What is a ligature and what is it for?
When applied to musical instruments, namely woodwind instruments, a ligature is something that ties or holds the reed in place on the mouthpiece. We have also included examples of saxophone ligatures as well. Here is a photo of both a clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece with reeds held together with a traditional style ligature.
Early ligatures were merely string wrapped around the mouthpiece and reed. This is said to have produced a good sound but is not very convenient as it can take a long time to do. Small adjustments of reed position require slackening all the strings off again and re-tying. Modern ligatures have a built in screw or sometimes two screws which can be quickly released and tightened again.
Different types of Ligature
As with most things these days, there is a lot of choice. However, there are two main types of construction of modern ligature; one made out of a tough fabric type material and the other is all metal, usually brass. The fabric type material is usually a modern hi-tech material that is designed to be flexible like any cloth but also be extremely tough and most importantly non stretch. Metal parts on ligatures will usually be finished according to the instrument- Silver plated for Clarinet and generally Laquered for Saxophone (although the finish on saxophones can be either silver or laquered)
Both fabric and all metal ligatures can vary in construction. The simplest ligatures are just a way of holding the reed on the mouthpiece.
Some of the different designs of ligature include different material used for the fabric part, different thickness's of materials and metal or fabric that actually touches the reed. Design can also be heavier in construction especially adding weight around the reed to produce a sound and response that is different. Adding weight around the reed will result in sound that is 'darker', more projected and more centred or focussed. The response of the reed will also feel different to the player. There are ligatures which are more suitable for beginners, advanced and for different styles of music. Examples of ligatures which add mass to the reed are the Rovner Versa and the Rovner Legacy (both fabric types) and the Vandoren Optimum (all metal)
Choosing a ligature
It is always a very personal choice and trying them before purchasing is obviously the best way, but if that is not possible here are some helpful hints and tips. If you are purchasing on-line, its worth noting that some companies will send out a selection for you to choose from.
There are advantages with both canvas and metal and also just as important is whether to go for the very light, standard, or ligatures with the added weight over the reed. As a rule of thumb, beginners will find an easy response and good feedback from the lighter ligature, particularly something like the Star Series from Rovner. An advantage with the fabric type of ligature, is that they hold the reed very securely once in position. This can be important if you need to grasp the mouthpiece to move it in or out for tuning or for just putting the mouthpiece on or off. Metal ligatures are usually more easily dislodged when performing these actions.Younger players often find this an advantage especially with a new instrument where the cork joints may be tight.
Positioning the reed precisely is very important on a woodwind instrument. The fabric type allows easy placement of the reed as do the metal ligatures which have a right and left hand thread. (example is the Vandoren Optimum) As you tighten the screw on this type of metal ligature both sides of the ligature come together evenly keeping the ligature centred on the reed and mouthpiece.
The intermediate and advanced player will require more sound quality and the higher quality ligatures or perhaps the ones with the added weight over the reed will fit this requirement. More advanced players generally get to a stage where they know exactly what they want from a ligature, and the sound quality will most times overcome any other factor of price, durability or looks. Some ligatures also have the ability to change the set up and produce more than one type of sound. This can be useful in getting the best from varying reeds and for some variation in sound quality. This is achieved with either interchangeable reed plates (the separate piece of metal that sits on the reed) or how the reed plate is positioned. For example, the Vandoren Optimum comes with three choices of reed plate and the Rovner Versa has a choice of two plate that can sit either directly on the reed or on a fabric flap.
Getting the correct size
Most plastic and hard rubber ( also called ebonite) mouthpieces are a standard overall size for each instrument. That is, if you buy a Bb Clarinet ligature it will fit most Bb clarinet mouthpieces. There are some exceptions (for example the Vandoren CL range) but most people with something like this will be experienced players and likely know a lot on the subject anyway.
The same idear is true for saxophone in most cases of plastic and hard rubber mouthpieces. When it come to ligatures for metal saxophone mouthpieces, although the sizes for metal mouthpieces are different than that for hard rubber mouthpieces, most ligatures are still the same size for each metal mouthpiece type.(alto, tenor & baritone) The exception to this is ligatures for the metal soprano saxophone mouthpiece, which are mostly a specific size for each make.
When to change your ligature.
It can be fun to experiment and have two or more ligatures. However, for those who are on a quest for a particular sound or for those that are trying to improve a particular aspect of playing it is worth considering the following.
First, make sure that you instrument is playing properly, get it serviced with a good technician or at least get an experienced player to test it for you. The ligature is really like 'the icing on the cake' and will not cover for an underperforming instrument. Second, make sure that the mouthpiece and reed set up is right for you. Both mouthpiece choice and reed choice are extremely important. If you are trying ligatures, make sure you use a blown in reed that you know.
There is lots of choice these days, so if you need help choosing, please give us a call or e-mail.