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Getting a Dark Sound on Saxophone?

Want a dark sound on sax?

Something like Joe Henderson might have played?

You might think it has a lot to do with the saxophone- the plating or whatnot.  But the mouthpiece is going to make more of a difference.


The reeds and ligature play a part too.

My understanding is that a more closed tip mouthpiece that is hard rubber will get you a darker sound.  Metal definitely produces the opposite- a brighter sound.

(A closed mouthpiece is a lower number. The number refers to the tip opening- so a lower number is less distance. A * with the number means it is slightly more open. So a 7* is a little bit more open than a 7.)

And for reeds, you want to experiment a little bit and see what gets you the sound you want.  They are cut different and grown from cane from different regions.

A rovner ligature also tends to make your sound darker.  I’m talking about the black ones that are rubber or leather.

Ligatures also sometimes have small plates that contact the reed and can be switched out.  Those can be metal, leather, and other materials.

A metal ligature or contact plate inside will brighten up the sound a bit.

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  1. barry bailey says:

    this is really good info

  2. The size of the chamber is an important factor, too. Generally speaking, a smaller chamber gives a brighter sound, while a larger chamber gives a darker sound.
    .-= Bob´s last blog ..The Return of the Trains: Sax Reflections from the Railroad Tracks =-.

  3. Personally, I have not found such hard & fast rules of thumb to be that true. I have a darker/warmer sound, and always use pretty open (8*-10*/120-130) mouthpieces, & both hard rubber & metal. Chamber size is important, as the baffle, & also the reed, both brand & strength (but even that is a personal thing). The horn itself plays an important part, as I’ve seen huge tonal differences, both in brands, as well as “vintage”, many older horns naturally play darker &/or warmer, than many newer ones. Finally, I believe the player, how he plays, what sound he’s feeling or wanting to reach, etc., makes even the biggest difference. That’s why you can play the exact set-up as Trane or Sanborn, yet still not sound like them, & why they, and other cats I know, can pretty much play any horn, and still have their recognizable sound…

    • Good advice. A lot of it does come out of the sax player. The person and sax are connected and the combination creates the sound.

      A teacher told me a little while back that I still sounded like me on a new mouthpiece.

      So don’t get too hung up on equipment!

      • Steven Charles says:

        That’s a nice compliment to get Neal. If people can recognize your sound as you, that’s great, as it’s becoming more of a rarity these days. I used to be able to tell who a sax player was, just by hearing them on record, now, there are so many that sound alike, I have a very had time…

  4. I have never had a success with a synthetic reed. I just cannot get a full sound with one. I use Vandoren ZZ reeds on a Jody Jazz NY #8 mouthpiece on my Selmer Series 3 Tenor and Vandoren ZZ reeds on a Selmer Super Session Rubber mouthpiece on my Selmer Reference Alto. Anyone with any success with synthetic reeds?

    • Steven Charles says:

      I’m with you Dr. Dave, I’m open to finding one that does sound as good, since reeds drive me crazy! I do use plasticover Ricos, (the black coated ones), whenever I do gigs outdoors in the summer, mainly on tenor, or alto (soprano reeds are less prone to wilting/warping, less surface area), simply to avoid picking up the horn, and having it not play, due to a flaccid reed. They are fairly natural sounding, as it’s part cane, & the coating helps keep it viable…

      I would love to find a warm, “singing”, synthetic reed, one that I can just use day to day without a second thought. With the quality control & cost issues with cane reeds, I’m ready to leave them behind.

      • Hey Steven,
        Yes, it can be hard to find a good reed, let alone a good synthetic reed.

        Let me know if you find something that works well for you.

  5. Tim Tuthill says:

    Dr. Dave: Been playing for 2 years. Have been using Fibracells for about 1.5 years.They work very well. I do not squeak at all with them. My teacher says I sound good with them. I just got a few of the Primers and the are real good. My 2 cents. Tim

  6. johnnybrock says:

    There are several ways to adjust the brightness of your sound that I have found to be at least somewhat effective.

    Placing the reed just over the tip makes it brighter (but also makes it more prone to damage). Placing it just behind the tip makes it darker. Same goes with the ligature. Moving it up, brighter. Moving it back, darker. Also if you have a ligature with two screws, tightening up the front one just a little more than the back one makes it brighter. Doing the opposite makes it darker.

    This may be the classic Micky Mouse roundabout way to adjusting the tone chamber on an existing mouthpiece but it does work and it can make a noticeable difference, especially if you have to change reeds in the same sitting.

  7. Johnnybrock, I’ve not really noticed the reed placement affecting whether it’s dark or bright, but find I need to adjust it at times to get my horn to speak well, & not close up when I go high, etc. I’ll check that out though.
    Also, I’d always heard that if the reed is beginning to go, you want the ligature closer to the tip, probably, to help tighten up vibration, so it would make sense that it would be a little brighter too..

    Another “Mickey Mouse” method to adjust the tone chamber, that I do often, is to add an extra one or two plastic/rubber teeth pads on the top of the piece. I have to use at least one, or my horns would be slippin & slidin all night, but by using more, it forces my mouth to open some, which is basically the same effect as having a larger chamber, as it puts more air in the horn….
    Oh, and one more quick fix, if your reed begins to fade, is to clip the tip, &/or shave a bit of the facing of the reed, sometimes both. If I never did either, I’d be broke today, from having to buy way more boxes of reeds, since rarely do I find any that play great right out of the box!

    • Thanks Steven. It seems to me like the move of the reed up or down compensates for the strength of the reed. If the reed is a little soft, I’ll push it up (toward the tip) and if it’s a bit too hard, I’ll push it down slightly. You can also adjust the ligature up or down. Push it lower if the reed is a little stiff and and higher if the reed is a bit soft. It changes where the fixed point is on the reed but a slight bit. Lengthening the reed effectively changes how it vibrates (just a little).

      Hadn’t tried adjusting the chamber. Had heard of clipping, but don’t mess with them at that point usually.

  8. Hey, just a though, I saw some people talking about “Mickey Mouse” tricks. When you said to double the pads on the mouthpiece, I do that to get a darker more full tone. But also something that a teacher of mine taught me was to use EZO, which is denture cushions. You cut out a small piece and place it over your bottom teeth. It #1 helps to stop your lip from hurting (you dont bite in to your lip) and #2 it opens your mouth up and gives a similar affect as the patches. I use patches AND EZO and it really helps. But its rather strange to see a 17 year old buying denture cushions…. 😛

  9. Extremely helpful discussions. As a beginner, I have been learning thes things as I go. To sit and read them all ay one puts pieces together.

    Thanks Neal, and who posted?

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