Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ligature Position and Sound

After a few years of experimentation and observations including putting various students through the paces, I'd like to share share an overview of the effects of ligature position on sound.

Before we get too far that I've also found that for some yet unexplained reason(s), what ligature you use does have an affect on your sound (here is a great demonstration of variations in sound by ligature on bass clarinet). While I'm not going to get into that today, I'd just like to mention that I find that ligatures that make drastic changes in your sound often come with unadvertised disadvantages. A lot of fantastic saxophonists in the past used basic ligatures. I'm thinking of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Michael Brecker, etc., and a lot of the current greats also use basic ligatures, including Chris Potter, Ben Wendel, Seamus Blake (in the past couple of years), Donny McCaslin, Walt Weiskopf, Steve Wilson, etc. That being said, it's also a good idea to experiment with different ligatures and pay attention to things like intonation, response, resistance, and stability as well as tone quality.

One other piece of advice worth mentioning is that you shouldn't over-tighten your ligature. The tighter the reed is clamped down on the mouthpiece the harder the reed feels. If the reed feels too hard you end up overtightening your embouchure and squashing your sound. Of course, if the ligature is too loose that can be a problem also.

Ligature Position

left mouthpiece: ligature towards the back, right mouthpiece: ligature towards the front.

Depending on which way you move your ligature, there are consistent changes to your sound. Each player needs to experience these for himself or herself and figure out what tone they most prefer. What follows is a quick overview to get you started and to help you know what to listen for. These observations apply most consistently to players who don't have extreme setups, meaning overly hard or soft, and have healthy embouchure and voicing technique.

As you move your ligature towards the front of the mouthpiece (towards the tip):
  • the connection between notes sounds smoother.
  • the sound becomes more spread  and more flexible (i.e. you can more easily change your sound depending on how you play).
If you move your ligature too far towards the front of the mouthpiece:
  • the sound becomes thin.
  • the connection between the notes becomes so smooth that it becomes difficult to hear each note distinctly, especially when playing fast.
  • if your reed is pretty stiff or hard or if you have embouchure problems, you may end up with a distorted rough tone.
As you move your ligature towards the back of the mouthpiece (towards the neck of the saxophone):
  • the beginning of each note has a clearly heard ping-like quality.
  • bends and vibrato becomes more pronounced.
  • the sound becomes more focused or compact.
If you move your ligature too far towards the back of the mouthpiece:
  • intonation becomes hard to control and is generally sharp in the upper register.
  • the tone, though very thick sounding, loses some of its color and can sound a little dull.
Below is a short video demonstrating a middle position, one that is further forward, and one that is further backward. Listen for the different characteristics of each example (listen with headphones).

Resistance (one reason why moving your ligature changes anything at all)

(The following observations are a bit more speculative. They're best guesses.) There seems to be two types of resistance in playing saxophone. First, there is the stiffness of the reed, which requires a certain amount of embouchure pressure to overcome. Second and related, but not always in lock step, there is a resistance to your airstream or blown air.

When you move the ligature forward, the reed, in essence, becomes stiffer as the fulcrum shortens the amount of reed that can flex and vibrate. However, this also seems to lower airstream resistance at the same time, as if the mouthpiece is letting more air in despite requiring increase embouchure pressure. The reverse is also true. As you move the ligature towards the back of the mouthpiece, its appears that the reed becomes more sensitive to embouchure pressure yet offers more resistance to your airstream, letting in less air.

The above is very consistent with my observations on sound and the principles of saxophone acoustics. The greater the airstream resistance (the further back you move the ligature), the harder you have to blow causing the the reed to slap the mouthpiece harder. This elicits a larger amount of higher overtones in your sound, which we hear in the ping-like attack of each note and the general thickness and focus of the tone. Conversely, with the ligature further forward and a decrease in airstream resistance, you can blow more softly overall, creating a less punchy and more spread tone quality.

Of course, the situation is more complex than this. The observations above assume you have a fairly balanced tip opening and reed size. For example, if your reed is fairly stiff and you move your ligature forward making it even stiffer, you can screw up your embouchure, which deforms your reed and get a distorted rough tone.


Experimenting with where you put your ligature can help you get closer to your ideal sound. However, the above is only meant as a guide for experimentation. You should experiment with different ligature placement and record yourself. Listen for the different traits described above, and find a balance that fits your personal sound and style. Happy sound searching.


  1. Thanks for a really interesting post. It answers so much, but shows how much we really don't know (and need to experiment with.)

    1. Thanks, Stan. I'm a big advocate of experimentation, particularly based on acoustics if possible. I think there is a lot uncovered territory in the sound universe.

  2. You posts are just awesome. I know your blog already but stumbled via a google search. I suffer from (and I copypasted this from above) too smooth connection between notes and a spread sound. I play a Martin which is already spread and went down all the way to trying saxes, mouthpieces etc. etc. Now I saw some pics of Seamus Blake and Joshua Redman having their Ultimate Ligs super wide to the back, tried it and BAM that was it. The googled to verify and found your blog. Super nice, thanks for summing it up that way!

  3. Especially, I thought it was the inverse! Putting it closer to me means more focus and more tone-separation! I play like this for 20 years ... and never tried pushing it back because I thought it was wrong ...