (or cut portion) where the bark is sanded off in a straight line.

A filed reed:
• Provides ease of response, especially in the low register...making soft attacks easier.
• Makes the tone slightly brighter...for use with resistant mouthpieces.
• Provides a brighter tone and is more free-blowing.

An unfiled reed provides a darker tone and more resistance.

Recommended use of filed or unfiled reeds for common sax mouthpieces:
Filed: • Meyer • Otto Link • Selmer rubber
Unfiled: • Dukoff • Beechler • Selmer metal • Guardala • Berg Larsen

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