Mouthpieces for beginners
it comes to ease of blowing and the production of a good tone, the
quality of the mouthpiece on a sax or clarinet is pivotal.
'Pivotal' isn't an idle choice of word either - at a very simple
level there are two things you need when playing an instrument;
your physical technique and a working instrument...and the mouthpiece
sits between the two.
The importance of the mouthpiece is also often expressed by the
idea that the tip of the instrument's bell is the least important
part of the equation, and that as you move closer to the mouth the
more your equipment is going to have an effect on your playing.
Either way, it's a done deal that a poor quality mouthpiece will
hinder your progress and a good one will allow you to concentrate
on building a good embouchure - and thus a good technique and tone.
Beginners often find this hard to understand - or, perhaps more
accurately, parents of beginners don't often appreciate how hard
it is for their children to persevere with a mediocre mouthpiece.
It's very easy to demonstrate, and I must have done it hundreds
of times. When I've finished working on a student sax or clarinet
that comes with a cheap mouthpiece and the client calls in to collect
it - I play it using their mouthpiece, and then play it again using
my own. The difference is always clearly audible, even when a simple
three or four note phrase played slowly is used. The tone is fuller
with a good mouthpiece, the upper harmonics are less shrill, the
midrange is cleaner and the bottom end is rich and sonorous.
OK, so a significant part of that tone is down to my own technique
- but by playing on both mouthpieces it's easy for the listener
hear how much influence they have on the tone. What can't be heard,
and is just as important, is how easily the better mouthpiece blows.
I've been present many times when a student player has swapped
a cheap mouthpiece for a decent one, and they usually say one of
two things after trying out the new 'piece' - it's either "Wow!
It's so much easier to play." or "It sounds like a completely
If you're still sceptical that a mouthpiece can make that much difference
then I can't help you any further - and either you or your child
is doomed to forever wrestle with a mouthpiece that's been made
with little or no thought as to whether it actually works or not.
If, however, you're curious to find out more - read on.
What distinguishes a good mouthpiece from a bad one is the accuracy
with which it's built, and there are a lot of factors to take into
Certain parts of the mouthpiece must be absolutely flat or level,
otherwise it will be very hard to blow - and the slightest error
in internal dimensions can result in a very brittle and unpleasant
sound or a stuffy tone.
Cheap mouthpieces are often moulded out of plastic, and very little
thought is given to whether one piece is the same as the next piece
to roll out of the machine. What you get is what you get - it's
a lottery in other words, and the odds are stacked against you.
A better quality basic mouthpiece may also be made out of plastic
- but it will be a harder plastic, and will be made on a machine
that faithfully reproduces the desired specifications time after
time. More expensive mouthpieces will be made out of a hard rubber
compound - or even metal - and will be carefully machined to size.
There may also be some hand-finishing involved.
For such a seemingly insignificant part of the instrument, the design
of the mouthpiece is really quite complicated - which is why technicians
(often known as 'refacers') who are able to work on and change the
tone and response of a mouthpiece are held in very high esteem by
You don't really need to know the ins and outs of mouthpiece design
at this point, but if you're interested I thoroughly recommend having
a look at Theo Wanne's excellent 'mouthpiece primer' at www.theowanne.com/mouthpieces101/glossary.php.
From the player's perspective a poor mouthpiece will force them
to focus on simply getting it to produce a note. What comes out
might be stuffy or squawky (like a duck), but as a beginner they'll
have no 'point of reference' and won't realise that as much as half
their efforts are being wasted on working around the mouthpiece's
inadequacies. That might sound like a made up figure, but a decent
mouthpiece can quite literally make the instrument play twice as
well as with a poor one.
And, if I'm being harsh (but honest), beginners seldom have any
idea of what a good tone is. As long as it sounds vaguely like a
saxophone or a clarinet, it'll do. And that's fair enough - whenever
any of us embark on learning a new skill we can't be expected to
know everything all at once - but nothing ensures success like decent
equipment that's of a given quality.
The condition of the mouthpiece is important too. It's common to
see a few marks on the top of the mouthpiece (known as the 'beak')
where the player's teeth rest, but there shouldn't be any significant
grooves (like the one visible on the beak in the photo above). Granted,
many a pro player has a well-grooved mouthpiece - but there's a
big difference between a good mouthpiece that's been grooved by
years of playing...and one that's grooved because it's made of cheap
materials. There should also not be any chips or cracks on the underside
(visible when you remove the reed) - the tip and the rails (or what
you'd call the top and the sides) should be neat and tidy. Any damage
here can lead to all sorts of problems, and usually means having
to replace the mouthpiece...though it's possible to have such things
repaired if the quality of the mouthpiece warrants the cost.
now many of you might be wondering whether the mouthpiece on your
sax or clarinet is a good one or not, so the first thing to do is
look for any markings on it.
Cheap plastic mouthpieces are likely to be unbranded - they may
sometimes have a letter or a number stamped on them (such as B21,
for example) but there won't often be a maker's name or logo. Very
often the mouthpiece will be the one that came packaged with the
If your mouthpiece fits this description then you almost certainly
have a poor quality mouthpiece.
If it has a name on it, do a search on the internet - see if you
can find anyone selling them. If you can, and the price is suitably
high, you may already have a decent mouthpiece...though that doesn't
always means it's the right one for you.
So what are the options?
A quick peek at a website where mouthpieces are sold will probably
send a chill down your spine. Prices running into three figures
aren't uncommon for mouthpieces - and the choice is likely to be
vast, and confusing.
Fortunately there's a very simple solution. For sax players, get
a Yamaha mouthpiece - for clarinet players, either a Yamaha or a
Buffet mouthpiece. The price for these pieces is around the £30
The reason for this simplistic approach is, well, simple.
Yamaha and Buffet have been making quality student instruments for
decades and have invested considerable time and money in the production
of a basic, good quality mouthpiece that ensures that players who
purchase their instruments will have the very best chance of getting
a decent tone out of them (you might have realised by now that if
you own an instrument made by one of these two companies, you probably
already have a decent mouthpiece...but it's worth checking in case
you bought it used and the previous owner replaced the mouthpiece).
In short, they have become the 'industry standard' for student mouthpieces.
Note though that Yamaha make two ranges of mouthpieces - a Standard
series and a Custom series. You want the Standard series (made in
There is still a choice to be made, however, and that's in the
model of mouthpiece you buy.
Mouthpiece models are often described by a combination of letters,
numbers and symbols. For example Otto Link mouthpieces use a number
and, sometimes, a symbol - such as 5*, with the * symbolising the
word 'star'. Yamaha use a number and a letter - 4C, for example.
These markings indicate the characteristics of the mouthpiece -
which is another topic in itself.
As far as the beginner looking to buy a Yamaha piece is concerned,
the basic range runs from a 3C piece up to a 7C - and the smaller
the number the brighter the mouthpiece will sound (the higher the
number, the darker).
Brightness and darkness are terms that describe the general tonal
response of a mouthpiece, and in very simple terms you can think
of brightness as being edgy and piercing and darkness as being full
and mellow. It might sound like brightness isn't going to be something
you'd want, but a bright mouthpiece is often easier for a beginner
to play. Conversely, a dark mouthpiece can turn out to be a bit
stiffer to blow.
recent years there has been a trend towards darker mouthpieces,
and I often see students struggling with such pieces. As such I
would recommend going for a Yamaha 3C or 4C mouthpiece - perhaps
a 5C if you're adamant that you want a warm tone. Leave the other
models to players who are able to try the pieces out and make their
own minds up.
Clarinettists also have the option of buying the basic Buffet mouthpiece.
It's a bit more expensive than the Yamaha, and my own personal preference
would be for the Yamaha piece - but you won't go far wrong with
There are other brands available - for example the David Hite range
of basic mouthpieces is often recommended as a decent alternative
- but one thing to watch for is the 'shop own brand'. These might
well be good, and can often be a bit cheaper than big brand pieces,
but they won't be as well known and therefore as well documented
when it comes to how well they work. If you can call upon the services
of an experienced player who can try them out for you, they might
represent a bargain - but otherwise you're better off playing it
Beware too of 'the push'. You'll see that it's possible to spend
a lot of money on a mouthpiece, and there's a huge range that come
in at about two to three times the price of student pieces. Names
like Selmer, Vandoren, Rousseau and Otto Link dominate this section
of the market.
Such mouthpieces are of good quality, and you may well be told by
a helpful sales assistant that these pieces are far better than
the one you're looking to purchase.
They're right - but until you have the playing skills to test such
pieces and choose the one that gives you the sound and feel you
want, you're better off sticking with a basic piece (a year is sensible
amount of time to practise before considering a 'pro quality' mouthpiece).
You may also be offered a fancy ligature (the clamp that holds
the reed in place). At this stage you can forget it - there are
endless debates among experienced players about whether such ligatures
offer any benefit, and if the professional players can't agree then
you certainly won't benefit from any supposed difference.
you have a cheap mouthpiece you probably have a cheap ligature.
It will do - and will probably fit your new mouthpiece - but a good
quality basic ligature is easier to use and will hold the reed on
with more accuracy. If the ligature you're offered costs around
half the price of the mouthpiece, tell the seller to think again.
Many of the finest players I've ever heard use basic ligatures -
buy a more expensive one when your playing skills are good enough
to allow you to hear any difference or not...as the case may be.
I have used a variety of ligatures over the years, I now use plain
You'll also need a mouthpiece cap, which protects the vulnerable
tip of the mouthpiece and the reed. Again, you may already have
one - and it will probably be more than adequate. If offered an
expensive model, just ask for a plain one - it'll do just fine.
You may also be offered mouthpiece patches. These are small stick-on
cushions that are placed on the top of the mouthpiece. They help
to prevent irritating vibrations coming up through the top teeth
- and they also serve to protect the mouthpiece from being marked
by the teeth.
Unless you're having very real problems dealing with the vibrations
(you do get used to them in a very short space of time) you really
don't need them - and to some extent they dampen the amount of feel
you get from the mouthpiece. They can be useful for the first few
weeks of playing, when a beginner is inclined to bite hard on the
mouthpiece - but it's best to stop using them as soon as possible.
Having said that, I carry a few in my instrument cases in the event
I get what I call 'itchy teeth' - those odd occasions where I experience
that 'fingernails down a blackboard' sensation. It happens about
once a year or so.
The only possible problem you might run in to if you're very unlucky
is that the mouthpiece is either too tight or too loose a fit.
In the case of a tight mouthpiece you'll probably find that it just
needs a bit of cork grease. At worst you'll need to have the cork
sanded down a little. If it's too loose then you will need to have
the cork replaced (either on the mouthpiece or the crook/neck).
This isn't an expensive job.
If you're a player struggling to get a good tone without having
to blow your lungs out, you're probably convinced of the benefits
of having a decent mouthpiece by now - but if you're a parent of
a child who's learning the sax or clarinet you might still be wondering
if it isn't yet another unnecessary expense.
To you I would say this. If someone offered you a gadget for £30
that was proven to double the number of miles per gallon your car
gave you, you'd buy it in half an instant wouldn't you? This is
effectively the difference a reliable mouthpiece makes to the player
- it's the cheapest, most effective upgrade you can make.