Saxophone Equipment
and the Saxophone Section

It is important understand that not all saxophones makes and models respond in exactly the same way. At times, we might blame the player when, in reality, this complex instrument can fail mechanically in many small ways that affect performance. In fact, some instruments may have flawed or obsolete designs which make blending more difficult.


Upgrading the Mouthpiece

Whether one can or cannot upgrade an instrument, upgrading the mouthpiece will enhance performance. Upgrading an entire section’s mouthpieces can also provide excellent results, especially if the mouthpieces are of similar make and design. The mouthpiece design transforms the player’s air into sonic speed and, together with the reed vibration generates the key elements of good tone.


Directors should be aware of the mouthpieces and other equipment being used by each player. Most concert band directors, for example, would not allow a metal mouthpiece to be used for concert band performance. Also, there are hard rubber jazz mouthpieces that are not appropriate for concert band application. Playing on student “beginning” models cannot provide the depth of tone needed for a good saxophone section sound. Having all players in the section use the same style/brand of an advanced mouthpiece will help to congeal a section sound more quickly. For most student players, look for mouthpieces such as the E. Rousseau® New Classic models that provide great response, but also a well-controlled tone.

For more information on how band directors have found greater saxophone success with E. Rousseau mouthpieces, see this study. 


The areas of the mouthpiece critical to influencing tone quality are the opening and length of the facing, balanced side rails, a chamber of appropriate size, and a well-designed baffle. There needs to be a good balance in these design features so that the tone quality is desirable, yet allows the player to have flexibility and control in all registers, and at all dynamic levels. “My main concern has always been to find what I believe to be the best balance among: tone quality, response, projection, dynamic control.”

Reeds and mouthpieces are additional areas of concern. Rousseau observes that almost every classical saxophonist uses medium equipment that is very similar; this is not true of jazz players, who exhibit very personalized forms of expression. Because of the wide tip openings of their mouthpieces most jazz players use 2 or 2-1/2 strength reeds. He observes that it is much easier to get a jazz sound on a classical setup than the reverse. The optimum position of the reed is even with the tip of the mouthpiece at eye level. 

Rousseau describes dealing with reeds as "a constant process; the 'number one' reed is always changing." He is not committed to one brand of reed but pragmatically uses whatever reed produces what he wants. 

Mouthpiece Position

The amount of mouthpiece in the mouth may only appear to be different for each player but a student with a large lower lip in fact may need to take a little more mouthpiece in. Too little mouthpiece and reed in the mouth will cause the sound to be muffled; too much mouthpiece and reed causes a lack of control. He has no objection to the use of tape or a dental appliance by those players who have sharp lower teeth as he does. The embouchure is the same for all saxophones, changing only the size and not the shape of the circle. Rousseau warns players not to be afraid to make a slight embouchure change to get the sound they want. This is in keeping with his recent suggestion that a more elliptical pear shape may be a better description than simply round; he cites renowned singer Thomas Hampson as describing tone production in exactly the same way. 

Bumping the Octave Key

One tool for determining the correct amount of pressure around the reed and mouthpiece is the technique of "bumping the octave key." The student plays a left-hand note such as B, A, or G and uses the right hand to flick the octave key. The saxophone should respond immediately, first to the upper octave and then return to the lower. If this does not occur, the air/embouchure balance is not correct and the size of the embouchure needs to be adjusted. The right hand is used to operate the octave key in order to minimize any reaction from the embouchure or air caused by the normal use of the left thumb. 

Play the Mouthpiece Alone

An important method to learn the balance between air and embouchure is the technique of playing the mouthpiece alone. Produce concert A (for some players, B-flat) above the staff on the alto mouthpiece alone at fortissimo. If the pitch produced is C or C-sharp, the air pressure is the greatest and the air quantity the least. For tenor, the concert pitch is G. On baritone, the pitch is concert D and, for soprano, C above the staff. Note that the same pitch can be produced on the soprano and the clarinet mouthpieces. The size of the two mouthpieces illustrates the need for more air on soprano. One can play the range of a whole octave on the alto mouthpiece, less on the other mouthpieces. With such a wide range from which to choose, we must select the correct pitch. Or, stated another way, the embouchure is solid; it's the air stream that is 'loose'. 

Rousseau is adamant that the jaw not change position when playing low B-flat or high F-sharp and recommends the practice of slurred descending octaves. Practicing a note decrescendo, especially with a tuner, is also an excellent tool for developing the tone. Yet another suggestion is to "verify the tone from time to time with a fermata." 116 

Sometimes a student will have difficulty with the low register. Rousseau suggests: 

1. Check the air/embouchure balance (Is the embouchure loose? Is the air stream thin?). 

2. Perhaps the bow is too large 

3. Check the low C-sharp adjustment. 

4. The reed is not sealing. 

5. The bow seam is leaking. 

6. The articulated G-sharp key is open and needs to be adjusted. 

Palm Key and High Register Notes

Problems with palm key notes, such as D through F-sharp above the staff, are addressed through a specific technique. Using the rhythmic pattern of four eighth-notes and a half-note and beginning with high C-sharp, start each note with the air only. Repeat the pattern for high D and continue the pattern chromatically to F-sharp. By eliminating the tongue, the player is forced to use the air correctly. After a short period of reinforcement of learning how to use the air, the tongue can be reintroduced. Rousseau suggests, however, that it is often best to "air articulate" in the high register in any event, especially on soprano saxophone. 

Rousseau believes that the playing of octave slurs is one of the best exercises to improve the high register. "A student will automatically find the right [tongue] position with the F octaves. The tongue position controls the speed of the air." An additional exercise is to practice slurs from high B to high C-sharp, to D, and so on. "B is an easy note - bright, clear, and free. Continue that good sound to the higher pitches." In all registers, a decrescendo on the mouthpiece alone is the best long tone exercise - "That is the test. One should keep the air going with the same focus as at forte. Don't let the air stream thin out by keeping the same basic pitch on the mouthpiece softly as loudly." 

Choice of Instrument

The construction of the instrument also affects tone quality. There are seven areas to be considered: 

1. The length and taper of the tube, including the bocal, mouthpiece, and reed. 

2. The thickness of the metal - generally speaking, thinner is better but the optimum thickness is about .085 inch. Incidentally, Rousseau says that Selmer and Yamaha use the same brass alloy (65 copper and 35 zinc) in their saxophones. 

3. The location and size of the tone holes, including the pad height and pad material. 

4. The number of tone holes, known as "chimneys", which are interruptions to the air column. 

5. Dampening factors such as those posts and keys which are hard soldered onto the tube, ribbing which is soft soldered, and leaks. 

6. The presence or absence of a rod at the opening of the bell. 

7. The use or non-use of annealing during the manufacturing process, in which the metal is heated and then slowly cooled to prevent brittleness. 

Another matter of difficulty, especially on tenor saxophone, is "cracking" on the written G and G-sharp above the staff. Again, Rousseau offers a checklist: 

1. This is a result of the lower octave key being too low on the instrument body. 

2. It can be corrected by using the "bumping the octave key" technique. 

3. Sometimes the player is "too open, too loose ... going too much for the lower octave." 

4. "The air speed does change. The point is that it is much less than people think. It's not 100% the same, but it's darned close."