School of The Rock


Upgrading Saxophone Mouthpieces

by Paul D. Race

Back in the late 1970s I replaced my 1968 Selmer Signet tenor saxophone’s cheap plastic Brilhart mouthpiece with a Selmer C* mouthpiece and suddenly sounded much better.  

My delight at suddenly sounding like a real saxophone player after some eighteen years of playing the thing was tempered, however, by realizing that :

  • None of my teachers - even the woodwind professors who complained about my tone - had ever suggested upgrading the mouthpiece, and 
  • Selmer had packaged a professional-quality horn with a plastic Brilhart mouthpiece that was guaranteed to make it sound like a “starter horn” or worse.

So I learned the hard way that the mouthpiece is about more than just getting air into the brass tube - it’s your most intimate connection to the instrument, and a different mouthpiece can completely change the feel, tone, and even the intonation of the horn.

Nowadays when I test out a new (to me) saxophone, I use a Selmer S-80 C* (pronounced “see-star”) to get a sense of the horn’s capabilities. The C* is actually one of Selmer’s less expensive professional mouthpieces (and it’s often available on eBay).  But to me it’s a known quantity that helps me establish a sort of baseline for judging the instrument’s other qualities.

For example, a lot of “saxophone snobs” like to slam various classic starter saxophones that I can get good intonation, tone, and expression out of just by putting on a better mouthpiece.

Professional mouthpieces differ from “starter mouthpieces” in:

  • Material - hard rubber or metal versus plastic.
  • Manufacturing - hand-milling versus injection-molding only.
  • Tip openings and facings - designing the “business end” of the mouthpiece to match the needs of the player.
  • Engineering - precisely calibrated interior shape and dimensions versus just making any old shape that holds a reed and fits over the cork.

Though there are “good mouthpieces” and “bad mouthpieces,” there is no one perfect mouthpiece for all situations.   

Metal versus Hard Rubber - For generations, jazz and rock players have preferred metal mouthpieces (usually silver- or gold-plate brass) because they produce a brighter tone that helps them cut through the “muggy” acoustics of many venues.  On the other hand, if you need to blend in as often as you need to stand out (say with an orchestra or community band or praise band), a hard rubber mouthpiece might make more sense. By the way, I don’t list injection-molded plastic as an option for a pro mouthpieces, because I have yet to play one that gave anything close to a pro response. mouthpiece_tip_facing

Tip Openings and Faces - The larger the tip opening, the more air you can force through the horn and the more volume you can get out of it.  On the other hand, a large tip opening is harder for beginners to get good sound out of, so starter mouthpieces always use a smaller tip opening.  That’s one reason why folks used to pro instruments often find starter instruments “stuffy” or worse - they’re blowing through a mouthpiece that they’ve outgrown.

The “face” of a mouthpiece refers to the angle(s) and length of the opening.  Because the calculations that describe the face are complex, they are seldom listed in the mouthpiece specifications.  But that is one of the factors that can make two mouthpieces with identical tip openings play differently.

Engineering Choices - In the early days of sax design, the mouthpiece was basically a tube that would fit over the neck cork on one end and open out into the reed opening on the other end.  In the twentieth century, engineers from companies like Selmer began examining the flaws in such thinking.  mouthpiece_cross_section

For one thing, the reed’s original vibrations are parallel to the length of the horn, but by the time they’re in the neck those vibrations are perpendicular to the tube.  This was a 90 degree change of direction that the old mouthpieces accomplished simply by allowing the player’s air pressure to force the vibrations to “turn the corner” inside the mouthpiece, wasting some percentage of energy in the process.  What if you designed the interior of the mouthpiece to “turn the corner” more efficiently, converting more air pressure to sound, and making the horn easier to blow at the same time? 

When you look into various mouthpieces, you’ll see various approaches to this problem, but the point is that the engineering is intentional, and once you’ve outgrown your starter mouthpiece, almost any professional mouthpiece will sound better and play better.

Once you’ve made the move to professional mouthpieces, your decision is highly personal, related to your playing style, the kind of horn you play, the kind of places you play, and the kinds of music you play.  Some folks even trade off mouthpieces from one gig to the next depending on which is most appropriate.  mouthpiece_reed_side

Mouthpiece Terminology

When you shop for mouthpieces, you’ll hear a lot of terms thrown around. 

  • Baffle - the top of the chamber - the shape of the baffle helps determine the tone
  • Beak - the part of the mouthpiece that goes into the mouth
  • Bore - the interior, tube-shaped part of the mouthpiece that screws over the neck cork.
  • Chamber - the interior of the mouthpiece adjacent to the reed. 
  • Face - the area near the tip where the rails curve back slightly to give the reed room to vibrate.
  • Rail - the edges around the opening - a chip in a rail can seriously affect the sound of a saxophone. 
  • Ramp - the lower part of the chamber that helps transition between the window and the bore.
  • Shank - the part of the mouthpiece that screws onto the cork.
  • Table - the flat area that the base of the reed lays against. Sometimes used to refer to that whole side of the mouthpiece, including the rails.  A warped table ruins a mouthpiece.
  • Tip - the end of the mouthpiece where the reed comes the farthest from the rail.
  • Throat - the transition between the chamber and the bore.  Sometimes used to refer to the whole bore.
  • Window - the opening between the rails.

How to Tell the Difference?

When you start shopping for pro mouthpieces, you’ll notice that every brand has their own way of labeling the differences between one model and the next.  Selmer’s most popular alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces - the S-80 series (as well as their Soloist and metal series) - use a sort of alphabet scheme to show the relative tip opening  measurements.









Alto Tip Opening








Tenor Tip Opening












Selmer has a nice series of articles explaining the differences between their various lines and even a chart listing the Meyer and Van Doren measurements.  To jump to their page on the subject, click here.  (By the way, if you have a C melody, your choices are much more limited.  We have a few notes at the bottom of the page that you may find helpful.)

Of course, if the tip opening told the whole story, Selmer wouldn’t be selling six different lines of saxophone mouthpieces, Van Doren wouldn’t be making five, and so on.  Other issues such as the shape of the chamber, the length of the facing, the height of the baffle, etc. come into play as well.  And a couple micrometer’s difference in any direction can give a mouthpiece an entirely different sound. 

Don’t panic.  This is all just background so when I recommend buying a professional mouthpiece for any saxophone you own, you’ll see that there’s some real science behind that recommendation.

Folks who live in Manhattan or LA have the luxury of taking their saxophones into the country’s biggest music stores and trying out one expensive mouthpiece after another after another.  Some other folks seem to have enough money to buy six or seven $250-400 mouthpieces a year just to try them out.  If you’re in either of those categories, and you’re shopping for your first professional mouthpiece, knock yourself out.  But if that doesn’t apply to you, don’t let confusion about where to start keep you honking away on a $25 plastic monstrosity indefinitely. 

The really short answer is that if you really can’t shop around, you can’t go wrong with a Selmer C* or equivalent pro mouthpiece.  (If you’re already using a 3 1/2 reed on your student mouthpiece, you might be able to jump right to a C** or even a D or equivalent, but be prepared to go back to 2 1/2 reeds for a while.)

If you have rock and roll fantasies, you may be put of by the fact that C*s and C**s are recommended for orchestras, community or school bands and churches.  But I’ve used them in many kinds of venues on my pro and amateur horns alike, soprano, alto, and tenor. There have been a few times when a more open mouthpiece would have helped.  But there’s never been a time when the C* wouldn’t do what I needed to do. (Sometimes it was a matter of going with a stiffer reed, but that’s another discussion.)

Whatever you do, once you’ve made the change, you’re likely to feel like you’ve taken the first step into a whole new world. 

Best of luck, and please contact me if you have any questions or feedback. 

Note about C Melody Mouthpieces - C Melodies were designed to be relatively quiet, and they were inevitably equipped with mouthpieces that have a very closed tip.  Unfortunately few companies make upgrade mouthpieces for these.   Here are some options:

  • Morgan’s C Melody Mouthpieces seem to be designed similarly to their vintage counterparts, but with larger tip openings to let you get a little more air into them and play at slightly louder volumes without overblowing the horn.
  • Some friends have recommended Beechler’s C Melody mouthpieces which go from very tight to relatively wide tip openings. 
  • Alto players often find that one of their pro alto mouthpieces work on their C melody. Some folks recommend this especially if you:
    • Want an alto-like sound and/or
    • Have a  C melody sax with an alto-style neck
  • Tenor players often find that one of their pro tenor mouthpieces work on their C melody. Some folks recommend this especially if you
    • Want a tenor-like sound, and/or
    • Have a C melody sax with a tenor-style neck.

It so happens that my Buescher C-melody stencil has a tenor-style neck, and my C* tenor mouthpiece works better on it than the stock mouthpiece or my C* alto mouthpiece, so they may be right. But your mileage will vary.

Sorry I can’t be more specific, but I don’t live where I can go in and try out a dozen different mouthpieces, nor can I afford to order a dozen that cost more than my horn “on spec.” I hope this steers you in the right direction at least.

Note About Hot Water:  Do not wash a hard rubber mouthpiece in hot water.  Yes, that goes against everything you “know” about germs.  But there’s a reason the mouthpieces in so many old Bueschers are a dirty brownish-gray color.  They started out black, just like my first Selmer C* mouthpiece, which is on its way to a dirty brownish-gray color as we speak.  Hot water not only changes the color - it changes the chemistry of the surface, and eventually the microscopic profile.  No, you haven’t ruined your mouthpiece, but it’s not something you want to keep doing indefinitely.  Luke-warm water and soap will do the trick.

Other Resources’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.

Other articles you may find helpful include:

Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years.  Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource.  Others will just like to reminisce along with me.  On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.


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