DUO Ligature €117 (silver plated) to €174 (24K gold plated)
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“Ligatures. They hold the reed to the mouthpiece. End of…” That’s a statement I’ve heard many times, and of course that’s the primary function of a ligature. But if that was the end of it, why would you be able to buy alto saxophone ligatures ranging in price from about £6 to a little under £600, made from a staggering array of materials from brass to carbon fibre and even cryogenically treated string? I’ve seen cable ties and even dental floss used as a ligature in an emergency, so there is clearly more to it than its most basic function.

I always recommend one initial check when selecting a ligature. Especially on the saxophone, where the mouthpiece is frequently adjusted for tuning, but even on the clarinet, on which your playing angle may need tweaking, there is one vital test that you need to perform even before blowing: hold the mouthpiece and ligature as if to adjust for tuning or tweaking purposes and give it a good twist. If anything moves (apart from the whole mouthpiece/reed/ligature unit), take the ligature off and reject it. It doesn’t matter how good the sound is; it’s not doing the job it was primarily designed to do – to hold the reed to the mouthpiece!

The material and the plating or finish of a ligature can change the sound, or perhaps more importantly change the way the player feels about their sound. I suspect that we all have an idea of the sound we want to produce. I spend hours selecting the right reed, and like many players, have a drawer full of mouthpieces. I even have custom crooks for my Yamaha saxophones, so for me, selecting the right ligature is really important, as it can change your sound just as variations of mouthpiece and reeds will. As a rule of thumb, the nearer anything is to your mouth, the more it will affect your overall sound (and yes I do use one of those oversized neck screws)! For some years I have been using the BG DUO ligature. It’s called DUO because the original fits both clarinet and alto saxophone; and now I use the more recent models on soprano and metal tenor mouthpieces; and on ebonite tenor and baritone mouthpieces. The BG DUO is solid as a rock and even if your cork is tight, it won’t budge when you move (or even remove) your mouthpiece. The DUO ligatures have two rubber pads at the rear and two side rails. These are the only parts that directly contact the mouthpiece. The reed is held firmly by two rails that are scored slightly to aid grip on the reed. It has a single screw with a flat round head on the back which facilitates even pressure on the reed. Its distinctive look is finished off with two red screw-tightening brackets. According to BG around 95% of mouthpieces fit a DUO of one type or another. I’ve found all DUO ligatures to be very free-blowing with minimal resistance and a very open, even sound across the range of the instrument.

The DUO ligature is made of brass and it comes in five different finishes: lacquered, 24k gold plated, silver plated, rose gold plated (an alloy of gold and copper) and (the latest addition) black lacquered. I have been amazed at how something as simple as a plating or lacquer can change not only the tone, but also the response of the instrument and ultimately the way you feel and the way you play! This is a test I have repeated several times to different groups of people and by myself, so I do not need convincing that this is something that is worth consideration, as details like this can make an incredible difference and even improve your playing. I’m very fortunate that BG has sent me the complete sets of LD (alto saxophone/clarinet), LDS (soprano saxophone/metal alto and tenor) and LDT (ebonite, hard rubber tenor/baritone) ligatures; so this test could go on for a while if I were to comment on every permutation, with every mouthpiece I own, but rest assured that the finishes have the same effect on tone across the board. For this test, I used my usual set-up on tenor saxophone; JodyJazz Jet 8 and Vandoren Java 2.5 reeds. I started the test the same way for each ligature: blowing randomly to warm up, then playing a full-range chromatic scale, followed by a few of my favourite patterns. Then I moved rooms to test in different acoustic settings (I love playing in the bathroom!), finally settling on playing a melody and improvisation on a tune that was appropriate to the way I felt about the ligature.

LDT0 (gold lacquered)

The gold lacquered brass version is, I guess, as clean and natural as you’ll get from the DUO range. Not being bare metal, it’s fairly mellow, but with great control and evenness across the range of the saxophone. Lower register notes are clear and even and the altissimo is easy and free. In terms of the way it made me feel, after warming up, I wanted to play a jazz ballad (These Foolish Things, as it happens!) as that’s the vibe I got from the way the ligature responds.

LDT1 (24K gold plated)

The 24K gold plating gives this DUO an immediacy and focus that the lacquered version doesn’t have. Suddenly, I feel like a soloist, able to project much more. The tone is deep and rich, with a full set of overtones. Bare metal does seem to make quite a difference. This is something I’ve discovered in my Yamaha 875EX saxophones and crooks as I favour a silver plate (with gold-plated crook) on tenor and gold-plated alto. I wanted to play fast jazz with this one – Giant Steps and Cherokee were two of the tunes I hurtled headlong into! Again, the lower register sings out and the altissimo is easy but even more vibrant. Subtone is enhanced and the dynamic range is really excellent.

LDT9 (rose gold plated)

The rose gold gave me a mellower vibe, but with a great freedom at the bottom. It’s almost as if the saxophone has been ‘opened up’ as it’s so free-blowing and even-toned; almost deeper than with the other ligatures. It led me to play some Gershwin, including the tune ’S Wonderful with quite a wide vibrato. Again, no issues with altissimo and the full, even range of the saxophone sings. Whilst this is definitely darker than the gold plate, it’s got some real character to the sound with loads of warmth.

LDT (silver plated)

The silver-plated version is undoubtedly the brightest of all the ligatures on test. The tone is full and brilliant with plenty of high overtones. It’s an easy-blowing ligature and if you’re into funk or pop playing, this is the one for you, as it definitely cuts through and gives you a massive presence. It seems to boost the volume too and is definitely the most powerful ligature of this bunch. The range is even and articulation clear and easy. It’s almost as if
BG has fitted a turbo-charger! Altissimo is clear and striking and it’s really easy to split notes (a technique used by many funkier players – Google it if you’re unsure what I mean) and play with maximum vulgarity! I had fun playing Pee Wee Ellis’s The Chicken on this one.

LDTB (black lacquered)

The brash, funky flamboyance of the silver plate has given way to a more refined tone, but with an incredible focus and all the volume and quite a lot of the brightness of its predecessor. This ligature really helps the saxophone sing, and while it has loads of power, it has a really great subtone and range of sound at various volumes. It made me feel very content with my set-up and I played a variety of tunes, finding the saxophone hard to put down. I think this is the most versatile ligature of the lot – it’s bright, yet warm and full toned. All the Things You Are was my melody of choice as it’s one of my favourites!

Of course, this is the tip of the ligature iceberg, as BG is just one of many manufacturers. Rovner offers around twelve different styles of ligatures; Vandoren at least five (with multiple customisable options); Woodstone around five; Silverstein eight or so; and so it goes on! One thing is clear to me, though: there is a wide variety of tonal qualities to be explored by changing your ligature. Don’t just stick to the one that came with your mouthpiece, as a different ligature can really affect the way you feel about your playing and ultimately help make you a better saxophonist or clarinettist. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself down to your nearest woodwind dealer and start experimenting! While these ligatures have one basic job, they do all affect the sound in different ways, so really, in choosing your ligature, you have to go for what works for you in your quest to find that perfect sound.

Simon Bates

Freelance saxophone and clarinet player Simon Bates is professor of saxophone for the Royal Marines and British Army Band Services. He is a Yamaha Custom Saxophone, BG Music Products and Vandoren Reeds Artist.