What difference does the ligature make? Part 1

A saxophone ligature is a device that holds the reed against the table (flat part) of the mouthpiece.  Most people wouldn’t think this is that big of a deal, I mean how hard is it to use something to make the reed stay against the mouthpiece?  You could use a rubber band if push came to shove.  Nevertheless, as all things in our society, the issue is made more complicated by modern marketing!  It might be  sales and marketing  hype, but you can’t go long as a sax player before you start hearing the talk about ligatures………..Ligature A will allow the reed to vibrate more freely.  Ligature B will allow the higher overtones in the sound to ring.  Ligature C only contacts the reed in such a way as to allow unparalleled  sound production.  Ligature D will make your altissimo notes just pop out with little to no effort.  Ligature E will make your tone richer.  Ligature F will make your sound more vibrant and alive.  Ligature G will make more reeds play better………..It goes on and on……….

Obviously, if you look at the picture  you can tell that I have either fallen for the hype or I believe there  are difference that can be perceived when using different ligatures.  For the photo, I rounded up all my tenor,alto and clarinet ligatures ( I forgot to include my soprano saxophone ligatures).  In total I have about 46 ligatures for those instruments.  It made me a bit sick to do it, but I calculated a quick estimate of what these have cost me over the years.  Are you ready………..1750.00  (Excuse me a moment while I cry………….although this is nothing compared to how much I’ve spent on reeds in the last 30 years!).   Obviously, that is a lot of money!  Do ligatures make a difference?  Well, even if they don’t, I have to believe they do just to justify my money spent and not feel like a total fool.

You might think it is hogwash but I do feel and notice a difference in the way different ligatures allow the reed to vibrate.  Some of these differences can be perceived by the listener and some of them can only be felt by the player himself.  I have played ligatures that have made the tone darker, brighter, richer, hollower, more focused, more spread, constrained, brittle, buttery, louder and softer.  Now some of these words are thoughts that only I have had and could perceive.  Others are thoughts and words that others have heard when I played a certain ligature.  The end result for me is that I do feel the ligature makes a difference.  At times it might be subtle and  not heard by the listener but if it is felt or heard by the player then it can make a big difference in how that player hears  their sound and how they perform.

Now I can go into an analysis of what each ligature does and how it changes the response or sound (I will probably do this in the future) but in the end all these descriptions are totally subjective.  You have to play each ligature yourself and judge for yourself.  It is much like my mouthpiece reviews and clips.  I can give my opinion and view on a given mouthpiece but in the end you have to play it for yourself and form your own opinion.

Anyways,  let’s put this to a vote!

Does a ligature make a difference? (Poll Results)

  • Yes, it’s important to find the right one! (62%, 160 Votes)
  • Yes, but it is slight. Don’t waste your money. (29%, 76 Votes)
  • I have no idea………… (7%, 17 Votes)
  • No, no difference whatsoever. Use whatever is cheap! (2%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 260

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Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 25 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

Comments

  1. Steve —

    I have a few, myself. I do believe there is a difference. For example, I turned over a Rovner (put the bars on the reed) & immediately noticed a brighter sound. I prefer the metal ligs for that reason. The new Rovner Platinum is much brighter than the Rovner Dark lig.

    Just my thoughts on this subject. I am by no means an expert, just a sax player.

  2. After trying all of the more unpractical and expensive ones I now use the simple inverted Vandoren Masters ligature. Inexpensive, easy to use, and simple. Exactly what a ligature should. Spend your dough on a great mouthpiece.

    B

  3. Hey Steve,

    More than half my criteria is money. I’m playing a Spectruoso right now, but I won’t pay for his lig. (At least $60………are you kidding me?) Some of this stuff is just jewelry for your mouthpiece;of course nobody even notices it but you. There are differences in reed response but I think at some point you have to put a $ sign on it.

    Best ones I’ve found are some of the Rovners and the Bois; both are reasonably priced. My 2 cents………

    Peace,
    Mike

  4. Steve,

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you “feel” a difference with different ligatures. My experience had been that different ligatures feel different to me, but make very little difference, if any, to listeners. (And I suspect that any minor difference detected is because the feel of the ligature affects how I play, not because the ligature has inherent characteristics that affect tone.)

  5. Clayton says:

    I just got a Phil Tone alto piece in the mail today. I have 3 alto ligatures I typically use. A Vandoren Optimum, a Charles Bay, and an ultimate ligature. So when I got the piece, I put on a reed I knew to be good with the Optimum, which is the one I’d been using primarily. It was OK but not that great. I hadn’t actually used my ultimate ligature in a long time but decided to give it a try and the tone was instantly and significantly better. It wasn’t some subtle difference either, anyone would have noticed it. I tried the FL on some other pieces and it didn’t have quite the same effect (which is probably why I hadn’t been using it much), but it made a huge difference on that Phil Tone.

  6. I think it is undeniable whether the ligature makes a difference or not. Difference ligatures allow different levels of vibration (leather/cloth ligatures hinder vibrations while metal allows more, etc).

    These levels of vibration may only change the sound to a degree that the player may notice (I really don’t know, you’d have to listen to a recording on the same setup with different ligs) but at the very least, there is a change in articulation. I remember back in the day my old teacher Barry Kagan kept on with a bit of dissatisfaction in my tone. It was stuffy and draggy. Mr. Kagan hated when students would change setups to try to fix problems, but when he went to grab something in a different studio I quickly took off my Rovner dark to try on a 2 screw metal stock ligature. He came back and heard me play and was very happy. He sat confused as to why my tone was “rounder and more responsive, with improved articulation”, but I thought I was more confused as to why something that holds the reed to the mouthpiece would make a difference beyond the player.

    So is it important the find the best ligature out there. I don’t think so. But I do believe it is important to find a ligature that does not hinder playing. On the saxophone (because clarinet is worlds different), I believe 2-screw stock ligs, and any of the other metal ligatures should suit people well. Leather ligatures can work too as long as there is some sort of plate of some kind.

    Mike

  7. Eric Spaulding says:

    I don’t suppose ya’d have a Rovner Eddie Daniels lig for HR tenor pieces in there that you’d sell!??!

  8. Nope, not for HR tenor. I have one for clarinet but that’s it.

  9. This is my two cents: I think the most important quality in a lig is that it fits well. It might be so obvious that it’s stupid to point out but it is the basic function of the lig to be able to hold the reed so it aligns well and gives a tight seal. It has to pass the vacuum test!

    I prefer a lig with two screws (rules out most modern, expensive ligs…)so you can balance the pressure on the reed – more forward or towards the butt end of the reed. It’s also good if the lig fits both closer to the table of the mouthpiece and further down towards the butt end so you can move it as you please. These two ways of adjusting the lig helps you adjust for the particular reed you’re playing and the sound you want – if it’s a little too bright you move the lig down a little or lighten up the pressure on the front screw. Just make sure it still seals well.

    Soft ligs take away some of the high frequences and can add some warmth compared to a hard one.

    Dan G

  10. Hi Steve Which ligatures do you use nowadays on your tenor, alto and soprano and why thanks alot

  11. I use a bunch of different ones depending on what mood I’m in. On tenor hard rubber I use a FL or Marc Jean. On metal tenor I use a Selmer 404. On alto I use a Vandoren Optimum or Theo Wanne Enlightened, on soprano I use a Optimum. Not sure why I go with each when I do. They all give me a slightly different sound and response. Steve

  12. Most of the time I think they make a difference even if only slight. I agree with Steve that it’s possible that only the player notices but that’s enough, if I feel it’s helping me sound better it will most likely help me play better. I have two RPC tenors and these things are fat boys so the available ligs are limited. I have most sizes of Vandoren V16 tenor ligs, which I love, but none fit the RPC. I’m tempted to try either a bari or maybe a clarinet V16. I mostly use a Francois Louis, it seems to be either that or one of the many fabric things which sound ok but look terrible and handle badly. If anybody has found a V16 that fits an RPC tenor I’d love to know which model.

  13. Alan Bates says:

    The only way to be objective about ligatures is with a blind comparison. Have somebody else set up your mouthpiece with one of your ligatures, put the mouthpiece on your horn, then give you the horn to play. You make written comments about how you like it and why. Then repeat the process for another ligature. Just for fun have the friend attach your reed with a rubber band.

    After going thru all this, look at this Youtube clip.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ghMCiV8hTg

    Then let me know what you think at oldharps@comcast.com

  14. Alan Bates says:

    I neglected to say in the previous comment that you, the player, should be blindfolded and not allowed to touch the ligature to be sure you don’t what type it is. This may seem a lot of trouble, but could keep others from blowing big bucks on a device that only secures your reed to the flat surface on the mouthpiece. I personally like the Rovner but only because it’s so easy to change the reed and tighten only one screw.

    Alan

  15. Larry Hudspeth says:

    Just last night I went to a gig…realized I had left my tenor ligature at home. I played the entire gig using a rubber band as a ligature. I have never done that before. I was surprised that the rubber band worked so well. I even got compliments on my tone quality. I tend to agree that expensive ligatures are kind of like jewelery for your mouthpiece and the difference in sound is pretty minimal.

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