De-mystifying Sax and Clarinet Mouthpieces
Student mouthpieces such as the Yamaha 4C clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces are designed to be easy to play and economical. They are usually injection moulded from a phenol resin similar to Bakelite plastic, which was the first commercial synthetic resin.
Professional mouthpieces for clarinet and saxophone are often manufactured from Ebonite, a brand name for a material generically known as hard rubber. It is obtained by vulcanizing (hardening with heat and sulphur) natural rubber for prolonged periods. The name comes from its intended use as an artificial substitute for ebony (Grenadilla) wood. It is very stable and able to be accurately machined. It is also stable when exposed to humidity making it ideal for use in mouthpieces.
Brass, aluminium, crystal, and stainless steel are other materials that are used to manufacture mouthpieces, Again they are very stable and moisture resistant, and able to be machined to very small tolerances which gives the manufacturer a lot of control over the specifications and therefore the sound produced.
Use a mouthpiece patch to protect the back of your mouthpiece from tooth wear and scratches, and to reduce the sensation of vibration on your teeth. They can also aid in stabilizing your embouchure. They are sold in packets of 6 and can be easily replaced when worn.
Hard rubber, plastic, and metal mouthpieces can be cleaned with cold water, using a liquid soap such as dish soap, then dried with a soft cloth. They should not be washed in the dishwasher or with hot water. Our shop stock mouthpieces are washed and then sanitised with a proprietary mouthpiece sanitising solution.
During the first weeks after a new hard rubber clarinet mouthpiece purchase, it is recommended that you do not store your mouthpiece in the case of your instrument, especially if it has silver keys, as it can accelerate tarnishing of the silver plating. It is best to keep it in its packaging, or in a pouch which also keeps it away from UV light*. Exposure to UV light can turn the mouthpiece brown or green. In general, do not expose your mouthpiece permanently to the light.
Parts of a Mouthpiece
The response and feel of the mouthpiece is mainly affected by the tip opening and facing length. The baffle and chamber are more important in shaping the sound.
Parts of a woodwind mouthpiece are the same whether they are hard rubber or metal. Get the low down on mouthpiece design and why they are all different, with help from Theo Wanne:
- Baffle – The shape of the baffle determines the brightness or darkness of the mouthpiece, as well as its “buzz”.
- Beak – The front-outer portion of the mouthpiece that your mouth fits over while playing.
- Bore – The tube-shaped part of the mouthpiece that fits on the neck of the saxophone. It usually extends a bit further into the mouthpiece than the neck does.
- Chamber – The open area in the middle of the mouthpiece between the floor and the bore. A large chamber produces a fat & spread sound, while a small chamber produces a more focused sound.
- Facing Curve – The shape of the curved walls that end at the tip rail. The curve should be continuous and gradual, with no flat spots or bumps.
- Facing Curve Length – The response of the lower notes on a horn is dependent upon this length.
- Floor – The higher this section is the more projection the mouthpiece has. The lower it is, the darker the mouthpiece will be.
- Inner Side Walls –These are often concave in shape (like an Otto Link) or flat (like most clarinet mouthpieces).
- Throat – The area inside the mouthpiece where the chamber transitions to the bore. The throat can be round, half-round (like Selmer soloists) or square (like Selmer S-80 and S-90 mouthpieces).
- Tip Opening – The distance between the reed and frontal rail. The larger this opening the more air one has to blow into the mouthpiece; the smaller this opening the less air has to be blown
- Tip Rail – The tip rail thickness helps determine the response of the mouthpiece. If it is too thin the mouthpiece may “chirp”. If it is too thick the mouthpiece may play “dead”.
Tip openings - the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece
- Narrow opening (3-4): is played on by most students and classical players. It is easy to control the pitch and will give a smooth even tone. Best with a flat baffle.
- Wider opening (5-7): is played by most alto sax players. It can take more air and project more, and you can bend and control the pitch more easily.
- Wide opening (8-10): needs a lot of air and will give a big sound especially with a steep baffle. Easy to bend notes and make inflections but can be harder to blow and control the pitch.
In general, narrow tip openings are better suited to classical music as the tone will be more focussed and pure. Wide tip openings allow the player to manipulate the reed and therefore the sound, by bending the notes and producing vibrato more easily, and thus are better for jazz, pop, and modern music.
Chambers - the shape and size of the chamber inside the mouthpiece
- Small: the chamber is smaller than the bore. This gives a focused and quick response. Soprano sax players most often use a small chamber.
- Medium: The chamber is the same size as the bore. Gives a full centred sound but lacks a fat bottom. Most alto mouthpieces have a medium bore.
- Large: The chamber is larger than the bore, giving a big fat bottom end and a full open sound. Most tenor players use this for both jazz and classical playing.
Thanks to the Theo Wanne mouthpiece website for all this information! You can read more about his mouthpieces HERE and check out our stock in Sydney HERE
* We've all seen old brownish mouthpieces! Under the influence of the ultraviolet portion in daylight, hard rubber oxidizes. Exposure to moisture bonds water with the free sulphur on the surface of the mouthpiece, creating sulphates and sulphuric acid at the surface that are very hygroscopic. In other words, the sulphates condense water from the air, forming a film with favourable wettability characteristics on the surface. These aging processes will gradually discolour the surface from grayish green to brown and cause rapid deterioration of the surface.