What Difference Does the Saxophone Ligature Make? Part 2

In part one of this blog post on “the differences a ligature can make” I talked about the difference a ligature can make to a saxophone player from his or her perspective.  (For those of you who don’t know,  the ligature is the device that holds the saxophone reed to the mouthpiece)  How it can affect different aspects of the sound, attack and response of the saxophone.  In this article I’m going to try approaching the subject from the other side………….the listener.  What kind of difference can a listener detect when using different ligatures.  Is it obvious to the whole audience when Joshua Redman uses a different ligature.   If, when Brecker was alive, he used a rovner ligature instead of his trusted Selmer 404 would people have gotten up and walked out of his concerts………………..I doubt that very much.  But the question always arises……..can a difference be heard when a different ligature is used?

For this test I’m going to play on a  Meyer alto saxophone mouthpiece with a Vandoren Java #3 reed.  I’m going to play the exact same thing using 7 different ligatures.  In between clips,  I will change ligature while holding the reed firmly to the mouthpiece to make sure it doesn’t move at all.  I will slide the new ligature on and play the same phrase again.  The phrase I’m playing is just a simple G major scale pattern in thirds.  I make sure to go up high and down to the low end.  I also tongue some staccato notes in the middle so you can hear how the ligatures might affect the articulation. I’m trying my hardest to play the line the same every time.

Listen to the 7 clips below (headphones would be ideal) and see if you can hear any differences.  The reed, mouthpiece, saxophone and player are all the same.  The only thing that is changing from clip to clip is the ligature.  They are recorded at 320kbps mp3 as that was the best quality I could get.  Let me know what you think in the comments section as I am very interested in what your opinions are………………Thanks,   Steve

Francois Louis Pure Brass Ligature

Vandoren Optimum Ligature

Oleg Gold Ligature

Marc Jean Gold Plated Ligature

Rovner Dark Ligature

No Name Cheap Brass Ligature

Theo Wanne Gold Enlightened Ligature

Can you hear any differences between the ligatures? (Poll Results)

  • Yes, I can hear a difference (59%, 110 Votes)
  • No, they all sound the same! Enough with this ligature obsession! (41%, 76 Votes)

Total Voters: 186

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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 30 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. Cool post! I personally believe that the ligature rarely has an effect on sound, BUT it does change how comfortable the player feels, some are a tad friendlier with reeds (generally the ones with less contact), and often players can hear a difference in their sound because the vibrations are so close to them, though you rarely have others hear it.

    On the other hand, for those who REALLY care about finding the truth behind whether ligatures make a difference, I recommend you watch the videos on youtube of jay thomas (youtube id: jaythomasjazz) on the Slant Signature soprano piece. There is a video where he is using a Vandoren Optimum that the piece just doesn’t like so much. Then he made another video afterwards using a simple 2 screw selmer soprano piece and the sound is MUCH bigger. You can hear it very distinctly. I’m talking about a difference as big as the mouthpiece! But then again, it isn’t always that way.

  2. Avatar Ryan Knight says

    Very very minimal difference in sound we hear on these clips…

    I still maintain ligature don’t affect the recorded sax tone but they DO affect reed playability and response for the player (which could affect the sound you get because of the comfort level or whatnot..)

    Interesting test would be to make this a blind test and between each recording of each lig…take a 10 min break and go do computer stuff or whatever and get the previous ‘sound’ out of your ear then record the next clip after…

    I found that if I try to record sound clips, with the same phrase of music, consecutively…I subconsciously make the mouthpiece/lig combo sound like the previous…ie I adjust …

    Anyway..
    thanks for the test it was fun!

    PS Sounded like you felt the most comfortable on the Marc Jean lig and Oleg…

  3. I don’t hear a difference so much in the timber, though there are subtle difference. The differences I hear are more in clarity, strength of tone, and resonance.

    The Rovner and the generic ligature definitely sound different than the others. Stuffier. The Marc Jean and Theo Wanne (I think it’s pronounced like “Suwannee”, as in the river, minus the “su”)have a little something extra to them. Maybe the Vandoren too. And then the FL and Oleg below them and are pretty similar.

  4. Only differences I hear: Rovner dark has a quicker decay to the sound, no name has a slightly less precise staccato.

  5. I think that the Theo Wanne sounded best with the no name in close second, but I think there were more things changing. You can only control reed placement so much and the reed might have changed positions while you where changing ligs, but I think those two were the best (I liked the tone of the no name best, but the Theo Wanne was more in tune). There were VERY subtle differences, but they were there.

  6. The difference was so small as to be insignificant. I would guess the difference is more important to the player than the audience.

  7. Avatar Anthony Franz says

    Although when listening to theses clips there is very little variation to be noticed, I contend that the real difference is in the sound the player hears, whether it be reflected or in the ear drum, etc. Over many years of playing the sax using multitudes of mpc’s and ligatures I always revert to two ligs. One I made up by combining a brass reed plate with a Rovner dark fabric for metal mpc’s and another which is a stock brass Brancher for HR. MY AUDIENCE AND FANS CONTENED THAT NO MATTER WHAT I USE MY SOUND IS THE SAME. Alas – please yourself IMHO and you’ll preform better regardless.

    Anthony

  8. I did something similar a year or two ago. I took a Rovner,cut a slit in it and put a plate from a Optimum ligature into it. I actually liked it a ton more than the Rovner and the Optimum.

  9. Well, the gold ligs sounded much richer to me, the brass ligs were much brassier, and the dark was…………..well, darker.

    Just kidding; no real difference.

    Peace,
    Mike

  10. Whowao!!! Just great… personally i’ve never been very interested about ligatures. I knew they made difference, but i never thought it maked such a difference. There are unbelievable difference is things such as timbre (a lot!!) in different registers also, and a lot in articulation… i used all my live a ligature that came with the sax, but after this i will really dig on this..

    For my ears variation seem really big (others not so big but can be noticed)…
    Great Post

  11. The difference in tone I hear is minimal, however I do hear very clear differences the sound from top to bottom of the scale. a couple are a little stuffier in the top and the sound seems a little pinched off to me.

    For me it is all in the playability and responssiveness of the reed, rather than the sound other’s perceive. With some ligatures I have to work harder at the lower or higher notes. Another issue not addressed here is ligature placement. I noticed that the same issues of clarity and responsivenss is affected by ligature placement and since there is such a variety of styles betwen the ligatures listed I wonder if my perceptions of sound differences could be accounted for by that as much as the style of the ligature iteself.

  12. Thanks for the response Marshall. I did try my hardest to put the ligatures in the same place on the reed for every recording. Not perfect but close anyways.

  13. Avatar Jay Jennings says

    I only had time to do a detailed AB between the Wanne and the Rovner. AFter several listens through Grado reference headphones I hear a subtle difference.

    I wonder if the most important part of ligaturing (???) is getting the tension on the reed correct and balanced across and along the table.

  14. Hi Steve,

    I enjoy your posts – I guess we all suffer from mouthpiece mayhem & ligature ludicrousy from time to time, & as many have said before it will always be in the ear of the beholder, but if it is of any use to you – from my end the oleg : centres, brightens & clarifies your sound the most & seems to play more acurate aswell, not that there is anything wrong with your tuning anyway, but you know what I mean.
    I wont even mention reeds !!
    keep blowin’ man & go with whatever breathes

    cheers mate

  15. I think the differences are huge. As in every single step between you and the sound. Everything counts. At least in my experience/taste.
    And not just in the sense that you can be more or less comfortable. But in the quality of the sound itself.

    Granted, i don’t think there’s a BEST ligature that will work BEST on any mouthpiece. Just as much as truffle doesn’t work on a lavender cookie.

    But it’s that painful (mostly expensive 🙂 ) process of finding the right match for a specific piece.

    I’m sure that a really “bad” ligature could compensate really well a specific (maybe even really expensive) mouthpiece. And vice-versa. (a very dull ligature with a way too bright mouthpiece, or an overly bright and responsive ligature with a dull mouthpiece)

    Not to mention that how far in the front or in the back the ligature is pressing against the reed makes a huge difference as well, in responsiveness and the capacity to brighten up the sound.

    One curiosity i have is, since i found the three sounds to be very different, which pressure plate do you generally use on the Vandoren Optimum? Thanks! 🙂

  16. BTW with this mouthpiece-sax-reed combo, the Marc Jean was definitely my favorite!

  17. I use the plate with the strips that go in the direction of the reed. I like that one the best.

  18. Steve
    which ligature do you feel is the most free blowing?

  19. I think the Saxxas is the most free blowing. if a reed is hard to play, I can put on the Saxxas and it is much easier to blow. I haven’t done a review of that one yet.

  20. Avatar JK sound says

    Of-course there’s a difference – Francois Louis and Theo Wanne sound the best.

  21. I am somewhat of an amateur. I played T Sax for years in my youth and just picked it up a along with an A Sax and clarinet. So here goes, My T Sax has a Selmer S80 C* and a no name ligature and sounds great. My alto has a Vandoren V45 with a Rovner lig.Mark III and I’m not quite sure how I like the whole setup so I’m not one way or the other on that lig. And my clarinet has a Vandoren CL4 with a Vandoren metal ligature. The ligature seem to rust before my eyes so I switched to a no name material ligature and low and behold the sound improved greatly It also seems to change when I move the lig up or down the table. So in conclusion from my limited experience I would the placement of the ligature and the no-names seem to be it for me. I use Vandoren reeds on all the combinations, those don’t change.

  22. I think the ligature has done its job if the reed is held in place and allows for reed vibration. My lig has been bent and it is harder to get a consistent placement of the reed, but when I do the lig, any lig, is good to go.

  23. I find the differences to be quite marked. The Marc Jean was my fave

  24. Avatar NICK CORONIS says

    EXACTLY THE SAME !!!! IF I DIDN’T KNOW I WOULD HAVE NEVER GUESSED THERE WERE DIFFERENT LIGATURES USED…
    AND YOU KNOW WHAT, THE CHEAP, NO NAME ONE SOUNDED
    JUST FINE !!! COME ON GUYS, LET’S GET REAL…

  25. I obviously have the ears of a peasant as they sounded the same to me.

  26. Andy, Do you have good speakers or headphone for your computer? It’s much easier to hear a difference when I am using really good headphones.

  27. The no-name and the Rovner sound stuffy. The no-name also seems to cause some response problems and has a slightly tinny overtone on some notes.

    The Van Doren Optimum seems outclassed by the other premium ligs. It seems to have less tonal consistency and not as much resonance in the sound.

    The FL is the most resonant sounding of the bunch and has great tonal consistency. Very warm sound.

    The Oleg sounds throaty and warm with good tonal consistency, but not as resonant as the FL.

    The TW has a sweet and pure sound, not as resonant or warm as the FL. Tonal consistency is also good.

    The Marc Jean sits somewhere between the FL and the TW.

    The winner could be FL, Oleg, or Marc Jean, depending on mood.

  28. Thanks Gil. i think it is so funny that the responses to this thread vary from super detailed as yours is to “no difference at all”…………..Thanks for taking the time. Steve

  29. Avatar Martyn Wood-Bevan says

    The biggest difference I could hear is with the ligatures that seemed most resonant – Francois Louis, Marc Jean and Theo Wanne, which I preferred. I think that the biggest difference I notice is when I am personally playing said ligature on my own set up, hence am most aware of the sound. Listening to someone else playing their own set up on a recording is much harder to notice, and also less important to me personally.

  30. Avatar David Turnbull says

    Thanks for your efforts. I think it would have been more revealing if you hadn’t labeled the ligatures. Peoples’ preconceptions do get in the way.

  31. Avatar Jennifer Anderson says

    Hello everyone
    I learned something interesting about ligatures yesterday when my Brancher broke on the gig first set. During the break, the guitar player in the band attached my reed to the mouthpiece using a zip tie because I didn’t have spare ligature. It actually worked really well and sounded good! I had a great second set!
    So, what I discovered, is what a ligature does at it’s most basic level, and it seems to me that your reed and mouthpiece impact the sound the most. However, I’m not sure that I want to zip tie my reed on every time that I play! Also, of course, it would be difficult to be consistent. I think that I’ll use something easier to assemble. 🙂

  32. There is slight differences in tone, but I suspect this is mostly due to our subconscious self telling self they sounded different. The lig mostly effects response, clarity, things of that nature, and tone ever so slightly. Granted the rovners do work differently, the differences could also just be a matter of consistency, reed movement, and the normal human variation. Great post though:)

  33. I didn’t notice a difference in the 3 first ones but the Marc Jean did sound brighter and perhaps more alive than the previous ones. The Rovner and the cheap brass ligs both sounded duller and less alive than the Marc Jean. The Enlightened lig….how cosmic and Buddhistic….seems brighter too, similar to the Marc Jean, but then I thought you might be pumping more air in and it was just louder. All in all the differences are very slight, but the Rovner dark did seem to be on the stuffy sounding side.

  34. A strong, developed embouchure tends to minimize the differences between setups, especially with something so subtle as a ligature. With a weaker embouchure, the setup can change the sound a lot because you’re depending upon the physics of the mouthpiece/ligature/reed for your sound. The bottom line is that if you have a strong embouchure, you can play with practically any setup and still sound more or less the same.

    The real difference isn’t in the sound, but how comfortable you are producing it. I don’t want to fight my setup when I’m playing. I want my setup to compliment my playing and make it easier to produce the tones I’m accustomed to producing, with minimal fatigue. Playing a four hour, sax-heavy gig with a bad setup can be murder. So the key is to get out there and try different setups, until you find the one that feels the best. It’s really a never-ending process (or should be)…but it can be very rewarding, too.

    What you should NOT do, is buy a bunch of stuff because so-and-so plays it, or because someone on the Internet said you gotta have it or you’re not “pro”. Don’t fall for it. A ligature is not going to make you sound like your favorite saxophonist. But it might just make your playing a bit more fun.

  35. I must amend my previous comment, because I learned something (miracles never cease). I’d been playing an old Rovner dark ligature on my alto sax for years. This was more due to simplicity (and laziness) than any particular love for the ligature. It did the job. Today, I received a Rovner Versa in the mail. I made a couple adjustments, slipped it on…and WOW. My sax just jumped to life. My mouthpiece is a Yanagisawa metal 7. It’s a great piece and I’ve always loved it, but I always felt it was just a tad on the stuffy side for my taste (I played Dukoffs previously). It was a trade-off: better tone from top to bottom, but with a bit less “oomph”. The Versa put the edge back in my tone. The way I’ve got it setup, it’s got a brassy, buzzy quality that I’ve been missing. I feel like I finally found my perfect setup, and I couldn’t be happier. That’s saying something, since I’ve been playing sax over thirty years.

    I stand by my assertion that embouchure is most important, but I just wanted to share my experience with the Versa. The difference in tone is quite distinct. I doubt most of my audience members will be able to tell what the difference is, exactly, but hopefully…they’ll feel it. More importantly, I’ll feel it. So we all win. 🙂

    This just goes to show…it really is a never-ending process!

    ~ Heather

  36. Avatar Bryan Chatham UK says

    I agree with Heather,
    I have now changed my set up,having played with an old 25yr+ Rovner lig .
    I have just got the new Rovner VERSA X and what a difference it has made! altissimo range is easy to aquire and overall tone is fuller.
    If its a bright sound your after then its worth a try,the old ligature always felt a little flat/stuffy,so you wonder if it’s a reed problem! I now find less trouble picking a good reed. Bryan Chatham

  37. Avatar Steen Friis Hansen says

    Interesting test

    Here’s my favourites

    1. Marc Jean
    2. Oleg
    3. Rovner
    4. Theo Wanne
    5. Optimum
    6. No name
    7. Francois Louis

  38. Avatar Steen Friis Hansen says

    1 Marc Jean
    2 oleg
    3 FL
    4TW
    5 Optimum
    6 No name
    7 Rovner

    I think that Marc Jean has a beautiful , classic and full sound, with more core than The Oleg. Those 2 was clearly my favorits

  39. Avatar Steen Friis Hansen says

    Sorry, I have made two judgments, I didn’t think The first one went through, but I can see my favorits are the same. Since the I have gotten a Marc Jean for my tenor metal pieces. I do like it, but it is not without troubles. I think I need to play with a pretty hard reed to avoid it getting too r buzzy for my taste, maybe a little more pressure than I like

  40. Avatar Robert Payne says

    Either a ligature fits or it doesn’t. They either work or they don’t work. I prefer the cheap no-name ligatures because they always work. I tried one of those leather thingys once, the reed kept moving around and it looked dorky too. I think as far as sound difference it is impossible to be objective, you can only be subjective. In other words its all in your mind. There are two schools on how to use a ligature. One says put it up next to the cut, the other says put it farther back. I put mine further back for no reason in particular. Some say put it on tight, others say put in a little loose. Some say if you put it on too tight you can warp the mpc. I put in tight enough so the reed doesn’t slip. I think the whole ligature thing is out of hand, some day these fancy ligatures will be so fancy that they will be bigger than your horn. They already look absurd. Get a ligature that works and practice hard and long. You can’t buy a good sound. You need to work for it. Peace.

  41. Go to You Tube and watch the ligature test $2 shoelaces or a $70 Vandoren Ligature Showdown to find out what is the best ligature

  42. Interesting test. I have only used so many ligatures in my experience, but I just like to keep two mouthpieces, each with different ligatures and different reeds, and sometimes one seems better than the other for me and other times the opposite. I wonder if elevation, temperature, and other not-so-obvious factors come into play as well. I have some kind of Beechler which I have Vandoren Java 3 and a metal ligature of which I forgbot the brand name, which when I have more air power I like to play, and this played well when i was at a high elevation for some reason. I usually play though another mouthpiece with a leather ligature and Rigotti Gold 3s which are easier to play for me and give a nice, yet not as bright as the Vandoren setup, sound.

    In your test I seems to notice a nicer sound between #1 and #2, then the rest started sounding the same, so I would have probably picked the Oleg.

  43. Interesting test Steve – and your comments regarding listening through good quality cans.

    I listened in a studio through various ref monitors and several pairs of high end cans. I also viewed the playback on a Rigol spectrum analyser And my conclusion (FWIW): minimal discernible difference between any of them. The very (and I mean VERY) slight differences are much more likely (IMHO) to be micro variations in your playing from one clip to the next, the condition of the reed, pre-conceived ideas about the various ligs, and the possibility you were getting sick and tired of the whole process by the end!!

    For example: did you use the same reed for all the clips, how long was the gap between clips, was the reed drying for the same length of time between clips, etc, etc?

    I, like many others, “feel” a slight difference between certain ligs on the same piece, but I think the only listeners that would detect any sonic difference would be a colony of bats.

  44. For those who said that they find the difference, could they pick up the one that they find the differences without mentioning the name of the ligature?

  45. Love your site Steve! Thank you for doing this…
    I would like to suggest the following:
    1. All of us hear differently, and yet most of us will similarly identify comparative sound parameters as brighter, darker, airier, denser, etc.
    2. If you can’t hear the difference in the above ligatures, you simply aren’t listening enough, and your playing perhaps lacks some of the detail that would help support both your individuality and your ensemble skills.
    3. Concave tables take ligs differently than flat tables. I love my Links and Meyers, and there may be a reason why we see so many traditional two screw Selmer ligatures on their concave tables. Two screws tend to focus the energy toward the concavity and may get a better seal.
    4. There is something conceptually more desirable about a lig that wants to stay on the mouthpiece as opposed to one that wants to slide off at first mouthpiece adjustment!
    5. Before Oleg designed his Olegiture, He made this analogy, while succesfully talking me out of using the Winslow ligature on My metal alto Bellite Beechler (I had a really tight embouchere in a previous life;)… which also led to eventually geting me off the Beechler. He likened the reed to a diving board in that the firmer the reed is connected to the table, the more spring you achieve from the part of the reed that you want the most response and snap from… the part that interacts with the window. Ironically I don’t use his lig, as it is one that tends to slide off the mouthpiece, and imparts the same quality of sound to my ears that I hear in this example… airier.
    6. I hear the same sound quality in all of the examples that I would expect to hear, Except… I’m pleasantly surprised by the FL, which sounds much more full bodied and less airy than any of my experiences with them.
    7. Embouchere has the most influence on our ability to play different mouthpieces and ligatures and to select the best combinations of both.

  46. Thanks Brandon! I appreciate your input and insight and I’m glad you like the site! I’ve been a fan of your playing since way back in the late 80’s I believe. Steve

  47. Avatar Beth Patel says

    I like the cheap brass ligature! I just like to hear you play! 😉

  48. Avatar Robert Berdan says

    I think it would be useful to show the sound recordings like they do to test legere synthetic reeds and they show how close the wave forms are to bamboo reeds. This could easily be done with ligatures so why doesn’t some one do it. I suspect because they might not see a difference, but if I sold and expensive ligature that’s what I would do. I have several different ligatures and as a player I can’t detect any difference. With mouthpieces the difference is very noticeable. Most of the older players used simple ligatures and they sounded good to me e.g. Stan Getz. My ears might not be a sensitive as others – but if the player can’t tell, then maybe it’s about feel or convenience rather than sound. I switch my cheap metal ligature with a rovner ligature every once and while and so far they sound the same to me.

  49. There could not be any differences. What if there is no ligature installed? If the ligature makes the timbre of sound, the sound should be significantly different without ligature.
    But without lig. there is no difference. Check below.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5992OkyCJg&t=2s.

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