There are those who will tell you that ligatures will not make any discernible difference to your saxophone sound. They will say a carefully positioned shoelace or elastic band will work just as well as a carefully crafted piece of cloth and/or metal, and the sound produced will not be obviously impaired.
Others will tell you that a carefully considered ligature, reed and mouthpiece combination will make all the difference in the world to your sound. They will encourage you to try out as many as possible to ensure that you get maximum results and the most satisfactory sound achievable from your set-up.
This month I have been testing two of Rovner’s latest ligatures – the Van Gogh and the Versa X.
These ligatures are both part of Rovner’s Next Generation range and I tested them on my tenor saxophone (a Bauhaus Walstein TS-Y), using a RPC mouthpiece with a .100 tip opening. I used a variety of reeds, including Vandoren JaZZ (2), Rico Select Jazz (2M) and Rico Select Jazz (2S).
Versa – X
If Versa is not short for “versatile” it should be. This model is almost three-ligatures-in-one, due to an ingenious combination of a metal cradle and two cloth flaps on either side of it. The cradle can sit against the reed vamp uncovered by either flap, or it can be fully covered, using both flaps, or half covered, using only one flap.
I had a bit of trouble operating the flaps initially as they were easier to push back under the cradle than they were to pull out from under it. I resorted to digging them out with the pointed end of a pencil at first, and wondered if this might slow down the process of adjusting the ligature during practice – or even a performance – if needed.
But, my concerns soon abated, as the issue was probably due to the cloth material being stiff from lack of use. I found that once the ligature had been tightened on the mouthpiece and removed once or twice, the ligature became much more pliable and the flaps were much easier to flip under and over the cradle as needed, very quickly.
I started by using the cradle uncovered by either flap. The sound produced was quite bright, but not excessively so, and even as a fan of a darker sound from my tenor, I was not unhappy with it. The higher end was not squawky and did not produce whistles as I have experienced with other ligatures.
I then put both flaps over the cradle; and Rovner claim that the tone produced is the “darkest” achievable with this ligature. I half expected that for “dark” I should read “dull” as the uncovered cradle sound was not overly bright.
However, I got a tone that was rich and solid without being lacklustre or lifeless. I thought I had found just the right combination of reed, mouthpiece and ligature when I used the double-flap Versa X with the Rico Select jazz 2M on the RPC.
But I was wrong. I then tried using only one flap (the left hand one as it happens) and to my ears, this setting with the same reed and mouthpiece gave me an even rounder sound, which was smooth but full at one and the same time. I also experienced the easiest and longest low B-flat of my short playing career.
This ligature is Rovner’s tallest and widest available to date, and can fully encompass some reeds, while others may have just a small section of the heel visible at the back of the reed.
It is named after the company founder’s dog, who, like the painter, only has one ear. This is somewhat ironic, or perhaps apt, depending on your point of view, as this ligature claims to produce the biggest sound in Rovner’s current product range.
To get the most resonant effect, Rovner state – in their very detailed literature – that the ligature should be tightened fully and then released to the point where the reed is still secure, but freer. To blend in with other players, the ligature should be tightened more as this will produce a softer and also darker tone.
I certainly experienced a harder, more forthright sound than with the Versa, and some players, especially those who may need to stand out over an electric guitar or drums, may prefer this ligature for that reason alone.
Although I couldn’t maintain the very low notes for as long as with the Versa X, the altissimo G (my current highest note) I achieved with this ligature was the smoothest and cleanest I have produced to date.
I found that the combination of the Van Gogh ligature and a Vandoren JaZZ 2 gave a very raunchy tenor sound that was reminiscent of Clarence Clemons and Bobby Keys.
It’s not a sound that I would prefer to the smoother, rounder tones of my idol Paul Desmond, for example, but this in-your-face quality does have a place in the saxophone world and if it’s what you need, this ligature could well be the way for you to get it.
This limited test has shown me two important things about ligatures. The first is that they can, and do, make a difference to your sound, especially when used in combination with the reed and the mouthpiece.
It’s odd that this “holy trinity” of saxophone sonancy almost excludes the instrument itself, but it also has to be in there somewhere, too, adding to the mix. And the confusion.
This brings me to the second aspect of the learning from my experimentation. To get the sound you want requires time, effort and a lot of trial and error. Both of these ligatures, for example, need time to experiment with them and to find the sound that suits you.
This has the potential to become daunting – if not to say overwhelming – when you consider that they are only a small part of the Rovner range and a fraction of the total number of ligatures currently on the market.
But you have to start somewhere. For now, I’ll be sticking with the Rovner Versa X – with one flap on the cradle when I’m trying to be Paul Desmond (which is most of the time).
I’ll also occasionally switch to the Van Gogh when my imaginary band leader calls Clarence Clemons to the front and centre of the stage for a blasting solo!
Check out the full range of Rovner ligatures here: www.roverproducts.com
About the author:
Stephen Power is an award winning photographer, photography teacher and writer, and a keen saxophone student.