Some of us have spent years pursuing the holy grail of "the perfect saxophone setup." And it is understandable. There are so many things that affect the sound of you and your saxophone. The sax, the mouthpiece, the reeds... and yes, even the ligature affect your sound.
Pretty much anybody can understand that the basic purpose for the ligature. It holds the reed against the face of the mouthpiece so that the reed vibrates properly when you play.
What is not so obvious is how (or how much) the ligature can affect the sound, for better or for worse. And the reasons for this are more complex than you might first imagine.
Your saxophone sound is created by the vibration of the reed causing resonance in the air column that you create in your saxophone when you blow. Let's take a look at some very bad artwork I did in Microsoft Paint to give a rough rendering of the function of the ligature.
As you know, the table on the mouthpiece is flat where the base of the reed sits on the mouthpiece. At the other end, it has a curve away from the reed.
When you squeeze it slightly and blow, the thin end of the reed vibrates against the moutpiece, causing a resonating air column. But the reed doesn't stay there by elfin' magic. It has to be held in place. That's were the ligature comes in. So far, so good. And so basic. We all get this.
I am a bit of a collector and I've been a real "experimenter" over the years, looking for the perfect mouthpiece and ligature combination. I've got (between tenor, alto, soprano, clarinet, hard rubber and metal moutpieces) a collection of about 30 ligatures in different configurations. They do play differently and they do sound different.
My experience with these critters and my reading and studying this over the years leads me to understand that their intention with the ligature is to come up with various ways of contacting the base of the reed, with varying tensions and firmness in various places.
Let me show you some of the different locations on the reed that my ligatures attempt to contact the reed.
Some of their intention is to try to find the perfect way to hold the reed in place. And to be honest, I have to think sometimes, they simply want to be unique. You can't rule out the possibility of coming up with a marketing gimmick. At least, reading through the literature, that is my conclusion for some of them.
Quite simply, you're changing the physics in the setup by clamping the reed in different spots. If you pluck a guitar string in the middle it sounds different than if you pluck it near the end. And if you touch the string the middle and pluck it lightly at the end you can get it to resonate at a different harmonic. Reeds and mouthpieces are the same way. Clamping that reed differently will cause it to vibrate slightly differently. I will give you different subtle changes to the sound and the feel of how it plays.
Let me throw some more bad Microsoft Paint artwork in here for you to see what I mean.
Of course these are very rough renderings of what the shape of the reed would be if you shot it with a high speed camera while you were playing it. My point is that it is easy to see how the reed could vibrate slightly differently, depending on the amount of pressure on the reed and where and how many pressure points they apply to it.
But how much difference does all of this really make in the sound? Well, let me start out by making this simple statement:
One of the things I didn’t know about me until I had been playing forever is that I could get too fixated on finding the perfect ligature. And so, I wasted a lot of time and money, missing the importance of embouchure, scales and arpeggios, listening skills and the like. Most of those ligatures now sit unused in a closet. They only "come out of the closet" for the occasional photo op or if there is some reason I have to go to a mouthpiece that needs a different size ligature than the one I am using. But I've pretty much settled on a couple different setups I use now on my tenor (my "Gatling gun" of choice). I tend to have one mouthpiece I use for live gigs and another I tend to favor for the studio.
But there are some things worth thinking about when you shop for a ligature, if you feel you need to do so. And it might actually be the case that you DO need to upgrade your ligature. So if you need one, or if you think you do, let me share some thoughts with you.