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Saxophone Embouchure. That’s what we are looking at today. And you can probably tell from the title that that has everything to do with what’s going on in your mouth(piece) when you are playing the saxophone.
It is really important to get saxophone embouchure technique right, right from the beginning.
Bad habits and all.
Incorrect embouchure technique and bad embouchure habits can cause you huge problems and long-term sax playing difficulty.
Huge problems long-term!
Don’t take these stuff lightly. You’ve been warned.
So, let’s get to it.
If you are a complete beginner, let me prefix this by saying that to practise embouchure technique, you only need the neck, mouthpiece and reed.
So why don’t we start there…after we get the definition out of the way, so we are clear on what we are trying to achieve here.
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What is Saxophone Embouchure?
The best way to explain saxophone embouchure is to refer to it as a way to place your mouth around the mouthpiece and reed of your saxophone.
The goal here, is to enable the most and free-est vibration of the reed because vibration of the reed vibrating is what produces the sound on the saxophone.
Tone and embouchure development go hand in hand. You can really produce a decent tone without an excellent embouchure.
How to Blow into Your Saxophone (Step-by-step Guide
Step #1 — Remove the Neck from the Saxophone Body
The first thing you need to do is remove the neck with the mouthpiece and reed attached and leave the saxophone body aside for now.
The thing about using the mouthpiece alons is that it is very very easy to influence the pitch. If you squeeze it slightly hardly or loosen up a bit, that pitch will change.
As I said, if you are just getting started with your saxophone, this is a really good way of isolating and getting a good sound on the saxophone without the rest of the horn.
If you have not assembled your saxophone, you might need to find out how to put a reed on the mouthpiece correctly first.
Let’s start there.
And even if your reed is in your mouthpiece, I think you’ll pick up a thing or two here, so bare with me—proper reed setup is a whole other skill by itself.
Step #2 — Put the Reed on the Mouthpiece, Correctly
Putting a reed on your saxophone mouthpiece correctly and properly can be tricky. There is one right way to do it that will allow you to get the best sound from your instrument and make playing easier.
This is extremely important to do before you get started with embouchure techniques.
It’s one the first things you should learn how to do on your saxophone.
How to Put a Reed on a Saxophone Mouthpiece The Right Way in Just Two Minutes
Note that even though you can do this exercise in 2 minutes, it is worth taking your time here to get it just right.
A poorly lined up reed will not play well, your sound will suffer, and you will likely get some squeaks while you play.
And playing will be more difficult, in general.
- Wet your reed: Take your reed and put the thin end in your mouth for 5 to 10 seconds to get it wet. A reed needs to be wet to function properly. Turn it around and quickly wet the flat part of the other end.
- Wet your mouthpiece: Now, wet the flat part of your mouthpiece, where the reed goes. This is called the table. I do this by wiping my wet reed across the table. We only need just enough moisture to act as glue to stick the reed to the mouthpiece. This is very important for creating an airtight seal which is essential for a good sound.
- Line up your reed and mouthpiece: Put your reed in place by lining up it’s rounded tip with the rounded tip of the mouthpiece. The two flat surfaces should stick together.
- Put the ligature on the mouthpiece and reed: Put the ligature in place by first loosening the screw or screws enough so that it slides down over the mouthpiece and reed. The ligature should be placed below the part of the reed that is cut or filed and centered on the reed. There are many different types of ligatures, some have bottom screws, other top. If you’re not sure which way your ligature should go, a good rule of thumb is that the screws will be on the right side.
- Loosely fasten the ligature: Tighten the ligature screws just enough so that you can still move the reed a little bit. You need to leave a little room for micro-adjustments. Be sure that you have enough light for the micro-adjustments ahead. Make sure the sides, or rails, and tip of the reed is perfectly lined up with the rails and tip of the mouthpiece.
- Adjust your ligature as needed: Once your reed is lined up, carefully adjust your ligature so that it is centered on the reed and also on the mouthpiece. You reed and mouthpiece should stay put as you make these adjustments because of the snug ligature and the saliva.
- Tighten the ligature screws: Now, turn the ligature screws the rest of the way and make them quite tight. We do not want our reed to move at all while we are putting the mouthpiece on the neck cork or adjusting its position.
Everything should now be lined up correctly.
Step #3 — Bring Your Top Teeth into Contact with Top of Your Mouthpiece
When you put the mouthpiece into your mouth, you need to have your top teeth in contact with the top of the mouthpiece.
This is going to anchor the mouthpiece to your body and your head and keep things from moving around.
You need to put your mouthpiece into your mouth to about the point where the reed comes into contact with the rest of the mouthpiece.
This is an approximation, so there’s room to take in a little more or a little less. You need to experiment and find which position works best for you—what get’s you the best results.
Step #4 — Tuck Your Bottom Lip Between Your Bottom Teeth and Reed
To get a good idea of where the reed comes into contact with your mouthpiece, hold your mouthpiece in front of you and close one eye, that’s where you want your bottom lip.
And then, obviously, your top lip goes back over the top as described in the previous step above.
The next thing you need to do is to make sure that your bottom lip is between your bottom teeth and the reed.
The idea here is to make your bottom lip act as cushion for the reed to vibrate on.
Remember what we talked about in the definition, our goal here is to get as much of the reed vibrating as much as possible.
Step #4 Alternate — Roll Out Your Bottom Lip Under Your Reed
I talked this alternative method of lip placement in my #9 hack in how to improve saxophone tone article. That article gives you 10+ awesome hacks that will blow up your saxophone tone near instantly, and it just takes 20 minutes to read, have a look if you haven’t already and save me from rehashing all the other hacks over there here.
But, in a nutshell, here’s what we are looking at as an alternative to lip over teeth embouchure:
Again, just like with the lip-over-teeth embouchure, hold your mouthpiece in front of you, and close one eye to get the exact position where your reed hits your moutthpiece.
This is so you have the exact position where you want your bottom lip. And then, obviously, your top lip goes back over the top.
This is where things get different.
Roll out your bottom lip a little bit under your reed.
A little side note first: When You first learn the saxophone, you are better of putting your lower lip over the top of your teeth (the previous approach) before coming to this alternate technique.
Once you get to a point where you have the basics down and are trying to get a bigger tone, that’s the time to start experimenting with other lip placements besides lip over bottom teeth.
That’s when you start experimenting with this alternate approach.
You will slowly learn through practice that this alternative lip placement maximizes your projection and vibration of the reed.
So in this approach, as opposed to your lip just being over your teeth, roll it out to get a bigger, fuller tone out of your saxophone.
Again follow the link to the article I placed above to get a little bit more detail on this technique.
Step #5 — Close Your Mouth Around the Mouthpiece, From the Sides
The next thing you need to do is close your mouth around the mouthpiece applying equal pressure from either side.
Closing your mouth from either side will make your bottom lip very fleshy and bunched up, which is what we want.
The corners of your lips should definitely be pushing in, you don’t want them out, you need them pushing in.
Don’t bit too hard on the reed while you try to close your mouth. You only want to apply firm pressure, equally from all sides, while concentrating more on bringing the corners of your mouth in than down and up.
Keep the pressure as steady contant as possible—this is the hallmark of good technique.
Step #6 — Blow Steadily into the Dead Center of Your Mouthpiece
What you need to do next is take a deep breath in and blow a steady stream of air at the dead center of your mouthpiece.
Early on, to hit the exact dead center, think not of blowing air against the entire front your mouthpiece but of blowing through just a coffee straw at the dead center of your mouthpiece.
Even better, practice with a coffee straw beforehand, to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Note that I am not suggesting sticking a coffee straw at the center of your mouthpiece.
Blow strong, steady stream of air pushing from your diapragm—this is the hallmark of good technique.
If you find that you have a problem with keeping your blowing steady, you should look into practicing long notes.
Play the note for as long as you can hold it.
To to keep your throat open and relaxed while you do this, think of making an O or an A sound with your mouth.
Repeat this several times and experiment with slightly different placements of how far in the mouthpiece goes and how much pressure you put on the reed.
Try to get the most beautiful sound you can with just your neck and mouthpiece.
Step #7 — Attach the Neck Back to the Body, Practice Long Notes
Now we are going to put the neck back on our saxophone, attach the screw and play some long notes or tones over the whole range of your saxophone, keeping in mind everything we just talked about.
Practice playing long tones in this way over the entire range of your saxophone.
Every saxophonist need to play a lot in order to find their personal embouchure.
It’s normal for the muscles in your mouth and face to get tired as you play, you’re going to have to play everyday to build strength.
You will notice that as your embouchure tires, the corners of your mouth are going to pull back into a bit of a smile.
This will make your sound get thinner and less controlled.
There is no point in continuing to play with an exhausted embouchure. You’re just going to develop bad habits.
The best thing to do in this case is to take frequent short breaks as you need them.
I suggest doing something related to practicing, like listening to music, during your short breaks, so that you can come right back and get into practicing again once you’ve recovered.
I strongly recommend that all saxophonists begin every practice session by playing long tones. This is the best way of strengthening your embouchure muscles, developing control and building a beautiful sound.
How to Improve or Strengthen Your Saxophone Embouchure, Tone and Sound (5 Quick Tips)
Tip #1 — Stop Coming at the Mouthpiece from Below
I want to start with a quick tip about how you form your embouchure on your mouthpiece. If you take nothing else from these article, take this one tip.
This will help with your overtones, your long tones, your low notes, your high notes—everything.
A lot of the time I see beginners, often young players, even more experienced ones coming at the mouthpiece from below.
What that does is it brings you bottom lip further to the body of the mouthpiece while your top lip sits closer to the tip of your mouthpiece.
The way I like to approach it is by bringing my top teeth, first and more onto the mouthpiece and my bottom lip or teeth further back.
That means going from a position where your head is tilted back and the body of your saxophone forward, to a position where your head, body and saxophone are almost parallel to each other.
What that allows you to do is release some of the pressure on the reed, because when you come from below, you’re pushing your lower lip into the reed. That chokes the reed, which tightens the sound, which makes it sound bad.
A tight sound is a bad sound.
You want to relieve as much pressure from the reed as possible.
Maximizing reed vibration is all about relieving pressure from your reed, and when you come from below, you’re adding pressure.
Tip #2 — Loosen Your Neck Strap
While you think about coming at your mouthpiece from above, loosen your neck strap a little bit if you have to because if your neckstrap is too tight you’re going to come at it from below.
This is fairly straightforward really, the shorter your neck strap, the more you will come at your mouthpiece from below, and the harder your saxophone is to play.
You can only get away with loosening your neckstrap for so much, because your thumbs will start to take the weight.
Tip #3 — Think About Directing Your Air Down
This is related to the two tips mentioned above.
Thinking about directing your air down helps you get into the right position because, you simply cannot direct air down when the neck strap is very tight, or when your are approaching your mouthpiece from below.
Or, can you?
Think about directing your air down because a lot of the time your direction of air can hugely effect your embouchure.
I like to think of it as if I were blowing the air directly at the thumb that’s on the octave key—so I aim my air that way.
That helps you improve your saxophone embouchure hell of a lot faster.
So, think of directing your directly down air to the thumb on the octave key.
Tip #4 — Open the Inside of Your Mouth and Throat as Much as Possible
That will get you that round sound because it forces you to open up some space inside your mouth and throat.
You want to maintain that openness.
Everyones physiology is different—some people have more of an overbite, some people have more of an underbite, lips sizes vary from person to person.
Physiology contributes a lot to your individual sound.
Again, every saxophonist need to play a lot in order to find their personal embouchure.
The instructions I’ve given here are a broad overview that can be applied to everyone but the minutiae for each person will inevitably vary based on a whole range of factors.