Updated Nov 18th, 2014
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Reeds and mouthpieces are no doubt more important to sound production than ligatures. However, how the ligature holds the reed on the mouthpiece can have a huge impact on the reed and mouthpiece’s resonation and therefore on the sound of the saxophone.
Ligatures come in many sizes, shapes and materials. Some ligatures have two screws to adjust tightness, others have a single screw, and some ligatures don’t use screws at all. The ability to adjust the screws, tightness, and placement (up and down the mouthpiece) are very important for a ligature. Moving the ligature up towards the tip of the mouthpiece and/or tightening the screws can have the effect of increasing resistance, or seemingly strengthening the reed. Moving the ligature away from the tip and/or loosening the screws creates a feeling of less resistance. To understand this effect, think of a diving board. The longer the diving board and farther the fulcrum is from the end of the board the easier it is to bounce and bend the diving board. Essentially longer diving boards are more flexible and shorter ones are stiffer.
The location on the mouthpiece where the reed is fastened to the table affects the flexibility of the reed, a ligature farther down the mouthpiece away from the tip has the same effect as lengthening a diving board. Everyone has their own preference as to where the ligature is placed, and how to tighten the screws. Remember that over tightening or cranking the screws of the ligature can weaken and eventually break the ligature.
All sorts of materials are used to make ligatures. The very first ligatures were simply string wrapped around the mouthpiece to hold the reed on. Some people still use this method! Common materials for modern ligatures include: Metal (Silver, Gold, Brass, Nickel), Leather, Plastic, Rubber, wood, synthetic (nylon). and just about anything else you can think of. Some mouthpieces have ligatures built directly into the mouthpiece, and many other mouthpieces come with their own specially fit ligatures. Not all baritone ligatures fit all baritone mouthpieces, as baritone mouthpieces tend to vary in girth and size much more greatly than other horns, especially between the larger rubber mouthpieces (Vandoren, Brilhart), and sleek metal mouthpieces (Berg Larsen, Otto Link). Prices vary greatly for ligatures, from being included free with a mouthpiece to over a hundred dollars. You should always try a ligature with your mouthpiece and set up before purchasing it to make sure it is compatible with your set up.
There are several ligatures that are very popular right now. The leather and rubber ligatures offers a very unique sound, however you may find that repeated tightening of these ligatures will cause the leather or rubber to stretch and thereby lose its ability to effectively hold the read. François Louis’ “Ultimate” ligature (See right) is very popular among jazz saxophonists. It offers a very unique sound and good versatility, and comes in several different metals. Its downside is that it is expensive and very tricky to get placed onto the mouthpiece (especially on soprano!). It is also somewhat fragile, and the cap that comes with it must be used, as most standard caps will not fit this ligature. These caps are extremely fragile and easy to lose. The Vandoren “Optimum” ligature (see right) is another popular choice. This ligature is very simple and easy to use. It comes with three different plates that can be swapped out, changing how the ligature contacts the reed and thereby affecting the sound. It provides greater projection and plays very consistently throughout all registers. Its only down is its price, but it is worth the cost if you find it improves your sound and your playing.
It is a good idea to keep your ligature clean, using warm water and soap every month or so. This will keep corrosion from building up, as well as allowing the reed to vibrate freely. When putting your saxophone away in the case it works well to leave the ligature on the mouthpiece when not in use. This provides some protection for the ligature and also ensures that it is not easily lost. If you are storing your mouthpiece and ligature for longer periods (months or years) it is better if you store them separately, especially if the mouthpiece is hard rubber. Make sure when using a hard rubber mouthpiece that the ligature is not scratching or otherwise damaging your mouthpiece.